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What's Going On at Condé Nast?

The publisher is streamlining its operations and reorganising its US portfolio to capitalise on its most valuable brands: Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Wired and The New Yorker. BoF breaks down the changes.
Source: Condé Nast
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The April 2015 announcement marking the end of Style.com, at least in its original form, wasn't entirely unexpected. After all, change had been on the cards for Condé Nast, its parent company, for some time and the site's reincarnation as a shopping platform, set to launch in 2016, seemed consistent with the publisher's recent interest and investments in e-commerce.

But the closure of Details six months later signalled that the storied company — perhaps the most significant publishing house in the history of magazines — was in the midst of an extraordinary and wide-ranging transformation.

"Our audience results speak for themselves and prove to me that we are well positioned for future growth and vitality," wrote Condé Nast president (and incoming chief executive) Bob Sauerberg in a recent note to employees. "I'm looking forward to working with all of you toward making that a reality. Thank you for all of your continued hard work that makes Condé Nast a world-class media company, without peer."

The note was upbeat, even if it was preceded by the news that one of the company’s magazines was shutting down. It also revealed that GQ Style, a biannual periodical published by Condé Nast’s other men’s magazine brand, would essentially replace Details, adopting a quarterly print schedule and absorbing some of Details’ staff to run GQStyle.com, a new channel on GQ.com that will look and feel like a standalone site. The arrangement was not unlike the one made this summer for Style.com staffers, some of whom were transplanted to the newly created VogueRunway.com, which launched in September 2015, replacing Style.com’s runway coverage.

But the recent changes at Condé Nast go beyond the closure of Details and the shuttering and repositioning of Style.com. The past few weeks have seen several major shifts at the company, from the dismissal of Allure’s founding editor-in-chief Linda Wells to the firing of Condé Nast Traveler publisher Bill Wackermann. Wells and Wackermann were replaced by Nylon editor-in-chief Michelle Lee and T magazine publisher Brendan Monaghan, respectively. It is thought that Lee’s digital experience — and time spent overseeing Nylon’s branded content arm — will be a boon to the beauty-focused Allure, which has fallen behind as YouTube tutorials and beauty bloggers have gained influence. Despite the fact that Traveler’s year-to-date digital revenue has more than doubled, Monaghan’s success with luxury advertisers won him Wackermann’s role.

In the same week Details folded, Self magazine also laid off 15 of its editorial staff and will now share an advertising team with Glamour, which, along with GQ, had already made layoffs. What’s more, in early November, Lucky magazine laid off the remainder of its New York-based editorial staffers. Teen Vogue publisher Jason Wagenheim was also dismissed, putting the magazine’s advertising under the purview of Vogue publisher and chief revenue officer Susan Plagemann.

Indeed, the company has spent the last six months — and, less visibly, the last three years — reorganising its portfolio in the US to capitalise on its five most valuable brands: Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Wired and The New Yorker.

The changes at Condé Nast can be traced to three top-level appointments. First, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was promoted to the role of Condé Nast Artistic Director in March 2013, with editors from nearly all the company's titles now reporting to her. Then, in October 2014, Fred Santarpia was hired from the company's entertainment group to be Condé Nast's first chief digital officer. Finally, in September 2015, it was announced that Sauerberg would succeed longtime chief executive Charles Townsend in 2016.

Each has played a specific role in the company's current strategy. As artistic director, Wintour was tasked with reshaping the struggling titles in Condé Nast's portfolio. She began with the shopping magazine Lucky, replacing Brandon Holley in June 2013 with rising editorial star Eva Chen, whose social-media savvy was seen as valuable in connecting with the millennial consumers — and advertisers — that the publication was eager to attract.

In August 2013, Pilar Guzman was made editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveler, replacing Klara Glowczewska. In April 2014, Self editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger was replaced by Joyce Chang. Sources say the search for Wells’ replacement at Allure has gone on for more than two years.

Wintour's influence can be felt at other magazines as well, notably Glamour, where former Vogue and Teen Vogue staffers now populate the masthead. However, she is less of a presence at W — where editor in chief Stefano Tonchi is known for his savvy with advertisers — and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, which, much like Wired, appears to operate more independently. David Remnick, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, has mentioned the value of Wintour's opinion in interviews.

While Wintour’s revamped magazines have earned a fair share of praise, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ve been financially successful. Condé Nast Traveler, for one, has seen a bump in advertising — in September 2015, ad pages were up 20 percent — although others have seen their numbers decline. To be fair, it’s difficult to measure print success when the medium itself is facing decline. In the US, 207.5 million magazines were sold to wholesalers in the first half of 2015, an 18.5 percent drop from the same period in 2014, according to MagNet, which tracks magazine sales. The dollar value of those sales was $1.1 billion, a 13.9 percent drop from 2014.

These numbers are in step with the way advertisers have shifted their spend in the past five years. According to data presented by Michael J. Wolf at the WSJD Live Conference in October, Americans now spend more than half their waking hours with digital media and technology, so it’s no surprise that marketing dollars are increasingly flowing to digital channels, where brands can more easily target and track consumers, as well as better measure return on investment.

And while not every advertiser has thrown themselves into large digital media buys, most have prioritised it. “It all depends on the client, on the category and their strategy, objectives and goals,” explains Robin Steinberg, director of publishing investment and activation at Mediavest USA, a part of Starcom Mediavest Group. “Some marketers, depending on the category, have been more progressive and adaptive. Consumer-packaged goods have moved much more rapidly into digital than those in the fashion and luxury space. But now, we’re seeing that adaption.”

Condé Nast has made changes to sharpen its digital focus. But even if many, or all, of the company’s magazines have seen an uptick in revenue supplanted by their digital efforts, profit is another thing. “The problem that you’re seeing on the editorial side at [traditional publishers] is that they’re not making as much off the digital advertising as they used to off the print,” explains Beth Donnelly Egan, associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. (The school is named after Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr., founder of Condé Nast’s parent company Advance Publications.)

Regardless, Wintour’s greatest impact might be her push to expand the company’s digital offerings. In October 2015, the Condé Nast network of sites drew 98.5 million unique visitors, a 36 percent increase from 72.2 million in October 2014, according to Comscore. While the size of Vogue.com’s editorial staff has grown to over 50 — and it’s clear that’s where much of the company’s digital resources are going — Wintour has also built direct relationships with several of the digital leads on other titles.

Fred Santarpia's appointment was also meant to help drive the digital agenda. From the outside, many have observed that he was tasked with re-configuring the online publications in a similar fashion to Troy Young, Hearst's president of digital, who has received accolades for his revamps of Cosmopolitan.com and Elle.com in particular. For instance, Santarpia played a major role in Condé Nast's acquisition of Pitchfork in October 2015. Unlike Hearst, which has a stake in several digital publishers, including Refinery29 and Buzzfeed, Advance Publications has chosen to primarily invest in e-commerce companies, including Farfetch, Moda Operandi and Rent the Runway. (Andrew Siegel, head of strategy and corporate development at Advance, led those investments.)

For many editors, particularly those on the digital side who were stymied by limited resources, Santarpia’s arrival felt like the great white hope. And the company’s digital growth gives them room to continue hoping. Condé Nast and Hearst are now neck and neck in terms of unique digital visitors.

But in the end, it is Sauerberg calling the shots. The executive joined Condé Nast in 2005 as the president of consumer marketing — the leg of the company tasked with increasing magazine subscriptions, a thankless task — and was promoted in 2010 to president of the entire organisation. Sauerberg has overseen the recent changes, including the deal to merge Lucky with the troubled Los Angeles-based e-commerce start-up Beachmint to form a new content-commerce hybrid called Lucky Group. Just over a year after the deal was made, Lucky has laid off its New York-based editorial staff. And while the shuttering of the venture has been widely reported, there has been no official announcement. Luckyshops.com continues to publish content under the byline “Lucky Staffers,” and Lucky Group chief executive Josh Berman did not respond to BoF’s request for comment.

In his company-wide note concerning the closing of Details, Sauerberg spoke of Condé Nast being “without peer.” And yet, it looks as though Hearst has become a not-to-be-ignored rival, investing in hot start-ups and paying more attention to digital. Indeed, it appears that Sauerberg’s new strategy now aligns more closely to that of Hearst: beef up the online staffs of the top publications and streamline the staffs of the print publications, combining them when necessary. (A representative for Sauerberg said he was unable to comment.)

But will the power of Condé Nast’s five strongest brands be enough to carry it through the seismic disruptions facing the publishing industry? “The legacy brand, as purely a brand name, is still important,” Egan says. “Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar are very important. What you’re seeing is a shift in the eyeballs.”

Disclosure: Lauren Sherman worked at Lucky magazine from August 2011 through December 2012 and has contributed to several Condé Nast publications as a freelancer writer, including Style.com.

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