Condé Nast (1873 – 1942)

The man who invented style… at least in magazines. 

Many of us have heard of the publishing house Condé Nast, but not everyone, including myself, knows that the company was started by a fellow whose name was indeed, Condé Nast! He was born in 1873 in New York City to a midwestern family of Methodists whose roots traced back to Germany on his father’s side and France on his mother’s.  His father was an inventor and a failed entrepreneur while his mother was a stay at home mother who inherited wealth sufficient to keep the family fed and clothed for the 14 years Nast’s father made his way in Europe trying in vain to launch a series of business.  Almost immediately upon returning to America in 1893 Nast’s father died. 

Thanks to the support of an aunt, Nast went to Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  Upon graduation in 1897 he moved to St. Louis, MO to attend law school.  Almost immediately upon graduating Nast figured out that the law was not for him and went to work for the father of a friend from Georgetown, Robert Collier.  Collier’s father published Collier’s magazine.  The company was struggling and they hired Nast to sell advertising.  It turns out that was something Nast was good at.  Very good at.

For the next 10 years Nast increased advertising for Colliers from less than $10,000 per year to over $1 million.  He increased special topic episodes, such as sailing, flying, sports etc., which were the most sought after from readers and as a result, advertisers.  He created the first national advertising network, something that soon became popular far beyond Colliers.

In 1907, after a decade of selling advertising and earning the highest executive salary in America – in the media industry – and even eclipsing that of the president of the United States, Nast decided to strike out on his own. 

The first thing he did was focus his attention on a the Home Pattern Company, a firm he founded in 1905 which pioneered the selling of dress patterns for women with differing sizes for different sized women.  HPC formed a relationship with Ladies’ Home Journal Magazine where they would advertise their patterns to their specific audience.  This focus on specific interests of consumers would set the tone for the rest of Nast’s professional life.

His next leap was in 1909 when he purchased the struggling New York society magazine, Vogue. Nast’s observation was that Vogue was floundering because it was not aspirational for its readers.  He felt that the perfect magazine featured content that drew reader’s attention and held it because of a longing for its particular character, something that general interest magazines did not usually do.  At the same time, marketers should be able to advertise their offerings in front of a tailored audience that is inclined to be open to their products.

This is exactly what he did with Vogue.  He turned the weekly magazine into a bimonthly, increased the pages and upped the price and sold more ads.  At the same time he brought in new writers, artists and put a particular focus on photography.  He changed the focus to women and style.  His changes worked and the magazine became spectacularly successful and a bible of style and class across the country, and later the world, expanding to the UK in 1916 and France in 1920.

From there Nast replicated that model of quality content to a well defined audience with House and Garden in 1911 and Vanity Fair in 1914, with the former focusing on interior design and gardens and the latter on high society.  At Vanity Fair, after initially floundering Nast brought in Frank Crowninshield as editor to turn it around.  And he did, saying: “Your magazine should cover the things people talk about—parties, the arts, sports, theater, humor, and so forth.”

By 1928 Nast was at the top of his game; rich, powerful, sought-after and one of the most influential men in the world of fashion.  Three years later he would be almost broke, having lost almost everything in the stock market crash and the resulting economic cataclysm. He accumulated millions in debt as he scrambled to keep things afloat. After treading water for two years in 1933 Nast would get a lifeline and eventually would buy back most of what he lost.  However he would never again be the financial colossus he once was… but the public would never know it as he continued to live opulently and throw bi-weekly caviar and Champagne laden parties in his Park Avenue penthouse for the rest of his life. 

Nast would succumb to a series of heart attacks and die in September of 1942. Family and friends were shocked to discover that when he died Nast owed debts of more than $100 million – and that’s when that was a big number!  His family however were able to keep the assets of his publishing empire and after the war they became extraordinarily wealthy as a result.

Condé Nast was a publishing pioneer.  His understanding of the economic possibilities of magazines that were curated to synchronize the interests of readers and the potential customers of marketers changed the face of publishing.  He established what we know as lifestyle-magazines, where everyday life is chronicled in tens of thousands of magazines – and cable TV channels and websites and more – curated around everything from fashion to food to football to fishing and more.  Publishing magazines generally takes advertising, and Condé Nast created the equation that made that model more effective than anyone ever had…

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