The Creative Class | Linda Wells, Editor

To coincide with Allure’s annual “Best of Beauty” awards, BoF spoke with founding editor-in-chief Linda Wells about the magazine’s robust growth, adapting to the digital age, editorial integrity and the publication’s influential “Best of Beauty” seal, created along with the awards in 1996 and now licensed to brands and retailers.

Linda Wells | Source: Allure

NEW YORK, United States — “Some people sit there and wring their hands and go, ‘Oh my gosh, is print going to die?’” says Linda Wells, founding editor-in-chief of American beauty magazine Allure. “It’s like, so what. I’m not wedded to paper. I care about the message. It doesn’t matter to me what form it takes.”

Print is decidedly not dead at Allure. The 22-year-old magazine is enjoying its third straight year of ad page growth, an increased rate base for the second year in a row, and an uptick in circulation. In fact, Allure’s October 2013 issue, featuring the magazine’s annual “Best of Beauty” awards, contains 205 advertising pages, the second highest in the history of the publication.

“Holding onto the physical magazine as a flotation device is a silly concept. If it’s time to move on, we’ll move on.”

But under Wells, Allure has also become known as something of a digital innovator, boldly integrating content and commerce to create new services and tap new revenue streams. In 2011, the magazine launched e-commerce on Allure.com in partnership with Quidsi-owned Beauty Bar. And, just last month, Allure teamed up with mobile service ShopAdvisor to introduce a shopable tablet edition, capitalising on the publication’s growing digital circulation (up 139 percent in the first half of 2013).

Wells first fell in love with beauty as a pre-teen, growing up in the affluent New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. “When I got my allowance, I would go to the pharmacy to buy things — skin brushes that pre-dated the Clarisonic by a lot, lemony hair products… I was just fascinated standing in front of the displays.”

After graduating from Trinity College with an English degree in 1980, she landed her first job at Vogue. “My dream was to review books and movies, but they weren’t hiring 23-year-old people to review books and movies,” she says. “The opening they had was in the beauty department, so I gladly took that job — I was unqualified and lucky to have it.”

“As soon as I got to Vogue, I knew magazines was exactly where I wanted to be,” Wells says. There, she started out “basically fixing the Xerox machine, buying coffee and stuff. But as time went on, I really learned about [beauty]. It’s so much more interesting than you would believe on the surface — it’s not just lipstick colours and what kind of mascara to buy. It’s really so connected to a woman’s self-perception and the way she presents herself to the world. It was the connection to the psyche that really hooked me.”

In 1985, after five years at Vogue, Wells was named style reporter at The New York Times. “I sort of stumbled for a while,” she recalls. “I was dressing as if I was still at Vogue, very politely pitching stories and every single time getting them rejected.”

After several months of this, Wells moved over to The New York Times Magazine. “The magazine ‘got’ me,” she says. “They understood what I could do. I didn’t fit into the paper, you know? I wasn’t a hardcore journalist.” At the Times Magazine, Wells found her voice. “I took more of a business angle, but I still wrote for the woman and the consumer. To be able to help readers figure out what works, what doesn’t, what’s really a sham, was a revelation to me.”

Then in 1990, in the midst of a recession, Wells got a call from Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman, on the behalf of Si Newhouse, chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast’s parent company Advance Publications. “They just had kind of a vague idea — let’s start a beauty magazine — and that was it,” Wells recalls. “There was no angle to it, there was no mission, there were no marketing focus groups and it didn’t have a name. I didn’t have a budget. It was kind of crazy how old-fashioned it was. People don’t do magazines like that anymore.”

From the very first issue of Allure in March 1991, “we were aggressive, we didn’t look like a pretty magazine, we weren’t soft and sweet and mild; we were tough and the beauty industry was shocked,” Wells says. “We really kind of went a little nuts on that first issue. We wrote about the danger of silicone implants — we were the first magazine to do that. We [had Betty Friedan write] about Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth.”

“In a way, I had the best training for the job that I have now,” Wells adds. “I feel like Allure marries the aesthetics of the high-end fashion world [of Vogue] with the great journalism of The New York Times.”

“Usually fashion magazines don’t analyse and criticise because they don’t need to,” she continues. “There’s not the same kind of mystery attached to fashion: you like the clothes or you don’t like the clothes. If you like them you cover them, if you don’t like them you don’t cover them. For beauty, it’s hard to know what actually works and what doesn’t work. It’s not just aesthetics, you have to really get in there and roll up your sleeves. We turn to a lot of experts to help us in that, because no matter how much we know — and we know a lot because of the many years that we’ve been doing this — we’re not chemists, we don’t have medical degrees.”

In pursuit of the truth, “we have to be critical and we sometimes anger the industry that is our subject. We’re not always the most popular person at the party,” Wells notes. “Those first 10 years, I think almost every major company except one pulled its advertising for a period of time.”

Wells is a staunch defender of “church and state,” the traditional separation between the editorial and advertising sides of a media business. “If the idea is not an editorial idea, it’s just not organic to Allure,” she says. “The advertiser cannot expect positive reviews or any kind of mention whatsoever — they cannot influence editorial coverage at all. I think that without that [strong line], the whole thing would fall apart.”

Her work is not entirely separated from that of the magazine’s advertising department, however. “In the early days, we didn’t think the business [side] was creative, but then you realise, if we take our editorial minds and figure out how to solve some problem for an advertiser, then we’re going to make our business better and we’re going to be better at what we do. I work with the publisher in a way that I never have before. I think that that’s why we’ve had a degree of strong success over the past three or four years.”

One of the magazine’s biggest business experiments has been the introduction of e-commerce, first launched on Allure.com in 2011 and coming to the magazine’s digital edition this month. “There’s always been a natural aspect where people rip out the pages of a magazine, take them to the store, and shop from them — but it’s an awkward process,” Wells says. “So the idea of being able to press a button and buy what Allure recommends is a really natural continuation of the reader experience.”

Three years ago, Allure began licensing its “Best of Beauty” seal — first created in 1996 along with its “Best of Beauty” awards to identify the best products in each beauty category — to both retailers and winning brands. “It’s become a huge revenue play for us,” Wells says. “Amazon has done special shops that are ‘Best of Beauty.’ Beauty Bar is doing it. Lord & Taylor has done it. Lots of different places have done special ‘Best of Beauty’ promotions. So it’s become a really big advantage for us in terms of commerce.” The licensing program now represents 7 percent of the Allure‘s profit, according to the magazine.

Allure is also fueling its growth through “integrated programs” with loyal advertisers, says Wells, citing a recent partnership with Revlon: “For the second year, we’ve done the Beauty Blogger Awards; we start out in the magazine and online with an announcement, then we gather all the beauty bloggers, they compete, we post the results of different challenges and announce the winners online, but we also do a whole section on them in the magazine. It’s a very enriched program, but also something that’s given us an enormous amount of revenue and has increased the investment of the advertiser in the Allure brand.”

However, editorial integrity is still priority number one, she cautions. “When we’re doing product reviews or choosing the winners of “Best of Beauty,” we don’t even think about, ‘Do they advertise, where is it sold, is it sold on Beauty Bar?’ That is not a factor in our decision-making process,” Wells says. “We’re not selling product placement. We recommend things based on merit, and then only after that ‘buy’ buttons are added. My main goal is to give our readers the product recommendations that are going to be meaningful to her, so she’ll trust us to tell her what she needs and what she doesn’t need. If she doesn’t trust us, the whole thing is over.”

Of course, reader engagement is vital to Wells’ vision. “We want everybody to be a member of this world,” she says. “I think it’s sometimes different for upscale magazines — particularly magazines about beauty and fashion, there’s an element of ‘You can look, but you can’t really participate.’ We want everybody to participate, everyone to vote, everyone to comment, everyone to join. Through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest, [it’s] breaking down barriers, taking the intimidation factor out of a subject that can be very intimidating.”

As for the importance of print, Wells says that, while “most of the ad buys are made through the [physical] magazine, it’s just one element now. The magazine has to have its identity in a lot of different places. [Print] is [the anchor] right now… whether it will be in the future, we don’t know. I’m not particularly wedded to one thing or another, I think that this kind of holding onto the physical magazine as a flotation device is a silly concept. It’s like, if it’s time to move on, we’ll move on. But I think that our strategy right now is to be everywhere we can be and find the best expression of who we are in each form.”

“As long as we do our job and continue to investigate and report and provide useful information to our readers, whatever form that takes, there will be a need for us,” says Wells, “because, you know, the subject isn’t going away.”

So what advice does Wells have for aspiring editors?

“Be really willing to do whatever it takes. I worked really, really, really stupidly hard, partly because I loved [my job] so much I just never wanted to leave and [partly because] I had a terrible apartment, so I didn’t really want to go back there.”

“I think the hard thing [now] is that everybody wants to [live] the movie version of a magazine editor,” she continues. “It’s not enough to be just a cute girl who wears nice shoes and people like to find out what shoes you’re wearing every day, you know what I mean? It takes work. You have to learn everything and keep your eyes open and push things beyond their ability and do things before you get recognition for it. And it will always be noticed. I always know when someone’s doing good work.”