Condé Nast sets up its own UK advertising agency

Conde Nast

Condé Nast has set up an advertising agency and brand consultancy within Vogue House, the company’s British headquarters.

It was opened a couple of months ago under the steerage of Simon Gresham Jones who joined Condé Nast Britain last year as chief digital officer with the remit of unearthing new revenue streams. Since then, he has been quietly building up the team, reorganising the talent it already had in-house and poaching from its newfound competitors to create a division that now houses 50-people.

“McKinsey reports the luxury market will have grown by three times the size [it is now] by 2025. Condé Nast has the chance to be at the centre of that opportunity. A new luxury brand entering the UK market can't do it convincingly without partnering with [us] in one way or another,” says Gresham Jones.

But to take a bigger slice of the luxury market, Gresham Jones knows it will need to compete with companies "beyond the publishing sphere". The ambition is for Condé Nast to not only take on advertising agencies, but also management consultants like Accenture and Deloitte when it comes to helping brands understand the market.

“As a publisher we've lived and breathed trying to engage these audiences for so long and [we’re] now coupling that to the more expected functions you'd find in agencies – like creative strategy, project management, account handling and management and production. Our secret sauce is bringing those together.

“Of course, the landscape is big and I'm not saying we can do everything. But what we can do is simplify how brands can speak at scale to a luxury audience in the right environment, with the right level of influence and authority.”

The former Burberry exec has had a blueprint to work from. In the US, Condé Nast has been trying to diversify revenues away from straight-up print and display advertising into areas like creative services, data licensing and events. It has primarily done this through 23 Stories, a similar 100-person ‘agency’ style setup in New York which works on everything from branded content and pop-ups to managing full-blown advertising campaigns for clients like Gucci, Fox and Lincoln.

And, of course, it's not the only publisher that’s seen the potential in taking the place of traditional ad agencies on client briefs. Bloomberg Media, for example, launched a marketing and media consultancy run by the former CEO of Havas’ Creative Group Andrew Benett, while just last week another former Havas-exec, Dominique Delport, revealed that he will be competing directly with his old comrades for marketers' ad budgets through the Virtue agency at Vice.

“Knowing very well the agency world, I can say without reservation that no agency holding company can deliver that firepower on content production. [I'm] not bragging about that – it's just a fact," Delport told The Drum. “That’s because you need different talent. You need producers, editors, you need script, you need cameramen. We have all of it."

Further afield, The Washington Post, New York Times and Refinery29 are also all seeking new revenue from delivering agency-like services.

Gresham Jones’ UK-version, dubbed Creative Studio, will have three main services clients can buy into: data and insights; creative strategy; and consulting.

The Data division will help brands with market research into the luxury sector and to understand, and access, the audiences across its titles – including Vogue, Wired, GQ, Traveller and Vanity Fair – while the Consulting division will act as a partner on go-to market strategies.

But it’s the Creative service that will sit at the heart of the agency. Gresham Jones says the bulk of its clients will likely want work that can be used across Condé Nast’s myriad titles. So, much like a regular branded content arm, this team is charged with not only creating that work but ensuring that it meets the style, tone and commercial objectives for each of the publisher's brands.

“What we’re providing is the creative and strategic glue across the titles. Making sure that all [Condé Nast] DNA and expertise attacks the fundamental brand challenges that are facing clients whilst also partnering with the titles to make sure it’s how they want to put content out.”

But in addition to the kind of work that will appear within Condé Nast properties, Gresham Jones is keen to establish its agency credentials by taking on work that will not necessarily be used in the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair. “We're working on some big projects in order to do that,” he hints but declines to go further.

The agency currently has about 50 full-time staffers, but “the philosophy is that these 50 people will unlock the talent across the building, so we're tapping into the talent of hundreds of people and cherry-picking the right people for the right opportunity,” he adds.

Adjacent to the Research, Creative Strategy, and Consultancy functions is also the beginnings of an ‘influencer agency’. Condé Nast has recently seen the global reach for its British titles on social media exceed that of print and web; the combined reach of the latter is 19 million every month, but add in social media and the total reach is over 40 million people every month.

Clients now want to buy into that social media presence of the Condé Nast brands, but also those of the individuals that work for them. Take British Vogue's deputy editor Sarah Harris, who has nearly 180,000 Instagram followers, for example, or GQ editor Dylan Jones with nearly 100,000; these individuals within its walls are arguably brands in their own right and Gresham Jones is looking to make it easier for advertisers to forge commercial relationships with them.

“We are trying to make it easy for clients by bringing in an influencer [service], both in terms of how they work with influencers within this building but also how they work with influencers out in the world that we can oversee creatively and can collaborate with. That's something that's always been done to a degree, but we're excelling in that area and building the right teams."

Since launching, it’s pitched against both creative, digital and social agencies as well as management consultants for new work. And it’s been winning. Citing a number of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), Gresham Jones won't go into specifics but says they range from the “usual suspects” in the fashion, watches, and jewellery sectors to clients it’s not necessarily used to working with – like mainstream car brands and FMCG companies.

The bellwether for the potential of the agency, he says, is the fact it’s been working with tech companies – “our West Coast friends," – who "despite their own power, reach and scale" want to buy what Condé Nast is selling.

“That's a testament to the fact that we bring that influence. We don't think of the audience as a commodity, we don't sell access to an audience. It may sound glib... but we offer the ability to come in and be a part of that relationship" he adds.

“And they don't do anything unless they're sure of the efficacy.”

It’s early days for the venture and it’s an industry under mounting pressure in the face of ever-increasing demands of clients with narrowing budgets. But Gresham Jones is bullish about the future.

“The pipeline of work is big in terms of the size of projects becoming much more significant in terms of the breath, duration and ambition,” he says. “Initiatives we're working on now show that clients are moving away from what would be traditional media and agency relationships.”

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