Bringing a Print Enterprise into the Digital World with Conde Nast’s former CDO

Episode 88

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Fred Santarpia (LinkedIn | Twitter), former Chief Digital Officer for Conde Nast, had a huge job helping bring all of the Conde Nast brands like Vogue, The New Yorker, Wired and GQ from the print world to the digital realm. On this episode of IT Visionaries, he discusses the challenges of the role and how to build digital experiences and brands that keep you relevant in an increasingly crowded landscape. Plus, he and Ian examine the rise of the Chief Digital Officer and what that role means to different organizations.  

Best Advice:  Define your role quickly. If you’re the first CDO that a company has hired, don’t assume that people will understand why you’re there. Make sure that you set a very clear and audacious north star for the entire company, not just the parts that you manage, to aspire to.”

Key Takeaways:

How Fred got into technology — (1:45)

After starting his career in finance, Fred wanted to make a change so he took a job at Universal Music right at the peak of the CD-sales boom before the digital disruption began. Once that disruption began, Fred had to help figure out how to manage the impact of declining sales, figure out what to do with unnecessary infrastructure and data and shipment centers, and do everything more cost-efficiently. Through that, Fred worked closely with Universal’s CIO and he learned a lot about what the role was about, how technology played a part in companies and what it means to manage it all as an entire industry changed overnight.

“It really did change everything overnight. It went from a situation where, all boats were rising and the investment in content and artists was increasing significantly because the business was basically printing cash to, all of a sudden, just watching the bottom fall out and a massive transition in the business model. You were going from a model of business in which the dominant model was the sale and ownership of recorded music in terms of physical product like a CD to what we have now, which is really the monetization around the access of recorded music. And the technology only really in the last several years has really caught up to the point where that model has been allowed to proliferate.” 

Being Chief Digital Officer for Conde Nast — (6:45)

When Fred joined Conde Nast in 2012, he was the EVP and Chief Digital Officer for the entertainment division, which was essentially a traditional studio that created video and digital content for all the brands under Conde Nast’s umbrella. This was a brand new division when Fred stepped into the role, so he had to create the entire thing out of nothing. After two years building the entertainment division, Fred was named CDO for all of Conde Nast. At this point, other digital media companies such as BuzzFeed and Vox were rising in popularity and influence, so Fred was in charge of keeping Conde Nast at the front of the pack and relevant to younger audiences. 

Fred used his experience in the recording industry to help with the transition. Recording companies were structured similarly to publishing companies, so making the switch was something he had seen before. As CDO, he was responsible for completely moving the brand forward into a digital world. That meant that the CTO, and all the brand teams reported up to him as he guided the company from just focusing on print to splitting its focus between print, longform digital, video, podcasting and more. He had to find best practices that would work for all of Conde Nast, but also allow the individual brands and properties create a roadmap that worked for their audiences.

“We started that from zero. That was a blank piece of paper when I got there. So that included everything from really charting the strategy, securing the funding to fund what was effectively a new division of the company, building the technology and the infrastructure to support our video production and distribution, securing the distribution deals, and the revenue operations infrastructure, and frankly, probably most importantly, attracting top digital talent into a company, which at the time was, was very much only known for its excellence in print. So we had a major, major challenge in terms of convincing the marketplace that a print media company could not only dabble in video, but commit to it and make it a skill set and a business that was as endemic to Conde Nast as, as creating magazines….That startup kind of environment inside of the broader company really allowed us to build a very special culture and prove that digital success at Conde Nast was indeed possible.”

“I never believed that the brands had lost their relevance. To me, it was more of a question about the company’s commitment and our dedication to excellence in the tactics of the internet. And I think, frankly, the company just had fallen behind with a slow start when it came to adapting to changes in consumer behavior on the Internet. So really it was an exercise in fixing things and blocking and tackling to rebuild the expectations of what the digital business could be inside of Conde Nast and create an expectation for the same level of excellence that our editorial teams on the print side had demanded for 100 years.”

“The first question that everybody wants you to answer when you step into a role like that is whether or not you’re going to let the brands run their own digital operations or whether or not you’re going to centralize…. Finding that intersection between things that should be done horizontally for synergy and efficiency and things that should be done vertically and distinctly at the brand level based on the very unique permissions that these brands have with their audiences is really the key to success.”

Building with the customer in mind — (21:30)

Understanding who the customer is and what she wants is absolutely crucial to having success as a CDO. But before you can focus on the customer, you first need to ensure that everything you have running is working properly and efficiently. That was the first challenge Fred faced, and once they fixed everything that was broken with the Conde Nast infrastructure, they turned their focus toward the customer. By focusing on the basics of the digital experience, Conde Nast grew from 40 million monthly visitors to more than 100 million.

“I think a true CDO is someone who has a really deep understanding and appreciation for consumer behavior and understands how to leverage technology and marketing and content and all the different elements of the business to respond to those changes in a way that allows the business to continue to grow and to scale.” 

“It is very, very hard for you to start thinking about different ways for you to grow and diversify your business if your foundation is broken.”

The decision to build an internal content management system — (26:45)

When they made the move to digital, Fred said they were using seven or eight different CMSs. As a content company, Fred thought it was important to build something that truly served the content they were creating while also providing the best experience for the consumer. By building their own, they were able to make a platform that was the exact right fit that was as unique as the content Conde Nast was creating, and which also provided a level of efficiency to writers and editors so that they could publish content in the best way. Conde was also able to leverage their decades-worth of data they had collected about readers (addresses, subscription behavior, etc.) and build that into the platform to create better ROI and advertising and marketing opportunities. 

“The CMS was so near and dear to what are our core differentiator was as a company. And then being able to manage that as uniquely as the content is that Conde creates, was an important strategic decision for us. And thankfully, thankfully it worked out and you know, created a significant amount of efficiency for the company, not just in terms of how products are developed but also in the amount of time it takes for editors to create and publish content.”

What to focus on when bringing in new content channels — (34:15)

Conde Nast has acquired a number of other content creators, including Backchannel and Pitchfork. When you bring these types of channels under your umbrella, Fred says that there are certain things you look at before making a decision. Obviously, readership/users are a big part of the equation, but equally important is the content itself and whether or not it lives up to the editorial standards Conde had set. You have to have patience and practice caution with acquisitions, Fred says. Even if a potential target has huge numbers and is doing well, if they don’t fit within your culture and editorial standards, bringing them in, no mattee how successful they are, can deteriorate trust with your customers. 

“Whenever I looked at an editorial property is a potential acquisition target, it was always about honoring what I thought, Conde Nast was, which was a home for the editorial voices that really matter and that are doing fantastic work in journalism.”

“We looked at plenty of digital impressions, plenty of audience, plenty of big gaudy numbers of video views and visits and all those things. But it just didn’t feel like us. And I think one of the most important things that you can do as a company is really protect your authority and really protect your authenticity. And if you start stretching too far out of that zone where the consumer trusts you and, and the value that you provide and the connection that you have, I think you get to the dangerous place and you can threaten your overall business.”

The role of social media — (43:15)

The biggest rule Fred has with social media is not to try to force an audience to come to you. Rather, you have to let the audience guide your strategy and you need to meet them where they are. The strategy you come up with is important and you have to build core competencies and the ability to build natively and organically on various platforms. Plus, you need to create an actual return on the investment you’re putting into your social strategy. However, Fred cautions that you can’t become overreliant on any one platform because if you decide to pivot or the market moves in a certain way, you can get left behind. 

“I very much believe that you can’t force an audience to come to you. You have to go with the audience.”

“My philosophy changed to be more methodical about ensuring that there’s a real return there because you could pour a lot of resource time and effort and testing and activating all these different platforms without really having much to show for it. So really understanding where you can drive the greatest business value first and foremost I think is the first decision out of the gate. And if it’s not generating revenue, then secondarily is it generating an audience that can be monetized in other ways elsewhere?… If you’re not really generating either of those two things in mass, it’s really hard to keep a significant presence alive on some of those platforms.” 

Building Vevo — (50:30)

Prior to joining Conde Nast, Fred was instrumental in building Vevo into one of the most successful video platforms in the world. The biggest challenge early on was convincing marketers that investing in the platform would be worth it. Fred had to prove that his ability to bring in hundreds of millions of views in a week was just as if not more valuable than other kinds of marketing opportunities. 

“We knew that broadcast dollars were going to start shifting online, but it was going to be years and years before it started to happen at scale. And so the main challenge for the product and technology organization in those days was to ensure that there was a revenue infrastructure around making sure that we can follow these videos around the Internet, wherever we distributed them and that we can target the audience correctly and it can be measured correctly….The challenge really was to prove that the return on investment would be there for marketers and advertisers if they chose to invest in this format of content in the same way that they had done for all the other forms of content.”

The role of CDOs in the future — (58:20)

No matter the industry, the CDO has to be responsible for accelerating the digital transformation of an organization and bringing new digital capabilities to the table. Most companies are already playing from behind because they waited too long to make digital a priority, so a lot of what CDOs do is getting everyone up to speed. In the future, Fred hopes that CDOs can build a culture of being adaptive and agile enough to change with the times instead of always playing catch-up. Building the right experiences for customers and employees using tech is critical to a company’s success now and will continue to take on more importance in the future.

“I think what we’re really talking about is, is, is thoughtful transformation, right? And you’re having a management team that is mindful too, and continuing to transform with where the market is going. And part of that is having a deep understanding of how consumer behavior is evolving, and then leveraging technology and digital abilities to continue to evolve with the marketplace. And it’s not just an external thing, it’s also an internal thing. The expectations of employees and how they function and what their expectations are from a workplace standpoint is also changing dramatically. And so keeping an eye on transformation on your internal employee experience is all also critical as companies continue to turn the corner and respond to where the market’s headed.”

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Chief Digital Officer is still a relatively new title. Fred Santarpia, former CDO of Conde Nast, explains what the role means and how he helped transform a print enterprise into a digital giant.

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