Merging Brands with Technology
Condé Nast CTO Joe Simon on the company's new digitally-focused strategic plan.
The problem with the speed of technology development is that for companies that have legacy systems—a particularly thorny issue with publishers—building a new system to replace an old one often then becomes a legacy itself in only a matter of a couple years. A major contributing factor is strategy, which itself is a moving target when the technology that’s being developed that’s supposed to support it changes so dramatically that goals and outcomes are no longer lining up.
You only have to go back five years or so to see this play out. Publishers wrestled with whether to stick with a brand-centric digital approach, create a multichannel portal strategy, or both. Should digital content be free or paid? And along with that, whether to build a centralized and separate digital operation to carry out those strategies—all while print, at the time, still remained the primary channel.
And then came mobile, which has without a doubt finally cemented in the minds of executives the reality that consumers want to access their content from any platform at any time. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that separately-priced products under the same brand may be less attractive to consumers than a universal approach that for one price grants access to a brand across any channel.
When Condé Nast’s Bob Sauerberg was elevated to president of the company in the summer of 2010, a major transition began that focused on digital connectivity and technology development.
To build (or rebuild, in this case) the infrastructure necessary to support that transition, Sauerberg hired Joe Simon into the newly created position of CTO. Simon notably came from outside the publishing community where he was CTO at Viacom. Here, FOLIO: catches up with Simon to see how things have progressed since he started two years ago, where Condé Nast’s tech infrastructure priorities currently are and how the company is meeting the content demands of its customers.
FOLIO: What were your priorities when you first started two years ago?
Joe Simon: The biggest one was a priority that we jointly came up with—to be more agile and flexible.
Invariably, especially with media companies, the connection between technology and the brands is a little hard to separate, especially when the brands have been around for a while. They’re used to working a particular way and technology works a bit differently, so it becomes hard to separate the two. This meant cutting down the number of platforms we supported, the various components we had, and trying to streamline that as much as possible. Now we don’t try to build from the lowest level up, but rather we build on top of platforms.
There was nothing wrong with what we had, but it was from the late 90s and a lot of people moved on from that.
FOLIO: So the brands were supported by different platforms?
Simon: Oh, no, no. There was a group called Condé Nast Digital. Back then, we didn’t have the kind of tools and capabilities that we have today in the marketplace. You had to create stuff. All we had were operating systems and maybe a decent Web serving platform. CMSs and video players were hard to come by, social tools were just being thought of and blogging tools were coming of age. Now that’s all much more mature, and definitely in a place where we can pick a tool set and stick with it. Obviously we can build on top of it if we need something special, but not from the lowest level up.
FOLIO: Talk about your approach to these changes. How have you worked to achieve these goals?
Simon: We started with understanding what we had. Our Web platform consisted of over 90 tools for each website. Together it was called the Magazine Publishing Platform, but it was hard to call it a platform—and we had three versions of it.
We had to rationalize it, and we went through a selection and standardization process. We have been slowly moving down that path.
One of the things we considered when selecting these tools was to pick something that gave the editorial staff a lot more flexibility.
The publishing used to be done through the technology group, but that didn’t really help. We should let [the editors] publish whenever they feel like—within reasonable quality standards, you don’t want to publish something that hasn’t been QCed.
FOLIO: Even since you first came on board, things have changed very quickly in the industry. How did that impact your initial priority set?
Simon: We lucked out a little bit. We made a bet that most likely the iPad was going to be the one that had a large acceptance by the consumer base. While we do have a platform that works on Android and soon we’ll have one for Windows 8, we made the bet that this is where we saw a lot of the buying. Then we formed a very good partnership with Adobe. Together with our design and creative skills and their programing skills, we developed DPS and that is becoming the industry standard now.
FOLIO: Your position was a newly created one. How does that reflect the broader digital infrastructure changes Bob Sauerberg was looking to create?
Simon: Bob really wants to change or move Condé more in the direction of calling it a media company, and not a publishing company.
It’s a tough thing to do, but I think we have been doing it right. Most people, including Condé Nast, used to set up a new digital group and say ‘you are the future, go to it.’ This doesn’t work in the long run, and brands reject them.
FOLIO: Why is that?
Simon: The brands don’t understand what the digital guys are doing. You will most likely have different ideas on where the brand should go, and it always causes angst and confusion.
We have been moving functions back into where they should be. Ad sales for instance—we had a separate sales force for digital and we moved them back and integrated them with traditional sales. Same thing with consumer marketing. If you want to say that the company needs to be digital, we need to move all the functions in that direction. We moved a lot more of the content formatting responsibilities back into the brands. So when they finalize print they also finalize the digital editions. They are also responsible for Web content, which was not the case. All throughout the company we have been moving slowly down this path of changing existing analogue capabilities into digital capabilities.
FOLIO: How far along on that path are you at this point?
Simon: I would say 60-70 percent, but you have to keep moving. With print, once they learned one way, that was the way for the next 15 years. Now, once you learn one thing, assume it’s already old. That’s been a hard message. It’s like ‘why am I wasting time learning this when I know something else is coming along?’
They need to understand that and not get frustrated and call it wasteful. It’s not wasteful, it’s the nature of the beast these days.
FOLIO: Would you say you’re more product focused with your tech development or IT focused?
Simon: We have to be both. Below the OS, keep it standardized, keep it simple, get the complexity out. That makes a big difference. Above that, product makes a big difference.
We would like to have product folks in the brands. We’re not there yet.
FOLIO: What do you mean by that?
Simon: We want people who understand digital product creation within Vanity Fair, within The New Yorker, for example. Websites are easy, they need to get beyond that. They need to develop new applications, new capabilities that they are able to relate back to brand goals.
FOLIO: Taking this approach must require a lot of consensus building. How has that gone and what was your role in that process?
Simon: Condé seems to be, especially on the content side, a consensus-driven organization to start with, so that helps. But one of the things we had to do is allow for a few failures to occur. That is the best learning experience you can go through. We’ve allowed some detours to see where they go and then pull the reigns back.
FOLIO: You came from outside the publishing industry. Talk about the perspective that brings to your role.
Simon: I went through this when I was at Viacom. We had spun off our whole dotcom thing as a separate business, and then spent two years realigning them back within the business and rebuilding their capabilities.
At that time we also didn’t have a lot of platforms in the marketplace. We went through a similar exercise there, moving capabilities back into the brands, going with much more of a platform approach, and then getting product-centric skills.
It helps to have done it before—coming here and saying, ‘Hang on a second, I see parallels here, so let’s not get too panicked.’
The other one is not being afraid to fail. That’s a hard one here, especially with Condé, a company which has lived on perfection.
FOLIO: The CMS has had renewed focus now that digital, tablet and mobile editions have become important products. What has Condé’s approach been in this regard? Build or buy?
Simon: We have moved just a little bit beyond the old CMS thinking. What I am trying to get done here is publish once and distribute to multiple places—which is easy to say and hard to do.
We are in the process of working all the way from post editorial, post production, right to distribution using the CMS as the primary digital asset management tool.
We are working with the digital design group to streamline the whole process of creating the content in InDesign that we can use in our CMS, distribute it through DPS for either the 7-inch, the 10-inch or the 3-inch—and the Web—whether it is a big PC screen or a small tablet.
FOLIO: It’s sounding like the CMS now is becoming the central creation tool?
Simon: Central holding tool. InDesign will be still the creation tool, and the content will be tweaked through the CMS for multiple use.
FOLIO: It sounds like there is a lot more integration going on between the CMS and InDesign and other technologies.
Simon: Yes. And also DPS. We’re primarily going to use InDesign and the entire Creative Suite for our creative side. Adobe CQ 5 and WordPress will be a combination used across the CMS. When we need some specific mobile development we’re going to use Mobify. That becomes our suite at a high level.
FOLIO: Let’s look at this from the customer perspective. The audience has become fragmented and they’re accessing content from a variety of platforms; how is all of this meeting that kind of demand?
Simon: The idea is to try and get the consumers to view their subscriptions not so much as subscriptions but as a membership. The idea is that you pay for content and you consume it whenever you want.
FOLIO: So you’re developing a membership-driven business model?
Simon: ‘Membership’ is not an external term. We have not created marketing around ‘here’s your membership.’ This is just sort of our working term. But it is the idea that with the connectivity of this technology and the ability to serve up our content across platforms, we can provide more to the consumer above and beyond the classic magazine, the classic digital edition. We are working out what the different assets could be for each brand, but it’s really at its starting point right now.
Condé Nast Starts Spending
Condé Nast hasn’t been one of the more acquisitive companies over the last few years, but parent company Advance does have a war chest reported to be in the $500 million range that it’s begun to dip into.
So far this year, the company has made a pair of tech-related investments. In April, it acquired digital food shopping and recipe organizer service Ziplist for approximately $14 million. The service says it has passed the 1 million mobile and website shopper benchmark. The move enables Condé to enhance its food content by allowing customers to take action while they’re still engaged with it. With the ZipList technology integrated with that yummy apple pie recipe, site visitors won’t have to disengage to create their shopping list. It also opens up targeted opportunities for marketers looking to get in front of shoppers right as they’re getting ready to hit the grocery store.
And in April, Advance invested $10 million in social marketing company Unified. The company’s main product, the Social Operating Platform, is an enterprise system that automates social marketing and measurement campaigns for brand-side marketers.