Conde Nast Knows Faded Glory Is Not in Style
Anna Wintour is the embodiment of the glory days of the magazine dynasty. Now she is pitching its global, digital future.,
Conde Nast Knows Faded Glory Is Not in Style
Anna Wintour is the embodiment of the glory days of the magazine dynasty. Now she is pitching its global, digital future.
From left, Agnes Chu, the president of Conde Nast entertainment; Anna Wintour, the global chief content officer for Conde Nast and editor of U.S. Vogue; and Roger Lynch, Conde Nast’s chief executive.Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times
Anna Wintour, the top editor of Vogue since 1988, known for her iconic bob and perma-sunglasses and exacting taste, is in many ways the embodiment of Conde Nast’s lavish history as an arbiter of style. Now she’s selling its future, where the editor in chief role she helped define is a relic, and the company operates by a code that includes the maxim: “Exceptional does not mean exclusive.”
“I think what’s so wonderful about working in media is the constant change and seeing things move,” Ms. Wintour said in an interview in Conde Nast’s largely empty 1 World Trade Center offices in Manhattan. “Particularly today when it moves so fast. Yeah, it was great then, but what’s happening in the future is greater still.”
Some Conde Nast employees weren’t sure Ms. Wintour should be a part of that future. In June 2020, workers asked at an all-company meeting if she was leaving the company. She had just apologized for her role in a culture that many said sidelined people of color, amid a broader reckoning with race and diversity across the company and the media industry.
Ms. Wintour was not going anywhere. Since then, she has been promoted to global chief content officer and is presiding over a sweeping transformation of the company as executives try to shrug off its legacy as the pre-eminent magazine publisher of the last century, when it burnished its brand of elitism and spared no expense on its titles.
On a crisp fall day, I met with Ms. Wintour (sunglasses on) and Roger Lynch, Conde Nast’s chief executive, to hear their vision for the New Conde.
The stakes for getting it right go beyond just the company’s financial survival. As well as the existential angst for all old media titans of whether it is possible to remain relevant, there is a bigger question: Can Conde Nast, under pressure, take real steps to address both a culture that many employees described as a difficult place for people of color to succeed and content that has in the past elevated a Eurocentric standard of beauty? Can an institution that thrived on paying great attention to the superficial make a deeper-than-surface-level change?
It has undoubtedly been a tough time for the magazine business. Print advertising has cratered in the past 15 years, and audiences no longer look primarily to legacy brands to tell them what is fashionable. In recent years, Conde Nast’s U.S. business had been losing more than $100 million annually.
In 2018, Conde Nast announced that it was combining its U.S. business with its sister company, Conde Nast International, to create a global company. The two businesses had previously operated almost completely separately from each other, with Vogue magazines in Europe or GQ editions in Asia having little to do with their American counterparts. Publications often competed with each other for the same advertisers and cover stars. Mr. Lynch was appointed the global chief executive in 2019 to oversee the merger, which would consolidate back-end operations to save money.
“Roger faced a company that was in a really difficult revenue situation,” said Steven Newhouse, the chairman of Conde Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications, and a member of the billionaire family that has owned Advance for nearly 100 years.
“Unless we want to look like a museum, we had to change and change pretty radically,” he added.
For the past year, Ms. Wintour has been focused on the next step of the process: turning seven of Conde Nast’s biggest publications — Vogue, GQ, Wired, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler and Glamour — into global brands, each under one leader, cutting costs and streamlining the sharing of content across both print magazines and digital platforms.
“Instead of having 27 Vogues or 10 Vogues go after one story, we have one global Vogue go after it,” Ms. Wintour said. “So it’s more like a global newsroom with different hubs.”
The switch in focus from local to global has not gone down well everywhere. Tina Brown, the former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, filleted the plan as “suicidal” in an interview in August with The Times of London.
“Obviously there are some stories that work, particularly if you think about fashion, that’s a global language, and music, so there are stories that will work across all territories and then those that absolutely won’t,” Ms. Wintour said. “We’re very aware of that.”
Ms. Wintour is also ensuring that there are unlikely to be any more Anna Wintours — no more imperial editors in chief each with their own fiefs, a job Ms. Wintour herself helped create as a stylish but exacting gatekeeper of fashion and culture. The brands are now run by “global editorial directors,” most of whom are based in New York, with regional heads of content reporting to them.
“Before, you created stories for publication and it came out once a month and that was great,” she said, describing the old domain of an editor in chief. Now the global editorial directors and heads of content are working across platforms that include “digital, video, short and long form, social, events, philanthropic endeavors, membership, consumer, e-commerce,” Ms. Wintour said.
“You touch so many different worlds,” she added. “Honestly, who wouldn’t want that job?”
In the midst of the change at Conde Nast, plenty of people decided they didn’t.
A parade of veteran Conde Nast editors in chief have departed the company in the past 12 months, including Vogue Paris’s Emmanuelle Alt (10 years), Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung (16 years), Vogue Germany’s Christiane Arp (17 years) and British GQ’s Dylan Jones (22 years). Michelle Lee of Allure and Whembley Sewell of Them, an L.G.B.T.Q.-focused website, both went to jobs at Netflix. Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue and a rising star in the company, left in January for New York Magazine’s The Cut.
“We have nothing but great respect for the editors that have worked with us for many years,” Ms. Wintour said when asked about the mass exodus. “Some of them decided to move on and weren’t as comfortable with the transition as some of the others, but we — you know, it is time to change the company and to have modern thinking.”
In large part, Conde Nast executives are trying desperately to move away from the lavish glory days of years past. No one wants to dwell on the town cars, or the epic expense accounts, or the legions of assistants.
Ms. Wintour professes no lingering wistfulness — leading by example by being the one to bid Old Conde farewell. But, when getting into the question of the good old days vs. now, some nostalgia creeps in. She recalled the recent appointment of Hamish Bowles to the top job at World of Interiors, Conde Nast’s influential design magazine.
“What struck me when I was thinking about who we might put in that role is that that is a title that people archive and keep, it’s the best quality, it’s incredible paper, it’s like the standard-bearer for that particular world,” she said.
“I feel that print is our runway,” she said, adding: “It should be collectible. It should be something that you want to hold on to.”
But the print days are mostly over: Mr. Lynch described the company to me as a “majority digital business,” with more money coming in from digital ads than print. But he’s eager to lessen the reliance on advertising of any kind and grow different revenue streams. Currently, a majority of Conde Nast’s revenue is from advertising, with consumer revenue (which means subscriptions, memberships and e-commerce) making up about 25 percent.
And so, the company has pushed further into video. Last year, it hired Agnes Chu away from Disney to head its Conde Nast Entertainment division, with a mandate to ramp up its film and television team and create more digital videos with the global brands.
Ms. Chu said her strategy centered on subtitling English-language content for global distribution and creating or adapting region-specific content that could have broader appeal. She pointed to the success of Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” home tour video series, where a recent episode featuring the Indian actress Sonam Kapoor Ahuja got 12 million views across all social media platforms, with a third coming from outside of India.
But production is an expensive business and huge successes from the entertainment arm have been relatively limited.
The executives pointed to the coverage of September’s Met Gala as a successful execution of their strategy: Video of celebrity arrivals at the event, a fund-raising benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has been organized by Ms. Wintour for nearly 30 years, was live streamed by Vogue for the first time, thanks to the video-providing capabilities of Conde Nast Entertainment. It had nearly 15 million viewers on Vogue.com and its Twitter account, the executives said, while additional Met Gala content got more than 200 million views across social media.
The executives also mentioned having the ability to now execute worldwide social media plans to distribute interviews and fashion shoots with celebrities that have global appeal, like GQ’s November profile of Will Smith or Adele’s cover of both the U.S. and U.K. issues of Vogue the same month.
Ultimately, the new strategy may sound a lot like translating the hits of the past for the World Wide Web, suggesting the sluggishness with which the company has adapted its magazines to a digital world.
Janice Min, a media executive and the former top editor of The Hollywood Reporter and Us Weekly, said that Conde Nast and similar publications were trying to strike a balance between having enough scale to compete with Google and Facebook for advertisers, and having the “right” audience to attract those advertisers.
“I think without the whiff of elitism, that sort of old-school top-down approach to telling the world what to wear and think, Conde Nast runs the risk of becoming just another white-label content farm on the web,” she said. “How do you stay special and distinct and in a world that demands equity?”
Conde Nast says it is taking equity seriously. Ms. Wintour pointed to the shake-up in editorial ranks as an opportunity to promote new leaders with diverse perspectives, such as Margaret Zhang, who now leads Vogue China, or Adam Baidawi, the deputy global editorial director of GQ.
“I’m an Iraqi that grew up in the southern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia,” Mr. Baidawi said in a video interview. “And how many Iraqi surnames do you think I saw on the mastheads of brands I loved, or vaguely Middle Eastern surnames even?”
He was enthusiastic about the more collaborative way of working, saying diverse perspectives were “literally baked in” because people from all over the world were contributing and debating ideas.
“It’s not said enough that a lack of diversity is boring as hell,” he said. “We’re in a creative business, and more diversity means better ideas.”
Mr. Baidawi said Conde Nast was now operating in a much more modern way.
“My entire career, everywhere I’ve gone, people have told me that I’ve missed this wildly romanticized golden era of luxury media: ‘Adam, there were town cars, private jets, and there were reshoot budgets,'” he said, adding, “Frankly, I’m not interested in chasing ghosts or recreating old glory.”
Leslie Sun, Vogue’s editorial lead for the Asia Pacific region, said she saw the new Conde Nast as “almost like a new dynasty,” and a chance for her to draw attention to her region.
“Of course, we all know that it is simply not true that culture is born out of the U.S. or Europe alone, or that one country would define art or fashion or culture for the rest of the world,” she said.
The company introduced “The Conde Code” in September 2020, a five-pronged set of values that states that “diversity is our strength,” as part of its efforts within the company to address the concerns over racism. Around the same time, a global chief diversity and inclusion officer, Yashica Olden, was hired and the company released its first diversity report. (A spokeswoman said a second report would be released early next year. Nearly 40 percent of the company’s new hires in 2020 and almost half of the top editors in the United States are people of color, the spokeswoman added.)
At the same time, employees across the company are pushing for broader change. Four publications — The New Yorker, Wired, Ars Technica and Pitchfork — formed unions in the last couple of years with the NewsGuild, which also represents employees at The New York Times and other media organizations. Conde Nast recently reached a deal on a contract with three of the unions after heated and public negotiations, which included a protest outside of Ms. Wintour’s Greenwich Village townhouse.
Now, staff members at the remaining publications, including Vogue, are organizing and plan to announce soon that they are forming a union, according to two current Conde Nast staff members and one former employee.
Conde Nast’s new strategy is deeply rooted in the financial headwinds the company is facing. Mr. Lynch says the plan is working, and shared new numbers to prove it. The company will break even in 2021, a year ahead of schedule, he said, and is on track to be profitable by 2023. This was partly driven by a spike in digital advertising revenue, which grew 56 percent year-over-year in the third quarter this year, he added.
According to a person familiar with the financial details of the company, U.S. revenue is expected to exceed $1 billion this year, up nearly $150 million from the previous year. Mr. Lynch said his plan included a 25 percent increase in investment in journalism and content production.
“Our plans have us investing more in content, not less. But the way we fund at least part of that is we eliminate things that didn’t add value to audiences or advertisers,” he said. “It was just duplication of costs.”
Mr. Newhouse, the chairman, said that Advance was excited about the progress Mr. Lynch had made with his strategy, and that there was no interest in selling Conde Nast.
“We have a very thoughtful and compelling plan that takes us to 2026 and we’re prepared to execute against it,” he said, adding that part of the plan included “looking at acquisitions, partnerships, all things that require capital.”
As Conde Nast’s employees start trickling back in to their offices, a return that is currently voluntary, they’ll encounter a company structured completely differently than it was before the pandemic. And they will see Ms. Wintour, who, at 72, has outlasted every rumor of an impending departure from her post, has consolidated power and is in the office almost every day.
“Right now, I’m focused on today,” she said, when asked if she planned to leave the company any time soon.
“She’s not allowed to retire before me,” Mr. Lynch interrupted, laughing.