INTERNATIONAL: Rise and rise of the publishing dynasty with a feeling for upmarket glossies that travel - It was a true rags-to-riches story of a US publishing empire built from nothing, Alasdair Reid says

The name Advance Publications doesn’t carry much resonance on this side of the Atlantic. Those who have heard of the group probably know it only as the holding company for Conde Nast. But there’s a lot more to it than that - and glossy magazines aren’t even the most important part of what it does.

The name Advance Publications doesn’t carry much resonance on this

side of the Atlantic. Those who have heard of the group probably know it

only as the holding company for Conde Nast. But there’s a lot more to it

than that - and glossy magazines aren’t even the most important part of

what it does.



Advance has a 33 per cent stake in the Time Warner cable network

operation and 25 per cent of the Discovery channel. It owns the New

Yorker and America’s biggest circulation weekly, Parade. It’s also a

force to be reckoned with in the book world - its Random House division

is the world’s largest English-language general interest book publishing

company. And Advance remains a major player in its oldest core business,

newspaper publishing, which still accounts for 40 per cent of its

dollars 5 billion annual turnover.



There’s a good reason for the relative obscurity of the Advance name -

it is overshadowed by the fame of its owners, the Newhouse clan, one of

America’s legendary media dynasties. Its founder, Samuel I ’Si’

Newhouse, followed a classic rags-to-riches trajectory. In 1911, as a

16-year-old working as a lawyer’s clerk, he was asked to sort out the

affairs of an ailing newspaper that the lawyer had acquired as part

payment of a debt. Against all odds, Newhouse not only kept it afloat

but turned the title around. Ten years later, he had bought his own

newspaper and by the 50s he had a string of titles around New York and

the Eastern states.



Then came magazines and the heart of the Newhouse legend. Asked by his

wife to bring home a woman’s magazine - so the story goes - he went out

and bought the whole Vogue operation. The empire continued to expand

under his son, Si Newhouse junior, Advance’s current chairman and chief

executive, who is also credited with having an unerring feel for glossy

magazine publishing.



One of his master strokes was reviving the jazz-era title, Vanity

Fair.



He is renowned for his relentless pursuit of excellence. Again,

according to mythology, Newhouse always refused to tell editors what

their budgets were - he just signed the cheques.



Recession in the early 90s, which pushed many of the group’s titles into

the red, put paid to that policy; and the new, leaner, meaner regime was

overseen by Steven Florio, when he moved over from the New Yorker to

become president of Conde Nast in 1994. Most Conde Nast titles became

profitable again within a year.



Magazines may not be the biggest earner at Advance, but they remain the

company’s highest profile properties - and the most dynamic part of

Advance’s recent history has been the global expansion of the Conde Nast

brand, almost always by exporting titles from the US portfolio to new

territories.



The company owns 43 magazines in 13 countries encompassing ’every

habitable continent’ on the planet and it is currently in a vigorous

expansion phase.



Recent projects include the launches of Vogue in Japan and Russia, Conde

Nast Traveller in Italy, GQ in Australia, House and Garden in South

Africa and the acquisition of the bridal title, Sposa Bella, in Italy

and Portugal.



More could well be on the way, but according to Jonathan Newhouse,

chairman of Conde Nast International (he is Si junior’s cousin, and heir

apparent to the family empire), there is no ’Germanic’ masterplan:

’Although rival international publishers have more titles, we actually

have more magazine concepts - a greater variety in our portfolio. Having

said that, because we are more upmarket than our competition, in some

ways we face more restrictions.



’Although Hachette and Hearst are in India, that market probably isn’t

ready for something like Vogue. When it is, we will launch the best

magazine in India.’



Advance has also developed individual titles into branded online

information services, with news, listings and city guides. Most of the

titles have Websites, the most active being Conde Nast Traveller, which

offers everything from hotel and restaurant guides to atlases and

weather updates.



Surprisingly, the company has yet to exploit the most obvious

cross-media link - between magazines and television programming. It

tentatively explored this area last year with three Conde Nast titles

looking at programming for the Discovery Channel. But progress has been

slow and Advance, which is an extremely devolved company, isn’t ideally

structured to leverage cross-media opportunities.



There’s a more obvious reason, though. It’s just not comfortable with

the idea of ’masthead programming’. Jonathan Newhouse maintains that

there is little common ground between TV and magazines: ’It’s a very

different creative process and the danger is that you cheapen the brand

and confuse both readers and advertisers,’ he says.



And Conde Nast, more than any other publisher, guards its brands

ferociously.



As Newhouse states: ’Our aim is not to be the biggest - it is to be the

best.’



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