CATHERINE VISCARDI JOHNSTON
CONDE NAST’S MARKETING GURU
Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — “I always thought this was a job for a diplomat; I’m really a warrior,” said Catherine Viscardi Johnston, executive vice president of Conde Nast Publications.
Johnston spearheads the corporate sales and marketing department at Conde Nast and is the highest-ranking female in the company. She’s also a coveted member of Steven T. Florio’s inner circle.
“I pull her into every one of our corporate discussions, when we’re launching a magazine or acquiring a magazine. I do not know how I’d run this company without Cathy,” said Florio, Conde Nast’s president and chief executive officer.
Since Johnston assumed her current role in August 1997, she’s had several successes, although she admits it was overwhelming at first.
“It’s really taken me a solid 18 months to feel I’m doing the job — and the job’s not doing me,” she said. “Now I feel I’m being innovative. A big part of my job is to challenge the status quo. Now I feel I can really be proactive, which I’ve been for the past nine months.”
Coupled with Johnson’s personable demeanor is the soul of a tenacious go-getter. A pillow in her office is emblazoned with this motto: “Faster, Faster, Kill, Kill.”
Johnston’s most recent achievement was creating the highly controversial Currency personal finance supplement that ran in all Conde Nast titles. Currency carried 47 ads, but when counted in all 15 titles, those ads accounted for 507 PIB ad pages. Currency caused an uproar among Johnston’s competitors who said it was not a fair way to count ad pages. As a result, one of those rivals, Hearst Magazines, pulled out of Publishers Information Bureau.
“Conde Nast surprised the print industry by creating something no one had done before,” explained Johnston, referring to the 15-title spread. “The whole idea was to develop a category [personal finance] that was underdeveloped at Conde Nast. Now we can go back to a company like Fidelity, and say your ad works in GQ.”
Currency will be repeated next April.
“My primary job responsibility,” said Johnston, “is to increase the ad pages and revenues in any way I can, as well as brand extensions, such as Glamour en Espanol. Basically what I do is go to our advertisers, especially the ones we already do business with, and tell them we’d like them to invest most of their money in our magazines. My two goals are to try to increase total paging and our share and to increase the amount of magazines advertisers use.”
Conde Nast has prided itself on not negotiating individual rates, but it does have in its back pocket a group discount and added value programs. Group sales, in fact, is a key growth area at the company.
Currently 150 active accounts are in corporate marketing, which represents 60 percent of the company’s business. That’s up from 50 percent in 1996 and 45 percent in 1995.
Johnston’s team meets with big advertisers to encourage them to become part of Conde Nast’s “Super Buy.” If they take at least three ads in each of three different publications, they’re entitled to a 6 percent discount. And the discounts grow as the number of ad pages increase.
When Johnston took over the post, she encouraged Conde Nast’s top brass to invest an additional $40 million in the database then in use. In fact, Johnston might tell a client who does $100 million in advertising and $50 million in research, that Conde Nast will do the research for free, if they give her the extra $50 million in advertising. The database can provide demographics, automotive ownership information, target ZIP codes or household-income level and profile lifestyle interests and purchasing behavior.
Johnston said that while she may negotiate for a big piece of business, it’s up to individual publishers to go after his or her slice of it. While the group sales department may bring in the business, the individual magazine’s sales rep gets commission and credit for each ad that appears in their magazine. But not every magazine will get on every plan, which leads to a highly competitive in-house environment.
“That kind of job is one of the most difficult in the company,” said Mitchell Fox, publisher of Vanity Fair. “It’s got the normal constituencies of having to deal with the ad agencies and clients and also have to please the magazines. Every time you buy a modicum of success with selling some magazines, you have others that are unhappy.” But, Fox noted, “The group buy has benefited Vanity Fair enormously.”
To keep the individual magazine’s sales staffs informed of what the group sales department is doing, Johnston publishes a weekly Intelligence Report. She also has quarterly breakfasts with the publishers. Johnston said the most popular group buy at Conde Nast is Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Bride’s and Allure.
Starting next year, The New Yorker will become part of the group buy at Conde Nast.
“I just spent a good three months evaluating every single New Yorker ad,” said Johnston. “Everybody discounts, but The New Yorker has negotiated their discounts. That will stop in January. We had to figure out, ‘What is our best course of action to minimize the losses?’ We don’t want The New Yorker advertisers to feel they’re getting a raw deal. We don’t want an advertiser who may be getting a 10 percent deal to say goodbye. We’ll make an adjustment to the rate card.”
Johnston said 43 percent of The New Yorker’s advertisers also buy space in other Conde Nast publications. Conde Nast will also start incorporating Wired, which it recently acquired, into its group packages.
Johnston has been praised by clients as a facilitator.
“When we came to Conde Nast with an idea to market our new fragrance, Dazzling — to affix an actual vial of fragrance to the magazine — Cathy was able to clear all the logistical roadblocks and make it happen,” said Muriel Gonzalez, senior vice president, marketing, Estee Lauder USA and Canada.
And Johnston is currently pitching General Motors a multimedia plan that would combine Conde Net, Conde Nast’s on-line operation; Epicurious TV, which will air on the Discovery Channel and run, and ads in Bon Appetit, Gourmet and Conde Nast Traveler.
Companywide, in the first quarter of 1998, Conde Nast is up 16.8 percent in ad pages in apparel and retail, compared with 10.7 percent for the publishing industry as a whole. Toiletries and cosmetics are off 2.2 percent, while the industry is down 9.6 percent.
“This has been a tough year for the publishing industry, but from January through April, we’re up 17 percent in ad pages and 12 percent in revenues,” said Johnston. She thinks the second half is going to be a challenge, and the company will probably see a 6 or 7 percent gain in ad pages. For the year, Johnston predicts the firm will be up 9 to 10 percent in ad pages.
“I judge my performance based on market share,” said Johnston. “If Conde Nast has grown its market share with all our key accounts, I know I’ve done a good job.”
In addition, she keeps a watchful eye on the company’s overall market share, which has been rising.
Conde Nast, in second place, is gaining on Time Inc. From January through April, Conde Nast increased its market share to 21 percent from 19 percent a year ago, while Time was flat at 22 percent. Hachette’s market share also remained flat at 17 percent, while Hearst’s declined to 12 percent from 13 percent, according to PIB.
“If there has to be one person who’s pivotal to our success, it’s Cathy,” said Florio, who is not bashful about taking credit for discovering her.
Florio recalled that when he was publisher of GQ, he was looking for someone smart and someone with whom he could get along for a big category. Johnston, then a mail-order saleswoman at House & Garden, was recommended.
“In walks this very nice Italian girl and 15 minutes later, she’s like every girl I grew up with in the neighborhood. When I asked her, ‘What was your greatest sale to date?’ she said she brought Burpee Seeds to the pages of HG. I immediately loved this woman. She’s been a close personal friend and a business associate ever since.”
Johnston joined Conde Nast in 1977 as an account executive at House & Garden, and later moved to GQ in the same capacity. She then moved to Self, where she rose to ad director. From there, she left to become associate publisher of Architectural Digest (now part of Conde Nast), moving to New York magazine, then to Mirabella as publisher. She returned to Conde Nast as publisher of Mademoiselle before joining the executive team.
Even though Johnston has made it to the top echelon, she doesn’t sit on the 14th floor with chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr., Florio, James Truman, editorial director, or the other executive vice president, Charles Townsend. Her office is on the 17th floor, close to all the corporate sales executives.
“Oh, she’s been invited to sit up here 86 times,” said Florio, noting that when Conde Nast moves to its new headquarters at 4 Times Square next year, Johnston’s office will be right next to his.
“Right now, I spend half my day on the 14th floor,” said Johnston. “The men have their own bathrooms in their offices, but the women have to share a bathroom there. It also smells of cigars.”