Fighting the good fight – British Vogue’s Stephen Quinn Video Interview

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words British Vogue? It’s more than likely fashion. It might be an image of the Supermodel Kate Moss – a regular on its covers. You might even think of Alexandra Shulman the leading glossy’s editor, or start to hum the Madonna song by the same name. You are unlikely to think of a 70 year old self-taught, audacious publishing ‘veteran’ from a tiny town in Co Kilkenny, Ireland. And Stephen Quinn, the man in question, would rather have it that way.

Occasionally, however, Quinn, The Publishing Director of British Vogue for the last 22 years agrees to talk. And 256 Media had the pleasure to interview him recently for our Content Collection – Thought Leadership Series. You can watch the video here but to give you a taster we bring you the highlights of the interview where he talks of joining Conde Nast, his attack on Net-A-Porter’s Porter Magazine,  his suspicions about Facebook and Twitter and that ‘gorgeous’ expense account.

Q. Vogue is one of the super-brands of the magazine industry. So how does a lad from Kilkenny come to be at the helm for 22 years.

“It was a slow journey because I arrived in London 51 years ago from South Kilkenny with virtually no education worth talking about – for example, I’d never heard of Oscar Wilde, or Bernard Shaw or O’Casey or any of the others. And the reason was quite simple. I went to a technical college in South Kilkenny and they didn’t think that cultural ideas mattered. I think they thought I’d be a carpenter!

“But seriously, I trained as an accountant and seven years later I saw an advertisement to join a trendy magazine called Nova to sell advertising and I thought that would be fun. And it was, because … it was better paid, (and) you were given a company car – my first Cortina was a yellow Ford Cortina with a black top. I thought it was absolutely lovely. And at the same time you were given an expense account. Now the expense account is a gorgeous thing, because it actually meant you could go to wine bars and spend an awful lot of money, not all of it entirely legitimately!  But it was a lot of fun to do it and, of course, I was 26 or 27 and suddenly I felt I’ve landed. I have a career. I could write to the mother and tell her all is well. She hadn’t heard much from me in the intervening years. So she was actually relieved to have any correspondence.”

Q How long did it take you to progress to Conde Nast?

“Well, basically a long time. I then worked on Harpers & Queen from Ad Director, to Associate Publisher to Publisher. I became a Publisher for the first time in 1980 when I guess I was 37. I then spent eight years there to 1988 and the big moment actually was to launch a new magazine … for men, called GQ which is a big success today. But there was scepticism then as to whether that type of publication – a mixture of fashion and style issues, sport and a bit of culture and a bit of politics – that men would buy it.

” I think the circulation was about 50,000, but today it’s nearer 130,000 and it has websites and all the things. So four years later, I was asked to run Vogue and I cried.   But, actually … I found that I took to it and I began to understand that it was a major business. And that a magazine could be very profitable”.

Q. What’s the secret of Vogue’s engagement with its readers?

“You can write brilliantly about a painter or a playwright, or a novelist, whatever, in Vogue – and indeed we do.  But you have to be definitively good on fashion, on style, on beauty. Those are the bedrock elements of Vogue, and if they’re not done supremely well and if Vogue is not perceived to be the fashion leader, you’ve got a hell of a problem. Because otherwise you’re a general interest magazine with a bit of fashion, and that’s simply not good enough. Once you’ve established that point that you are the leading fashion magazine, against all rivals, then you have a very, very big business indeed.”

Q. It was reported last year that Vogue had come out of recession and was looking to its best year yet in 2014?

“It was reported by yours truly in a moment of horrible boastfulness!”

“Yes, we came out of recession, or the banking crisis to put it more accurately. In 2008 we saw pages drop 400 from a high of 1,900 that year. Remember 400 was a colossal drop really. So now the revenues are £33m gross ad revenue. So we’re back just ahead of where we were in 2008. That’s very satisfying for me as I’m in the last year or two of my time at Vogue. I think the fact that I’ve been able to put the revenues back… to a historical high, if you like, at £33m has probably bought me my job for another year or two which I sorely need to do, having got married for the second time!”

Q. British Vogue still generates the bulk of its revenues from print?

“Correct, it’s still 90% print (advertising revenue) and 10% to the website. Print is growing by about 5%… and digital revenue is up 36%. It brings me an enormous amount of pleasure, because I know very little about selling website advertising.  It annoys a lot of people as to how I’m getting away with that! My line to the advertisers, is ‘I know nothing about the websites, I don’t spend a lot of time on them, but you clients who have known me for 22 years, you owe it to me to make me look part of the 21st century, by spending some money on digital’. And they laugh their heads off and say you have the cheek of the devil. Most publishers go round talking in a rather funereal way about the ‘360 degree experience’. You will never hear me say that, I think it’s the most unengaging phrase and I refuse to use it.”

 Q. Sales in terms of digital subscriptions have also increased four-fold.

“The 200,000 ABC that Vogue had for July-Dec 2013 – almost 9,000 of that is tablet/iPad. It seems to have plateaued almost for the time being. We’re all a little bit baffled that it’s plateaued at that number, when one would have expected it to grow and grow as tablet ownership has grown.

“GQ have about 12,000 but it’s plateaued. Vanity Fair has about the same as Vogue but it’s plateaued and I think a lot of publishers are a little bit surprised by that.”

Q. You described Twitter and Facebook as a ‘mass narrative of inarticulate people’ – clearly British Vogue is really active on both?

“Yes, the wonderful marketing director Jean Faulkner… I love her to death, she loves statistics. And she comes up with this Facebook and Twitter stuff and I say I’m not going to use it. And she says ‘You have to, Stephen – we really love having you here, we don’t want to lose you!’’ I prefer to talk about Brand Vogue and to emphasise and accentuate that. But, of course, if you want to be trendy you have to say we have 1.6m followers on Facebook and another lot from Twitter. Vogue has got … the print magazine with over 1m readers, it has the website… with over 2million unique users. It’s got the tablet with close to 9,000, that’s a lot to offer the advertiser. That’s sufficiently substantive as a marketing or brand reach in its own right not to be embellishing with Facebook and Twitter, or, frankly, anyone else. They don’t own us; they don’t have shares in us. Why should we go around constantly elevating those companies?”

Q. We see more brands trying to become publishers, for example the recent launch of Porter magazine by the online retailer Net-A-Porter?

“Net-A-Porter is an e-commerce site, a very successful one. And, interestingly enough, they couldn’t generate a lot of advertising on the Net-A-Porter website. What they saw was a lot of juicy, upscale advertising in the leading glossies like Vogue and Elle and Bazaar. So they came up with a print magazine, and, inevitably, they wilfully exaggerated the circulation. They said it was 350,000 and global. But they hadn’t sold any copies when they made that assertion and this old soldier … attacked them with an inescapable ferocity, and gave them a very hard time; so much so that they’re complaining like crazy and saying that I’m diminishing them, or doing them down.  Yes I am, because I’m competitive. And they’ve arrived on the block and they had the damn cheek to ask for more advertising money for a double page spread than I ask for. My double page spread rate, which has appeared in Campaign, to everybody’s surprise, is £35,000, and they ask for £48,000 and you know what, that managed to annoy me more than I can say. So I then gave them hell and they’re running complaining to my chairman.

Q.Publishing has a very particular kind of DNA, and I wonder if that DNA is actually within the brands?

“You must build a magazine first before you build the advertising. It seemed to me that they (Porter) were assembling a magazine so that they could get all the upscale advertising and that sounded to me a bit soulless, a bit lacking in journalistic conviction. And I think great magazines… the publishers are not pre-occupied with the advertising content. They’re pre-occupied with producing a very intelligent and lively journalistic and photographic mix, as is Vogue itself. So I don’t know about this Porter thing, I certainly think that they’ve kicked off with some very, very, big, expansive assumptions, and it’s too early to say what sort of circulation it would have.

Q. What’s the next big battle in publishing for magazines?

“I’ve never been able to think in terms of ten year spans. I kind of like prefer to do the job day by day and to improve the business performance of the magazine which is what I’ve done. So if we may briefly revisit 2008, that was a worrying moment because at the end of that year I was 65.  I was pleading with Alex Ferguson, whom I’ve never met, but I was pleading with him not to retire because I thought it would undermine me if he retired. He didn’t, thank God. He stayed on for quite a few years and it brings me no pleasure to see that David Moyes has bitten the dust in less than one year. There must be a lesson there for everyone involved in Vogue and the future management of it! I tease, I tease, I tease!”

Q. With that 100th anniversary of British Vogue coming up in 2016, any hints at all who we’ll see on the cover?

“That I wouldn’t know. That’s a good point to end because it underlines the sanctity of the editor. The Editor ultimately makes all of those decisions. And then I try to make a very good and very strong and very successful and very profitable business out of the editorial decisions that Alexandra Schulman makes.”

 Want to read more? Check out 5 Content Marketing Lessons inspired by Stephen Quinn.

About Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse is Managing Director of 256, a Dublin based Strategic Content Marketing Agency. An award winning journalist and publisher she has 25 years experience in creating hard working content assets for clients. She is Ireland's leading expert in content marketing strategy.