Meet the Most Powerful Woman at Condé Nast

It's not who you might think

Many at Condé Nast aren’t sure what Jill Bright does, but they are sure of one thing: She’s one of the most powerful people at the company.

“So powerful, she’s scary” is actually how many describe Bright, 50.

Bright’s title is chief administrative officer, but a more fitting one might be consigliere to CEO Chuck Townsend. And while “scary” may not be the first word one associates with human resources, at a privately held, talent-driven company that historically has had no obvious org chart or formal employee-review process, Condé Nast’s HR apparatus wields considerable influence over careers and often-lucrative pay and perks.

Jill Bright Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Bright joined the publisher as a mid-level HR executive in 1993, working under Pamela van Zandt, a kingmaker at the time. “You weren’t going anywhere unless Pam was behind you,” recalled a former executive. “Pam was very close to Si [Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast parent Advance Publications], and Jill was a junior person on that team. Jill saw a very powerful head of HR.”

Bright ran the department from 1996 to 2010, when she was named chief administrative officer, a newly created role overseeing corporate communications and strategic planning. It was a time of major change at Condé Nast, which had just named Bob Sauerberg president in a play for new revenue streams outside advertising. As if to add to the mystery surrounding Bright’s reinvention, the company described her role in a jargon-laden announcement as someone who would “coordinate strategic business initiatives” and assess “organizational effectiveness, providing important guidance on people, productivity and alignment.”

In an interview at Condé Nast’s 4 Times Square headquarters Wednesday, Bright described her role as wide-ranging, a behind-the-scenes “chief of staff” who counsels the brands and keeps the company on its road map. It's often noted that Bright now oversees areas in which she lacks direct experience. Bright allowed that “it wouldn’t necessarily be a logical move” for an HR exec to follow her career path. But, she said, “We are a very talent-driven company, and [with] my appreciation for how the company works and my key relationships with the people, I think I’m very attune to know how to assist them.” She added that she also has an MBA (NYU’s Stern).

Early on, Bright decentralized the PR department so that individual magazine publicists reported directly to their brands. She then got rid of the old guard. Longtime communications chief Maurie Perl was sidelined, then shown the door in January. Bright shook up the new guard, too, letting go svp Patricia Steele just last Friday, a move that has renewed chatter about her power at the company.

Bright’s ascension coincides with a renewed interest in elevating the Condé Nast corporate brand.

It’s been a few years since the company let its “Point of Passion” campaign lapse. Meantime, rival Hearst has unleashed its own brand positioning, “Unbound,” and it pushes harder into Condé Nast’s space with fashion books Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan.

“There’s a fairly healthy paranoia about Hearst now that [former Condé Nast executive] David Carey is there,” one Condé Nast sales exec said. “Jill’s there to burnish the Condé Nast crown.”

The recent appointment of Vogue editor Anna Wintour to artistic director, the staging of multibrand events at Art Basel in Miami Beach last December and at the Four Seasons to celebrate the National Magazine Award nominations, and hiring of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Patty Newburger as vp, special projects all point to an effort to elevate the corporate identity. “We’re not looking to replace the brands,” Bright said, adding, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Condé Nast event” that leveraged their influence. (Given that Bright is seen as a stand-in for Townsend, it would be hard to imagine her not persuading editors to rally behind her.) Bright’s publicity strategy involves more swagger than the company has displayed in the past, as evidenced by a congratulatory ad for the magazine awards that read: “We’re kind of a big deal.”

Bright may be inscrutable, but the question of how someone who’s not in a revenue-producing role or advancing a new business model could become so important at the company is one of endless debate inside its walls. When it comes to talk of succession, Bright’s name is mentioned in the same breath as Townsend and family scions Steve and Jonathan Newhouse. To be sure, her institutional knowledge, political instincts and negotiating skills are all solid.

“She understands the people dynamics, organizational behavior,” said former Fairchild president Mary Berner. She's also close to Townsend, who emailed that "Jill is a key member of my executive committee and has been an instrumental force in moving the Condé Nast agenda forward. Quite simply, she artfully embodies Condé Nast's commitment to excellence, quality and innovation—and she does so in her own unique, elegant way."

Bright comes across as warm, but extremely guarded. When Adweek approached her about an interview, Patti Röckenwagner, her new svp of corporate communications, asked whether the talk could begin on background, explaining that Bright prefers not to be in the spotlight. Bright started our conversation by revealing it was her first with a reporter, and during the 45-minute interview, deferred frequently to Röckenwagner.

When asked at one point about her identity as a minority woman at the company (Bright is African-American), she claimed not to think about it, saying, “I don’t think of myself, so I don’t really think other people might think about it. I think I’m very Condé Nast.” Bright seemed to immediately regret her choice of words, commenting, with a glance over at Röckenwagner, “I knew I was going to get in trouble.”

Bright’s lack of forward-facing experience may be a stumbling block as she transitions into a more public role. Her tight-lipped style may have worked in HR, with its requirement of confidentiality, but in communications, people are used to more transparency. She’s known for not returning emails. Shortly after she took over PR, people saw her imprint in a company wide memo from Townsend that took jargon to a new level with phrases like “multiplatform, integrated sales and marketing organization” and “commitment to consumer centricity.” Said the sales-side exec, “She’s really good at understanding the talent piece. The only Achilles heel she has is, she operates in the shadows.”

How Bright’s ascension plays out may depend somewhat on how Bob Sauerberg defines his own role at the company. Sauerberg now oversees HR, along with technology and consumer marketing. (It was he who named Bright’s HR replacement, JoAnn Murray.) Sauerberg is the presumed successor to Townsend, 69. That said, his lack of sales background is seen as limiting, and the jury’s still out on his big initiatives in consumer marketing and digital video. If Sauerberg doesn’t succeed, could Bright be waiting in the wings?

Some thought it telling that at a recent publishers’ meeting, it was Bright who made the rallying speech. When the announcement came that Lou Cona was being promoted to president and CRO of the media group, gossip had it that Bright had her eye on his old CMO title.

Asked about that, Bright responded, with a nod to her boss, “I’m not angling for the job. I like the job I have very much. I think, honestly, Chuck thinks he’s got that title.”