In this Masterclass Recap, she shares how she carved out a new role at Conde Nast, the key questions to hone in on when growing audiences and revenue streams and how to ensure leadership buy-in.
How was it to go from Stitch Fix—we know they’ve IPO’d, but still that kind of nimble startup environment to a legacy media company like Conde Nast?
I think it is important to realize that everyone wants to put Stitch Fix into this startup bucket, but when I joined, they already had over 4000 employees and did 1.2 billion in revenue that first year I was there. This year, they're on track to do over 2 billion in revenue, so not really a startup. When I think about the distinction, it's more of a distinction as a disrupter and Stitch Fix is very much a disruptive brand. Conde Nast is a private company with roughly 6000 employees globally, 37 brands and titles in 32 plus markets, published in 26 languages. It's just a different journey. But some of the basic principles remain the same. Stitch Fix is a strong brand, but a brand that requires explanation.
When you think about Conde Nast, especially a brand like Vogue that's been around for over 100 years, and other storied brands like GQ, The New Yorker, Wired and Vanity Fair, how do you take these storied brands and continue to drive relevance with an audience in a new way? Going beyond the legacy of the print business and thinking about an increasing digital landscape. The transition for me was to apply the same fundamentals that I would apply anywhere else, to make sure that you understand the business really well.
We're investing in the consumer revenue streams of today, and also building the consumer revenue streams of tomorrow. The framework we have is around optimizing, innovating and incubating.
Conde Nast is certainly a lot more complex and nuanced than Stitch Fix was when I joined—given the number of brands, given a number of markets and that we were in the middle of this major reinvention as a company. Roger Lynch joined two years ago, as the first ever global CEO of Conde Nast. We're still in the midst of defining what it means to be a global company— understanding the business and the complexity, then leaning into understanding the consumer, which is more complicated because you have all of these brands and different audiences.
Once you've done all of that, it's thinking about where the white space is. Where's the opportunity, and what's the strategic framework that I want to put in place to drive the business and make an impact in a meaningful way? After doing that, you have to socialize that framework and make sure that you have buy-in at the strategic level amongst leadership. Then you kind of push the visions throughout the organization both within my team and in all of the teams we partner with, from editorial, especially editorial as one of our key strategic partners - to others. Then you have to execute and execute flawlessly, and make sure you get some big wins at the beginning, so you can start to show momentum and progress while working towards some of the harder bigger initiatives that are going to drive meaningful step change growth for the company. That’s, in a nutshell, how I approached it.
When you think about CMO role, there is a framework of what a CMO means. Yet at Conde Nast you crafted something that you thought the organization needed. What would be a key difference between your current role and the traditional CMO role?
At Stitch Fix, 100% of my job was a traditional CMO role. At Conde Nast, it's about 30% of my job, the other 70% is more of a president of consumer revenue type role. I spend 70% of my time leaning into audience development. I have an amazing audience development team that helps us understand who the audience is that we have today, who are the audiences that we want to have in the future and how do we build towards that?
I also have an amazing commerce team that's really leaning into how we can monetize the significant trust that we have with our consumers. This is not from a sales and ad revenue perspective, this is our editors endorsing products they believe in on a daily basis. How do we make sure that 1) we're capturing some value from that expertise, so that everything from affiliate commerce - ensuring that we are linking to the right products we're promoting, to 2) more of a drop-ship model where we're providing a vehicle to link our audience to brands that fulfill, and get their products in the hands of our consumers, to 3) more of a kind of branded merchandise experience. Those are three lanes within commerce that have been big drivers.
For us, subscriptions are obvious, both the print, which is the expected, but also digital subscriptions. One of the newer scenarios we're leaning into is memberships. How do you capitalize on the amazing relationships we have in our audience and turn that into unique propositions that are more complex. What's exciting to me is this perfect bridge between marketing and business. I'm a business person first, I just happened to major in marketing to solve business problems. This is a role that's really enabled me to do that in a fun and exciting way.
How do you look at segmenting audiences? What are the psychographics or demographics that you're leaning into? Then how are you thinking about what is missing?
Given the direct relationship we have with our audience, we have some good insights. Our team looks at this specifically for each brand, so it is not one size fits all. Within a brand we look at: Who's the current audience? How are they engaging with us? How loyal are they? What do loyal audiences look like versus people who are more one-and-done one article or a commerce link a month? Through that information, we have a bunch of tools that we use in-house to think about how we create more content that appeals to those audiences, more content that can help migrate people to a more in-depth relationship with the brand. It might not just be traditional content; commerce has been a really interesting way for us to drive engagement with our audiences in new ways.
Number two, and I think more importantly is, who are the right audiences for the future of the brands? We know what our existing audience looks like, but we could be in this vicious cycle of constantly producing content and selling product that only appeals to that audience. That would get us into trouble because it means we're not continuing to diversify our audience. How do we partner with editorial and business to make sure that we're starting to lean into content and experiences that appeal to a broader audience to shore us up for longevity? That second piece is what gets me really excited.
Since you produce different types of content for different demographics, do you approach them individually? How are you splitting your time between them? Do you have a broader holistic strategy?
It's not easy, right. My team supports more than just consumer revenue, they are partnering with the editorial and advertising team and making sure they have the insights they need to optimize our relationships with our advertisers. It's a very important part of our future growth at Conde Nast. We need to make sure that teams like audience development, that support the broader business, are prioritizing more holistically. Within consumer revenue, I’ve had to prioritize ideas. There's no way we can do everything that we would want to do. I’ve looked at which brands are driving significant revenue today, which brands that we believe have the most potential, and prioritized those brands for phase one. Our U.S. market is a huge, but there's a ton of growth in our international markets. How do we continue to scale those international markets? Where do we place the bet? What markets are already doing well? We've created a prioritization framework. It's not perfect; there are always brands that feel like they're not getting enough attention. And there are times where there are brands we want to lean into, because there is an event that makes them more important in that moment. Where the teams have questions on competing priorities is where I've really empowered my leadership team to make those trade-off decisions.
You mentioned existing revenue streams and others that you have started to explore. How do you think about developing those different revenue models?
For consumer revenue, it's really about future-proofing the business for Conde Nast because we know we can't continue to rely as much on print and the print advertising revenues we had before. The way we do that is investing in the consumer revenue streams of today, and also building the consumer revenue streams of tomorrow. The framework we have is around optimizing, innovating and incubating. It's optimizing our existing revenue streams so that we can drive more value from those businesses that are already in both top line and bottom line. How much margin are we generating against those businesses?
Then in the innovation lean, we have a lot of bets that we've already placed on things like the Allure Beauty Box and our GQ Box and other businesses that are doing well, but that need to scale in order to reach the level of success that I would like to see. Now that we're a global company, how do we take our Allure or GQ box and make sure we're bringing that to multiple markets, while driving more revenue and better margins against that revenue.
Incubation is the area that starts to get really exciting, and I think directly ties to your question— what are the new businesses or propositions we want to launch that we believe have significant long-term potential for Conde Nast? Global propositions, scalable propositions that can drive significant top line revenue and bottom line contribution to the business. Those are places where we need to be thoughtful and nimble about how we go to market. All of that sits on this foundation that we need, a foundational element that's core. For me, the foundation of our business is our marketing technology and infrastructure, which in certain places is not as as built out as I would like. We've been focusing on building that infrastructure which supports all of the businesses that we have today, the ones that we want to launch in the future, and the need to scale our audience. Because if we don't continue to grow our audience, we won't have the folks to monetize it. All of that hinges on this notion of experimentation, orientation, and being thoughtful about how we experiment. What I like to do when we come up with a business we want to launch or an addition to an existing business we want to lean into, is make a business case for it. We come up with a plan for testing into it that doesn't break the system. Analysis allows us to nimbly put things in market.
Everyone’s talking about membership platforms, can you share how Conde Nast is approaching this area?
I'm not going to completely tip my hand on the membership piece, because it is so new and something that we are really excited about. But, we are thinking about it around three lanes: content, which is the core of what we do, commerce, which I've already talked about being a really important pillar, and community. The interesting thing is as we do more research, what those mean varies with each brand. Take the Vogue audience, what they want from a community standpoint, is very different from what the GQ audience wants. Now we're starting to build out some propositions for what that should look like, and it’s going to evolve as we get more data and we see what works and what doesn't. But what I get really excited about is it starts to knit together a lot of the parts of the business that we already are in today that are operating discreetly. How do you bring those together to create a more meaningful proposition for the customer and also bring it stitched together in a way where we can extract more value from what we are delivering for from our audience.
If you're only looking at the existing data and what's currently working, it's this cycle of constantly optimizing towards what is, versus really thinking about what can be. Now, we're really thinking about what can be.
How do you approach big ideas with senior leadership?
I like to start from the top, especially because I’m new and we're still trying to figure out what consumer revenue should look like. For Conde Nast, I want to make sure that Roger Lynch, the CEO, is aligned with the vision for what I want to execute before I run too fast. I usually start there and also at the executive leadership team level, so I can socialize some of the big things we want to put in place. Frankly I need to, because a lot of what we're coming up with requires other teams like Sanjay Bhakta’s, who is our Chief Product Officer; we can't do anything or be successful, if we don't have strategic alignment and buy-in from his team. So I usually start at the top, make sure I’ve painted a clear picture of what it looks like, and tie it to a really strong business case, because we're very financially driven. If it doesn't have a strong business case and a path to profitability, the chances of it being successful or successfully approved is slim to none. Once you have the heads on board, you start to socialize with the teams that are going to execute. I get their input so that they can put their stamp on it and feel like they have ownership and are part of the process.
Your advice on how to establish your expertise within your role to senior leadership, especially when leaders have a final say in the decision making process, but don't fully understand or trust what you're doing:
I recently read an HBR article that really stuck with me, and I'm still wrapping my head around it, but it's this notion of mistaking confidence for competence. I found it to be really compelling because it talked about gender dynamics. It's this notion that men show up as more confident than women do. Now, I'm focused on both making sure that I continue to be as substantive as I can be, really leaning into believing in my work and the quality of my work, but equally important, is how I show up, how I present and defend that work. A lot of times it's more how you say it than what you say that makes an impact.
Which systems tools apps do you use on a daily basis to research industry stats and consumer insights?
We’ recently redid our brand tracker and we're partnering with a new agency to use it on a global level. We have a great tool that we built in-house called Falcon that helps us with predictive technology around what content is trending, so that we can, in real-time, partner with editorial to make decisions on not just what content we're writing, but where and when we're publishing the content. The key for me is it's less about leaning into the weeds of running the business, but thinking about my role as a leader—how do I stay connected to what's happening in the broader marketplace? I'm a big believer in outside inspiration. We had Rishad Tobaccowala, who is the global Chief Strategist of Publicis Groupe, come talk to us. We recently had author Jason Kinte, who runs the Pen’s Power Club come talk to us. I am an avid consumer of podcasts, I listen to Kara Swisher’s Sway and Scott Galloway's Pivot podcast every week. All of that gives me insight into what's happening in the marketplace, what other folks are doing well; things that are not within our category, but are really compelling and that we could leverage to drive more value for Conde Nast. Obviously, I read our periodicals—there’s great content in Wired and the New Yorker.
How is Conde Nast thinking about representation in marketing?
That's a big part of the conversation that we're having around audience development. We had some controversies last year around representation; we take it really seriously and it has forced us to take a look back and say, “Is our is our content diverse enough? Does it represent diverse perspectives? Do we have diverse enough audiences?” I would argue that we fell into this rat race of, “Here's the data, here's what your customers want. Now, let's just generate more of that.” We weren't doing as much work to really think about, Who do we want to be? Where should we be going? Where is the future? If you're only looking at the existing data and what's currently working, it's this cycle of constantly optimizing towards what is versus really thinking about what can be. Now, we're really thinking about what can be. It's a much more proactive and thoughtful approach. I'm really proud of the progress that we've made and will continue to make in this space.
Follow Deirdre Findlay on LinkedIn.