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Vanity Fair Personifies The Power Of Print & Digital At Its Best: Covers That Impact & Stories That Do No Less – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Chris Mitchell, Publisher, Vanity Fair

June 9, 2015

“I think the bigger surprise is that in this day and age there’s so much of the world that somehow believes that the rise of digital media has undermined the importance of print media and I think we’ve proven that not only is that false, but it’s really the exact opposite. If you harness it correctly, digital media only enhances the power of print media because it gives you so many different pipes to tell the story.” Chris Mitchell

“I’m a believer in the power of beautiful production quality and in telling that story, especially where there is a visual element, as only ink on paper can do.” Chris Mitchell

xeyqffdecqgbr9m9dyzz-2 From “Deep Throat” to a pregnant Demi Moore; Vanity Fair covers have given us much to talk about and consider over the years. The magazine’s impactful way of presenting its stories through masterful writing and spectacular visuals has always left its audience breathless and sometimes speechless with intriguing wonder at the artful and articulate way the magazine reflects society.

And with the latest Caitlyn Jenner cover and breaking story; Vanity Fair carefully and meticulously unfolded the content and visuals through a combined and consummate print and digital effort that was nothing short of a masterpiece.

Chris Mitchell came onboard as publisher of Vanity Fair in September 2014 from GQ and has proven he is as adept as the brand at staying on top of the game when it comes to innovation in advertising and execution of the brand’s many facets. With over 20 years of magazine experience, Chris is no stranger to the intricacies of magazine media and guides the legacy brand with a succinct and steady hand.

I spoke to Chris recently about the dynamic effect Vanity Fair, across all its platforms, and especially print, has on its audience and his belief that digital doesn’t undermine print, that in fact, it only reinforces it. His unwavering deference to the power of a magazine cover and how it can still, even in this digital age, have a gripping and moving reaction on all who see it, in fact more so than any other form of media, is something that he takes very seriously. The conversation was inspiring and riveting as we talked about the brand’s past, present and future and the lasting and memorable impression that good storytelling can still leave with readers. It was a fascinating discussion.

So, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a man who believes in the power of the printed page and the importance of digital to keep it flourishing, Chris Mitchell, Publisher, Vanity Fair.

But first, the sound-bites:


Chris Mitchell_headsh#25C0D On the impact of Vanity Fair covers:
Vanity Fair has a track record for impactful covers. No one else is in its league when it comes to finding those cultural moments that become iconic or the subject matter that everyone is talking about; what we used to call the “watercooler moments” as it related to TV.

On what he believes makes Vanity Fair stand out from the rest of the magazines out there:
I’ve been an avid reader and subscriber for 20-plus years. And like you, in some respects, I’ve been a student of magazines for much longer than that. To me what has always been the uniqueness of Vanity Fair, and I think that this applies especially to the 20-something-years that Graydon Carter has been at the helm, is that it’s the perfect mix of being an incredibly commercial vehicle and incredibly intelligent; it’s the perfect mix of art and commerce.

On what he would say to the doubters and media critics out there who believe print is in decline or dying:
These misnomers are ultimately created by even our own industry. Many times entities like Women’s Wear Daily want to talk about ad pages alone as an indication of a brand’s relevance and that’s perpetuating an outdated metric, in my opinion.

On how the magazine-making business model has changed before 2007 and after 2007:
With a story such as the Caitlyn Jenner piece; the way that we harnessed the website as well as our social media partners and outlets to make the story even bigger than it would have been in 2007 is not a small thing. With a story this big in 2007, even in 2010 frankly, we would have had a very different press and social media case. We would have released the issue on the newsstands and there would have been a lot of press that followed. But it wouldn’t have received anywhere near the “watercooler moment” that we achieved because we used our site to feed stories over a period of time.

On what he would like to say a year from now about Vanity Fair’s accomplishments:
I don’t think it’ll even take a year because when I look at the type of projects we have in the pipeline in front of our advertisers now, I know one thing to be true; if we can change the nature of the conversation with our advertisers to be one of a marketing partnership and if they can see us as someone who can deliver content for them; what I know is that increases the size of the advertising deals that you do with these partners; it increases it because they get excited about the work and the more excited they get about the work, the more that they want to run it in bigger quantities and the more that they want to see it live on all of these different platforms.

On the power and ability of a magazine cover to sustain the audience’s attention long after other media platforms:
We have all these formats to increase video and that makes us a more interesting and robust way to tell the story across all platforms. And then we get that beautiful synergy that shows how the print product enforces or memorializes a story in a very different way than you’re telling it socially or in video.

On whether he can ever envision a day without a printed Vanity Fair:
No. I’m a believer in the power of beautiful production quality and in telling that story, especially where there is a visual element, as only ink on paper can do.

On the major stumbling block he’s had to overcome during his career: There was a point where I was debating about whether I should be on the editorial side or the business side. And I saw that as a real fork in the road and it was only as the business became more dynamic and I learned a lot along the way that I realized that our job and the editor’s job are wonderfully cooperative and collaborative. And that makes it more fun for us and I think it makes it more successful for them. And I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t violate the quality or the ethics of great journalism.

On his most pleasant moment:
I found a home at Condé Nast a long time ago and I’m incredibly fortunate to have had that home for as long as I have and to have experienced so many different, great brands and properties that Condé Nast owns. To be able to work at one company, but have eight or nine different jobs over 20 years is really a lucky thing.

On what keeps him up at night:
What keeps me up at night has always been the same thing: we have the blessing and the curse of being a periodical. And with that comes the fact that you have a goal that you have to hit and when you finish one month, or a day, or a quarter of your digital or however you measure it, there’s always another one right behind that you have to hit. So you’re never done.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Chris Mitchell, Publisher, Vanity Fair.

Samir Husni: When you were appointed publisher at Vanity Fair from GQ in September 2014; did you ever expect something as impactful as the Caitlyn Jenner cover to happen?

Chris Mitchell: I didn’t and I should have if you look at it in one way. Vanity Fair has a track record for impactful covers. No one else is in its league when it comes to finding those cultural moments that become iconic or the subject matter that everyone is talking about; what we used to call the “watercooler moments” as it related to TV.

And so breaking the Watergate “Deep Throat” story, having the first pictures of Tom Cruise’s daughter; obviously, the Demi Moore cover when she was pregnant; these are amazing watershed moments.

But I didn’t expect this because you don’t quite know when they’re going to find another one.

Samir Husni: When Bob Sauerberg made the announcement that you were being appointed publisher, he said, “Vanity Fair is one of Condé Nast’s – if not the industry’s – most significant and profitable brands.” Why do you think the entire American psyche, if not the world’s, has been impacted so heavily by Vanity Fair? In your opinion, what’s Vanity Fair’s uniqueness among all the other magazines out there?

Chris Mitchell: I’ve been an avid reader and subscriber for 20-plus years. And like you, in some respects, I’ve been a student of magazines for much longer than that. To me what has always been the uniqueness of Vanity Fair, and I think that this applies especially to the 20-something-years that Graydon Carter has been at the helm, is that it’s the perfect mix of being an incredibly commercial vehicle and incredibly intelligent; it’s the perfect mix of art and commerce.

It doesn’t shy away from the commercial side, as is evidenced in each and every cover, and it does it in a way that makes it such a wonderful business. That’s true in terms of its circulation too; it provides that home for advertisers and makes it special for them. Advertisers can see themselves in this environment.

As publishers we’re always selling the quality of our audience and the uniqueness of our demographics, but the reality is we all have something unique and that’s something that everybody has. But Vanity Fair has created an environment for advertising that makes the advertisers easily see themselves and their brands in the pages. And that’s made it super-successful.

Then it also has the depth of reporting and the depth of writing that gives it the engagement factor that to me is the perfect mix. It’s no surprise that the magazine is so tremendously successful.

I think the bigger surprise is that in this day and age there’s so much of the world that somehow believes that the rise of digital media has undermined the importance of print media and I think we’ve proven that not only is that false, but it’s really the exact opposite. If you harness it correctly, digital media only enhances the power of print media because it gives you so many different pipes to tell the story.

And it’s something that we’ve been preaching to advertisers for years. We’ve said the bigger your website gets, the bigger your magazine circulation gets and the more opportunities you have to go to advertisers and really be marketing partners because you have so many more strong platforms to harness and do that.

To me that’s the greater story. I think hopefully after the impact of the Caitlyn Jenner story, people will realize that magazines become even more powerful because of their digital counterparts.

Samir Husni: As you reign in and gather the responses from all over the world regarding the Caitlyn Jenner cover; what could you still relate to those prophets of doom and gloom, those doubters, the ones that keep telling us that the power of magazines, the power of engagement is in decline? “Print is dead” isn’t as prevalent as before, but now, instead, they’re saying it’s in decline.

Chris Mitchell: I was in Europe maybe four weeks ago. It was soon after Women’s Wear Daily had come out with yet another article, which they do, I think every spring and fall, that says here’s what the magazine sold on the newsstand and they made their sort of ritualized prediction that newsstand circulation was going to fall.

And what was interesting was I found myself having to explain to a lot of clients, because the story was picked up in some of the papers, that it was not an indication of the health or vitality of magazine companies as a business, because of the obviously shrinking importance of the newsstand and the small percentage of an overall circulation level that the newsstand has. And that’s a larger issue that has more to do with newsstand distribution, wholesalers and points of sale, than it does the desirability or vitality of magazines. And in fact, the overall circulations are maintaining record high levels or growing, in most cases. At the same time, the digital audiences are also growing.

What this says to me is these misnomers are ultimately created by even our own industry. Many times entities like Women’s Wear Daily want to talk about ad pages alone as an indication of a brand’s relevance and that’s perpetuating an outdated metric, in my opinion.

Obviously, we run a business today where our digital revenue becomes a bigger piece of our overall revenue every year, which becomes a bigger percentage of the revenue. And I for one, never wanted to be a publisher who was trying to push pages on someone, instead of selling them a bigger partnership in whatever advertising form factor it takes. And I believe most publishers think like I think that my job is to bring you my audience and create a program or a partnership that works for you, the advertiser. And I don’t care if you buy 100% print or 100% digital or put it somewhere in the middle. But that’s at odds still to this day with some of these outlets that just want to record ad pages or that are using newsstands’ increase or decline as an indication of how healthy your magazine is. And these things are so silly and outdated and don’t reflect the way the business and the world has changed.

Samir Husni: Talking about change; if you were to compare and contrast magazine-making pre-2007 to after 2007, how do you think the business-making model has changed?

Chris Mitchell: I think in two really important ways. With a story such as the Caitlyn Jenner piece; the way that we harnessed the website as well as our social media partners and outlets to make the story even bigger than it would have been in 2007 is not a small thing. With a story this big in 2007, even in 2010 frankly, we would have had a very different press and social media case. We would have released the issue on the newsstands and there would have been a lot of press that followed.

But it wouldn’t have received anywhere near the “watercooler moment” that we achieved because we used our site to feed stories over a period of time. We had a very deliberate strategy for how we released additional parts of the story over time using our website and even through the press and helped to make it the story that it became.

From an advertising standpoint, and this is another one where you’re running contrary to what the naysayers say, but there has never been a more exciting time for us to be in the advertising business with our advertisers because we have so many ways that we can help them tell their story.

And when I look back at what we did in 2007, it was easier in the sense that people made a greater percentage of their pledges to print, but it was also less interesting because that’s all you had really was to sell someone advertising pages. And today we fully see ourselves more like an agency than anything else. And I impress this to people on our team, that I don’t want to be in the media-selling business; I don’t want the relationship that I have with my client to be primarily a media-selling relationship. I want to be really an idea-driven, access-driven agency partner of theirs, who can deliver them an idea and deliver them custom content that they can use across their platforms, our platforms and frankly if it’s a big enough idea; it’ll be bigger than just what I can sell them in the media. That’s the new model that I’m really excited about.

Samir Husni: I can feel the passion and intrigue that these new changes bring to you, so if you and I were talking again a year from now and I asked you what you had accomplished in that year; what would you tell me?

Chris Mitchell: I don’t think it’ll even take a year because when I look at the type of projects we have in the pipeline in front of our advertisers now, I know one thing to be true; if we can change the nature of the conversation with our advertisers to be one of a marketing partnership and if they can see us as someone who can deliver content for them; what I know is that increases the size of the advertising deals that you do with these partners; it increases it because they get excited about the work and the more excited they get about the work, the more that they want to run it in bigger quantities and the more that they want to see it live on all of these different platforms.

So the best way that you can achieve a marketing partnership where you have a print component and a digital component and a shared social component and a mobile component is to create something for these advertisers that they want to see living on all those platforms. The selfish part of it is, and to your point, in 12 months or six months, what you’re going to see is even more of these multifaceted, multiplatform deals that we’re doing where we have a significant stake in the game and are using our assets to create the content and that advertiser feels like they’re an engaged part of the process and in true partnership with a brand like Vanity Fair, which in many ways I think, is a money-can’t-buy opportunity.

Samir Husni: What do you think it will take to change the minds of some of the media reporters or critics, and as you stated so well, these outdated ways of predicting the future for the magazine industry? When Caitlyn Jenner appeared on ABC, there was talk about it for maybe an hour or two or three on social media and then it was over. Yet when Vanity Fair ran the cover; the story stayed on the tongues of everyone as though it had just been broke. What more evidence do media critics need to see to believe magazines are not a dying industry?

Chris Mitchell: Half-kidding and half-seriously, I think the up fronts this year changed that conversation for us. Most people acknowledged, thanks to the rise of Internet video and thanks to what I think you see companies like ours at the forefront doing, which is getting very ambitious about creating that kind of video content; we become magazines in less the traditional sense and more magazines in the broader sense. We become magazines in the way that TV news magazines are magazines. We have all these formats to increase video and that makes us a more interesting and robust way to tell the story across all platforms. And then we get that beautiful synergy that shows how the print product enforces or memorializes a story in a very different way than you’re telling it socially or in video.

The short answer to your question is we don’t become the story that people are talking about being irrelevant anymore; I think that traditional television has become the story that people are jumping on as being a lot less interesting, sexy and probably as relevant as it used to be and that’s a good thing. Let them take some of the brunt of that. Now people are questioning its relevance and let them figure it out just like we did. In all fairness, we had to figure out in the changing media landscape how we ourselves could change so that we were taking advantage and leaning into the use of these different platforms, instead of simply going with the flow.

I don’t think we will ever win by insisting that traditional magazines done in traditional ways can remain unchanged and our business factors can’t remain unchanged either. It’s when we adapt to the new landscape, both in how we go to market the client, which is what I’m focused on, and how we roll out a story or tell a story beautifully, that you win.

Samir Husni: Has anyone ever approached Vanity Fair and said I would like my picture to be on your website or do most want to be featured on the cover of the magazine?

Chris Mitchell: I honestly think that conversation is changing. And that’s even true with regards to our writers and photographers now. That has been an education process for all of us. In the past, it was certainly the cover that gleaned all of the prestige and I think that there is something wonderful about the fact that that will always be a hugely significant thing. But I think the more that we all see the power of the website, the more a writer wants to break his/her story there.

Certainly, Graydon is at that place where he believes the power to break a story on Vanity Fair.com, maybe it’s a different kind of story than you would break in the magazine, or you would do it in a different way or you might do it in conjunction with both print and digital, the way we did the Caitlyn Jenner story.

So it’s educating every one of the stakeholders in that process, from the photographer to the writer to even the editors themselves, the importance of using different mediums and that one is not subservient to the other. Breaking Caitlyn online showed that.

Think back to the days when Internet place was shovel-ware or brochure-ware and what we proved was that by breaking the story online and really telling the story for a full week online did something really powerful that the magazine then reinforced and it wasn’t the other way around.

Samir Husni: Can you ever imagine a day when there isn’t a printed Vanity Fair?

Chris Mitchell: No. I’m a believer in the power of beautiful production quality and in telling that story, especially where there is a visual element, as only ink on paper can do.

I think that there will certainly be some magazines that will have frequency changes. I think that there were some magazines who tried some circulation changes. I can see a day, whether this is 10 years or 50 years down the road, where your subscription cost is a lot higher, your production values are even higher than they are today. Your size; your form factors may be higher; my wife is editor of Condé Nast Traveler and it’s a great example of that, I think.

And if that means you end up with a more expensive, smaller circulation magazine, you’ll just have to see what the economics of that magazine will be. But I don’t think you’ll ever see a world where beautiful, glossy magazines that are telling a lifestyle story or telling a visual story the way we do will ever go away.

Samir Husni: What has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to face during your career of magazine-making and how did you overcome it?

Chris Mitchell: I’ve worked in magazines my entire career and I’ve been following you the whole time and I knew that I wanted to work in magazines when I started one in college. So, I never did anything else and I never looked back. I don’t really have a huge stumbling block.

But I’ll tell you there was a point where I was debating about whether I should be on the editorial side or the business side. And I saw that as a real fork in the road and it was only as the business became more dynamic and I learned a lot along the way that I realized that our job and the editor’s job are wonderfully cooperative and collaborative. And that makes it more fun for us and I think it makes it more successful for them. And I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t violate the quality or the ethics of great journalism.

Samir Husni: And what has been the most pleasant moment?

Chris Mitchell: I found a home at Condé Nast a long time ago and I’m incredibly fortunate to have had that home for as long as I have and to have experienced so many different, great brands and properties that Condé Nast owns. To be able to work at one company, but have eight or nine different jobs over 20 years is really a lucky thing. And I get to do it working for the same great, bright people and with the same bright colleagues, but I’ve had a wonderful time reinventing myself when it comes to the way in which we go to market with these brands.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Chris Mitchell: What keeps me up at night has always been the same thing: we have the blessing and the curse of being a periodical. And with that comes the fact that you have a goal that you have to hit and when you finish one month, or a day, or a quarter of your digital or however you measure it, there’s always another one right behind that you have to hit. So you’re never done. And what keeps me up at night is the same thing that kept me up 20 years ago; how are you going to make your numbers, your day, your week, your month, your quarter, your year. But that’s the business we’ve chosen. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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One comment

  1. […] “The print product enforces or memorializes a story in a very different way than you’re telling it socially or in video.” –Chris Mitchell, Publisher of Vanity Fair […]



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