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Condé Nast Can Learn From Netflix

In a global world where local tastes still matter, the publisher of Vogue should be careful not to dictate too much of its content strategy from New York and London.
Anna Wintour and Edward Enninful at the Fashion For Relief show in London.
Anna Wintour and Edward Enninful at the Fashion For Relief show in London. Getty Images.

This week, Condé Nast named 27-year-old Chinese Australian super-blogger Margaret Zhang chief editor of Vogue China, replacing Angelica Cheung, who exited the role last November.

The changing of the guard is part of a wider editorial restructuring at the publisher of Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair as it streamlines its operations and consolidates power in the hands of its New York-based leadership after integrating its US and international arms in a move that appears to be unfolding more like a takeover than a merger.

The editorial overhaul has put even more power in the hands of longtime American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who in December was named Condé Nast’s chief content officer as well as global editorial director of Vogue in line with a plan to put the company’s largest titles under single global editors and deputise or exit editors who once ran local editions as independent fiefdoms.

In Europe, Wintour has promoted British Vogue editor Edward Enninful to the position of Vogue’s European editorial director, overseeing French Vogue’s Emmanuelle Alt and Italian Vogue’s Emanuele Farneti, among others. (Vogue Germany’s Christiane Arp and Vogue Spain’s Eugenia de la Torriente exited at the end of last year).

The new structure places important local editions under not one but two layers of Anglo-American leadership.

But the new structure, while novel and perhaps beneficial in helping local editions better tap into the global vein of social media-driven pop culture, effectively places important titles in countries like France and Italy under not one but two layers of Anglo-American leadership, running the risk of homogenising content and diluting the local appeal of these editions.

Meanwhile in Asia, Wintour is said to have hand-picked Cheung’s young successor at Vogue China in a move that some Chinese Mainlanders have called “colonisation.” Zhang’s international profile — she is a native English speaker who currently lives between Shanghai, New York and Sydney, though plans to move to Beijing, where Vogue China is based, as the pandemic recedes — certainly makes her well suited to work closely with Wintour in shaping the title’s content strategy. Perhaps too closely, contend critics.

To be sure, Vogue needs to streamline its editorial operations. Condé Nast has struggled to adapt to the digital age and reduce its dependence on print advertising, still its primary revenue stream. And after years of financial losses, the pandemic crushed the company’s hopes to turn a profit in 2020. Meanwhile, Condé Nast’s other titles have been experimenting with ways to cut costs, including pooling staff and sharing content, for years.

But the technology revolution isn’t the only mega-trend putting pressure on publishers and rewiring the way titles like Vogue must operate. Rapid globalisation is recentering the fashion world. China surpassed the US to become the world’s largest fashion market in 2019, according to McKinsey. And fashion sales are growing far faster in Lagos than in London or New York.

Vogue is Condé Nast’s strongest global brand, so much so that chairman Jonathan Newhouse, a cousin of the late Si Newhouse Jr, whose father founded the business as a newspaper publisher in 1909, once dubbed Condé Nast’s international arm “the Vogue company.” And as it reorganises, Condé Nast must be careful not to dictate too much of Vogue’s editorial direction from New York and London for the simple reason that local audiences have local preferences. An overly centralised content strategy can be risky when future success is inextricably linked to consumers living in fast-growing international markets far from the company’s World Trade Center and Hanover Square offices.

Rather than selling American content to foreign markets, Netflix has been highly successful in selling global content to a global audience.

Here, Vogue might look to Netflix, for which Condé Nast itself has created video content like its recently debuted series The Big Day, produced by Condé Nast India.

Rather than selling American content to foreign markets per the old Hollywood model, Netflix has been highly successful in selling global content to a global audience. In 2016, the streaming video giant expanded to 190 countries. Just two years later, most of its subscribers and a majority of its revenue came from outside the US, supported by investment in a global library of content tuned to local preferences.

Since 2016, Netflix has created hundreds of original series and films outside the US, including hits like Indian Matchmaking and South Korean zombie movie #Alive. Of course, the associated costs are high. The company is projected to spend $19 billion on video content in 2021, with the bulk of this going to original programming. Indeed, Netflix routinely raises debt to fuel this level of spending. And yet the strategy makes sense.

For one, its content investments are informed by data analytics that drive important efficiencies. But critically, Netflix doesn’t just produce local content for local markets. Instead, it produces local content that, with the help of subtitles and dubbing, resonates with viewers around the world, thereby reaping the benefits of its local investments globally.

When Netflix invests in The Crown, for example, which follows the British royal family during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it is most certainly targeting viewers well beyond the UK. Spanish film The Platform and German series Barbarians were hits with Americans. #Alive became the most popular film on Netflix just two days after its premiere, ranking at the top of the charts in 35 countries, including the US, France, Spain, Sweden, Russia and Australia.

Why think of British Vogue as British content for British readers when you might market a British lens on fashion — or a French lens, or an Italian lens — to millions of consumers around the world?

Shoppers have long sought out styles from other countries. And if fashion has traditionally been a Western phenomenon, that’s changing fast as people in global markets not only ramp up their fashion consumption but set trends that turn up on the streets of New York and London as global connection grows and appetite for newness accelerates.

Netflix learned that its viewers are highly adventurous; that their tastes are much more diverse than traditionalists might have thought. And the company’s local-to-global content strategy has helped it expand far faster than competitors. Could it work for Vogue?

That remains to be seen. But in today’s global world, it’s probably not a good idea for the fashion bible to centralise too much of its editorial direction in New York and London.



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Margaret Zhang is Vogue China's new editor in chief. Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Margaret Zhang is Vogue China’s new editor in chief. The Chinese Australian blogger turned content creator and consultant will succeed Angelica Cheung at the helm of the Condé Nast fashion title.

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Harper's Bazaar is launching in Saudi Arabia. ITP Media Group

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