NEW YORK, United States — As speculation swirls about who will take the helm at Condé Nast titles Vanity Fair and Glamour, the publisher is quietly launching its first independent brand since Portfolio magazine debuted in 2007. (It was shut down two years later.) Them, a mission-driven, multi-platform, LGBTQ-focused publication created by Phillip Picardi, Condé Nast’s beloved digital wunderkind from Teen Vogue, is set to launch online in the last week of October.
“If I've learned anything from my time at Teen Vogue, it’s that young people are dominating our culture and they're going to shape it in a way that we really weren't expecting, particularly in matters of gender and sexuality,” the 26-year-old Picardi, Them’s chief content officer, tells BoF. “Wouldn't it be incredible if Condé Nast were the first publisher to really step up to the plate and want to be the ones who were telling those stories in an authentic and personal way?”
That’s precisely the question he posed to Anna Wintour, Condé Nast’s artistic director and editor-in-chief of American Vogue, at the beginning of the summer during a conversation on the media giant’s digital future. Condé Nast, like many legacy publishers, has been slow to adapt to today’s digital reality and still generates the majority of its revenue from print advertising at a time when brands are rapidly following consumers online and reallocating their marketing budgets accordingly.
“Over the past year, we’ve been reimagining what a title looks like to better reflect today’s culture and how audiences are interacting with content,” says Wintour by e-mail. “As we launched new titles like The Hive [at Vanity Fair] and Healthyish [at Bon Appétit], or rethought existing ones like Teen Vogue and Allure, we’ve seen tremendous response.”
Picardi’s track record at Teen Vogue — where he grew traffic from 1.4 million to over 9 million monthly unique visitors in his first two years and spearheaded an activist tone that has become a point of major pride for Condé Nast — earned him the respect of the company’s leadership, who asked him to develop the new media brand. And in addition to Wintour, Pamela Drucker Mann, Condé Nast’s chief marketing officer since January and previously the publisher of Bon Appétit, is steering the project. Just last week, Drucker Mann was named chief revenue officer, adding the role to her existing duties. Along with chief digital officer Fred Santarpia and general manager of digital Matt Starker, she was instrumental in developing Them.
“It's not that [a LGBTQ-focused publication] is something that we've invented or anything new,” she says. “It's where we should be. And that, to me, is super important in just the way that the media world understands it… We want to be a part of pushing [culture] forward.”
The project is personal for both Picardi, who was recently named one of the “50 Most Influential LGBTs in Media” by the Advocate, and Drucker Mann, who has a wife and three young sons. It’s also unusual for a mainstream media company to cater directly to a community that is still considered fringe. It was only two years ago, after all, that the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality. LGBTQ people are twice as likely to be targeted for violent hate crimes than Muslims or black people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center; 92 percent of LGBTQ youth hear negative messages about being LGBTQ, according to a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey. While accurate data on anti-LGBTQ hate crimes does not exist, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people, according to advocacy organisation GLAAD.
The community, however, is growing. In 2016, 4.1 percent (about 10 million) American adults identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, up 1.75 million from four years prior, according to Gallup. The increases were seen across income brackets, and millennials are twice as likely as any other generation to identify as LGBTQ. And data about self-identification skews smaller than accounts of same-sex sexual behaviour and sexual attraction, which makes quantifying the population a challenge.
Younger communities will drive this population to grow further. Picardi cites a study that says 52 percent of Generation Z does not identify as heterosexual. This generation will represent 44 percent of US consumers by 2020 and 60 percent of them support brands that take a stand on issues they believe in. The LGBTQ community at large has anywhere from $800 billion to a trillion dollars in annual spending power, and “over-index[es] when influencing people in fashion, music, beauty and technology,” says Picardi.
We’re hoping we can show you storytelling that proves that Them is about all of us.
When it comes to LGBTQ media brands, “‘G’ has pretty much been the dominant narrative there,” he says, adding that Them will not only appeal to a spectrum of non-binary sexual and gender identities, but to non-LGBTQ "allies" as well. Readers increasingly want to be educated and informed about, for example, using the right language. Picardi says LGBTQ content is some of the best performing at TeenVogue.com. "It doesn't matter what your background is,” he says. “We’re hoping we can show you storytelling that proves that Them is about all of us.”
Unlike Teen Vogue, however, Them will not prioritise scale by chasing news or publishing content 40 to 60 times a day. “With everyone publishing the same news round-up at 8am, sending the same similar newsletters… it gets exhausting and I think consumers are just trying to be more selective,” says Picardi. “We're not expecting hundreds of millions of impressions to deliver on a campaign. But what we are hoping for is a uniquely engaged and extremely impactful storytelling experience.”
Picardi is confident Them will spark a major social conversation through its community-focused strategy: the audience will be encouraged to submit content. “We want to make sure that we're inviting people to participate,” says Picardi. “Intersectionality and representation are going to be crucial to the brand’s very success and acceptance.”
Them also plans to align its editorial calendar around one video-led, multimedia feature per week. “I really didn't want to do the whole pivot-to-video thing of only focusing on video,” he says. “We're trying to figure out how we can weave multiple multimedia experiences into these video moments.” Podcasts and data graphics are also part of that plan, as is social media content. Images will be big and uncluttered. There is also a membership component, i.e. physical experiences: Them will partner with queer designers to produce merchandise capsules, a portion of the sales of which benefit charities, and also host events such as book clubs or a presence at Pride parades.
As for its point of view, Them will cover news and politics with an activist stance, advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ community and shining a light on cultural figures who are not typically recognised. Fashion and beauty coverage will be genderless. “If we're covering floral dresses [in an] editorial, you better believe you'll be seeing men and women and gender non-conforming folks in those dresses,” says Picardi. Four new dedicated editors started last week, including award-winning transgender writer Meredith Talusan and agender writer and media personality Tyler Ford.
We were literally parallel path-ing the business and brand development. Usually, it's doesn't necessarily work that way.
In turn, Drucker Mann is being highly disciplined about the new title’s revenue strategy by only reaching out to a handful of potential advertisers. “I’ve been at the company for twelve years; we’ve never approached a brand launch quite like this before,” she says. Instead of building the brand and then going to market, both efforts occurred simultaneously, which is not how publications have traditionally been launched at Condé Nast. “We were literally parallel path-ing the business and brand development. Usually, it doesn't necessarily work that way.”
Burberry is one of the launch partners. “I am delighted that we are partnering with Them for the launch of an important new digital publication that will champion authenticity, intellect, style and culture for those who are shaping the future of our world,” says chief creative officer Christopher Bailey by e-mail. “We believe strongly in the power of community, the sharing of ideas and it is exciting and refreshing to be a part of something that promises to celebrate diversity with honesty and integrity.”
Drucker Mann says she has only approached potential like-minded advertisers whose values authentically align with the title’s mission. She expressly didn’t want Them to be “sandboxed” by corporate social responsibility budgets, which are (typically limited) resources companies put toward furthering social and environmental causes. “That feels more symbiotic than, ‘Hey, do you want to align your marketing strategy around this LGBTQ brand?’” she says. “I’ve actually been in meetings where I said to clients, ‘If this is a diversity project for you, don’t do it.’”
Interestingly, Picardi isn’t leaving either of his roles as digital editorial director at both Teen Vogue and Allure — where he works with the brands’ respective editor-in-chiefs, Elaine Welteroth and Michelle Lee — in the immediate future. While it may seem like an untenable workload, it’s part of Condé Nast’s ongoing shift to sharing more editorial resources across brands — and reflects how much the company values Picardi.
"Back in the day, you wouldn't have been able to pursue something else… you were the editor of a given brand, that’s it,” says Drucker Mann. “People just thought they knew what their domain was. So, it's really more about opening the window a little bit.” And it doesn’t mean Picardi is the only editor with new, potentially lucrative, ideas up his sleeve. To tap this potential, Drucker Mann has created an internal incubator that will evaluate and launch media brands, big and small, in the future. A few are already under development.
“[Them] has been so successful in terms of the approach, and the way that we've worked together, that we see this as a future state for our company,” she says. “Think about it as the WeWork of Condé Nast.”
Think about it as the WeWork of Condé Nast.
At the centre of the incubator is a Next Gen Council (named after the campaign Drucker Mann launched this spring) of editors, engineers and product developers from across the company who conceive and receive ideas and put them into action. “It’s in a way, an internal VC for our own emerging brands,” she says, equating allocated budgets to seed funding rounds. Many of the details are still in development; Drucker Mann is currently outlining requirements and targets for future incubator brands.
And even though Them is a completely independent brand, not connected to any existing Condé Nast title, Drucker Mann doesn’t see it as a fundamentally different kind of project to Healthyish, The Hive and other new branded verticals that have launched recently as part of existing titles. “We've been extremely ambitious about being leaders in content creation, and I would say more so if you look in the last year and a half,” she says. (As of August 2017, Allure.com’s traffic is up 25 percent over the last six months to 6.2 million, according to ComScore. Since launch in June 2016, The Hive's traffic is up 55 percent to 5 million unique visitors per month, according to Omniture, and Healthyish's traffic is up 117 percent to just under 400,000 unique visitors per month since launching in January.)
Competitor Hearst has been more willing to put forth new brands — often in joint ventures with other companies — most notably the Snapchat native publication Sweet. But new digital brands are not safe bets, either: Since its debut in 2015, the youth-oriented lifestyle, fashion, food and music channel has struggled to scale under tremendous pressure to do so, according to Digiday. Snapchat has also seen its user growth slow as Instagram duplicates its features. Hearst has several other projects in the works, including the Airbnb magazine (also a joint venture) and Glo, its first dedicated health and wellness publication, online-only and targeting millennials.
Therefore, Them’s launch — and the promise of more to come — is a significant step for Condé Nast, which has prided itself on the legacy of its storied brands. “When you build a new house you can start from the very beginning… you can really dream big in terms of how you want it to be laid out and how you want it to function,” says Drucker Mann. “When you gut something, it's different because you have to work with the foundation.”
Renovating the foundation of the company is now Drucker Mann’s chief concern, but if her promotion is any indication, the incubator won’t just be vanity project. “There's nothing more important to us than our future,” she says. “And I think Phil represents that in such a massive way, as does this brand, and as will more brands to come.”