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by Phil Stott | August 27, 2009


AP Photo/Stephen Chernin

Round one seems to have started already in the battle forthe future of the Condé Nast publishing empire. In case you missed it,consulting outfit McKinsey was called in a few weeks ago in an attempt to turnaround their ailing business. Much more difficult to miss is what's looming onthe horizon: the folks at McK have selected the Vogue and Traveler titlesas their two case studies in determining how best to cut costs and realign thecompany's web strategy. Vogue, ofcourse, is helmed by Anna Wintour, a doyenne of the fashion world known as muchfor her irascible nature and extravagant lifestyle (much of it on the companydime) as her visionary leadership.

The notion of a team of consultants going through the booksat Vogue and recommending spendingcuts to an editor who routinely spends hundreds of thousands of dollars onaccommodations for her traveling party at events such as Paris fashion week isan enticing one indeed. Wintour, lest we forget, is widely acknowledged to havebeen the inspiration behind the character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (the ice-queenplayed by Meryl Streep in the movie). Oh,to be a fly on the wall where hard business strategy collides with the conceptof "necessary" excess in the fashion world. Somewhere, somehow, therehas to be a winner—either the world's most famous consulting  firm, or the world's most famous fashionistawill come out on top.

Quite apart from the spectacle of the fight over expenseaccounts and clothing allowances, however, is a much more seriousconsideration—not only for Vogue, butCondé Nast as a whole and, by extension, much of the publishing industry.According to the NewYork Observer, one of the biggest problems facing the company—and thereforeMcKinsey—is its failure to embrace the Internet thus far. Among the problems,according to the article, are that "Vogue is representedonline by and Traveler by, ratherthan by their own brand names." Not to worry though; apparently AnnaWintour "is beginning to 'get the Web'"—a development that the Observer wryly notes may well have beenprompted by the arrival of McKinsey.

Whether or not Wintour has begun to "get the Web"in the last couple of months is surely beside the point. It's hard to imagineany executive, in any industry, being able to get away with not having adetailed plan, let alone a basic understanding of how to take advantage of theInternet. Perhaps, having been used to working in an industry where trends comeand go in an instant, Wintour had imagined that the Internet would be littlemore than another passing fad. As the years have rolled by, however, it mustsurely have become apparent to someone, somewhere, that it was going to last.Given her acerbic personality, however, it remains to be seen whether anyonewould have dared to suggest a different strategy to her; according to a recentMaureen Dowd column in the NewYork Times, there is only one person at Voguewilling to "tweak" Wintour—her creative director, although evenshe admits that "sometimes I feel like killing her."

No business in today's economy can afford to be in thrall toa single personality the way Vogue isto Wintour. Especially when that personality shows a fatal indifference tokeeping up with the times and seismic changes within their industry. As I saidabove, the outcome—and aftermath—of McKinsey's analysis of the magazine shouldbe interesting for more than a mere clash of ideals, and titans of theirrespective industries. On one hand, it could provide a roadmap for execsseeking to maximize their own web presence. On the other, it could also end upproviding a graphic illustration of the dangers of having a leader no one daresquestion. 


Filed Under: Workplace Issues