Conde Nast and business magazines: the forgotten history

The media world is atwitter about the launch of Portfolio, the new business magazine from Conde Nast. Vast sums are being lavished on the magazine and (to my mind) an unprecedented two years has been spent gearing up to the launch issue. Even with that lead time, readers are going to have to wait until August for the second issue.

None of the coverage I’ve read, however, has remarked that Conde Nast has been down this road before, and it all ended in tears. In the mid-80s, Conde Nast launched Business, a handsome, groundbreaking business magazine. Never heard of it? Ah, that’s because it was a British business magazine, destined in the minds of its creators to create a whole new category of publication in Britain.

I’m acutely aware of the history because not long after Business launched in 1987, I was recruited from a small design magazine to take on the editorship of Britain’s leading business magazine, Management Today. For years Management Today had existed in a cosy duopoly with Director. Both were decent, serious magazine, and profitable for their owners. Neither, however, treated business with the personality and exuberance long common in the big US publications like Fortune and Forbes. Business set out to right that omission.

The time, after all, seemed ripe for such a move. Since becoming prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher had dramatically transformed the business climate in the UK. Sleepy nationalized industries were privatized, cosy financial cabals dominated by old school ties were being overwhelmed by US, Japanese, German and Swiss competitors, and business looked, in an odd way, sexy.

Because the publishing mandarins at Vogue House, Conde Nast’s UK headquarters, knew little about business and had zero credibility, Business was published in a joint venture with the Financial Times. These days, the FT is filled with modern, well-tailored folk, but back in the ’80s, it was a den of ink-stained scribes, published from an overcrowded, eccentric building next door to St Paul’s Cathedral. In theory the joint venture made perfect sense: magazine smarts combined with business credibility.

The resulting magazine seemed to bear that out. Business, designed by Pentagram’s David Hillman, looked beautiful and the gaggle of experienced journalists, many from The Sunday Times, produced a stream of well-written, compelling articles. As the editor of the main rival, this was largely good news. We redesigned and reinvigorated Management Today, which some folks had previously dubbed Management Toady (rightly, to my mind). In the way economics would suggest, the entrant of a well-funded rival also had the effect of expanding the market, certainly in terms of advertising. Big corporate advertisers and a smattering of luxury goods advertisers now saw business magazines as an appropriate place for their campaigns.

But there was a rub. Business never really gained the kind of circulation it needed to be sustaining (Management Today and Director both had large, guaranteed circulations through institutional memberships). It was just too hard to convince enough people that business features were really compelling. And the ferocious newspaper competition in Britain, which has no equivalent in the US, meant that many potential readers felt that their business reading needs were more than adequately covered.

Running the competition, I was hardly an insider to the decision making at Business. But as the project ran further and further into the red, the cultural gap of the joint venture was badly exposed. Privately owned Conde Nast, so I was led to believe, wanted to persist. It believed the market could be created, but patience was needed. The FT folk, on the other hand, as part of a big, public conglomerate, had little tolerance for the red ink. And they found little in common with the fashionable crowd at Vogue House. Exacerbating the problem was that the FT had its own need to capture a greater business readership in the UK (which is still a problem). So the FT side of the venture wanted to pull the plug.

Even a cursory reading of business history will tell you that joint ventures are just about the most ill-fated of corporate arrangements. And so it proved with Business. The parties were irreconcilable and a very good magazine vanished only a few years after it launched.

I have no idea whether Portfolio will thrive or thrash. But its owners will certainly be more steadfast than that ill-fated UK JV. Conde Nast chairman SI Newhouse, asked about the reported $100 million commitment over five years, told The New York Times it was “something of a myth”: “We’re going to stay with Portfolio.”

3 thoughts on “Conde Nast and business magazines: the forgotten history

  1. mangy cat

    That fracas would be about the same time the FT, in some spat with Reuters, took Excel into a joint venture with AFP, to set up the real time news wire AFX.
    Along the timeline the foreseeable cross-channel cultural miscegenation led it to sell its half to the French for a pittance.

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