BACK TO CONDE?: Whenever people asked Connie Anne Phillips, the former publisher of InStyle, if she’d ever return to Condé Nast, and the question came up often, Phillips’ response was always a variation of “Never in a million years.”

She’d done Condé already, back when she was the number two to former Vogue publisher Tom Florio, and was perfectly happy at Time Inc., where she had carte blanche as the publisher of one of the company’s three most lucrative magazines, alongside People and Sports Illustrated.

This story first appeared in the May 30, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But situations change, publishing companies get spun off, another chief executive officer is kicked out and suddenly old stomping grounds start looking more attractive.

In recent weeks, speculation has intensified at 4 Times Square that Phillips may mount a comeback at her alma mater sometime this summer, likely after the September issues close. As for which title she’d take over, well, that’s not exactly clear. Glamour is the magazine most often mentioned by several sources at Condé, with some also suggesting Vanity Fair and Vogue as possibilities. Her return would involve a significant managerial shuffle as well as overcoming legal hurdles, but it’s seen as a logical next step for both Phillips and Condé.

“Condé’s been trying to get her back since the day she left. She’s a great marketing executive we shouldn’t have let go,” said one source at the company.

The daughter of a Philadelphia sports attorney who was influential in political circles — former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is a family friend — Phillips spent 14 years at Vogue, where she earned a reputation as a hard-charging saleswoman, rising to the position of managing director to Florio, who was then senior vice president and group publisher.

Phillips wanted her own title to run, and when that opportunity failed to materialize at Condé, she was recruited to run InStyle in 2009 by Paul Caine, then the publishing company’s style and entertainment group president.

Though long accustomed to the then-lavish ways of Condé, she settled in nicely at Time. She and InStyle editor in chief Ariel Foxman got along well, and she was accorded the requisite deference at a company where there are few other peacocks. She delivered five consecutive years of advertising growth and claimed bragging rights for the most ad pages among the fashion magazines in her years there, according to Media Industry Newsletter. (Though the winner in terms of overall revenue is up for debate.)

Rumors that Phillips would come back to Condé surfaced before, as recently as last November, but always amounted to just that. She was seen as being locked down at her job. Then, Time Inc. entered a period of internal upheaval that culminated with Time Warner’s decision in March to spin off the division. A week after the announcement, Caine, Phillips’ mentor, stepped down as chief revenue officer.

“With Paul Caine leaving the Time Inc. spin-off, she’s thinking, ‘Who knows where that’s going to end up?’” a Condé publisher said. When, on May 11, David Geithner, the head of Time Inc.’s style and entertainment group, informed staff Phillips would leave to “take some time off before exploring new challenges,” the news was the equivalent of Alex Rodriguez considering to opt out of his contract with the Yankees in the fall of 2007. Time Inc., in the indelicate position of forging ahead toward a public offering without one of its most valuable players, faced the possibility she’d end up at a rival magazine. Karin Tracy, the publisher of Entertainment Weekly, succeeded Phillips at InStyle.

For a publisher of Phillips’ seniority, there are only a handful of possibilities at Condé. In one of the scenarios being played out among publishers, she would take over Glamour, and Bill Wackermann, whose current title is executive vice president and publishing director, would be moved to another title or division, like marketing services. He has been at Glamour’s helm since 2004 and can claim a largely sterling record prior to the recession — he had four years of consecutive growth in ad pages, peaking at a little more than 2,089 pages in 2007, when the downturn hit. But Glamour has seesawed over the last few years — it finished 4 percent down in ad pages in 2012, and so far in the first quarter it’s at 671 pages, nearly 4 percent below the same period last year. The magazine’s circulation dipped 1.3 percent, to a little more than 2.3 million, in the second half of 2012, according to the Alliance of Audited Media. Few would argue Glamour is not a cash cow still, but in a sign of how seriously Condé took the decline, Wackermann’s portfolio lost first Brides, then Details and, last January, Bon Appétit.

Two other sources speculated about a swap with Vogue publisher Susan Plagemann, who has delivered several consecutive years of advertising growth and could be plugged into Glamour instead. “You need to put somebody like [Plagemann] in there because she’s a heavyweight and a killer,” one publisher said. In yet another possibility, a Phillips appointment could result in some shuffling at another one of Condé’s cash cows, Vanity Fair, which has seen some dip in advertising and newsstand sales.

Alas, ruining the fun of the usual guessing game of musical chairs is the complicated nature of Phillips’ exit from Time Inc. Sources say legal restrictions, like noncompete clauses in her contract, could prevent Phillips and any interested employers, Condé among them, from explicitly engaging in negotiations for a certain period of time. Condé declined to comment on personnel speculation. A spokeswoman for InStyle deferred to Geithner’s memo. Phillips could not be reached for comment.

For all appearances, Phillips is maintaining a low public profile, even staying out of the power lunch circuit. In the weeks since she quit, she has not been spotted once at Michael’s.