Charles Townsend, who retired from the role of Condé Nast chairman at the end of last year, received the MPA’s Lifetime Achievement award at the end of the daylong annual American Magazine Media Conference on Wednesday.
A video was shown outlining Townsend’s career (“Rising at Hearst and The New York Times, Chuck finally made his way to Condé Nast” the video explained) and included testimonials from top Condé editors. After the video, Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive took the stage to present her former boss with a pair of silver cufflinks engraved, fittingly for the one-time commodore of the New York Yacht Club, with sailboats.
Leive recounted first working with Townsend when he came over to Condé Nast as the publisher of Glamour in 1994 and she was a lowly editorial assistant “slurping 99 cent ramen at her desk.”
“Chuck, you presided over some spectacular years at Condé Nast,” she said. “Long before we called it ‘quality content,’ a yawn of a phrase if I ever heard one, Chuck was a fierce defender of good stories.”
Leive’s speech ended in a toast as the room, holding flutes of prosecco, clapped and stood.
“If I was a smart guy, and I consider myself a smart guy, I would say thank you and walk off stage,” Townsend said.
But, of course, he didn’t.
Instead, he began with a tribute to S.I. Newhouse Jr., the Condé chairman emeritus, whom Townsend called his mentor and a true gentleman.
As befits what was, after all, a farewell address to the magazine industry, the theme of Townsend’s speech was change.
“I am not talking about change that’s presided over by President Trump,” he said, “but that’s why he is in office.”
During his time at Condé Nast, he said, change became increasingly accelerated to an extent that made five year plans almost impossible to imagine. “Who would have thought about the extent of digital disruption, or that disruption is now a noun?” he wondered.
Townsend spoke about the global economic crisis of 2008, which, he said, profoundly changed industries “including our own” and brought about a new economic order.
But he put an optimistic spin on the future.
“The further I get away from the day to day, the more I believe that disruption is the name of the game. It is all opportunity if you just take it that way,” Townsend said. “I’m not kidding. I wish I was in your shoes right now because it is the land of opportunity.
“I feel great about what I accomplished,” he concluded. “And now, the ball is in your court.”
The crowd clapped, and downed their drinks.
Earlier in the day, a panel of media chief executive officers were similarly sanguine.
“Let’s tackle the elephant in the room,” MPA president and ceo Linda Thomas Brooks, who was moderating the panel, said. “Rich, anything you want to tell us?”
Considering the ongoing speculation over Time Inc.’s impending sale, the opening question got a knowing laugh. Time Inc. ceo Rich Battista said that he was not surprised by the interest because Time Inc. is a valuable company that is doing great on digital and has many promising brand extensions.
“If I worked at a third party company, I’d want to buy us,” he said.
All the ceos spoke about the value of their legacy brands and pointed to the ongoing relationships that they have developed with readers.
Condé Nast ceo Bob Sauerberg touted the company’s advantage when it comes to data. “I told my data team that I want to know everything about what our most influential consumers are doing with our content,” he said. Earlier in the day, Condé Nast had revealed the acquisition of CitizenNet, a social data and marketing platform.
“We are living in a world where so many people want to engage in what’s going on,” he said, highlighting the uptick in subscriptions following the presidential election. “Just goes to show that good premium content is valuable.”
Rodale ceo Maria Rodale spoke about the payoff of targeting the less advertiser-friendly demographic of women over the age of 50.
But the other ceos mentioned their success at appealing to Millennials. “We’ve put a lot of love and care into figuring out how to reach a younger audience,” Battista said, citing People’s Snapchat channel as an example. Hearst ceo David Carey pointed to Cosmopolitan’s success on Snapchat.
Meredith ceo Steve Lacy explained that, like many in the business, his company had shifted to digital to accommodate a younger consumer.
“Send one of your adult children a birthday card with a check, and you will have to remind them to go get it,” he explained, to illustrate why direct marketing doesn’t work with younger consumers who don’t check their mail. “As my daughter recently said, ‘why didn’t mom just use PayPal?’”