To say it's a magazine cover that made history doesn't quite cut it. We're talking about a project so massive, so secretive that only eight people inside publisher Condé Nast knew about it and a security firm was enlisted to keep it under wraps. The cover and accompanying story would end up generating not only record-breaking newsstand sales and Web traffic but also have the whole planet, even the president of the United States, talking about it.
Vanity Fair's July issue, introducing the former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner as Caitlyn Jenner, wasn't just your garden-variety media spectacle. It was a true cultural moment of the kind rarely achieved anymore what with digital media's continuous, explosive disgorgement of chum. That it was executed by a print vehicle makes it all the more notable.
"You know, if you throw out enough bad ideas, which I do, something eventually good comes out of it," says Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter, who for a record third time is Adweek's Magazine Editor of the Year. (In addition, our editors selected Vanity Fair as Magazine of the Year and the Jenner issue as Magazine Cover of the Year.) From his expansive office inside One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, Carter proudly refers to the Caitlyn coup as "a great moment for magazines," demonstrating that "magazine covers are still important, still iconic. They can capture the imagination of the country with one single image."
And what an image. Featuring a portrait of its subject in a corset photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the cover made its debut via a quiet tweet by the magazine on June 1, two weeks before publication. It took half a minute or so for the global press to shift into Defcon 1. Likewise, the public went bananas—predictably, as there had been so much curiosity around Jenner's transition in the preceding months. VF's site drew 9 million unique visitors in the first 24 hours alone, 24 million for the month. (Over the last year, total uniques shot up 122 percent, to more than 19 million. VF projects digital sales will grow more than 30 percent this year.)
The Jenner story would not only kill it on the magazine's website but rule every leading social media channel, as well, ultimately generating a mind-boggling 3.9 billion impressions. VF has steadily grown its social presence over the last year, with Twitter and Facebook followings up double digits, Instagram triple digits. The Jenner story would only bolster that.
At the newsstand, all the buzz would make Caitlyn VF's best-selling issue in five years, selling 432,000 copies, more than double the magazine's average. Those results would reinforce an already solid circulation story at VF, whose rate base (the total number of newsstand copies and paid subscriptions it promises advertisers it will deliver each month) is being upped from 1,175,000 to 1.2 million as of next January's issue.
VF's big year wasn't limited to a single issue, though. The magazine also published exclusive photos of the cast of the wildly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, shot by Leibovitz. Its second annual New Establishment Summit, held in San Francisco in October, drew the likes of Mark Zuckerberg (who appeared on the cover of the New Establishment Issue), Elon Musk, Kevin Systrom, Lee Daniels and Lena Dunham. This also marked the 20th year of the VF Oscar Party, which remains the hottest ticket around on Hollywood's biggest night. Also came the launch of Vanity Fair Studios, which produces custom campaigns and content for clients like BMW and Bulgari.
Not content to have produced the most talked about magazine of the year, by fall Carter dived headlong into presidential politics, poking GOP front-runner and his old nemesis Donald Trump right in the eye. Carter's feud with the pride of Queens dates back to the '80s when, in his influential Spy magazine, he took great pleasure referring to Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian." In the November VF, Carter reveals that to this day, the notoriously thin-skinned, blue-blooded blusterer sends the editor pictures of himself ripped from magazines, his digits circled and comments like "See, not so short!" Writes Carter: "I almost feel sorry for the poor fellow because, to me, the fingers still look abnormally stubby."
Still, Carter confesses to Adweek that he can't help but have "a grudging admiration" for Trump. "I think he's created a unique character for himself. I'm not sure it's appropriate as a presidential candidate." When asked whether we might ever see Trump on the cover of VF, he thinks for a minute, then muses, "A good story involves access, disclosure and a narrative—and I think at least one of those, access, I probably could not get. I think the relationship has gone too far now to ever come back."
Finally, what of occasional speculation in the press that Carter, who marks his 24th year at VF next June, might be ready for that emeritus title? Noting that he recently signed a contract keeping him at the helm for several years to come, he says of the peanut gallery, "They can kick me around for a while longer." He adds, "I love this job."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:
- Media Visionary: Roger Ailes
- Hottest Magazines of 2015
- Magazine Executive of the Year: Troy Young
- Hottest TV Shows and Networks of 2015
- TV Executive of the Year: Bonnie Hammer
- TV Producer of the Year: Greg Berlanti
- Hottest Digital Brands of 2015
- Digital Executive of the Year: Evan Spiegel
- Digital Editor of the Year: Joe Yanerella