• October 23 2015

High standards

Nicholas Coleridge, President of Condé Nast International and an acclaimed author talks about press, digital and travel.

Georgia Dodou recently had the good fortune to breakfast at the Wolsely Hotel in London with Nicholas Coleridge, President of Condé Nast International and an acclaimed author. The conversation ranged over subjects as varied as the press and the digital era, travel, the new rules of the hospitality sector and the exciting challenges of an age of transition.

For more than a century now the magazines published by Condé Nast have enjoyed enormous success and prestige – and the secret of this success indisputably lies in the spirit of independence and originality that inspires them. They invariably rank among the finest publications available in their field in any country in which they are published – from the USA, where the company was founded in 1909 by Condé Montrose Nast, to Russia, Japan, Australia and Brazil. Vogue, Condé Nast Traveller, Glamour, GQ and Vanity Fair, to name just a few of the best-known of the company’s titles, are trusted, stylish chronicles of their times, recording the zeitgeist, initiating new trends, introducing new lifestyles. But their originality is not an abstract concept, an inspiration drawn out of thin air; rather, it is the result of ensuring the right people are in the right positions.

Nicholas Coleridge, President of Condé Nast International, makes the point forcefully: ‘Whatever the magazine, the most essential thing is to have the best possible editors. If you’re clever and lucky, you’ll find the right person and they’ll stay with you for years. Some of our editors, who’ve been with us for 20 years, have acquired an instinctive understanding of what we want to achieve, and that makes our work much easier. You also need to have a good sense of what the readers really want. I’ve learnt over the years that our readers don’t like radical changes. If there has to be change, they prefer it slow and gradual. So when a new colleague arrives and says ‘I want to change everything’, I advise him or her to be very cautious, because our readers wouldn’t care for too sweeping a change. Big changes have to be brought about slowly and circumspectly’.

There is no doubt that Mr Coleridge possesses exactly the keen vision he demands of his associates. The evidence is plain to see: 23 years in senior positions in Condé Nast International, and at the same time Managing Director of Condé Nast UK. He is grateful for the good fortune he has enjoyed: ‘I’ve worked at Condé Nast in various sectors, always alongside Jonathan Newhouse, Chairman and Chief Executive of Condé Nast International. I’m proud to say I’ve won numerous awards. I’m very fortunate to be doing something I like so much. It’s very fulfilling to work in a company which has been growing rapidly for the last 20 years, and which is producing something that you can take pride in, that is worth the effort. People working in finance, let’s say, don’t have much to show for it at the end of the year, just the profits they have made if prices have risen. But in our world, every thirty days a new publication is coming out. 7 times out of 10 you might look at it and think it could have been better, but you know that there’s always another opportunity the next month to get it right. It’s like the curtain going up in the theatre: you see all the advertisements are in place, the articles are there, the cover is there – and you take it home to read and really appreciate how good it is. There’s also a glamour to the business, and the kind of people working on magazines are often really interesting’.

G.D.: Obviously it’s very important to enjoy the work you do, and to meet interesting people. But how do you combine the extrovert temperament you need in the magazine world with your work as an author – a very successful one? Writers are usually described as rather solitary people…

Nicholas Coleridge: I keep the weekends for myself and my books, or at least the mornings, because I devote the rest of the day to my family. I like to get up early, around 6:45, to go down into the living room or, even better, to go out into the garden with my coffee and work on my latest book. I enjoy working outdoors, even if it’s drizzling, because I write with pen and paper, and so there’s no problem with computers and cables. I love these first hours of the day, especially when the sun is coming up behind the oak trees and melting away the morning dew. Sometimes when I think of special moments like that, I catch myself smiling, especially if no one is watching. My last novel, The Adventuress, was written in an enclosed garden at Wolverton, while everyone in the house was still asleep. I love writing, I find it really refreshing. It’s the one activity where I only have to worry about pleasing myself – and my publisher. Whereas the other areas of my life involve cooperation with lots of different people.

G.D.: One of those areas, unless I’m mistaken, is your work with British Wool.

N.C.: That’s right. I’m President of the British campaign to promote the wool industry, although it’s really global rather than British. We’re trying to persuade people to buy woollen clothes, because demand for wool has slumped worldwide, with serious consequences for sheep farming and for local economies, not to mention the ecological balance. This is a result of the prevalence of synthetic fibres, which are cheaper but extremely dangerous: if you bury in the earth a woollen blouse and one made of synthetic fibre, the first one will have disappeared without trace in just two years, while the second only needs a spin in the washing machine and it’s ready to wear again!

G.D.: I would never have guessed that the wool industry was in decline…

N.C.: I didn’t know either, until I started getting involved four years ago. It all started with the Prince of Wales, who set about raising awareness of the issue and gave his support to the campaign. People aren’t buying woollen clothes, so the price is falling now, yet we continue to spend more on synthetics, which are produced from oil. What could be more stupid than buying clothes made of oil? They make you sweat, and give you an electric shock when you touch them!

G.D.: The fact is that we’re living in a period of crisis, affecting everything, not just economic life, but many aspects of our lives. The press, for example has been profoundly affected by developments in technology, by the arrival and growth of the internet and online services. Magazines – your own area of activity – have seen their sales decline.

N.C.: It’s certainly true that magazines haven’t been growing in recent years, but it’s vital to realize that more copies are sold now than a few years ago, many more. There have been losses, obviously, but the people who continue to buy Vogue, for example, do so because they’re passionate about fashion and this magazine gives them exactly what they are looking for. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t buy it. It’s the same with Condé Nast Traveller; its average reader may only take five days’ vacation a year, but he goes on buying it not only because it provides particular information on a destination, a resort, a hotel, but also because he relishes the sensation of reading a beautifully produced magazine, with its illustrations, its opportunities to dream…

G.D.: The readers of these magazines are looking for something quite specific. I think what they seek is to share in what is, in a way, a ‘secret’ world…

N.C.: Absolutely! The magazine isn’t about the money you can spend on something; it’s about your desires and your appetite for information. The world can be divided into those who read magazines, and those who don’t. The latter are less well-informed, and less entertaining I would say!

G.D.: However, information is available on line. People are even talking now about the end of printed journalism, even the demise of the book in the form we know it.

N.C.: Magazines have been facing this challenge for ten years now, but people nowadays have a highly developed critical taste, and obviously it’s not at all an easy matter to reproduce the glamour and appeal of a high-class magazine on a computer screen. What’s more, readers tend to develop a very personal relationship with their magazines, and this gives me cause for optimism. When you’re on holiday, staying in a beautiful hotel, for example, sitting on the beach or by the pool and enjoying a drink while you read your magazine – it’s something you can have by you and pick up and read whenever you feel like it. So you can watch people with a magazine for a couple of hours, see them break for a swim, eat, go back to their room for a rest, and then the next day you come across them again and they’ve still got the magazine with them!

G.D.:  Maybe this reflects the personal relationship that is forged between the reader and the magazine. And anyway, you can read a magazine in the most unusual places. I don’t know if it’s the same as with movies – it’s different watching a film on the big screen from watching a DVD at home…

N.C.: Yes, that’s true…

G.D.: But like it or not, the digital era is upon us, and it must represent a challenge for you. How will it affect your business plans in the future?

N.C.: Well, we are already adapting. We’re doing amazing things in the digital area. We have more than a hundred websites, and the Vogue and Glamour sites attract huge numbers of visitors. The same with the Condé Nast Traveller site (the latest version, by the way, was just launched a few months ago in Dubai), which attracts about half a million visitors in each country. They use it exclusively for hotel information, and I think that this is a very helpful development for the traveller – in general, of course, travel sites are extremely popular. I don’t see the digital world replacing print and paper – magazines and newspapers. It’s about a different philosophy. In our company we see print as a kind of ‘mother’, it’s the heart of the business, followed by digital media. In their printed form our magazines have a reasonably good readership, because they tend to appeal to people with very high standards.

G.D.: You mentioned the recent launch in Dubai. Are there any other new developments we can expect in the immediate future?

N.C.: We’ve been continually active in recent years. There’s been a huge, very expensive but very successful launch in India; we’re preparing to launch GQ in Thailand and we have lots of plans for Germany…. We plan to bring out 5 or 6 new magazines, and the same number of websites, if not more. We are also working very hard to provide access to our magazines via iPhone, which will be of enormous importance to younger women reading Glamour in France, Germany, the UK, wherever… It’s a very convenient way of buying their favourite magazine to read it on the bus or the train on the way to work. But it’s difficult because of the high cost of the telephone connection, so we’re trying to help people get their money back via Apple stores, for example. We’ve invested in staff working in digital technology, they now make up nearly 20% of total personnel, while the other 80% are people with substantial experience in printed media.

G.D.: When you invest in a country, let’s say Russia, is the investment purely in a magazine? Or are you now thinking of an exclusively digital presence?

N.C.: So far we’ve only been issuing printed magazines. Moreover, advertisers still believe a presence in a printed medium is more effective than in a digital format. But it may be that one day we will have to start thinking about an exclusively digital presence.

G.D.: And we see you have now set up a college of fashion. What’s the idea behind this?

N.C.: We started last April, and the idea is to train people who are interested in fashion in a more general sense, not just in becoming fashion designers. We teach them how the industry works, how a fashion business is set up, how the marketing works, the importance of styling. The students are all graduates, they’ve done degrees in English, history or economics, but they want to acquire the knowledge and skills to get into the fashion business. The courses are intensive, and lead to a diploma. If you were Louis Vuitton, and you had 30 job applications and saw that one of them was from a graduate of the Condé Nast College, I’m sure that person would be on your shortlist of three candidates to be interviewed. The College is housed in two superb buildings and will be taking 250 students a year, from all over the world – America, China, Russia, Italy… we even have Greeks!

G.D.: It sounds great, you’re bringing together people from so many different cultures, but all with a shared interest in fashion. Is there any age limit?

N.C.: No upper age limit, but candidates have to be over 18, and have excellent English. Anyone can apply. Most candidates are interviewed via Skype, and have to do a project we assign them. The College’s Director has told me she’s impressed by the interest, given that the fees are quite high. But all our graduates will find it very easy to get jobs when they return to their native countries, so it’s a really good investment for them.

G.D.: Let’s return to the subject of magazines. Of all your publications, which is your favourite?

N.C.: It’s difficult. I really don’t have one favourite magazine. What I can say - and I’m talking about the British magazines here, but I could also talk about those of other countries, if you prefer – what I can say is this: Vogue is our flagship magazine, the most profitable of them all, and of course it has a big place in my heart. Glamour - despite the fact that at the outset we had serious reservations about the public response, because we’d never done a mass-market magazine – turned out to be a great success, and I’ve come to love it. There’s also the Tatler, which is the oldest magazine in Europe (first issued in 1709), of which I’m particularly fond, because it transports you to a world of very glamorous people. In fact we were the ones who rescued it; back in the 80’s it was losing so much money it was in danger of closing down. We bought it, supported it and now it’s come so far there is even a Russian version! We’re delighted by this, it’s a great success story. GQ, Vanity Fair and House & Garden are all beautifully written, and House & Garden is so English! And then there’s The World of Interiors, which is unusual, it showcases houses which no one else has access to, a mix of populism and simplicity – I think it’s a fine publication. The truth is I love all these, just as I love…

G.D.:  … the Condé Nast Traveller?

N.C.: Of course! I remember the day we started it, 16 years ago, as if it were yesterday. And I love it because I am such a passionate traveller myself. Obviously I have innumerable business trips, but I use the magazine to seek out unusual holiday destinations. I do what any reader does: look first at the illustrations, then the article, let’s say a hippopotamus park in Zambia, or wherever catches my eye, and then I look at the information on price, what it will cost me. Usually I’m taken aback by how expensive it will be – and then I get used to the idea…

G.D.: As a fanatical traveller, you must have particular requirements of the hotels you stay in. What is it you look for?

N.C.: I like a hotel to be very big, and in a location that allows views of the sea and the sunset. There should be nice areas around the pool with recliners covered with white towels, and the room has to have an attractive bathroom. The truth is my tastes are very simple; I just want to be allowed some privacy. I don’t need hundreds of servants fussing around me. In Indian hotels I get irritated by all the people asking for tips, and in New York I hate the way they try to charge you all sorts of taxes. Some visitors like having a personal butler for their suite, and having people asking you if everything is all right all the time. That’s not what I want; I want to be left alone, not have people asking me if I’m all right, without any good reason. On the other hand, I do appreciate a barman who notices me as soon as I walk in and serves me discreetly. Other things I hate are air conditioning that is turned up too high in the rooms, electronic room keys, and TVs that are on when you arrive in your room, with a Welcome message – I don’t call that a welcome, I don’t want to be greeted like that. Another pet hate is fussy lighting; I was at the Hyatt Ararat recently and there was a light I had to leave on all night – I just couldn’t find the switch! It was infuriating. This is a mistake that hotel managements make when they decide to renovate; they commission a good company of designers who will sub-contract to a particular technical support company, and the latter will naturally be anxious to show off the latest products, allowing the customer to do all sorts of amazing things with the lights, the stereo, the TV… But people just don’t occupy the rooms long enough to work out how all these things work. That’s why I don’t like all this technology.

G.D.: When it comes to food, what are your preferences?

N.C.: My tastes are fairly simple here too. That’s why I like Greek and Italian cuisine. If I hear a place has a Michelin star, alarm bells go off! I hate waiters who hover over you and keep refilling your wine glass – I’m not a big wine buff, by the way. I admire people with a knowledge of wine, but all I really want is a good red wine and to be left in peace to chat with my friends, without being distracted. I hate waiters who stand at your elbow and keep interfering. I want them to take my order without delay, and with a nice smile, but not to keep butting in and recommending dishes I don’t want. I think this kind of service has had its day, it irritates a lot of people now. People are better informed than they were, and the younger generation want less formality when they go to  a restaurant or hotel. Expectations have changed; all that has remained the same is that people want a pleasant room with a comfortable bed and a nice view. I think it’s very hard for hotels to get the balance right. Because visitors do want to be noticed when they arrive, but they don’t want a whole retinue following them around all day.