Denizens of 4 Times Square woke up Wednesday to discover they had a new pope — and it wasn’t Francis I.
For the last several years, Condé Nast has been preparing for when chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr., now 85, would wind down his duties at the publishing group. For a company whose prestige and reputation are so closely tied to one man, the question of who would follow in his footsteps has all the gravity of a papal succession.
This story first appeared in the March 14, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At a time when other companies are shrinking or being spun off, the preservation of Condé’s image was all the more important. The executives in place are all money guys — consumer marketers, really, and even by their admission, unlikely to inspire the cult of personality Newhouse stoked for decades. Condé was in need of its own version of the Columbia Pictures’ logo, someone to symbolize the culture of the place as much as the image it sought to convey.
In Condé’s view, there was no one better suited for that role than Anna Wintour, 63.
“She’s maybe the greatest marketer we have in this organization,” said chief executive officer Charles H. Townsend. “What she stands for is the epitome of what Condé stands for — her accomplishment, her success, her unyielding commitment to excellence and content creation.”
As WWD reported in December, Condé executives had been looking to elevate Wintour to a larger corporate role. On Tuesday she was anointed artistic director, a newly created position that encompasses duties once held by Newhouse and, much earlier on, by Alexander Liberman, the group’s legendary editorial director. In theory, the role grants her enormous influence over the editorial direction of the company’s magazines, from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair.
What does that mean in practice? That was the question bouncing around 4 Times Square Wednesday. Wintour’s coronation was received by some as a positive development for a company that some believe had lost its shimmer as Newhouse became less involved. But there was also confusion. Save for Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter and New Yorker editor David Remnick, Condé’s not in the habit of consulting with top editors about major institutional announcements like this. So when the official statement went out, it raised more questions than answers. Will Wintour attend print order previews? How would she divide her loyalties between Vogue and the magazines she’s ostensibly been tasked with advising?
“We have a lot of autonomy as editors,” one source said. “And certainly while working under [Thomas J. Wallace, editorial director]. No one wants to see that go away. People need a little more clarity.”
“We’re not all friends here,” said another insider. “This is a competitive building. We use the same photographers. We compete for the same celebrities. This will be a gradual process as she finds areas she’d like to investigate. Why else would she take the job if she wasn’t going to do things with it?”
Wintour has been part of the Condé family since 1983, rising from editor in chief of British Vogue to the company’s shiniest star. In that time, she’s also broadly expanded the definition of editor in chief. She is the ultimate brand manager — there are Vogue-branded events, documentaries, online encyclopedias — and a power broker, one of the most influential forces in fashion, with a say on everything from the stewardship of the world’s oldest fashion houses to the industry’s place in the American economy.
What was there to do after all that? Last year, the question came up during a casual get-together with New York editor in chief Adam Moss. They were both restless, eager to do something else. But Wintour came down on the side of pragmatism, said sources familiar with their conversation. The minute she leaves Vogue, she told Moss, she would just go back to being another former editor.
One way to expand her circle of influence beyond fashion and media was politics. She campaigned and raised substantial sums for Barack Obama in 2008, and repeated her efforts in the last election cycle, hosting lavish fund-raisers in his honor. As the campaign was drawing to a close, she lobbied hard for one of the sought-after ambassadorships that are usually passed down to influential donors, such as Paris or London, several sources said.
“She already had this idea in her head that she was in a new stage in her life,” said an insider familiar with her thinking. “She was restless and she had a desire for a new adventure.”
For the last several years, Wintour’s been dogged by speculation about retirement — she’s been on the job for 25 years. But Condé seriously got the message as she stepped up her extracurricular efforts. With Newhouse playing a less prominent role in the company for the last year, there was also a leadership vacuum, and Condé risked tarnishing its image. Townsend, under particular pressure to not lose his marquee talent, started coming up with options. If she didn’t leave for an ambassadorship, it would have been something else, and that would have been an unmitigated mess.
“They don’t want her going anywhere else. If she had left, that would have been a disaster for [Townsend],” an insider said.
Last summer, Wintour signed a three-year contract that came with financial penalties if she left early. Though the possibility of a new corporate title had been discussed, by December no firm agreement had been reached.
Townsend confirmed he and Wintour had talked for over a year about expanding her purview but hadn’t come up with the right offer. There was talk of Wintour having oversight of some brands, but not all, according to sources. She had already played that role once in the past, overseeing editorial direction of several titles, not just Teen Vogue, but also Men’s Vogue and Vogue Living, two titles that were subsequently shuttered.
Townsend was aware of Wintour’s desire for a change, though they never discussed the possible diplomatic post.
“Twenty-five years is a long time,” he said. “I do think it’s almost the ideal moment to expand her horizons and maintain her enthusiasms for all the things this company stands for.”
At the same time, Townsend felt he needed a creative leader to “ensure the preservation of the [Condé] culture” in the wake of Newhouse’s diminishing role.
In January, Wintour’s path to an ambassadorship looked narrower — other more prominent donors, with experience in finance and foreign policy, had better chances. Townsend said while attending a session during the WWD CEO Summit in early January with Karl Lagerfeld that he came up with the right offer for Wintour. He saw her as playing a similar role to Lagerfeld at Chanel: brand Condé’s most visible ambassador.
“We picked up the conversation that week,” Townsend said. Then, he brought up the ambassadorship, he said, for the first time. “I said, ‘I really feel this is the right role. We’ve been looking for the right handle. The company genuinely believes it.’” But, he warned, ‘‘If you accept it, you can’t then come and tell me you’ve accepted at a later date a job as an ambassador.’”
Townsend said the new title ensures Wintour won’t entertain other distractions, political or not.
“It’s not just a title. It’s not just to entice her to stay. The equation is pretty clear. Yes, I do want her to spend her glory years at Condé Nast,” he said.
The role of artistic director is somewhat unprecedented. While Liberman had a say in every major decision, including who got to replace Grace Mirabella at Vogue, Townsend emphasized Wintour will not have direct oversight over editors and publishers — they’ll continue to report to him. Instead, she’ll operate as an executive sounding board, a role she already plays in some capacity for the company’s creative class, and for fashion’s most important executives. He compared her duties to Newhouse’s in the later years. “He was not picking covers, changing cover lines and shaping content. He was really available as a constant source confirmation and commitment to excellence,” Townsend said.
Will she have a say in hiring and firing, like Liberman did? Townsend said he’d seek Wintour’s counsel on those kinds of questions. What about editorial director Tom Wallace? He will continue to be involved in managing operational problems at the magazines, said Townsend. While the description may be vague, Wintour’s arrival could give Wallace a powerful ally in fighting the editorial side’s corner.
Though Condé is eager to underscore Wintour’s continuing role as editor in chief of its chief money machine, Vogue, few within 4 Times Square believe she can carry on that job at the same pace while also playing the part of roving ambassador. More likely is that her deputies, including whomever fills the opening left by the retirement of longtime managing editor Laurie Jones, will come under greater pressure to handle the day-to-day responsibilities at the magazine. One of her most trusted aides, Sally Singer, returned to the magazine as creative director, digital, after her unsuccessful stint at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and was a ubiquitous front-row presence during fashion week.
Wintour will have a chance to address her new subjects Friday at an all-hands-on-deck meeting of editors in chief that had been scheduled prior to the announcement of her new title.
Perhaps many of the raging questions of what she will do as artistic director will be answered then. Or perhaps not. Regardless, Wintour is clearly Condé’s star — and Townsend is unlikely to do anything to tarnish it.
“It gives her a very wide berth to do whatever she wants,” an insider said of the new job. “And financial security that goes beyond anything we can imagine. She’s been taken care, in the old way Condé used to be.”
Wintour declined comment.