Nicholas Coleridge has been at the helm of glossy magazine publisher Condé Nast for 25 years. Here he talks about talent retention, the secret to great networking and why those who sounded the death knell for print were wrong
Nicholas Coleridge is delighted. It’s Tuesday 10am after the May bank holiday – a long weekend which had seen coverage of his flagship title, Vogue, in every newspaper. The reason? Vogue’s centenary issue featured the Duchess of Cambridge’s first magazine cover – a great coup for the fashion bible. “It’s been a busy weekend,” he grins, quoting the various reactions from different papers verbatim. “And I always read comments on the Guardian too.”
Coleridge is all about the detail (“I like to know what’s going on”) and when you are not only managing director of Condé Nast UK but also president of Condé Nast International, knowing what is going on is no mean feat.
Coleridge became MD of Condé Nast UK in 1991 and president of Condé Nast International in 2012 – which today encompasses 28 markets, 124 magazines (brands include Vogue, Glamour, GQ, Vanity Fair, World of Interiors and Wired) and 100 websites. And then there are the restaurants, bars, the College of Fashion and Design, an investment arm and a new e-commerce site, Camden-based Style.com, which launches in September. “We’ve got over 100 people working there at the moment. The build is done and it’s looking good. About 300 brands are signed up and the plan is to build it up over a number of years. Then it will go to America, France and so on. It’s going to start gently – in my experience everything takes a while to get going.”
Now 59, Coleridge has over 40 years’ experience in the world of ‘glossies’ – in 2012 he was described by Campaign as “magazines’ most compelling advocate for almost two decades” – and his passion for publishing is as strong as when the thunderbolt first struck. “It was a very specific moment. I was 15 and had some illness, which was bad enough to cause me to be sent home from school for two weeks. While convalescing I read several issues of Harpers & Queen. It was the first glossy magazine I’d looked at and I was incredibly drawn towards it – the quality of the printing, the way the colouring sits on the pages and the diversity of the content. In those days it had a lot of articles about politicians, business and personalities but it also had a lot of fun social observation. It was the opening of a whole world to me.”
Coleridge didn’t come from a journalistic family. His father David Coleridge – “a formidable businessman” – was chairman of Lloyd’s of London in the late Eighties. “Other members of the family were in Christie’s, those kind of professions, but no one had been a writer for 200 years since Samuel Taylor Coleridge [Coleridge’s great-great-great-great-great uncle] and I don’t know if he could be described as a professional journalist since he was always virtually bankrupt! The world I grew up in wasn’t at all the world of journalism and celebrities and fashion models.”
While convalescing Coleridge wrote an article, “How to survive teenage parties” and sent it off on spec to Harpers & Queen features editor Ann Barr, who immediately bought the feature. “Once it was printed I saw at once how the typography and design enhanced the article.” The young Coleridge became a regular contributor, writing 25 articles for the glossy over the following three years. After a £14-per-week stint as a cub reporter on the Falmouth Packet (“I applied to be a tea boy at the Sunday Express but didn’t belong to the union so they sent me to Cornwall instead.”) Coleridge studied art history at Cambridge.
A speculative letter to new Tatler editor Tina Brown landed him his first full-time role. “Tatler was then independent, selling about 4,000 copies a month. There were 14 people on editorial and I was the junior – number 14. She was very demanding and changeable so there was a constant turnover and after a couple of years I became her deputy because numbers two-to-13 were no longer there! It was like being a member of Idi Amin’s cabinet where each day someone else was thrown to the crocodiles! The magazine was so broke that we all had to write a lot – a huge opportunity. I wrote two major pieces under my own name and three pieces under pseudonyms, one was Andrea von Eisberg I think! It was fun.”
Coleridge then moved to the then Fleet Street-based Evening Standard, opposite notorious hack haunt El Vino, sitting on a bank of desks with famous journalists Milton Shulman and Max Hastings. “An amazing heyday,” Coleridge recalls.
Four years later Coleridge returned to Harpers & Queen as deputy editor and was promoted to editor at the tender age of 30 after editor Willy Landels “resigned in a huff” after a row with the managing director. “I thought that I would stay working for the Hearst corporation forever – it was very enjoyable. Nat Mags [as Hearst’s UK arm was known then] and Condé Nast were much more similar then. They’ve diverged now in that Hearst has grown its base by launching more middle- and mass-market magazines and we have consolidated our position at the top of the market.”
Coleridge was editor of Harpers & Queen when Condé Nast’s editorial director Mark Boxer died unexpectedly and Coleridge was asked to step into his not unsubstantial shoes. He was given the task of resuscitating Condé Nast’s two problem magazines – Tatler (which up until then had never broken even) and the recently launched but poorly received GQ. Coleridge worked his magic, subsequently got involved in the entire portfolio and then stepped up again when managing director Richard Hill took early retirement. “I was asked if I would like to interest myself in the business side as well [as editorial director]. I’ve always seen it as being ‘as well’ because I have never given away my old job to anybody else.”
When Coleridge became MD, the firm had 250 employees; there are now 900 in the UK housed between two elegant, portrait-adorned offices in London’s Hanover Square and an office in Clerkenwell for edgy fashion quarterly LOVE.
However Coleridge’s optimism and enthusiasm must have been tested in the last two decades as the publishing industry has gone through a seismic change as digital stormed in and the bells tolled for print. Fifteen years ago, futurologists were predicting that “the magazine industry would be completely over within a decade with the onslaught of digital”.
Coleridge booms: “And they were wrong! Here we are celebrating the centenary of Vogue with this sensationally fat issue. Vogue March 2016 sold more advertising than any other March issue in the magazine’s 99-year history.” He pauses. “If you go back 25 years, virtually all the glossy magazines produced in this building sold significantly fewer. Tatler then sold 35,000 [now 85,000] and Vogue 135,000 [now 195,000] and GQ 40,000 [now 120,000] copies a month and we all thought that was plenty, but during the quarter-century that followed there has been a growth of interest in fashion, partly because of what’s happened on the high street, partly because the number of people going to fashion colleges has increased.”
It’s an interesting point and one that often gets lost in the “print is dead” noise. Magazine circulation is measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations – known as the twice-yearly ABCs; it’s like exam results day for publishers. The last set of results were broadly stable – some of Condé Nast’s titles were up, some down – but profits are good. The last set of numbers filed, as reported by the Guardian in August 2015, showed that Condé Nast UK’s pre-tax profits jumped from £8.78m to £16.55m in the previous year (earning Coleridge himself a 40 per cent jump in pay to £1.3m).
The allure of print
Ninety per cent of the firm’s profits still come from Condé Nast’s magazines – only 10 per cent from digital although that is clearly growing, with revenues in the digital business up 42 per cent year-on-year (2014/5). Coleridge was one of the first in his industry to spot the potential of digital – indeed Vogue.co.uk was born four years before Facebook – and now 20 per cent of Condé Nast UK employees work on the digital sector.
Coleridge is positive about the effect digital has had on the industry. “By and large it’s been helpful to us but, of course, by offering very high quality digital for free you are offering people a free option. At the same time the reach of our main magazines has grown so immensely with the number of active Facebook and Twitter followers which drive people to the website; we sell a large number of subscriptions to the print mag through the digital channels. All our magazines have very active sites and are growing fast.
“Magazines have, of course, been affected by digital but it is very difficult to replicate the look and feel of a magazine. Digital and print do completely different jobs. We spend an untold time on digital making everything faster but the print magazine is the quality that underpins the brand and everything else. There is something extraordinarily alluring about a glossy magazine.” And he refutes the suggestion that it is a generational issue. “It’s simply not true that young people have stopped reading magazines. The surprising statistic is that the young readership that we have on Vogue, GQ, Tatler and obviously Glamour, is very high.”
Coleridge’s vision and focus are not only key to the phenomenal commercial success of the business but also in retaining his top team of editors and publishers. Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has just passed 24 years of her reign, Dylan Jones (GQ) 17, and Jo Elvin (Glamour) 16. “We’ve been very lucky in keeping good people for long periods of time and I like that. Some companies make a point of changing all the time and obviously you have to do some restructuring but I think that often people do their best work when they have been doing a job for five or more years – they understand the nuances and have gone round the track a couple of times.”
They must also be inspired by Coleridge as a leader, but he’s modest when it comes to talking about his personal leadership style. “Maybe that’s for others to say. Sometimes I’m very much in awe of the way other people do things. I always feel my so-called leadership style is not massively planned but I do get around the building a lot and I’m very interested in the detail of what we’re doing.
“But I usually make decisions very quickly and I reply to emails incredibly fast – often within 20 minutes. And I like short meetings – 20 minutes is a long meeting here. I can’t bear those meetings that a lot of companies have where 10 people come in and settle around the table and there’s a big plate of wafer biscuits and they have all told their PAs that they will be back in two-and-a-half hours – I can’t bear that. I like people who have thought what their view is before they come in and are not making it up as they go along. The key thing about people who work here compared to other companies is that everybody has a point of view – it can be constantly changing but it is very strongly held at all times.”
Coleridge has extended his leadership outside the UK when promoted to president of Condé Nast International four years ago. It was a new role created to manage the ever-expanding global business; he and owner, Jonathan Newhouse share the territories between them, visiting the different countries between them every two months.
“That’s the way we try to keep tabs on everything – it’s very stimulating and very interesting.” His advice for international leaders? “If you are a head office and you are visiting a country, it is beholden on you to be very informed and to be on very, very good form from the minute you arrive to the minute you leave – you’re not allowed to have jet lag.”
Coleridge is known for his charm and networking skills but his “good form” at parties both here and abroad isn’t down to a love of the high life – but a shrewd business focus. Advertising is an important revenue stream and Condé Nast works hard at it (ad revenues in 2015 were up four per cent). “It is pretty much expected here for our people to go to advertiser and editorial launches – that’s a difference between us and some of our competitors. Their people don’t turn up, they are selling programmatically just to the agencies, not to the clients. The inevitable consequence of doing that is that yield price goes down because the agency’s job is to pay you as little as possible. We fight hard to say, ‘If you don’t want to pay the price then we wish it were otherwise but you can’t be in.’ And then we go and see the client and we say, ‘Your agency is saying that you can’t afford to be in Vogue/GQ/Wired.’”
Coleridge himself now finds his party attendance spans continents, not just London zones. How does he do it? “I have a mantra – always turn up, arrive early, leave early. We go to these events out of respect for the company but we’re not there to talk to each other and eat peanuts. Go straight up to the key people – the CEO, the marketing director – then you’ve done your job. Be there, hear what they have to say and then get out of there and go home to your family.”
Tina Brown, Tatler
“Tina was very insistent that nothing that appeared in the magazine should be boring. Every sentence, every paragraph should be exciting and should push the story forward and be vivid. And that made a great impression on me. A lot of journalism that one reads isn’t that engaging. It sometimes has two paragraphs at the beginning that are but then it becomes less so as you read on. Tina had no patience for that.”
Max Hastings, Evening Standard
“The speed at which Max Hastings could write was completely incredible to me. He would go into conference and there would be a discussion on the great topic of the day and they would decide whether the paper was pro or against it. It made little difference to Max, he could take a strong well-argued line either way. He would then come out, put paper into his typewriter, screw up his face for about 10 seconds and then he would write without stopping. After 30 minutes you had 1,800 polished words exactly to space, completely ready to go.”
Terry Mansfield, The National Magazine Company
“It is very important to turn up [at events and parties]. I learnt this from Nat Mags CEO Terry Mansfield, who was a good turner-upper when I was at Harpers & Queen. In those days everyone used to turn up, our competitors used to, but they rarely do now. But we do. These days, it would be incredibly rare to go to a big fashion party and not to see seven or eight Vogue people – both editorial and commercial, liaising with their opposite number.”
Tamil Tigers and a kidnapping
While at the Evening Standard, Nicholas Coleridge went to Sri Lanka with a Channel 4 crew to make a documentary about the Tamil Tigers.
“We drove up north, well beyond where you were meant to go and filmed a lot of Tamil freedom fighters. We were filming the Sri Lankan/Sinhalese army camp up there when suddenly people grabbed us and took us in. We were held in the camp for three days before being helicoptered to the main prison in Colombo for a further nine.
“It wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds – we were in the hospital wing and although we were interrogated, it wasn’t with torture. We were asked over and over about who we’d seen and where we’d been– they wanted to know about the lie of the land in the north.
“Then a very lucky thing happened. One of the prison guards sold the story to the local paper that three Brits were being held and gave our names. It appeared in the evening newspaper in Sri Lanka where it got picked up by the London Evening Standard. My mother was having her hair done in her local hairdressers in Sloane Street when she read this item and rang my dad, who did a very funny thing! He asked his PA to get me on the line and she dialled the prison.
“They were so surprised to get an overseas call that I was summoned to the phone. I said ‘Hello’ and my father said ‘Nicky, what ARE you doing? The Evening Standard says you’re in prison. Your mother’s very worried!’ We were let out and deported the following morning.”
Nicholas Coleridge CV
1957 Born in London, the eldest of three brothers. Educated at Eton College before studying theology and art history at Trinity College, Cambridge.
1979 Joins Tina Brown’s Tatler as junior, working way up to deputy.
1982 Becomes columnist at the Evening Standard
1985 Met Georgia Metcalfe – they married four years later and have four children
1986 Made editor of Harpers & Queen
1989 Moves to Condé Nast as editorial director
1991 Named managing director, Condé Nast UK
2009 Appointed CBE
Watch Nicholas Coleridge talk about doing business in China