LONDON, United Kingdom — This summer, when Condé Nast announced it was merging the United States and international versions of its magazine Condé Nast Traveler onto a new single platform, and that it would be overseen not from its birthplace in New York, but from London, fashion and media heads were turned on both sides of the Atlantic.
After all, the world of the United States publisher and its flagships Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ had always remained resolutely aloof from its international versions. What could the Traveler decision portend?
As the September catwalk shows got underway, observers learned the answer. From now on, fashion week coverage production from Vogue — the jewel in the company crown — will also be centralised in London and based in the grand new headquarters of Condé Nast International, the arm of the publisher responsible for business outside America and led by the chairman and chief executive, Jonathan Newhouse.
From British Vogue, Vogue Paris and Vogue Japan, to Runway, the online fashion show and review hub from American Vogue, everything from photo production to backstage videos, social media posts and some features around fashion shows will largely be handled by Vogue International, an editorial hub inaugurated last year to create coordinated digital content for the 25 editions of the magazine that now operate worldwide.
Vogue International content will not feature in any Vogue print editions, and this week a C.N.I. spokeswoman said that the high-profile Vogue magazine critics and features staff members who line the front rows will remain based on their home turf and produce reviews and trend reports. But the recent consolidation of firepower in the British capital, coupled with Condé Nast International’s increasingly ambitious investment effort to expand into new regions, has spurred fresh speculation around the internal struggles afoot within the publisher’s boardrooms and editorial offices across the globe.
After years of operating with many highly autonomous magazine businesses all over the world C.N.I. is moving our titles toward a new way of thinking.
And the man behind many of the changes, Wolfgang Blau, president of Condé Nast International, has kept a relatively low profile when it comes to his magazine-mind. Until now.
“We are in a state of transformation,” he said last month from a minimalist glass office with expansive views across the skyline and the Thames River. “After years of operating with many highly autonomous magazine businesses all over the world — an approach that historically worked very well — C.N.I. is moving our titles toward a new way of thinking.”
A former technology reporter in San Francisco, editor-in-chief of the website for the German weekly newspaper Zeit, and director of digital strategy at the British newspaper The Guardian (before being passed over for the job of editor), Mr Blau, 50, joined Condé Nast International as chief digital officer in 2015, tasked with bolstering digital growth. Charming and articulate but also somewhat clinical, with a vocal presence on social media and an obsession with China, he soon made waves.
“As we worked together, I realised Wolfgang possessed a unique constellation of talents as well as a rare leadership ability,” noted Mr Newhouse, from his office, which backs onto that of his number two. In 2017, he promoted Mr Blau to president of the company, with the goal of moving the international company from a federation of market-based operations with over 60 autonomous websites to a more fluid organisation with headquarters in London, as well as plotting new growth strategies to ensure the company survived the next wave of technological upheaval.
At a time when many media groups have been shuttering foreign titles and downsizing bureaus (including Condé Nast, the American sister company of Condé Nast International, where morale is low after a reported $120 million worth of losses last year and where titles like Brides, Golf Digest and W have been put up for sale), Mr Blau has done the opposite.
“Truly global publishing with a personal touch has to extend beyond just the Anglosphere,” he said. In the last 18 months, the international company — which has been “highly profitable” since 1995, Mr Blau said, and will continue to be so in 2018 — has introduced Vogue Arabia, Vogue Poland and Vogue Czech Republic and Slovakia; plans for a Vogue Greece were unveiled last week, and there are more in the pipeline. International rollouts of new GQs are also expected.
Truly global publishing with a personal touch has to extend beyond just the Anglosphere.
America is not part of Mr Blau’s remit, he stressed. (Condé Nast and Condé Nast International are separate sister companies. Their parent group, Advance Publications, is privately owned and controlled by the billionaire Newhouse family.) But conversations were had “daily” with his New York counterparts on how each side could help the other to grow their businesses. For him that means Condé Nast International, which operates in 29 markets on six continents, would no longer be structured around countries. Instead, it would be built around brands. Starting with Vogue.
“That whole end-of-print narrative, which I have sung myself in different circumstances, doesn’t hold the same weight with a highly visual title like Vogue as it does with, say, newspapers,” Mr Blau said, noting that in some countries like China and India, Vogue print revenue was actually increasing.
“I have always been wary of succumbing to the power of a brand gospel,” he said. “But we are the biggest single network of fashion experts on the planet, and are only just beginning to realize that about ourselves.”
The plan behind Vogue International and fashion weeks, he said, was to take on in London the type of content production, social media promotion and news stories that were previously being done “in 15 Vogue offices in 15 cities at the same time.” With centralised commissioning and the streamlining of image processing, it could then scale capacity to cover more international fashion shows in places such as Colombia and Mexico. Two-hundred editorial and engineering staff members have been hired, and next year, he wants to have a Vogue presence at about 900 runway shows.
Not surprisingly, in the famously hierarchical and protective world of fashion magazines this has created some unease.
“Look, there is no model for what we have been trying to do,” Mr Blau said. “When you tell an editor in Japan or Russia that you are creating a central editorial team, unsurprisingly a lot assume: ‘My God, they want to take my territory and really think they can produce from another continent what we produce.’ It has been hard, and it has taken time to build their trust. But we are making great progress now.”
The last 18 months, however, have seen both setbacks, most notably the high-profile closing last year of the e-commerce venture Style.com, in which C.N.I. had invested $100 million, and a stark changing of the guard. That much of this has taken place in the wake of the October death of Si Newhouse, the former Condé Nast chairman, prompting a redistribution of his responsibilities within a complicated cross-border family network at the company — with other senior executives also in the mix — added an additional layer of intrigue.
To survive as a media group you either need to be a paper of record or own a global niche.
“We had to make a lot of changes, including replacing most of the country presidents and many editors,” Jonathan Newhouse said of the turnover. “But that has brought us exciting talents, like Edward Enninful editing British Vogue.”
Married with two children, Mr Blau said that the last few years he had been traveling relentlessly, spending much of his time in India and the Far East, especially China, which Mr Blau sees as a digital frontier unto itself (indeed, he often refers to “the era of two internets,” America and China.)
Vogue China now has 21 digital editors — seven of whom are exclusively focused on creating content for WeChat, the platform on which Condé Nast now makes the vast majority of its digital revenue in China.
“Local teams will always know local readers, so features, interviews and even reviews should be produced locally as much as possible. But anything one step removed from that is a different story,” he said.
“To survive as a media group you either need to be a paper of record or own a global niche. The latter is what we are and need to continue to be. We spent a long time extremely decentralised as a company. Now let’s just say we are currently in a phase of extreme centralisation.”
By Elizabeth Paton. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.