At a time when magazines of all stripes are suffering through tough times, David Carey is in an enviable spot. As publisher of Portfolio, Condé Nast’s controversial new business magazine, he’s got nowhere to go but up.
Since it’s launch earlier this year, Portfolio has been, perhaps, the most closely watched magazine launch in history. Media pundits said the company was off its rocker for starting a new title in a struggling category already dominated by established brands like Fortune, Forbes, and BusinessWeek. But few can argue with the magazine’s trajectory. It’s largely been up and away.
In an exclusive interview at a seminar on the future of business media, I talked with Carey to gather some insights into the decision-making behind the magazine’s launch. Carey appeared on a panel on consumer magazines with Keith Fox, president of BusinessWeek Group, John Koten, chief executive of Mansueto Ventures (publishers of Inc. magazine), and Susan Clark, a marketing director and regional publisher for The Economist. Afterward, I buttonholed Carey.
While most media industry experts consider the business magazine segment heavily saturated by prominent brands, Carey says Condé Nast saw “lots of white space.” Business magazine readers are predominantly older white males. They were failing to reach those under 40, and more important, female business executives, he explains.
Women are being increasingly represented in the executive suite, but not in the tradional media business titles. That seems to explain the decision to hire former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Joanne Lippman as Portfolio’s editor-in-chief. She puts a decidedly female face on an executive office that traditionally has been an all-male bastion. Although underserved, Carey said they discovered a tremendous interest in business news among those groups.
From there, Condé Nast applied a formula that has worked exceedingly well across titles as diverse as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. It made sure Portfolio delivered incredibly high production value and contained content designed to maximize its shelf life. “Advertisers were looking for something where their ads would look good, and Portfolio is the best looking [magazine] in its category,” he says.
As for the editorial, articles for the most part were written with shelf life in mind. They can be read now or a month from now and still have relevance and value, he says. Of course, the content has drawn the most scrutiny of all. From the hiring of Lippman, who had no previous magazine experience, to her hiring of a high-powered staff (and the subsequent defections of some), to the less than overwhelming impact of the first issue’s articles, critics have had a field day.
Some said subjects received fawning treatment, and they quickly branded Portfolio the Vanity Fair of business magazines. Still others chronicled Lippman’s seemingly unending intramural sparring with staff members and her supposed lack of magazine savvy.
“People overthought the first issue,” Carey says. “They thought it would be the same for the next 100 years.” But he says the four-month gap until the publication of the second issue was not without purpose. During that time, Condé Nast engaged in a barrage of marketing surveys.
Even he and Lippman went so far as to have their business cards blown into some issues, Carey revealed. He says he received more than 1,000 personal e-mails in response, and Lippman received an equal number. The surveys showed that content was, indeed, a little soft.
“People said, ‘Where’s the ‘must read? It’s not a ‘must read.’ But how about a must enjoy [reading]?” Carey says. Subsequent issues have contained harder-hitting features. “Sure, we’ve toughened it up a bit,” he says. But each issue has been better than the preceding issue, and that’s pretty much the way they expected things to go, he adds.
Even Lippman’s well-publicized falling out with some high-profile staff members is overblown, he says. The magazine has a staff of 150, and only eight have left. Portfolio, he says, has one of the lowest turnover rates in the company.
One of Lippman’s more curious moves has been her decision to avoid featuring people on the magazine’s cover, which is considered an industry must. Instead, she’s featured such things as automated assembly lines and meshing gears.
In part, says Carey, it’s to distinguish Portfolio from competitors. But the magazine is also to trying to create high-concept, artistic covers in keeping with its high production values. He said, however, that individuals will be integrated into the mix on future covers.”We’ll cycle people in, where appropriate,” he says.