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Transforming Condé Nast’s Problem Child

How did Teen Vogue become a cultural hit driving blockbuster traffic? Phillip Picardi and Elaine Welteroth tell all.
Elaine Welteroth, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, and Phillip Picardi, digital editorial director of Teen Vogue | Source: Getty
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — On July 13, when American Vogue released its August cover story, starring Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik — one of the world's most famous young couples — it should have been instant internet gold for Condé Nast's top fashion title. But the article, which addressed gender fluidity, was criticised for being tone-deaf. "Straight cis couple shares clothes, Vogue declares them gender fluid. Teen Vogue is gonna have to clean this one up for Mama Vogue," wrote one Twitter user. But even buoyed by controversy, the top performing piece of content at the company that day was not Vogue's cover story.

Instead, the top honour went to Vogue’s little sibling publication, Teen Vogue, which in the last two years has transformed itself from Condé Nast’s problem child to a conversation-starting cultural hit known for its social activism, progressive politics and an audience that now stretches well beyond teenage girls. In fact, the most read story across Condé Nast’s entire portfolio that day was Teen Vogue’s guide to anal sex. It created its own online controversy, including a viral video of a right-wing homophobic woman, who goes by the handle “The Activist Mommy”, burning the magazine’s most recent issue. The article was viewed 224,000 times (about 30 percent more than Vogue’s Gigi and Zayn cover story). It has since clocked over 2 million unique visitors.

Teen Vogue is no stranger to viral stories. Its top ranking story in 2016 — an op-ed by Lauren Duca entitled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” which has since attracted over 1.4 million unique views — catapulted the magazine onto the radar of American journalist Dan Rather, who was one of the “Big Three” news anchors in the US during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. When Rather shared the story on Twitter an hour after publication, the mainstream news media began to pay attention — and they haven’t stopped since. “Teen Vogue continues to churn out quality stories, really establishing itself as a beacon for issues impacting young women’s lives,” Rather wrote on Facebook.

After Duca's article went viral, the publication's two young leaders — digital editorial director and secret weapon Phillip Picardi, 26, and editor-in-chief and brand ambassador Elaine Welteroth, 30 — went on a media tour of their own. "This is a strange moment, Teen Vogue here to talk, in essence, politics?" remarked talk show host Trevor Noah when he welcomed them both to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in February.

Teen Vogue isn't just cool now. It's au courant.

Rewind only a year-and-a-half to when Picardi took over Teen Vogue's digital operation and this kind of prominent place in the cultural conversation was unimaginable for the title. When it officially launched under editor-in-chief Amy Astley in 2003 as an aspirational fashion magazine for affluent teenage girls, its shrunken page size was a playful reminder of its little sister relationship to Vogue. Condé Nast was late to join a new generation of mainstream teen titles (Elle Girl, Teen People and CosmoGirl were already on newsstands) and decided to focus on fashion and beauty, though it later began to touch on issues such as mental health and substance abuse. When competitor YM magazine closed in 2004, Condé Nast bought its list of 1.2 million subscribers; the title soon attracted top-tier luxury advertisers like Chanel.

The magazine grew rapidly in its first few years, crossing over into profitability in its fifth year and maintaining strong momentum until 2010. By that point, the attention economy for teenagers had become more complex and up 54.7 percent of Americans aged 12 to 17 by 2009, according to Nielsen. That same year, 58 percent of 12-year-olds in the country owned a mobile phone, according to Pew Research Center. Instagram was born in 2010; Snapchat would launch the following year. As attention shifted online, Teen Vogue struggled financially despite its relatively lean staff and smaller (read: cheaper) format.

The December 2016 issue released after the election was the year’s best seller | Source: Courtesy

In 2010, it was one of the only print teen titles still running, alongside Hearst’s Seventeen. But as advertising spend followed attention and moved online, teen print media became more challenging. Marketing dollars were already difficult to land from brands weary of targeting a consumer group that largely depends on parents for money. In 2015, there was even an internal discussion about changing the magazine’s name so as to not highlight the word “teen.” (A spokesperson for Condé Nast denied any such discussion.)

While Teen Vogue’s average paid-and-verified circulation has remained consistent since 2008 at just above 1 million, according to a report by the Alliance for Audited Media, advertising pages declined from 162 in September 2013, when the magazine published its biggest issue in five years, to 112 ad pages in both September 2014 and September 2015. The best-selling issue of 2014 sold 85,500 print and digital copies; in 2015 that number was 52,400.

Meanwhile, new teen-focused publications were emerging online. In 2010, Tavi Gevinson, who first made a name for herself as a young fashion blogger, launched Rookie, a digital magazine for teenage girls, by teenage girls. She looked to Sassy — the defunct, irreverent, feminist magazine founded by Jane Pratt in 1989 — as a point of reference. “Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringeworthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl,” wrote Gevinson in her first editor’s letter. It did not fetishise youth; it was not patronising: it continues to acknowledge teen girls as nuanced, intelligent young people.

When Picardi arrived at TeenVogue.com in April 2015, the website was not yet a priority for the title. Its two former directors had each lasted less than two years. Picardi had started his career at Teen Vogue as an assistant and online beauty editor before joining digital media juggernaut Refinery29 as senior beauty editor. When he came back to Condé Nast eight months later, he brought with him Refinery29’s aggressive growth tactics, including A/B testing and search engine optimisation.

“That boot camp training that I got there informed a lot of what we do here now,” says Picardi. “A lot of those things were built completely from the ground up.” The experience also informed his approach to content. “The biggest thing that I learned from Mikki [Halpin, then Refinery29’s editorial director] was that you can be a women’s brand and talk about more than fashion and beauty.” Rookie, which had already proven that point, covering style and sexuality and mental health, was undoubtedly an influence, too.

Picardi also returned to Teen Vogue with a mandate from Astley to “take the risks online and see what happens.” That meant tackling politics, LGBTQ issues — “as a queer person, it was important to me,” he says — the gender pay gap and birth control. “I had a little bit of a carte blanche to execute a vision that was perhaps different than what the magazine was known for.”

Picardi ran with it — sprinted, more like — pushing his small team to publish more and more, faster and faster. He eventually launched new verticals including health and wellness, while amplifying his efforts with traffic-driving celebrity content. There was a lot of staff turnover, especially in the first year. Condé Nast’s leadership and Teen Vogue’s own audience were not always happy with the changes.

“Our standing with Planned Parenthood [a nonprofit organisation focused on reproductive health], that was maybe the first time that I really pushed the boundaries here that people were uncomfortable with, but we can’t talk birth control without talking about abortion,” says Picardi. In August 2015, Planned Parenthood recognised Teen Vogue and Picardi at its annual Maggie Awards.

Other early sources of controversy included an essay about Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man who died in police custody, and, later, an article about former US president Ronald Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDS epidemic, which hit the internet just after Nancy Reagan’s death. “Internally the reaction was like, ‘Oh boy’... Am I going to hear from Anna about that one?” remembers Picardi.

You can find a way to do content that appeals to a mass audience and content that will specifically and specially engage a very desirable audience. You can absolutely be both.

“We pissed off a lot of people,” he admits. “That Freddie Gray piece was not one of our top ten pieces.” But he believed the title was cultivating a valuable audience. “Building for desired audiences is a huge thing that a lot of digital media isn’t doing right now,” says Picardi. “They’re catering to the lowest common denominator. And you can find a way to do content that appeals to a mass audience and content that will specifically and specially engage a very desirable audience. You can absolutely be both.”

Online traffic was growing at a rapid clip: monthly US unique visitors averaged 3.1 million in the first six months of 2015, according to Condé Nast, jumping to 4.2 million in the second half of the year.

“We had certain battles that we fought but ultimately there was always a higher good,” says Picardi. And what I’m especially proud of is that the numbers were always outstanding. That was how we could talk to people in corporate who were like, ‘What’s the reasoning behind this?’ The reasoning behind it is: ‘it grew our website, if that’s what you want to boil it down to.’” BoF has learned that Picardi is currently developing a new multi-platform media brand for young people, separate from Teen Vogue, set to debut this autumn.

Facebook comments and letters from readers made it clear that part of the title’s existing audience was dismayed by the new direction.

Meanwhile the pages of Teen Vogue's print magazine remained safer and more akin to what Teen Vogue readers — and advertisers like Chanel and Aeropostale — were more accustomed to: a focus on fashion and beauty. The title continued to distinguish itself by enlisting high fashion photographers, models and stylists under the creative direction of Marie Suter. But when August 2015's cover starring three rising black models — Imaan Hammam, Aya Jones and Lineisy Montero — sold more than Kylie Jenner's May issue, it was a sign that Teen Vogue's print product needed to evolve, too.

“It brought in people who weren’t really checking Teen Vogue for a very long time if ever,” says Welteroth, who started working at the magazine in 2012 and was its beauty and health director at the time. “It was a challenging time in the industry and we just felt like: what do we have to lose?” She says the print staff had a “come to Jesus meeting” in the autumn of 2015. Using fashion and beauty as a lens for celebrating diversity was the starting point.

In November 2015, after a flurry of rumours that Teen Vogue might become a digital-only brand and Astley was poised to exit the title, Condé Nast announced the departure of publisher Jason Wagenheim. Vogue publisher Susan Plagemann took control of Teen Vogue's sales and marketing teams, further aligning the two titles, which had always been under the supervision of Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour. As part of her plan to spend time with the company's most challenged titles, Wintour and members of Vogue's senior staff started meeting regularly with the Teen Vogue team and, at the beginning of 2016, the title's print and digital units moved to Vogue.com's floor at One World Trade Center, home to Condé Nast's US headquarters.

Amidst this period of change and uncertainty, Astley and the team pushed a new agenda in print, starting with the February 2016 cover featuring outspoken young actress Amandla Stenberg. Throughout the rest of Astley’s tenure, the magazine featured Zoë Kravitz, Grimes, Willow Smith and Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas on its covers, while top tier contributors included Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Loretta Lynch. “It opened up a whole new world of access,” says Welteroth. But newsstand sales continued to decline.

By the time Condé Nast announced Astley’s departure in May 2016, however, a new vision was set. Instead of replacing Astley with another editor-in-chief, the company installed a triumvirate: Welteroth to oversee print, Picardi to oversee digital and Suter, with by far the most experience under her belt, as creative director. While it may have been a confusing reporting structure for staff, it also appeared like a fresh and modern way to run a media brand. “I think it made sense for the company to incentivise the three of us to continue working together,” says Welteroth. “It was off to the races at that point.”

The August 2015 issue sold more copies than that year’s Kylie Jenner cover | Source: Courtesy

The first priority was to make sure that in print, Teen Vogue felt like the same publication it had become online. “There was a notion before of: ‘Let digital take the risks and let’s keep print the way it is because the advertisers like this,’” says Picardi. “That re-education with our advertisers and with our partners... they wanted more of what was happening digitally in print as well; they wanted to resonate in that way.”

The summer of 2016 was pivotal for Teen Vogue: its website brought in impressive numbers for the first half of 2016, averaging 6.4 million monthly unique visitors, following its close coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June and the arrest of Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson in July. “Other media was paying attention to it,” says Picardi. Teen Vogue began to drive the conversation by covering breaking news, which led to increased shares, engagement and traffic.

A didactic tone also distinguished its coverage from that of other media outlets. “It’s not just enough to break the news and report on what’s happening. You have to be a resource,” says Picardi. “I think by educating teenagers, we ended up educating a lot of people who weren’t expecting to get an education about this stuff.”

Then at the end of the summer of 2016, Condé Nast and Teen Vogue decided to give Picardi and his digital team more resources, reducing the frequency of the title’s print product and reallocating its budget. “We thought it was important to shift our resources to make sure that we are truly a digital-first brand in the sense that we are competitive and that we’re able to staff against the really competitive and aggressive goals that we have for digital,” says Welteroth. Picardi and his team grew traffic to 9 million monthly uniques by the end of the year. “But we want to deliver something that no one else is,” she continues. “So maintaining this really special footprint in print was key for us.”

The shift to a quarterly print schedule was announced in November, when Amy Oelkers was named head of revenue, reporting to Jim Norton, chief business officer and president of revenue for Condé Nast, instead of Vogue’s Plagemann.

Then, Duca’s op-ed went viral on December 11. “That was the moment that we had just been waiting for,” says Picardi. “All these, frankly, old white dudes were like, ‘Oh, women’s magazines cover politics!’” Since the election, many adult women’s fashion and beauty magazines have leaned into political content, but Teen Vogue broke through the noise because it was already there, winning validation and increased attention from adults.

“Because of the amount of attention we’ve received in the press and I think on social, we are looked at as a brand that is safe to pitch for if you have a story that’s not been told before,” says Picardi. “Now we feel empowered to necessarily be more activist and be bolder about the statements that we’re making and the stances that we’re taking. And so that’s a completely different ballpark to be playing in.”

The energy translated to print: Teen Vogue sold more subscriptions through the website in the month of December than it did in all of 2016, fuelled in part by a burgeoning movement whereby adults offered to donate subscriptions to teens on Twitter. “Once the Lauren Duca piece went viral, it marked a shift in how we were seen publicly and it dispelled this notion that the success of a digital property undermines the success of a print property under the umbrella of the same brand,” says Welteroth. “For us, the success of digital has only helped the success of print and vice versa.”

Meanwhile, Picardi put those additional digital resources to work expanding his team, adding politics and news editors and larger social media and video teams, but hiring only from outside the sphere of women’s magazines. “I didn’t want anyone who had hang-ups about, ‘This is brand legacy and this is heritage.’ I wanted people who came from more diverse backgrounds,” he says. The site now publishes anywhere from 30 to 45 pieces of content per day. Traffic has ballooned, growing from 10.4 million monthly uniques in January 2017 to 12.4 million in April.

The magazine’s leadership structure has evolved in its first year. Picardi was also named digital editorial director of Condé Nast’s beauty title, Allure, in March. Suter took over creative direction at Allure in January as well. (As of April, Teen Vogue and Allure occupy the same floor at One World Trade.) Welteroth was named editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue in April to make the “leadership structure more clear,” she explains, and she has expanded her focus to include brand extensions, advertising partnerships and community building.

We feel empowered to be more activist and be bolder about the statements that we're making and the stances that we're taking.

“Part of our initial plan and vision was to also do more events that really capture the spirit of the themes for each of the issue,” says Welteroth. The theme of the third print issue is Icons, a reimagining of the brand’s Young Hollywood annual portfolio, following issues focused on love and music. A branded merchandise collection is coming exclusively to Urban Outfitters this autumn, and in December the title will host a summit in Los Angeles that will address “civic leadership, grassroots organising, coding 101, STEM, socially conscious brand-building and progressive retail models,” following a series of meet-ups across the country.

But for all the change and hype, is Teen Vogue actually making more money than before? Condé Nast declined to share revenue figures but Kim Kelleher, chief business officer of the company’s newly formed Women’s Group, says there is “definitely momentum” at the brand. (Market sources estimate revenue at $20 million, down from $35 million before the change to the frequency of the title’s print product.) The company says paid print subscriptions are up 2.8 percent to 940,000 and single copy sales are up 4 percent to 22,600. The newsstand price has also doubled since last year. “We have more inbound [interest] than I’ve seen on any of the other brands,” adds Kelleher, who oversees Glamour, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue and Self as a result of a reorganisation spearheaded by Norton at the start of the year. (Condé Nast has since moved Kelleher to oversee the men’s titles.)

Advertisers also now want to be aligned with Teen Vogue’s social activism and often seek help with their marketing messaging, she says. “It’s more of a marketing conversation than a traditional sales conversation... and that’s also where we rely heavily on Elaine and Phil and Marie and on the entire content team.” In the last few months of 2016, Teen Vogue’s digital revenue outgrew its print revenue, which is unusual for Condé Nast titles.

According to Kelleher, none of Teen Vogue’s advertisers have objected to the more controversial topics it covers. “We haven’t been asked to reroute ads; I think people know what they are buying,” she says. “I would say the bigger challenge on my end is for people who are afraid to give it a try.”

The new priority at Teen Vogue is to publish less and extract more value from its current audience. “There is less stress on us to scale, scale, scale and more stress on us to focus on quality, not just in terms of the content, but in the audience that we have, the time spent on the site,” Picardi says. “That’s made it a more rewarding game to play in terms of the numbers.”

But perhaps most rewarding is that Teen Vogue’s young staff has found a way to lead the conversation at a difficult time for media, inside and outside Condé Nast, both economically and politically. “I think that being young people, there’s a certain level of fearlessness that we have, or naïveté,” says Welteroth. “Where everyone else seemed to see obstacles and challenge, we saw opportunity there, genuinely.”

“When Anna told me you have to stand for something, that is the secret to how a lot of brands are going to develop in the future,” says Picardi. “And I now say if you’re not standing for something right now, just sit the hell down. Because the rest of us have work to do.”

This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world.

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