A talent for quality
For over 100 years, Condé Nast has been at the heart of magazine publishing, with titles such as Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair demonstrating their commitment to the highest quality and relevance of content in each and every one of their publications.
We spoke to Xavier Romatet, CEO of Condé Nast France to explore these values: “Three things characterise our business. First, we are a brand business. At Condé Nast, we believe in the capability for success, not only of the magazines but of the brands. This is very important. For us, the magazines are a way to support something that brings extra value, which is the brand. That’s what makes up the singularity and special nature of this business. Worldwide, Condé Nast is the press group with the highest number of international brands. Vogue is in 20 countries, GQ is in 15 countries and Glamour is in 18 countries, Vanity Fair (6 countries), AD (8 countries) and Condé Nast Traveler (8 countries). We believe in the value of brands. It is a reference for our readers and advertisers. These values are all the stronger because they are shared across the world.
“Our business model is based on this premise. Firstly, the value of our brands starts with product quality, like a luxury brand. Could Chanel continue to sell if the Chanel brand was no longer synonymous with something extra — social status, dreams, excellence, quality — and if product production quality were compromised in times of crisis, where corners would be cut on leather quality or manufacturing time? Product quality is something we never hesitate about. Vogue is the emblematic brand and probably the most expensive magazine to produce. This costs a lot. If, instead of working with a less recognised photographer who costs less, I’m going to maximise short-term profit, but I’m going to lessen Vogue’s overall value as a brand which depends on quality. So, our business model is based on long-lasting quality.
“Secondly, we make specific choices — for example strong editorial choices. Vogue presents photos or contents which are not subject to mutual consensus. I often say that the Vogue brand must be a devilish brand. This is because the artistic license and creative freedom we give to our stylists and photographers are an essential condition to attract them and to stand out from the crowd. It’s this difference that creates preference. In a world where everything is tending toward uniformity, we get a different and an original point of view from specific choices, and these are what I use to create the image, the reputation, the difference and eventually the preference.
“The third element is ‘unexpectedness’. For each issue, Vogue must be where it’s not expected to be. People must ask themselves: ‘What are they going to surprise me with this month?’ The artistic search must be unending. The theme, the cover selection, the choices must be different. One month, we can be extremely classic, stylish and elegant, and the next month on the cutting edge, extremist and controversial. In the end, the best compliment we can hear is: ‘Only Vogue can do that!’
Condé Nast is, of course, an international business, with great consistency and recognition through their different titles across the world; we asked how they achieved this.
“One of the strengths of the Group is that a myriad of companies are motivated by two characteristics, which would seem to be contradictory:
- Respect for brand values, which is universal;
- Total freedom to adapt them to their local environment.
“We have very strong structuring values and total creative and entrepreneurial freedom in Condé Nast Group. There’s a sort of constant tension behind our success, which obliges us to respect brand values at the worldwide level, and being fully able to use the best means in each of our countries. For this reason, Vogue Italy is not the same as Vogue Paris, which is not the same as Vogue U.S.
Each month, there are as many Vogues as there are countries. We have tools to assist us in creating international databases. We have Vogue exporters and Vogue importers. Vogue in Paris is one of the most used by other countries, who can then reproduce its content. Paris remains a reference for the world. This facilitates our global expansion whilst helping smaller countries that don’t have the resource or the history to launch. For example, probably when we launch Vogue Thailand next year, we will see photos from the most famous photographers, giving Vogue Thailand a status and position in its market that is superior to other magazines. And our covers are unique. I don’t remember having re-used a cover from one country to another. The brand’s strength comes from the fact that it has a universal status and reputation and a totally local execution.”
The way the group is structured has helped Condé Nast in its international expansion: “Something surprised me very much, in the positive sense, when I became part of this Group. First of all, there is no international structure: there is no international financial or strategy director and no international headquarters. Each country has a boss, who is an entrepreneur. The decision-making process is of an entrepreneurial nature; the one who decides is the shareholder. When shareholders go to a country, when they visit France, we spend most of our time looking at the products and speak less of P&L and financial constraints, because shareholders feel that income is a consequence of the product. The Group asset is the value of its brands, and the value of its brands is the quality of its products. Brand value is greatly superior to operating P&L for the year. Operating P&L for the year is a consequence of brand value.”
Condé Nast has great coherency in quality and presence on shelf, and Xavier Romatet explains: “This is because the people who are in charge of coherency are all aware of their great responsibility. For the most part, this brand has been around for a long time and has an incredible history. In France, it’s been here for 92 years, in the United States, 97 years. We are only the inheritors of something that was built before we arrived on the scene. And our job is to serve something that already exists. Managers of the Group are not financiers first but Brand builders or Brand developers.
“Vogue is one of the world’s oldest magazines. History has left us a heritage; we need to ensure it bears fruit. Therefore, we are perfectly aware of the responsibility we have to keep serving a history which was born before us and will continue after us. People are absolutely key, and the magazine writers and editors who are Brand Managers are keenly, absolutely and totally aware of the value of the brands they are working for. The Group pays careful attention to the fact that the magazine editors-in-chief and publishers are people who fundamentally share brand values. I think that coherence comes much more from a culture than a system. Culture is people rather than the system.
“Talent is often associated with a charismatic and demanding personality. We see it as an opportunity for the group. We are absolutely not afraid to have extremely strong personalities. Our magazines’ history is full of them. As long as the personalities serve the brand, we accept the need to manage creative talents, with everything that entails in terms of ego and the spotlight. If we think something is going off-course and that the personality overwhelms the brand, then we don’t compromise. This is the reason why we separated from Carine Roitfeld eighteen months ago: not because she didn’t have talent — she has incredible talent — but because her personal vision for the brand began to take the place of Vogue’s universal vision. And when ‘personal’ takes the place of “universal”, everything we talked about before begins to go off-course. These personalities must understand that they are at the service of the brands and not the other way round.
“70% of Vogue revenue comes from advertising, and 60% of advertising revenue comes from fashion. The rest comes from beauty, jewellery, watchmaking, and so on. We are in a two-tier system. Some of the people we talk about are also the people who finance us. In fashion, it’s exacerbated because there is visibility, money, egos and some very complicated relationships. We are very much aware of this. It’s not LVMH who decides the content policy for Vogue Paris or Vogue U.S. Yes, LVMH is the Group’s leading client. Each side has its work to do. The people who write the editorials must be perfectly aware of the fact that LVMH is the world’s leading luxury Group. This awareness doesn’t restrict our freedom but increases our responsibility.”
Xavier explained the business model that forms the basis for Condé Nast: “Our model is based on the fact that we chose a niche which has one notable characteristic: narrowness. This niche is always in high-end lifestyle. When we select a niche, we always enter it with conviction and a need to create the best product, always keeping in mind that the goal is to be the leader of reference. The leader of reference is not the one with the largest circulation number; it’s the one who has the greatest influence. If Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler and The New Yorker have such an outstanding reputation, it’s because of their influence. Today, we are influential because we are perceived as being the best made. We are more than just observers on each sector; we are often people involved by our actions, our events, our ranking, and our influence. We influence a lot of brand designers and stylists because they often tell us: ‘In Vogue, I find things that will influence what I do in my next collection.
“We never show fashion like many women’s magazines do, by illustrating their pages with runway photos. We re-create something from our intuition, the talent of our fashion editors and the worldwide photographers we work with. We are both a creative player, for the design aspect, and a business player because we influence our readers and the market. Our magazines play the role of trendsetters. By placing brands in Vogue, we have a media function for reaching a certain audience, but we also have an image function: we offer brands an image and a status they wouldn’t have if they were in another magazine. It’s precisely this brand model that enables us to build our business model on values. We cost a lot, and our products cost a lot per issue for the consumer and the advertiser, because we provide added value, which is the added value of the brand. This is why our shareholders are so concerned about product quality. If we lowered product quality, our business model would collapse.”
This obsession with quality and distinction is what gives Condé Nast its lasting, characteristic signature in the crowded world of publishing.