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When Execs Don't Know What's In 'Vogue'

Round one seems to have started already in the battle for the 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 turn around their ailing business. Much more difficult to miss is what's looming on the horizon: the folks at McK have selected the Vogue and Traveler titles as their two case studies in determining how best to cut costs and realign the company's web strategy.

Anna Wintour
AP
Anna Wintour

Vogue, of course, is helmed by Anna Wintour, a doyenne of the fashion world known as much for her irascible nature and extravagant lifestyle (much of it on the company dime) as her visionary leadership.

The notion of a team of consultants going through the books at Vogue and recommending spending cuts to an editor who routinely spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on accommodations for her traveling party at events such as Paris fashion week is an enticing one indeed.

Wintour, lest we forget, is widely acknowledged to have been the inspiration behind the character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada(the ice-queen played by Meryl Streep in the movie). Oh, to be a fly on the wall where hard business strategy collides with the concept of "necessary" excess in the fashion world. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a winner—either the world's most famous consulting firm, or the world's most famous fashionista will come out on top.

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Quite apart from the spectacle of the fight over expense accounts and clothing allowances, however, is a much more serious consideration—not only for Vogue, but Condé Nast as a whole and, by extension, much of the publishing industry. According to the New York Observer, one of the biggest problems facing the company—and therefore McKinsey—is its failure to embrace the Internet thus far. Among the problems, according to the article, are that "Vogue is represented online by style.com and Traveler by concierge.com., rather than by their own brand names." Not to worry though; apparently Anna Wintour "is beginning to 'get the Web'"—a development that the Observer wryly notes may well have been prompted 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 imagine any executive, in any industry, being able to get away with not having a detailed plan, let alone a basic understanding of how to take advantage of the Internet. Perhaps, having been used to working in an industry where trends come and go in an instant, Wintour had imagined that the Internet would be little more than another passing fad. As the years have rolled by, however, it must surely have become apparent to someone, somewhere, that it was going to last. Given her acerbic personality, however, it remains to be seen whether anyone would have dared to suggest a different strategy to her; according to a recent Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times, there is only one person at Vogue willing to "tweak" Wintour—her creative director, although even she admits that "sometimes I feel like killing her."

No business in today's economy can afford to be in thrall to a single personality the way Vogue is to Wintour. Especially when that personality shows a fatal indifference to keeping up with the times and seismic changes within their industry. As I said above, the outcome—and aftermath—of McKinsey's analysis of the magazine should be interesting for more than a mere clash of ideals, and titans of their respective industries. On one hand, it could provide a roadmap for execs seeking to maximize their own web presence. On the other, it could also end up providing a graphic illustration of the dangers of having a leader no one dares question.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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