New Condé Nast MD: We’re in the brand-building business

06 Sep 2017  |  Ellen Hammett 
New Condé Nast MD: We’re in the brand-building business

It might be feeling some pressure, but as Albert Read takes over from Nicholas Coleridge as managing director of Condé Nast Britain, he shares with Ellen Hammett his strategy for keeping a century-old business afloat in a digital-first world

Albert Read has only been at his new desk in Vogue House for two weeks when I go to meet him, but he already has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve and how he’s going to achieve it as Condé Nast Britain’s new managing director: to make print more nimble and efficient and to streamline the publisher's digital proposition at a global scale.

Read says he’s taken the wheel of a business that is in “pretty good shape”, which for the past 26 years has been steered by former MD Nicholas Coleridge, who now sits as chairman of the publisher responsible for magazine brands including Vogue, Vanity Fair, Tatler, GQ, Glamour and Wired.

Read undoubtedly has some big shoes to fill; but having been deputy managing director since 2012 and at Condé Nast International since 2001, during which he played a central role in the launch of Vogue China, GQ Japan and Wired UK, Read feels like the right person to fill them.

Sitting in a large and empty office in which Read is yet to make his mark (the shadows of Coleridge's picture collection are still visible on the wall behind his desk), Read tells me business is “what you’d expect”.

Print is strong but under pressure and digital is growing fast - although Read says it’s not moving as quickly away from print as it is for some publishers and in other industries.

“We’ve got magazines, mainly in the luxury and fashion space, where you have a lot of advertisers who care deeply about environment, positioning, who they’re with in terms of other advertisers, and they care about the creativity that goes beside it,” he says.

I don’t buy into the idea that magazines are in some consistent, unified, inexorable decline"

“So magazines like Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and Tatler suit them very well when contrasted with the unknown - but appealing in other ways - platforms like Facebook, Google and Snapchat and other things that are emerging.”

Compared to other publishers, Condé Nast is certainly in a fortunate position in that it operates in a generally thriving high-end magazine market where advertisers, as Read says, “want to stay with us in varying degrees” - but it is clear that it is still feeling the same pressures as the wider publishing industry as publishers grapple with declining print circulations and rapid shifting to a cluttered digital world.

Making print more efficient has meant merging sales teams and cutting staff, while ramping up the digital investment - both in the UK and at an international level - was largely responsible for the company's -57% decline in profit in its latest financial results, down from £15.9 million in 2014 to £6.9 million in 2015.

I ask Read how he expects this financial year to look. He says there is more restructuring and digital investment in the pipeline but he's quick to change the direction of the conversation.

While Read says he's not yet at the point where he's "super concerned" about print advertising (but still he says "we've got to get the money in it in whatever way we can"), his digital agenda no doubt reflects where advertisers are increasingly putting their money - and he says it is his task to make sure that digital revenues continue to flow into Condé Nast when advertisers reduce their print spend. (Digital revenue has increased 30% over the last year alone and currently accounts for around 15-20% of total revenue.)

As one of the companies within Condé Nast International, publishing more than 120 magazines in 28 markets, the first part of Read’s mission for Condé Nast Britain is to allow advertisers delivering digital campaigns to do so more efficiently at a global scale - with Read citing Vice, Refinery29 and BuzzFeed as some of its newer competitors in the digital space

“Vice will do a campaign with Nike across 20 markets and they just press a button and it happens, whereas we’re coming from a position where we’ve had quite a decentralised business where the individual countries run themselves to a large degree - and even within the individual country the brands run themselves,” Read says.

“So if you’re an advertiser and want to do a campaign across multiple Condé Nast sites, we can do it but it’s quite a lot of work under the surface so we’re building a much more streamlined, seamless platform so advertisers can work with us globally if they choose to do so.”

The big opportunity for Condé Nast, Read says, is around branded content and what his team can do with advertisers who want to divert their budgets into digital but don’t necessarily want to spend it on Google AdWords or Facebook.

“We’re in the brand-building business; the business of creating desire for the product the brand is seeking to sell and that’s what magazines do so well,” Read says.

What’s hard is getting people to put their hands in their pocket and pay for a magazine"

“Facebook is very good at delivering on the sale but they’re not very good at building up the brand. No luxury brand can build itself up on a social media platform alone; it needs the context and editorial interpretation.”

The real threat Facebook poses to publishers, Read says, is that it is especially good at eating up people’s time. He says one of the biggest challenges magazines face right now is to be as exciting as Facebook.

“I don’t think magazines are inherently worse off than anything else; I just think they’ve got to be good enough so when you’re sitting on the train, or dentist waiting room, or your sofa, when you’ve got a mobile phone and magazine on the table, you pick up the magazine.

"There’s no reason why a magazine shouldn’t be good enough to compete with anything.”

However, Read says Facebook is also “kind of our friend” and an opportunity that all forward-facing publishers have to grasp.

“We rely on Facebook and work with them very closely on our own Facebook presence; it gives access to an enormous audience if we do it in the right way, it drivers traffic to our websites...So it’s a funny dual nature to our relationship.”

On the print side of the business, while the majority of Condé Nast titles in both the women’s and men’s lifestyle markets are experiencing circulation declines, Read says he’s moderately pleased with how his titles are doing.

“You say Shortlist circulation goes up X per cent but they just give out more’s like giving out pizzas; it’s not very hard,” he says. (Although Shortlist currently leads the market with an impressive circulation of more than half a million, it has declined period-on-period and year-on-year for the last two ABC releases.)

“What’s hard is getting people to put their hands in their pocket and pay for a magazine and we, by and large, still do that. What we’re not doing, which our competitors are doing, is placing - in Cosmo’s case – 90,000 copies a month thrown out to people. Or Harper’s Bazaar: 50,000.

“Obviously I’d like to see our circulations rising but we report what is going on in the market, which in most cases is a small decline.”

Read has also been looking into alternative distribution arrangements for the business, following the decision - made together with Hearst - to withdraw from jointly-owned magazine distributor COMAG.

Conde Nast has now signed an agreement with the distribution business Frontline Group, which is on track to hold a UK and export newsstand market share in excess of 55% by the end of the year, with access to 55,000 retailers across the UK and to over 90 countries worldwide. Frontline will be responsible for the end-to-end distribution of Conde Nast's November issues onwards.

Retaining the magic

As advertisers become ever-more tempted by the shiny world of digital, Read says publishers need to resist thinking they can afford to pull out costs and resources from their print products and do things second-rate because "it’s all going down the tubes and doesn’t matter" - or else they risk going into a self-fulfilling spiral of decline.

“That’s the dangerous point which I think some of our competitors have got to; they’re just producing commoditised content out of hubs of people who don’t really care, and the readers pick up on it and stop reading it.

“Some publishers are under pressure to reduce costs to a degree that they are not able to put as much effort into quality as they used to. But I know it’s difficult for them so I have some sympathy.”

Looking ahead, Read is, unsurprisingly, optimistic about the future of magazines - although he anticipates a much rockier road ahead.

“I don’t buy into the idea that magazines are in some consistent, unified, inexorable decline...I think many will decline, some will survive and some will prosper.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re good enough and strong enough to retain that magic that’s been created over the last 100 years and not throw it away.”

In brief

Married to the writer Catherine Ostler, with three children - Clemmie (14), Nathaniel (12) and Angelica (10).

Favourite magazines outside of Conde Nast: Country Life, What Car, Bloomberg Businessweek, Spectator, Money Week.

Interests: Cooking, walking, shopping, reading magazines

Lives: Hammersmith, London

Little-known fact: I was a child actor, appearing in a BBC Play for Today, Last Love, at the age of 11!


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