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Condé Nast's Culture Shift

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After a brutal year, Condé Nast is trying to fire up new sources of revenue, from iPhone apps to licensing its storied magazine brand names.

The company has historically avoided aggressively licensing its products, but ad revenue concerns have opened minds. Wired and Lucky are expected to reveal new business lines at Condé Nast’s annual publishers meeting in Miami this week, part of an aggressive charge led by group presidents David Carey and Bob Sauerberg.

“It’s a markedly different approach for this company,” said a source who has been part of the discussions but declined to speak for attribution. “Nobody talks about brand extensions anymore. They talk about new business.”

Editors also are tasked with coming up with new revenue ideas, in another culture shift for Condé Nast, said another source, adding, “At this company, editors spend money.”

Carey and Sauerberg are believed to be working on ways to trade on the now-defunct Gourmet, Cookie and Domino because, in the view of one insider, “These brands still have life, and it’s easier to do licensing or branding development deals because the editorial doesn’t get in the way.” With Gourmet, those could include ideas that were in the hopper before the magazine folded in October, like branded kitchen appliances, cookware and wine-themed trips.

Carey said it was too soon to share specifics about what he termed “business development” rather than licensing. “Condé Nast believes there is incremental revenue to be gained via well-thought-out partnerships with other companies and entrepreneurs in select areas,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’re targeting programs where we’re able to contribute our brands and promotional strength, while our partners bring industry expertise outside of media. We’re hoping to roll out initiatives, large and small, over the course of 2010.”

Meredith Corp., with its Midwest roots and down-home titles like Family Circle, is the cultural opposite of Condé Nast, but it’s become sort of a role model. The Better Homes and Gardens name appears on thousands of products, from patio furniture to mattresses, and Sauerberg has been heard to say in new business development meetings, “Look at Meredith and the licensing they’ve done.”

Golf Digest already has a robust business—including branded products, credit cards and golf schools—that predated its 2001 purchase by Condé. But the company is likely to tread carefully, given chairman Si Newhouse’s concern about undermining the brands. “I don’t think the idea is to do the GQ-branded sunglasses Si has always hated,” quipped one source.

Other signs of culture change are clear. Chuck Townsend, president/CEO of Condé Nast, has been giving a pep talk dubbed the “Condé Next” speech and is offering a $10,000 prize for ideas to improve the company.

But some things don’t change. Publishers are getting their annual trip to Florida back, a sign the company feels better times are ahead, or at least wants it to look that way.