When Karen Blackett met Vanessa Kingori

Two titans of media come together to discuss diverse cover stars, urban myths, work-life blending and UK creativity. (Photography: Keziah Quarcoo)

When Karen Blackett met Vanessa Kingori

Vogue House’s first-floor boardroom, adorned with images of stars of yesteryear, is the meeting place for Karen Blackett OBE and Vanessa Kingori MBE, two remarkable women making waves today.

Kingori (pictured above, left), the first female publisher in Vogue’s 103-year history, is a member of the board of the University of the Arts London and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Brexit Expert Advisory Panel.

Blackett (pictured above, right), the WPP UK country manager and MediaCom chairwoman whose career spans almost 25 years, is not only a prominent figure in the industry but also a doughty champion of diversity. She is a trustee of the Sussex Royal Foundation, a Cabinet Office non-executive board member and the government’s race equality business champion.

The pair, who first met in 2012, are now firm friends. It’s clear that the years have enriched their friendship, as evidenced by the jokes and laughter that pepper their conversation. What was conceived originally as an interview of Kingori by Blackett turned into a fascinating discussion encompassing everything from diverse cover stars and shattering urban myths, through to work-life blending and UK creativity.

Karen Blackett: I feel as though I’ve known you for ages but I can’t remember how we met.

Vanessa Kingori: Honestly, you’ve felt ever-present in my life. We definitely met in my working life – I remember us immediately being great pals. I think it was at Downing Street, during Black History Month. Which is quite cool, isn’t it?

KB: And we clicked, which I think happens with most cheerleader relationships.

VK: Secretly, what had happened was I was a fangirl, you were the only woman at the top in adland who looked like me. Then somehow we met and I just remember pretending to be really nonchalant, like Karen who? [laughs] But it was important for me at that time. I was proud and inspired to meet a black woman who had defied the odds in our industry. It was a big deal to just know that you existed, let alone become friends.

KB: When you or I give speeches or presentations now, we talk about the importance of role models, or how one of our friends and cheerleaders calls it – a real model… that you have people that you can see, that you can turn to, that cheerlead.

VK: It’s that visibility thing, and if I’m honest I didn’t know how important it was at the time. But I can remember moments where I needed to push hard for something or ask for more in my role and having that moment of self-doubt, because there’s no-one who looks like me in my part of the industry – or there certainly wasn’t then. But then I’d think: Karen is where she is, and so there’s a possibility. I definitely remember feeling encouraged to be more audacious because I knew you existed in this space.

KB: For you, having started at the Evening Standard, then moved to Esquire and then GQ, did that help with a transition to a women’s magazine? Were there any lessons that you learnt from national newspapers and men’s magazines that you brought into Vogue?

VK: Definitely, so many. There’s something about being an outsider – even a woman in male spaces – where you learn to have a voice, to be bold and dig deep for confidence. Particularly after GQ. If I could run a men’s magazine and be the first woman to run that business, the youngest, the first person of colour, then why couldn’t I do a women’s? When people said "Oh, my gosh, you’re the first woman to run the Vogue business", it didn’t feel that scary. I’d been the first and only and excelled in far more challenging spaces.

KB: Loads of women work on women’s magazines, but to have women in the most senior positions is still rare. Why is that?

VK: A myriad reasons. In creative spaces, women are understood to have great soft skills. But when it comes to trusting us with the business side of things, the numbers, the more traditional roles of seniority, there’s still some nervousness. I had to work at least twice as hard and have my numbers absolutely solid to even be considered. I had to be doing much, much, much better than perhaps my male counterparts. But I’m sure that you see it at chief executive level. How do you find it?

KB: It’s still rare to find women in the most senior roles. Yet if you think about targeting, we have the understanding and empathy, we’ve also got the commercial skills.

VK: There’s still work to be done in understanding that we have strong commercial skills. I do see talented women getting to a certain level and "choosing" to opt out or frankly being pushed out. Because their work-life interface just isn’t workable with their organisations’ approach to working mothers, rules and cultures that are not necessarily set with reality or equality in mind. Often equality is not about "the same". After all, men and women aren’t physically the same – only women can carry a pregnancy, give birth and breastfeed, if they choose to.

Considerations are needed for women who might need to leave the workforce for a fraction of their working lives to do this essential, female-only work. Some younger organisations build in flexibility from the off, which allows talented women to remain in the pipeline and have an opportunity to rise to the most senior levels. That’s a big contributor as well as better paternity laws and organisational culture. If men routinely took months out of the workforce and experienced how this might impact careers, we would see a big shift in the way women are treated while on leave.

KB: It’s about normalising being a working mum, or a working woman.

VK: The perception of potential maternity leave plays into this. I’ve been in discussions about who to promote, where the conversation falls to "Hmm, isn’t she about to get married, that means she’s probably about to…" and that person is out of the running because of something that might happen. She might not even want to have children. This is a challenge for all women, but also for everyone, because great leadership is great leadership. If you could have the best person at the top, irrespective of gender, then we all rise. As if having your son is going to stop you, Karen.

KB: Having Isaac has made me more productive. 

VK: I’m interested in how you feel being a mother has changed your approach to work?

KB: I genuinely think I’m more impatient; I’ve got other things to do. I want change quickly to make things better for him, for when he’s ready to come through into the workforce. I’m just as ambitious, I’m more productive. The shape of how I work is what’s changed, the ebb and flow is different. I always talk about work-life blend, rather than work-life balance, because work is life and life is work – it’s about how you blend the two. I’ve always been passionate about talent and equality, but when you see the world through the lens of your child…

VK: Everything changes…

KB: It makes you more passionate; you want things to be fair. You want them judged on talent and their ability, nothing else.

Forces for change

Throughout 2020, British 
Vogue will be supporting the people, organisations and ideas it deems to be forces for positive change, as the title believes "a new decade calls for more focus on transforming social norms". Forces for Change, which launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, will see Vogue feature content on this theme across all platforms and mediums, including editorial and live experiences at events such as Cannes Lions and Tokyo 2020 Olympics. BMW and Nike are official partners of the initiative.

Working with Edward

KB: For you, coming into this role on Vogue, with a creative partner like Edward [Enninful OBE, editor-in-chief of British Vogue and the title’s first male editor], what’s that been like?

VK: It’s been amazing, career-transforming for me. We knew each other before, but when we got together to talk about this project, we were finishing each other’s sentences. A lot of my objectives, things that I’d seen and what pains me about the media industry historically and going forward, he was there already, with a lot of anecdotes that we had long conversations about.

KB: How did you know each other before?

VK: We’re both from west London. Also, a project had come up a few years before, when he was based in New York, and there was discussion about us working together, but it didn’t happen. The great thing about working with him now is that we start talking and want to tackle these big topics. What’s great is that we have pretty opposite approaches 

to the same challenge; he’s a creative mind, but somebody who respects the commercial imperative, and vice versa. It is collaborative. The old kind of church-state relationship – it doesn’t work anymore because consumers don’t see the world in that way. They don’t say: "Well, that’s advertising so I’m going to look at it and consume it in a different way to this, which is editorial." All content needs to measure up; it all needs to fit into the same mission. We also have a great managing director, Albert Read, who completes our trinity and adds an additonal layer to our thinking.

KB: And are there discussions where there’s something that he wants to say no to, or vice versa?

VK: Constantly. That’s our whole relationship. He will say, I don’t think we should work with that partner. And it’s counterintuitive, but because I understand what our bigger mission and vision is, sometimes we have to turn projects away.

KB: And have you seen that church-state relationship change as you’ve gone up in your career and the industry has evolved?

VK: There’s been big change. I remember in national press, we sat on a completely different floor to the editorial team. And it was a big deal to get the lift up and go to the editorial floor. The feeling of the sales floor was like a different company. Whereas I think now, the whole business of magazines and media brands is quite different. The element that’s leading our business is branded content, so my guys need to really understand the DNA of the magazine and be able to go out and present that. And the whole commercial landscape is completely different because we’re seriously working with our digital platforms now. We’re looking at the whole picture. Who’s on our cover? Does that make sense with everything else we’re doing? The whole PR, marketing, brand-perception piece is much more important to everything I do.

KB: It’s tough for print titles, and it’s tough in the luxury sector. But in terms of the amount of decline going on in the sector altogether, British Vogue is outperforming the market. Is part of that because of your focus on branded content? Is part of that because of how you decided to make Vogue much more inclusive?

VK: I think part of it is being authentic. From my perspective, in the print world a lot of brands have only recently started thinking about how to stem revenue decline. By which point, it’s already run away from you. We’re very lucky with Vogue that we have a brilliant brand platform. There’s hardly anywhere in the world that people don’t know Vogue.

KB: But it still has to evolve…

VK: When I came on board, many said you’ve got an easy job, you can just keep things going. Well, from my perspective, nothing lasts forever. And we need to use our strength now to do the futureproofing, rather than once things start to slip. There were a lot of difficult changes we had to make around digital: how we engage socially, what the magazine does. It’s hard to convince people to change until they feel the pain, but when you feel the pain it’s often too late.

KB: Did that mean that you had to change people?

VK: I believe everyone should have the chance to get on board. When you join a big brand like Vogue, and I’m still the youngest publisher in Condé Nast Britain, it’s hard for people to hear you. Some people had been working on Vogue longer than I’ve been in work. To say we need to change things up and this is about futureproofing the brand, which is about futureproofing your world… For some people it works, some people it doesn’t, so we tried to infuse new people in order to inspire our existing team.

KB: And where did you get those new people from?

VK: That’s a really complicated question, because we were pushing for diversity of perspective and people who are different. But when you have a brand where there’s a perception that doors aren’t open, I kept hearing: "Well, those people don’t apply here, so maybe they don’t exist." So we had to cast our net wider. I had to bring people in on shorter contracts, because a lot of people from diverse backgrounds thought they wouldn’t have a good time here. And then I had this double challenge: the pool of people applying for roles looked like everybody in the roles already and anyone else thought, I don’t belong there. And to a certain extent, internally, people were saying: "We’ve put it out there on all our channels and they’re not coming, so you’re asking for something that doesn’t exist." And that, on the business side, is something I still need to work on.

KB: And are the changes slowly happening?

VK: We’ve been very successful on evolving the creative and editorial team. And that’s infusing change across the wider team. It’s really fulfilling to see that change happen. I always want more though.

On the cover of a magazine: September 2018, May 2019, September 2019 and December 2019

Dispelling urban myths

KB: Let’s talk about urban myths. It was "fact" that if you put a woman of colour on the front cover of a magazine, sales would decline. If you put a woman over 40 on the cover of a magazine, sales would decline. And if you put a woman that wasn’t size eight on the magazine, you wouldn’t sell anything. What you, Edward and the team at Vogue have done is shatter some urban myths – but how did you do it?

VK: Everyone has this strapline of "normalising the marginalised" in our industry; we thought it was going to take us a few years. First, we would never put someone on the cover just because they were different. We have to have good reason, because readers want to know more about them, so no tokenism. A lot of this is frankly Edward’s bravery. He knew that I bought into it and would work to show his choices are business sound. One of our first conversations was about our shared frustration of going to cover meetings month-in, month-out, hearing things that I just knew were not true about who the public would or wouldn’t be drawn to. But if everyone in the room is nodding, saying that’s the case, then how can I disagree with it? Edward said to me, we can do this, but unless there is commercial success we won’t be able to continue to challenge these myths.

KB: Bit of pressure?

VK: But he was right. If it doesn’t work once, we’re shot down, we’re at the end of the story. To make it work, there had to be a bigger piece about what we do behind every cover. We immediately started thinking about wider exposure. We used a lot of mechanisms to make sure it wasn’t the same group of people who’d possibly already bought into the old myths. Before, there was reluctance to use social media around Vogue, which from where I stood seemed like a huge missed opportinity. One of the things we did is to say to every single cover star and every single person who’s worked on that cover, whether it be the nail technician, the hair stylist, the photographer, the talent, the PR team: here is an image of the cover before it’s released, post it on your own platform and be proud to be a part of this amazing moment. That amplified our audience, which in turn boosted sales.

KB: You had a cover community?

VK:  Yes, so on your feed in the days leading up to a Vogue cover being released, people would see the cover again and again, from someone in marketing or a famous make-up artist, and then that would drive "I want to buy the new Vogue, see what the fuss is about", so almost all of our cover stars have been number one on Google search around the time of their launch. This has a postive effect on sales. In the past, in the few instances where covers with people of difference were produced in our industry, they would often be underpromoted as it was felt they would underperform. It’s been incredible to dispel these myths.

KB: Which covers have stood out for you?

VK: Our September 2019 issue, which was guest edited by the Duchess of Sussex, is now the highest-selling issue of the past decade, and the fastest-selling issue ever of Vogue. That cover features no-one who would ever have been featured before. Our second best-selling issue was Rihanna in September 2018. When we did Rihanna on the cover, there had never been a woman of colour on the September issue of British Vogue. It was beautiful and sold like hotcakes. Globally, people were talking about it.

But, beyond that, the idea that British Vogue was challenging these myths started to pepper through other media brands. A seminal point in my career was going to the newsstand and for the first time seeing every single cover of a women’s magazine adorned with a person of colour. It felt like the industry was thinking: "This is what Edward is going to do and we can’t be left behind." Having someone lead and take a chance had inspired the broader landscape.

KB: And are you able to share what that meant in terms of revenue growth?

VK: Put simply, our profits are up across the board – and at a time when ad budgets are being cut. The purpose-driven agenda has driven branded-content revenue, which is up 750% in 2018, and digital, which was up 45%. People feel we can authentically deliver more complicated narratives for them, without it being clumsy.

KB: Brands hadn’t been coming to you and asking for it, but you were taking a stand and then brands got on board?

VK: Of course we had to adjust our business proposition as well, hire differently, the people who could deliver on that branded content with our advertisers. But we gave people more options to invest in Vogue – and options that were more interesting.

KB: And it would be remiss of me not to mention the two Cannes Lions sitting on the table… for The Non-Issue issue of Vogue with L’Oréal, which is one of our WPP clients.

VK: We wanted to challenge myths around women and ageing. The team working on that issue were predominantly women over 50 and the cover star Jane Fonda is the oldest cover star who’s ever been featured on Vogue. To some people, particularly the established members of our business, it felt like, this wasn’t going to work. But the notes we’ve received from readers were so emotional and passionate; people loved it. And globally, it’s been fascinating because now several other Vogues are going to repurpose that content or do their own versions of The Non-Issue.

KB: I’m 50 next year, just letting you know, if you need me to feature…

VK: You’re going to have to come up with something else – hell, 50 is the new 30, you’re young. Jane Fonda’s in her eighties.

KB: I’m not hanging on that long [laughs].

VK: To win the two Cannes Lions, and we won multiple other awards for that work, it was another moment where those people who thought it was a vanity thing rather than a real thing saw that it’s not about proving a point and it isn’t virtue signalling. It is genuinely about showcasing beauty, so we’re pretty proud of that.

The UK as a creative powerhouse

KB: And the content has been syndicated across the globe. I’m passionate about the UK’s creative industries and want to ensure that, even with how our economic and political world is changing, we still remain a beacon for creative talent.

VK: I think it’s an interesting time because our company has, for the first time ever, got a global CEO, Roger Lynch, who is ushering in great meaningful global conversations. What’s really fascinating is that so much of British Vogue’s content is already syndicated globally. The talent we have is world class and has been for a long, long time – from designers to regular collaborators, talent like Pat McGrath MBE or Charlotte Tilbury MBE from a make-up perspective, and our photographers, the likes of Nick Knight OBE. We’re not working with them because they’re British talent, we’re working with them because they’re the best in the world. 

Our content – and also our perspective – is global because Britain is so global, it always has been. We’re an island that has always relied on immigration. The DNA of British creativity is built on multicultural perspectives.

KB: Therefore we automatically get diversity of thought?

VK: Yes, it’s built in, it therefore works in other settings. We already have a global outlook and I hope Britain manages to retain that.

KB: I love to think of WPP as the Avengers Assemble of talent, because it’s about everybody having a superhero power – that diversity of talent – coming together and working as a team. That’s what wins.

VK: And it’s always great to be in a WPP room, because you’re suddenly like, wow, everybody’s kind of different.

KB: And you’ve been judging the Mayor of London’s campaign for diversity in advertising?

VK: I’d been trying to articulate to people internally why we need diversity of thought. And when you talk about diversity as a black woman, what people hear, or think they hear, is: let’s introduce more people of colour, or let’s introduce more women. 

But my point is that if we had all black women, we’d have the same problem. If we had all any women… We need different perspectives. Judging the Mayor of London/Transport for London competition, the 2019 winning creative described how she came up with her slogan for Holland & Barrett’s campaign around the menopause, which was Me.No.Pause. It was brilliant. She’s Japanese, English is her second language, so she has to sound everything out phonetically – no-one else had seen the word like that. And that’s diversity of perspective; coming at it from a completely different angle to get overall better content.

KB: Diversity isn’t a problem to fix. It’s the solution; the solution to growth.

VK: And I hope Vogue proves that. Our numbers, our growth, and the overall growth in the profile, as well as revenues, shows that having content fuelled by diverse perspectives leads to creativity.