Luca Dini, the editor in chief of Italian Vanity Fair, faces difficulties his peers in the U.S. would welcome. The Milan-based magazine has grown so much since launching as a newsweekly nearly 10 years ago that it’s hard to imagine it getting any fatter, with one of last September’s issues bulging to a record 408 pages.
The secret to its success? An upscale combination of high-gloss celebrity and serious reportage, one that embraces stars while tweaking the powers that be. On one startling cover in 2004, a very pregnant, angry-looking Monica Bellucci posed naked to protest a Vatican-supported law against donor sperm. (The same year, the sex symbol played Mary Magdalene in the film The Passion of the Christ.) More recently, one of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s daughters made a rare attack on her father’s scandalous behavior in an interview that grabbed world attention. Lately, the mix has ranged from royals playing polo to the Egyptian uprising.
“We were the first to give actors and stars the treatment that really respected the essence of Vanity Fair U.S.,” says Dini. “For the first time, they were being portrayed in a way that was more flattering and noble, which started a virtuous circle. And they work with us to give us more in return.”
The returns have been notable for this stand-out in Condé Nast’s booming international empire. Despite a sluggish economy and publishing market, circulation rose 3.3 percent last year to 275,000—among the largest in a country with 61 million people. While weekly magazine advertising declined 15 percent in Italy, Italian Vanity Fair chalked up a 5 percent increase to 6,025 ad pages, far more than any U.S. magazine.
On its home turf in America, Condé Nast has shut a handful of titles over the last few years and recently ordered publishers to cut expenses by 10 percent. But the closely held company’s business is strong in Western Europe and growing fast in emerging markets, including India, Russia and China.
The man behind that success is Jonathan Newhouse, 60, a first cousin of family patriarch and parent company Advance Publications chairman Si Newhouse. Under Jonathan’s leadership, the number of overseas titles has nearly quadrupled from fewer than 30 in 1995 to 122 in 24 markets, along with 79 websites. The international division accounts for nearly half of Condé Nast’s total revenue. While its U.S. magazines have been cautious about brand extensions, Newhouse is opening Vogue- and GQ-branded cafés in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. And this winter, the company will open the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design in London.
Newhouse rarely speaks to the press, and Condé Nast would not make him or other top execs available for this story. But his decisions are closely watched, as he is seen as an heir apparent at the 27,500-employee Advance, which took in an estimated $6.55 billion in revenue in 2011, according to Forbes.
True, the company known for upscale brands has benefitted from an expanding global luxury market, but industry watchers say Newhouse has also excelled at timing launches, giving editors the freedom to adapt to their local markets and taking a long view in positioning the company for continued growth. “Jonathan travels, he gets out there and he’s seen,” says Chris Llewellyn, president and CEO of FIPP, the worldwide magazine media association. “It’s execution led from the top.”