Fast Company

11-10slide1Since REINVENTING ITSELF as a strategy-centric title and adding the tag line, "how smart people work" in 2003, Fast Company has received as much play for its advertising/marketing-related struggles as its content. Which is unfair, because a few months away from its 10th birthday, the title has hit its stride editorially.

For evidence, pick up the magazine's February issue. Fast Company's gimmick seems to be that every story should give strategy-minded (there's that word again) business folk actionable advice. Does it deliver on this promise? Almost militantly.

Just about every item is teeming with tips and illustrative insider detail, whether a this-is-smart/this-is-dumb debate on Mercedes' plans to bring its smart cars to the United States or a quickie take on the guy who figured out how to package Guinness beer in cans without losing its trademark creamy head. I know - I always wondered about this, too.

While the February issue may be flimsy by biz-mag standards at 96 pages, its features in particular pack some wallop. Best is the cover story on strategy (again!) giant George Stalk Jr., the famously hard-charging Boston Consulting Group exec who essentially worked himself into a three-month coma.

Dotted with telling personal details, such as his pre-illness inability to pass a standard life-insurance physical, the story cleverly outlines his business rules of engagement, which include the unleashing of "massive and overwhelming force." Just a guess here, but he might not be the kind of guy you want to encounter in a game of Monopoly.

Biz pubs may already have devoted zillions of column inches to the Sirius/XM battle for satellite-radio supremacy, but Fast Company scores points by reframing it as a tale of two contrasting philosophies. As for the feature on the rocket men at SpaceX, which will soon launch an entirely privately funded rocket into low-Earth orbit, the mag ignores the obvious story angle (that, der, doing this is hard!) and concentrates instead on what the company's success could mean for future innovation.

The mag has its lighter moments as well, notably a look back at its 1997 Startup Manifesto. "At night in a Seattle bar, the world is alive with possibilities," Fast Company wrote back then, ostensibly discussing something other than the local singles scene. With the requisite 20/20 hindsight, the pre-bust euphoria it recalls feels positively charming.

It's worth noting, too, how much Fast Company has improved from a design perspective. Gone are the thick-as-a-brick text chunks and clunky fonts; in their stead is a striking mix of color and visual nuance. The design echoes the progressive feel of the content, an effect that's harder to achieve than it sounds.

The February issue isn't without its missteps. There might be a few too many profiles and/or Q&As; the first-person "fast talk" featurettes feel like they were written by company publicists, rather than the subjects themselves (come to think of it, they probably were). That's a minor quibble given the overall product, though. Fast Company may never have gone away, but it's clearly back to what it once was.

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