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Why It’s So Difficult for Condé Nast to Change

The company became one of the world’s most influential publishers by packaging and selling a vision of a specific type of wealth and privilege, an image that was also baked into the publisher’s internal culture. Now, amid resignations and workplace turmoil, current and former employees say that this culture is frustrating the company’s efforts to evolve.
Karolina Kurkova in American Vogue in 2000 | Source: Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast via Getty Images

NEW YORK, United States — At a department-wide meeting in December 2019, Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) President Oren Katzeff praised Vanity Fair’s “Six Degrees of Separation” as the latest hit series from the video department that created Vogue’s blockbuster “73 Questions” and Bon Appétit’s wildly popular Test Kitchen.

But the producer who brought the Vanity Fair series to life and directed it, a young woman of colour who had worked at the company for three years, wasn't there for the moment of celebration. Four days earlier, she had been laid off along with seven of her colleagues at CNE in a corporate restructuring. She found out she had lost her job after receiving a flurry of Slack messages from concerned colleagues while she was on vacation, and spent the next three months chasing her former employer for $2,000 in expenses for the series and other projects that she had charged to her personal credit card.

"Six Degrees of Separation" was exactly the sort of content Condé Nast executives say they need if the publishing giant is to survive the decline of print media. The project was conceived by Vanity Fair social media manager Daniel Taroy and featured celebrities being quizzed on their connections to other famous folk. It was a last-minute, low-budget replacement for a long-running video interview series hosted by Krista Smith, Vanity Fair's West Coast editor, who had left the magazine for Netflix early last year.

The first clips in the series, featuring Brie Larson, Jamie Fox and other stars at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, received over 5 million impressions on Instagram. The format was reprised for Vanity Fair's conference in October, and Amazon signed on to sponsor an edition at the Golden Globes in January.

The CNE layoffs, therefore, came as a surprise to many at Vanity Fair. But they took on new meaning in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the United States in May: of the eight employees fired, seven were women, and three were people of colour. One was one of the department's only queer producers, and another was the only female vice president in a creative role.

“It’s this deck of cards that is built on insecurity and power, that really allows for straight white men, in a lot of cases, to decide the content for women and LGBT workers and people,” said filmmaker, writer and director Shruti Ganguly, who worked at CNE as a video producer in 2014.

Condé Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, The New Yorker, Teen Vogue and more, is publicly dealing with accusations of racial bias across the company, specifically at the US division. Employees at Bon Appétit spoke out publicly on pay disparity and racial tokenism in early June. Two senior managers later stepped down, including Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport and Matt Duckor, a vice president of programming, who oversaw videos for Bon Appétit and others.

Global Chief Executive Officer Roger Lynch, just over one year on the job, was criticised after he said in a company-wide meeting that the publisher could have addressed these problems if people had spoken up earlier. Condé Nast has hired the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate discriminatory practices at the company. It plans to hire a global inclusion officer and offer anti-racism training among other changes. Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Condé Nast Artistic Director and Global Content Advisor Anna Wintour issued an apology to her staff for publishing "hurtful and intolerant" material.

The response has not quelled the concerns of employees. After Lynch said the company would need until the end of the summer to assess pay disparities and assemble data on diversity statistics across the levels of the company, employees began circulating a Google document to collect salary information on their own. Unionised employees at The New Yorker went on strike with the News Guild of New York last week to demand contracts specify members can only be terminated with just cause.

As the past few weeks have shown, racism, abuse, and exploitation often go unchecked at Condé Nast.

“As the past few weeks have shown, racism, abuse, and exploitation often go unchecked at Condé Nast,” wrote the union in a statement.

Condé Nast is one of many companies responding to what employees describe as a lack of diversity across its workforce and an alleged history of discrimination.

And on the surface, the problem might look like some problematic executives and a few disgruntled employees. But the publisher’s challenges run deeper.

For the better part of a century, the company has built its influential business by packaging and selling an image of multi-generational wealth and privilege as the highest form of aspiration to affluent readers and those who strived to live like them.

As part of its strategy, Condé Nast itself internalised and reflected the elite, hierarchical image it sold. Its editors and publishers were encouraged to live the lifestyle described in their magazines. This made it an attractive and desirable place to work, and a stamp of approval on a resume, made more exclusive by low salaries that barred many employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds. It also justified the cutthroat, competitive company culture.

Over the last decade, several developments have chipped away at Condé Nast's once-impenetrable facade, undermining its reputation as the most prestigious place to work in media. Readers and advertisers migrated online, where titles like Vogue and Vanity Fair have plenty of competition as cultural authorities, and where Instagram and social media have disintermediated access to photographers, celebrities and writers.

Equally important, aspiration itself has begun to change. A new generation of consumers, and Condé Nast’s own employees, increasingly see traditional social hierarchies as something to be interrogated and dismantled, not cultivated and protected. And they see white, thin, European beauty ideals as limited.

This doesn’t mean that the affluent are going to stop buying luxury products, or the children of celebrities will stop being objects of fascination. Consumers still aspire to have more and prove it by what they spend money on, but key signifiers of status have changed: authenticity and vulnerability are prized as part of a growing desire to be more democratic, more raw. Self-care and self-awareness are the new virtues to be signalled.

There is a growing understanding within Condé Nast that these shifts must be addressed if the company is to survive. That will involve not only adapting its content, but evolving the way it is marketed and sold to both advertisers and readers. And it requires an acceptance that the workplace issues flaring up now are not simply a PR problem.

In interviews, more than a dozen current and former Condé Nast employees described how a sometimes exclusionary company culture and pressured business model are frustrating efforts to modernise the business and have created challenges for employees who are women and people of colour.

New Culture, Same Sales Pitch

The challenges in building a viable business model around a publication that reflects a more diverse culture have played out over the last few years at Vanity Fair, one of the most important brands for the company, in terms of revenue.

Radhika Jones, an Indian-American woman and the former editorial director of the books department at The New York Times, arrived at the magazine at the end of 2017, replacing Graydon Carter as editor in chief after 25 years in the role. One of the last of the celebrity editors, with his exclusive restaurants and public feud with President Trump, he cast a long shadow.

Radhika Jones and Anna Wintour in 2018 | Source: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

As expected, Jones brought a new approach to the title: less Bruce Weber, more Cass Bird; less pin-up glamour, more high-low everyday styling; less sarcasm, more earnestness; and more racially diverse cover stars. The new Vanity Fair also reflected a new financial reality: her editorial budget was about half of her predecessor's.

Jones' approach, while still intellectual, was a jarring shift for some readers and advertisers. Some fashion and beauty executives who preferred Carter's vision reduced their spend with the magazine, part of the attrition that often comes with Condé Nast editorial transitions (Carter experienced a similar outflow in the early years, with some nicknaming his magazine "'Vanishing Flair.") Others used the changeover as an excuse to cut back on print advertising that they planned to do anyway.

"Anna [Wintour] had a period, Graydon [Carter] had a period, [The New Yorker Editor-in-Chief] David [Remnick] had a period," said a former Condé Nast executive. "How much time it takes to get your sea legs has now been shortened to zero."

But Jones received a frosty reception in some quarters internally, as Condé Nast struggled to sell the new Vanity Fair to fashion and beauty advertisers in particular. The title previously depended on these brands for a significant percent of revenue because they bought multiple ads featuring both men's and women's campaigns.

In April 2019, during Lynch's first week on the job, he attended a meeting with editors and executives to review the brand strategy for a group of publications for the second half of the year. Pamela Drucker Mann, the global chief revenue officer and president of US revenue, said the market did not understand what Jones was doing with Vanity Fair, and questioned her vision for the title.

Drucker Mann cued Susan Plagemann — the chief business officer of the company's style titles, in charge of selling Vogue and fashion advertising across the entire company, including Vanity Fair — to back her up, according to multiple sources, and Plagemann addressed Jones in the third person even though she was in the room. Wintour, who hired Jones, was irritated, sources said. She banged her hand on the table to silence the executives, praising Jones as a leader and adding, "you need to get your advertisers to follow along."

The meeting was a flashpoint for tension that had been building for months. Multiple sources who had been in the room said they found Drucker Mann and Plagemann’s behaviour surprising.

In an interview with BoF last week, Drucker Mann declined to comment on the meeting and said that her role as chief revenue officer is to understand the editorial vision and communicate it to the marketplace. “I would say that just like any other CRO, it's to provide that [market] feedback,” she said.

It wasn't the first time employees felt Drucker Mann made her thoughts about Jones and her approach at Vanity Fair apparent, employees said. In a February 2019 interview with Daily Front Row, Drucker Mann did not mention Jones when she was asked about the "new crop of editors at the company," referring instead to Jon Kelly, who was at that time the editor of Vanity Fair's The Hive vertical, as well as the other longstanding editors in the US division. In a company "built on microaggressions," as one former employee described it, the oversight was not lost on employees and close observers of Condé Nast.

"I think [Vanity Fair] is kicking serious ass," Drucker Mann told BoF. "I'm really proud of Radhika and I think she's done an amazing job … I'd rather people focus on all the amazing work that she's doing."

Drucker Mann was promoted to chief revenue officer three months before Jones started at Vanity Fair, another step up in a long line of promotions since she joined the publisher in 2005 at Jane. She made her reputation at Bon Appétit, starting as publisher right after Rapoport took the lead in 2010, and together they built a video-led success story for Condé Nast.

As she climbed the ranks, Drucker Mann promoted her closest colleagues, like Matt Duckor, who was most recently the head of programming video for Bon Appétit, Vogue and other titles until he stepped down shortly after Rappaport's resignation in June. (A CN representative said Drucker Mann was not in a position to promote Duckor as he did not report to her.)

RuPaul photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair | Source: Courtesy

While Condé Nast's editorial leaders became more diverse at titles like Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, Allure and Pitchfork, the revenue team leaders did not evolve in a similar way. All of the company's US chief business officers, and the heads of category and the heads of marketing to report to them, as well as the top executives on the global commercial partnerships team, are white.

“It is really important to me that we are a fully diverse and inclusive organisation and that is our commitment,” Drucker Mann said. “That is a commitment we have made, and I think we have made some great strides, but we have a long way to go.”

The company says 30 percent of its US workforce is made up of people of colour.

Like Drucker Mann, Plagemann has a track record of success at the company since 2010 as publisher of Vogue, the US publisher’s brand which brings in the most revenue.

Plagemann is described by multiple people who have worked with her, both inside and outside the company, as an imperious businesswoman. She is also known for making tone-deaf comments, and hiring staff who have the right “look” in designer clothes to represent Vogue to clients.

It was once normal practise that on Vogue’s commercial team, marketing presentations for clients would rarely feature images of people of colour, according to multiple sources who worked there. A representative for the company said this is not true and provided sales decks from the last four years that included people of colour as examples.

Plagemann and her team — now in charge of selling fashion advertising for all of Condé Nast's American titles, not just Vogue, though it remains the top priority, according to employees — sit at a challenging intersection between Vogue's past and present. And they are under immense pressure to bring in advertising dollars as fashion brands shift their budgets online. (Company-wide losses reached $100 million in the US division last year, according to The New York Times.) While the editorial content has evolved, more so online than in print where the audience is more conservative, not all fashion advertisers have modernised at the same rate.

How can we be more inclusive when the magazine has been directed to this one particular type of person for decades?

“How can we be more inclusive when the magazine has been directed to this one particular type of person for decades?” said one former employee.

These tensions have manifested themselves in recent years at Vanity Fair, as well as Teen Vogue, the latter of which has adopted a more diverse, inclusive and politically progressive stance in the last five years.

Both titles depend heavily on advertising from fashion and beauty brands.

In 2018, Jones' first full year at Vanity Fair, the magazine's fashion advertising revenue fell by 14 percent, compared to 21 percent for the category overall at the company, according to a source.

At the end of 2018, Plagemann was promoted to her overarching role in charge of all fashion and beauty advertising across the US division of the publisher. The shift meant that in addition to overseeing the revenue for fashion and beauty-focused titles including Vogue and GQ, she and her team secured fashion advertising for all other titles including Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue, which relied heavily on the category.

The following year, 2019, was a tougher one for fashion advertising for reasons outside of the sales team's control, in addition to the general financial challenges facing print media. Several major American fashion brands reduced their spending with Condé Nast. That year, Vanity Fair's fashion advertising revenue fell by 31 percent, according to a source, outpacing the company-wide decline of 24 percent.

Meanwhile, according to a representative for the company, Vanity Fair's audience was growing in size in print and digital, and was younger, wealthier and more diverse than before Jones arrived.

The advertising revenue decline contributed heavily to the tension that peaked at the April 2019 meeting with Lynch, indicative of the intense pressure to deliver more fashion revenue and of concern about who was to blame for the loss.

Teen Vogue, a smaller publication but outsized in its media attention, also saw its fashion advertising revenue suffer in 2019 after gains in 2018. That year, the digital publication recaptured much of the fashion advertising it had lost during its hyper-political renaissance before and after the election of President Trump in 2016.

Storm Reid photographed by Micaiah Carter for Teen Vogue in 2019 | Source: Courtesy

But in 2019 — after Lindsay Peoples Wagner, a young Black woman and former market editor known for her love of fashion and outspoken point-of-view, came on as editor-in-chief of the title the previous October — fashion advertising revenue shrunk by more than 50 percent. That year, the publication photographed actress Storm Reid in Chanel and musician Chika in Pyer Moss for its June and December issues. (The title is online only as of 2018.)

Again, fashion advertising revenue was down for the whole US division in 2019, according to a source. And Teen Vogue relies more on the American brands who pulled budgets last year. But two employees said Plagemann made it clear internally that the publication wasn't "aspirational" enough for her to successfully sell to advertisers.

A representative for Condé Nast said Plagemann was relaying market feedback, and also added that in 2020, both Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue are meeting or exceeding advertising revenue expectations even in light of coronavirus budget cutbacks.

Prioritising Views

Similar tensions have arisen in Condé Nast Entertainment, the division of the company founded in 2011 to develop and produce film and television projects. Now the fastest-growing part of the business, CNE focuses most of its attention on generating videos for YouTube, where the publisher has its largest audience, 45 million subscribers, and hundreds of millions of views per month. The larger the viewership, the easier it is to sign multi-million-dollar deals with advertisers.

At a presentation for advertisers last week, Drucker Mann emphasised audience size multiple times. She described Condé Nast’s video offering as having “more scale than influencers, and more influence than TV.”

The focus on views has created a sometimes tense relationship between CNE and the company’s magazine teams, who feel the department does not communicate and does not understand the brands, and treats editorial concerns as a secondary proposition.

For example, Jones' very first issue as editor in chief featured writer and director Lena Waithe, a queer Black woman, on the cover. It was a bold statement and indicator of her new approach. A video was produced to accompany the cover story, but CNE executives decided it "wouldn't scale" on YouTube, according to sources familiar with the incident. It was buried on Vanity Fair's own video player, accessible only through the website.

Katzeff said the production process naturally involves some tension “because there are a lot of creative people at Condé Nast, there are a lot of opinions, and that's part of what makes our storytelling so great,” he said. “But ultimately what I look for in my team and as a leader is that that’s handled with respect and that there is collaboration.”

In some ways, employees said, CNE operates with a different philosophy to the publications: rather than striving to lead culture, and sell to advertisers based on the strength of their visions, CNE essentially reacts to the YouTube algorithm, which rewards videos featuring celebrities who already have large audiences.

CNE decided not to shoot videos with the main cast of the 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” at a press junket before the film’s release because the execs said the actors’ videos “would not scale.” The film went on to become the highest-grossing romantic comedy in 10 years.

“If it’s something about queer content, if it’s something about LatinX audiences — that’s something that will, quote-un-quote, not scale,” said one Condé Nast editorial staffer.

Katzeff said in an interview that many factors come into play when CNE decides to invest in producing a video, such as the talent involved and the format. “Scale is part of it, but so is storytelling, so is brand growth,” he said.

He also said CNE needs to evolve. “We need to and want to tell more diverse stories and that's not just about the storytelling, it's about who we bring in as part of the team.”

But employees say CNE can be a difficult environment for employees who are women and people of colour.

Under former CNE President Dawn Ostroff, who left for Spotify in 2018, the division’s leadership included more women in leadership roles, especially in creative positions where it matters most. But after Katzeff arrived in December of that year, a “boys club” that had already been gaining power within the division flourished, employees said. Katzeff came under fire earlier this month for years-old offensive tweets about women and Mexican immigrants.

It was already hard to be a woman creative there, and it got even harder.

“It was already hard to be a woman creative there, and it got even harder,” said a former employee.

A representative for Condé Nast said that when Katzeff joined CNE, only two of the employees who directly reported to him were women. Now, five of his eight direct reports are women. The representative also said other female leaders include the head of audio, the head of creative development for social platforms, and other roles.

But employees say that, after three reorganisations in three years, decision-making power on creative matters is concentrated under one man, Joe Sabia, the senior vice president of creative development. His division alone is in charge of coming up with new ideas for video series, particularly for the "high priority" brands: Vogue, GQ, The New Yorker, Wired and Vanity Fair.

A representative for CNE said the division's development team, led by Sabia, and the programming team, led by Reginald Williams, work together to direct the overall content strategy. And that several of CNE’s popular series, including Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” celebrity house tours, were not his creation, but that of those on his team or in collaboration with magazine editorial teams.

Sabia is best known as the creator and voice of the Vogue series "73 Questions," Condé Nast's most successful video franchise. It has garnered more than 450 million views since it began in 2013 with an episode featuring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Sabia has said in interviews that he came to that first shoot with the idea to ask the actress 100 questions in a single, five-minute take.

Shruti Ganguly was a producer on a full-time freelance contract at Condé Nast at the time and worked with Sabia — then also freelance — and others on the first edition of 73 Questions and additional episodes over the following months. Ganguly said it was Parker who suggested cutting the number of questions down. And when CNE executives later baulked at running such a long, unedited clip, part of Sabia’s original conceit, it was Ganguly who initially put forth the argument that the seamless flow of a single take was key to the video’s success.

The 73 Questions series launched Sabia’s career as the company’s leading video creative. By autumn 2014, he was hired as head of development.

Shortly after filming the first 73 Questions episode, Ganguly was offered a staff contract at a lower title than her previous job, which executives told her was the only available role. (At this point in her career, she had two masters degrees and nearly a decade of experience, including having produced feature films.) After CNE underwent a reorganisation that promoted Sabia to a newly created role and didn’t come with any advancement for her, Ganguly said she realised that she had no future at the company and resigned.

“[Sabia] has thrived in a system that suffocates people like me,” she said.

Over the last five years, Sabia gained more influence and control in CNE along with Ian Edgar, the vice president of creative strategy and video programming. It was clear internally that only those who made sure not to disagree with Sabia and the “boys club” of Edgar, Duckor and Katzeff could advance within the division, employees said.

“No one is going to debate that Joe is a smart and talented guy,” said a former employee. “There just isn’t room for anyone else... It didn’t make room for a lot of experimentation.”

The fact that many of Condé Nast’s brands make content targeting women make this discrepancy more troubling to some employees.

At a brainstorming meeting about creating a video series on women's health for Glamour in 2017, for example, Sabia shut down a female producer's idea to focus on female birth control, arguing it was a topic women were already informed about, according to two employees who were present. When the other women in the meeting disagreed, the video was approved and assigned to a male director.

A spokesperson for CNE did not confirm the account of the meeting, but said it is not representative of the division’s approach.

CNE’s new senior vice president of programming, Reginald Williams, promised advertisers last week that he will bring a new mindset to the video division. Williams, who is Black, joined CNE in December after roles at Ambrosia For Heads, a hip-hop culture media company, and BET. Part of his role, and that of his division, is to work with the magazine brand teams.

“I came in with eyes wide open about what our brands have represented over the years, both the good and the bad,” Williams said. “We are committed to providing a platform for new voices, diverse content and inclusive programming that is representative of our audience and our communities.”

Also last week, Bon Appétit video editor Matt Hunziker was suspended from CNE for unspecified behaviour. Sources told Business Insider the cause was social posts criticising the company, and that Hunziker was an "advocate" for people of colour in the workplace.

"There have been many concerns raised about Matt that the company is obligated to investigate and he has been suspended until we reach a resolution," a representative for the company said in a statement.

More than a PR Problem

Hiring practices have come under close scrutiny in recent weeks as publishers grapple with the systems that reinforce hiring the same types of people. At Condé Nast, employees told BoF that while efforts to bring diversity into the lower levels of the business in recent years have been successful, the key decision-makers across the company remain largely white.

Employees said Condé Nast’s HR department has been little help in finding diverse job candidates. If managers wanted to hire someone outside the white, wealthy, Ivy League mould, they often had to conduct the search themselves.

There is a systemic problem because it has been so rooted in people hiring in their own circles.

“There is a systemic problem because it has been so rooted in people hiring in their own circles,” said an editorial employee.

Lynch has promised action and change and, unlike his predecessor, spoken openly about the company’s challenges in company-wide meetings. It was at one of these meetings that he quickly shot down rumours that Wintour would exit her post, and apologised for stating in a prior meeting that employees should have spoken up about discrimination earlier.

Lynch has also promised to increase diversity across all levels of the business, “investigating and taking fast action on all current and historic claims of pay inequities and inappropriate workplace behaviour.” He said the company will hire a global chief inclusion officer and assemble an external committee to advise on anti-racism efforts.

“As society changes, Condé Nast is changing,” Lynch told potential advertisers on Tuesday.

But Lynch has not articulated a clear vision for the company’s future since he arrived in April 2019 from Pandora, and Condé Nast’s financial troubles may undermine any long-term attempts to shift the culture. This year was supposed to mark a return to profitability for the newly unified global company, which merged its US and international divisions in 2019. The pandemic and its recessionary impact have more dire consequences for the publisher.

Fundamentally, Condé Nast is facing the same problems every other creative business is confronting right now, especially in fashion: an outdated genre of exclusivity and elitism no longer guarantee that a handbag or an advertising space will sell at a higher price, and hiring “people like us” is a barrier to creativity and innovation.

Condé Nast's executives often talk about the power of the company's brands. Names like Vogue and Vanity Fair still hold authority, but they are no longer the only gatekeepers. And the lucrative business that justified its culture can no longer bear the weight of it. But in order for it to really change, its leaders need to realise that the revolution within its ranks is more than a PR problem.

Disclosure: Chantal Fernandez worked at Condé Nast from 2012 to 2014, including at Vanity Fair.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include an additional response from CN regarding Pamela Drucker Mann's role in promoting Matt Duckor.

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