CMO Of The Week

CMO of the Week: Conde Nast’s Deirdre Findlay

When Deirdre Findlay joined Conde Nast as its new Global CMO in January, her initial plans involved mapping out the company’s digital future and building a long-term revenue strategy. But just weeks into her arrival, it became clear that COVID-19 was about to cause global shutdowns and sheltering in place. 

When Deirdre Findlay joined Conde Nast as its new Global CMO in January, her initial plans involved mapping out the company’s digital future and building a long-term revenue strategy. But just weeks into her arrival, it became clear that COVID-19 was about to cause global shutdowns and sheltering in place. 

“As you might imagine, the job that I was hired to do in January changed dramatically just six weeks into my role,” she says. “I went from having a little bit of runway to establish a vision for my organization and build a long-term consumer revenue strategy to being in the throes of a global pandemic that basically shut down the effectiveness of our legacy print business.”

Conde Nast, like many legacy media businesses, has long relied on advertising revenue and print subscriptions; Findlay was in the process of mapping out a digital-first vision for Condé Nast when the pandemic hit and accelerated that process, she says. “All of a sudden, teams around the world that had been primarily focused on newsstand growth and print subscriptions needed to turn on a dime and begin leaning into digital and creative business models.”

Among the company's immediate reactions to the pandemic involved monitoring “consumers' evolving attitudes throughout the many stages of the pandemic in different regions of the world. We set up a cross-functional research team to provide ongoing reporting on consumer sentiment, key trends and impact on audiences/traffic to inform our broader business strategies.

Conde Nast’s publications began producing Instagram Live posts relevant to themes like education, at-home activities and mental health. SELF, for example, hosted live workouts and meditations, Conde Nast Traveler hosted happy hours, and Teen Vogue launched its #StayHomeWith series featuring interviews with home-bound celebrities.  

The company also recently recently launched its first cross-brand news aggregator site, Conde Nast Spotlight, a platform that acts as a center for COVID-related news as well as information from Conde’s publications about the election and the ongoing racial injustice protests. Findlay says the idea came about after the company saw that content about COVID-19 and life in lockdown was in high demand, and launched the site within three weeks of conception. 

Conde Nast’s Bon Appetit had internal upheaval upheaval this summer when its longtime editor, Adam Rapaport, came under fire after a photo of him dressed in a racially insensitive costume surfaced. Staffers at the magazine also spoke out about how they and their POC colleagues were paid less than white staffers. Rapaport resigned soon after, and the publication in late August named its newest editor, Dawn Davis, a Black publishing executive from Simon & Schuster

As global CMO, Findlay is responsible for driving all consumer revenue across the company’s markets and vast portfolio of brands. Her main areas of focus include print and digital subscriptions, newsstand, e-commerce, subscription box businesses, and membership programs such as Vogue 100 and Vogue Business.

“What I love about this role is that it brings me closer to revenue. I joke that a better title for my job would be Global CMO and President of Consumer Revenue,” says Findlay. “I spend the majority of my time optimizing our existing businesses, innovating to create interesting extensions to our existing businesses and incubating new businesses that can scale globally.” 

Conde Nast’s September issues are always among the most important books of the year for the publishing company. Vogue’s always-anticipated September issue in years past had hundreds of pages but in recent years had been thinning out as the print world struggled to keep ad pages as eyeballs increasingly went digital. This year’s Vogue September issue is about 325 pages, while 2007’s issue, for example, was more than 700 pages.

Despite thinning pages, Vanity Fair, Vogue and other Conde publications are taking on important topics for their September issues. Vanity Fair’s September cover features a portrait of Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by Louisville police officers in March, by artist Amy Sherald (who was commissioned to paint the portrait of Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.) National Book Award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates guest edited the issue.  

Our September issues for Vogue and Vanity Fair in the U.S., with their illustrated covers that lean into issues of immediate concern to the country, have seen the highest subscription demand ever for September issues from those brands,” says Findlay, noting that the Vanity Fair cover saw the three highest days of subscription sales of the year in the days following the Aug. 24 announcement of its cover and topics. Vogue’s September issue broke on Aug. 25 and also had its two highest days of subscription sales all year, she adds. 

To bring new subscribers on board, legacy print publishers are offering subscriptions at reduced rates. Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair, for example, is offering one year for $8, while Bon Appetit is offering one year for $10. Hearst’s Esquire is currently offering two years for $25 and Harpers Bazaar for $15 for two years.

Findlay says Architectural Digest U.S. and Bon Appetit also had their highest subscription sales days of all time this year. April and May were the fifth and sixth highest new subscription start months ever for The New Yorker, and the brand set a new record for most consecutive days of above average sales.

As part of its search for new revenue streams in recent years, Conde also launched subscription Boxes for GQ and Allure. Findlay says that GQ Box has sold out of its past 5 boxes, and Allure Beauty Box’s revenues are up almost 20% over 2019. 

Among its newer revenue streams are those in ecommerce. The company in late August announced the launch of GQ Shop, an ecommerce site that goes beyond GQ’s previous affiliate efforts like GQ Recommends. GQ Shop will begin by selling branded T-shirts and sweatshirts and $15 per year subscriptions to the magazine. In all, Findlay says Conde’s commerce revenue has increased by almost 90% year-over-year in 2020. 

Findlay came to Conde Nast after serving as CMO of StitchFix since 2018. Before that, she developed extensive digital and direct-to-consumer experience through her time working at companies like Digitas, Google, and eBay.

Brand Innovators caught up with Findlay  to discuss her new role, growing an ecommerce business from a legacy media business and growing a digital audience during a pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You came to Conde Nast at the beginning of the year — just before COVID hit and changed everything. What were your initial plans going into the role, and then what were your readjusted goals to drive direct-to-consumer revenue? Did those goals change?

We quickly pivoted our marketing message and content across Condé Nast’s global portfolio to reach newly-homebound consumers, updating our creative messaging to address the heightened anxiety our audiences were feeling, keep them informed and provide escape and entertainment. We also lifted paywalls from COVID-19 and social justice-related content at brands like Wired, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, making it easier for consumers to access trusted reporting at a time when disinformation was flooding the internet.

We also had to completely reimagine our live events business by tailoring existing event franchises for a virtual stage and launching new virtual experiences, like Teen Vogue Prom and Teen Vogue Commencement. Our goal with these events was to create that sense of community, and in the case of Teen Vogue, to help our young audiences celebrate milestones and feel some sense of normalcy during this challenging period.  

We also increased our focus on ecommerce to deliver on shifting consumer behaviors and needs while at home and during the pandemic.

This is your first role at a media company. How does working for a media company in this role differ from your other CMO/senior marketing roles? Did you have any unexpected challenges in this role? 

While this is my first role within a media company, I have been deeply engaged with the media space for over 20 years in my prior marketing roles. It has been exciting to pivot from being on the buying end of the media relationship to a role that allows me to shape the relationship our audiences have with the breadth of our content globally.

The unexpected challenge had more to do with where we are as a company right now. We are in the midst of merging Condé Nast U.S. with Condé Nast International and pivoting from an advertising revenue-led business to one where direct-to-consumer revenue models are increasingly important. This is no small task to undertake simultaneously — especially when you consider that we have 37 distinct brands, each with their own unique voice, ones that are often distinct in each market, and we operate in 32 markets globally.  

I am proud of the results we are seeing. People are demanding our products. Our new subscription starts — people signing up to get a subscription for the first time — have grown 84% since 2016, and subscription revenues have grown 60% in that same period. Q2 of this year was our highest quarter of new subscribers ever.

How are you working to increase subscriptions across Conde Nast’s portfolio at a time when many people may be cutting back on spending due to the recession?

People come to us for news and information, insight and perspective about critical topics and personally relevant information around topics like health, beauty, food and fashion. And sometimes, they’re just looking for something fun. 

We moved quickly to lift paywalls from COVID-19 and social justice-related content earlier this year, in an effort to ensure needed content was available to our consumers, regardless of their economic situation.

We’ve certainly seen new challenges to print subscriptions and newsstand sales throughout the pandemic, but have adapted accordingly — we shifted paid media spend to capitalize on consumer’s needs for news and service content, resulting in the company’s highest-ever quarter for subscription generation. Earlier this summer, we launched the first-ever New Yorker brand campaign in three test markets, with content and messaging swiftly adjusted to account for COVID and social injustice events.

Interestingly, consumer sentiment has been consistently aligned with key Condé Nast content areas, driving audience, engagement and subscription growth for almost all of our brands. Core U.S. subscription magazine brands showed significant overall audience gains, powered by highly engaging, superior content on COVID-19 and social justice. Site traffic and time spent were up significantly year-over-year, which also fueled subscription growth. We’re optimistic that 2020 will be a year of double-digit growth for new subscriptions.

One of the keys to our success in 2021 will be retaining the new subscribers we’ve gained this year. Additional critical next steps for us will be increasing our base of known visitors to our owned and operated platforms (registration gates for example), as well as propensity modelling to determine the most customer-friendly experience on our paywall sites.

September issues are among the most important for companies like Conde Nast in terms of ad revenue. As print revenue continues to struggle across the industry, how is Conde Nast ensuring September issues retain their financial and cultural importance, especially when it comes to improving their digital presence?  

The Vogue September issue is an iconic product. It’s a keepsake, and nothing can replace the excitement that a big, heavy printed September issue can deliver. Over the past few years, we have radically changed the way we promote issues. Subscriptions are becoming more and more important, and we’ve also begun partnering with delivery channels like Amazon to ensure consumers who wish to purchase a single issue can do so in addition to purchasing subscriptions.

So much of our marketing for these issues is done through digital channels. We have engaging and relevant marketing campaigns and creative on Facebook and Instagram, and we of course promote through our owned social and web channels. Every year, who is on the cover of the Vogue September issue is a highly anticipated reveal. Consumers rush online to read digital content centered around the September print issue. 

Vogue announced for the first time the September issue would have the same theme across its 26 editions: Hope. How else did the company rethink the September issue for this year, given covid and the protests against racial injustice this year?

It’s been gratifying to see what our brands can do when they come together from around the world — leveraging the full power of our global portfolio to communicate our values to our readers. Despite sharing a theme, each edition of Vogue took a different approach to their cover: British Vogue highlighted activists tackling major issues like systemic racism, disability discrimination, domestic abuse, gender inequality and the climate crisis; American Vogue featured two illustrations on its cover, each created by Black artists; and Vogue Italia created 100 unique covers, highlighting actresses, activists, models, artists and writers. 

In many ways, the realities of remote pandemic production have actually empowered our editors to lean into these huge and important topics — and push back against “traditional” ideas of what a September issue should look and feel like. I don’t think September issues will ever be quite the same‚ and that’s a good thing. As I mentioned before, this innovation is making an impact on our bottom line by driving record-setting subscription starts. 

Vanity Fair just unveiled its September cover, featuring a portrait of Breonna Taylor, with Ta-Nehisi Coates guest editing and focusing on activism, power, etc. Can you talk about how that issue came together?

Radhika Jones, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, has an incredible vision for the brand. This isn’t just a one-off for her — she’s been creating a more inclusive, outspoken version of the title since day one. Radhika asked Ta-Nehisi Coates to guest edit the issue and I think you’ll agree that the final product is a powerful testament to what glossy magazines can be. The cover is a portrait of Breonna Taylor, painted by artist Amy Sherald, the woman behind Michelle Obama’s portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Ta-Nehisi helped oversee almost every aspect of the magazine’s production, and contributors of color are featured on every page — names like Ava DuVernay, Jesmyn Ward, Danez Smith, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jacqueline Woodson. It’s been really inspiring to see it out in the world, and to watch it be so enthusiastically received by our audiences.

Bon Appétit has had a lot of changes to its masthead lately. How are you as a marketer working to help re-establish Bon Appétit’s credibility as the leading food publication?

We have a responsibility to our readers, and the last few months have shown us that we have work to do in winning and maintaining their trust. We’re taking tangible steps — both at BA and across our organization — to foster a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace. This involves shifting the lens through which the brand has traditionally approached food culture — word choice, photo selection and representation. We’re not there yet, but change is underway. 

I’m excited about our three latest announcements. Our new editor-in-chief Dawn Davis will be joining us in November, and we recently welcomed executive editor Sonia Chopra and guest editor Marcus Samuelsson. These new appointments are just a small part of the efforts we’re making to chart a new path forward for the brand and re-introduce ourselves to our audiences. 

GQ recently announced the launch of a new ecommerce store, the GQ Shop. Is Conde Nast considering doing this with other pubs that previously didn’t venture much into this space, and what is your role in growing this?

Our e-commerce efforts are tailored by brand — what works for GQ might not work for The New Yorker, and vice versa, but we are consistently experimenting with new experiences and formats for our consumers. In fact, several Condé Nast brands have experienced unprecedented commerce growth throughout the pandemic, fueled by buying guides on topics relevant to homebound consumers like meal delivery, alcohol, at-home workout equipment and more. We leveraged daily reporting on our audience development trends to understand real-time the needs of our audiences, and used those insights to inform our commerce strategy so that we could better link people to the products they so desperately needed to help navigate the pandemic and working from home. 

More recently, we’ve seen an entirely new product category created around masks. This went from zero to a substantial portion of our commerce revenue almost overnight. And now we’re seeing innovations as the mask category evolves: best masks for running, best masks for people with glasses and skincare routines and eye makeup to use when wearing masks.

We’re driving almost double the click volume of the prior year to our affiliate partners, who have seen a 45% improvement in click through rate as a result of our optimization efforts — a testament to the increasing relevance of the products featured in our editorial content. We continue to explore new commerce opportunities globally. 

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