At 11, Nicholas Coleridge thought a journalistic career would be an enjoyable doss; 40 years on, the Old Etonian is running Conde Nast UK with increased circulation, headcount and profits. He believes his beautiful products will beat the web any day. Matthew Gwyther reports.
Optimists are thin on the ground in the world of media at the moment. The industry is enduring a battering the like of which it hasn't seen for decades. Worse, it is being storm-tossed by two separate weather systems. Firstly, there's the cyclical monsoon of economic downturn, experienced by everyone in business: advertising budgets get washed away very early in the cost-reduction process. Secondly, and more alarmingly, there is the possibly irreversible climate change caused by the rise of the internet.
The fact that the web offers so much for free threatens to drown the conventional business models of media companies who sell information and advertising space to the world. Print media appear especially vulnerable: newspapers, local and national, are being blown over in increasing numbers. Even those with rock-solid roots are concerned. There is, for example, a rumour that Paul Dacre - the estimable editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail - may be willing to close down his organisation's websites until a rival works out a method properly to 'monetise' and make them pay for their own lunch.
Stormy weather may be out there in Hanover Square and beyond, but inside Vogue House Nicholas Coleridge still has a smile on his face. It's not the done thing to be down-in-the-mouth at Conde Nast, of which he is UK managing director. His firm must both exude and feed upon confidence and positivity in order to create the virtuous cycle of consumption. Described by the New York Times as an empire built on 'gloss, style, consumption, fluff and substance', the publisher of Vogue, GQ, Tatler, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair is a $15bn privately owned US business, controlled by the low-profile Newhouse family. With 104 magazines published in 22 countries, Conde Nast is the leading producer of glossies on the planet and recession really isn't its style.
Whereas Coleridge's boss, the 80-year-old Si Newhouse, famously arrives to work in Times Square in chinos and an old sweatshirt, the 52-year-old Old Etonian prefers a crisp white shirt with his monogrammed cufflinks. While most others in magazine publishing are hunkered down in the storm shelter, Coleridge has launched two magazines in 2009 - Love, a painfully trendy fashion title; and a UK version of Wired, the ubergeeks' bible. Both were well received. Not content with this, Coleridge has just published his fifth novel, Deadly Sins. ('Take a bite, it's delicious,' encourages Jeffrey Archer on the cover.) His organisation may promote the values of the sybarite, but Coleridge has a Puritan lifestyle - the novels are written between 6.30 and 10.30 on weekend mornings at his Worcestershire country house.
So what of the web - will it spell the demise of all that is glossy in publishing? 'For the last 10 years, I've been attending conferences where someone is giving a Cassandra-like speech about the demise of the magazine business,' he says. 'But 2008 gave us the strongest set of circulation figures ever. We enjoyed seven amazing years of growth, each better than the one before. We simply aren't showing signs of going the same way as newspapers.'
Coleridge started at Conde Nast, aged 22, as an associate editor on Tatler under the fearsome Tina Brown. 'She was a ball-breaker,' he has said. 'When I joined, I was either number 13 or 14 on staff. Three years later, I was her deputy, because everyone else was axed. It was like being a member of Idi Amin's cabinet. Each day, another body was found floating.'
When he became MD in 1991, the London headcount stood at 240 souls. It now numbers 620, so although Conde Nast doesn't open its books to the public, we can assume profits have grown accordingly over the period. It is said that the company enjoys a margin of 20%. Coleridge admits that they've experienced a 15% downturn in advertising revenue so far in 2009 and doesn't see the market improving until the second half of 2010, but maintains that his magazine sales are holding up nicely. And he thinks he knows why. 'The greatest USP of magazines is the beautiful quality of the printed product. The net simply cannot replicate this, especially in the fashion area. Glossies are a different tactile and attitude treat. They give you a parallel world - it's part real life but part artistry and fantasy and art and culture.'
Even at the best of times, it's true, as TS Eliot noted, that 'human kind cannot bear very much reality'. It's also true - and this was definitely the case in the glamorous world of movies in the depressed 1930s - that during miserable recession a little escapism never goes amiss. That moment, albeit brief, when you can be taken away from the surroundings of credit-crunched reality and transported to another place filled with the gorgeousness of Chanel's latest little frock or Hussein Chalayan's black knits.
Creating that gorgeousness is a costly business. The likes of Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz and Kate Moss don't come cheap. Nor does printing Love on super-thick paper that weighs in at 115 grammes per square metre. (Take it from someone in the trade, darling: 115 grammes is - like Love cover girl Beth Ditto - heavy.) Conde Nast taxi and flowers bills would make most management accountants turn pale in their Next suits, although, traditionally, Coleridge has run a tighter ship than the Devil Wears Prada setup in New York, where executives enjoy clothing allowances in the high five figures.
Neither is it just fashion coverage that gobbles the dollars. Conde Nast's US business magazine Portfolio - launched in 2007 - was closed down at the end of Aprll, victim of dramatically shrinking ad revenues. Nicknamed 'Fortpolio' by the US media bitcherati, it was famous for burining its way through cash even before the downturn hit. So the sums going out the door are a major reason why Conde Nast, despite doing its bit online, will be hoping that its magazines, with their premium ad rates, will endure.
Despite his claim that Conde Nast's websites have been profitable for five of the past seven years, for Coleridge the web's economics are essentially gruesome. 'The online business model is so different. The cost per thousand (the rates that advertisers will pay for a thousand-page impression) is so low. We fight for a figure of £20 at Conde Nast.' You simply couldn't afford to get Mario Testino out of bed and into his moisturiser at these rates.
But surely the world of fashion and luxury goods on which he relies for advertising is in for a torrid few years? Conspicuous consumption has never been so out as we all don our hairshirts and embrace the new age of austerity. Coleridge admits this is true. 'The challenge is that the attitude to wealth has changed. People are worried and even those who are immensely rich are just not spending. It doesn't feel right - they don't wish to portray a bad example and so they hold on to what they've got.'
But he admits he grows irritated when people moan at him about the cost of a magazine these days. 'I sit next to very rich people who complain that £4 is a lot of money for a magazine. Four pounds is enormously good value for a 500-page edition of Vogue.'
This is the third recession Coleridge has worked through, but it will be the most testing. 'I suppose when the history of it all is written, the bankers will get the blame,' he says. 'My father was in the City (he chaired Lloyd's), but I never had any intention of following him. Over the last five years, I had an inflated sense of admiration for bankers - how clever they were to think about money in the abstract. I'm bad at that. Every month, we produce a show - that we fill with as many ads as we can - and then see how many copies we can sell in 31 days. We produce something tangible. whereas what the bankers do proved entirely ... intangible.'
He grins. 'No, I knew I wanted to be a journalist from the age of 11, when a man came to give a talk at our school. It sounded like a real doss and very enjoyable.' Yes, it can indeed be very enjoyable. Even in current times.