When he started Condé Nast India in 2006 out of a make-shift office in a corner of his bedroom, Alex Kuruvilla’s mission was to create India’s most admired publishing company. He had the advantage of setting up a business that already had in its fold premium global luxury magazine brands besides 100% ownership by Condé Nast International. But soon, the rapidly changing media landscape and evolving consumer media consumption patterns led him to seize the opportunity to go beyond magazines and re-invent CNI as one of India’s leading multi-media platforms.
“Seven years on, we believe we have accomplished our mission,” says Kuruvilla, Managing Director, Condé Nast India. He is one man unperturbed by the digital onslaught that has shaken many a Print publication in the recent past. "The paid circulation for our titles has been growing steadily. In fact, we are looking at launching more titles, hiring more people and starting new businesses," adds Kuruvilla, who has successfully brought to Indian shores four international titles — Vogue India, GQ India, Condé Nast Traveller India and Architectural Digest to date, taking the digital wave in his stride.
Today, CNI has evolved into a leading multimedia content provider for readers as well as for brands. From device-responsive web interfaces to a partnership with Flipboard, enhanced editions designed specially for the iPad to branded luxury content — Condé Nast India has clearly matched steps with its tech-savvy audience.
Today, developing parallel content for Print, Digital and social media is integral to the Condé Nast brands. For instance, a fashion collection is an image or a 10-second video on Instagram, text and/or link on Twitter, a link and post on Facebook, a story with all elements on the web, plus a video on YouTube and a full story with text and images in the magazine. The same story can have interactive elements, videos, etc., on the tablet version of the magazine. The reach is significant - over a million social media fans across titles, with Vogue having 595,000 Facebook fans, 85,000 Twitter followers and 29,000 Instagram followers.
Kuruvilla attributes this “bullishness in the market” to performance of the business, both from a consumer perspective and the success of properties from an advertiser’s point of view. At the centre of it all is editorial excellence, - the start and end points of the game being built around the quality of content the titles put out. “That is the only thing which will lead to people buying more of your content and the only thing that will bring advertisers back,” observes Kuruvilla, adding that another key aspect is talent sourced from all over the world. “If we need expertise in a specific area, it doesn’t matter if we need to hire someone from New York, London or Milan. We get the best. For example, our art director in Vogue was an art director for Vogue, New York; our photo editor is German; our photo editor for Condé Nast Traveller is English, one of our art directors is an Italian based out of London. Our digital director is German. I can bring in the best practices from markets where they are ahead of the curve,” he explains.
However, things were not so rosy when Kuruvilla started out, with the best talent migrating to Digital. Very few publishing houses were really investing in building their businesses, so he was left with such a sorry state of affairs that he couldn’t even hire from the industry. This led to the hiring of an entirely new set of people, including Oona Dhabar, the company’s marketing director who came from Procter & Gamble. Before the first magazine was launched, Kuruvilla thought bookstores would be a very natural distributor for the title, but the stores stood adamant, refusing to take magazines, as it was not a lucrative business for them. “We had to actually convince the Crosswords and Landmarks of the world to start taking our magazines. Today, the single biggest revenue-earner for a bookstore is magazines,” says an amused Kuruvilla.
Asked how the Print and Digital editions of the Condé Nast magazines are faring in the market in terms of numbers and reach, Kuruvilla says both have been growing steadily. “We recently took up the print run of Vogue by 20% to 60,000. In an unaudited market, we are the only players who have a Print audit by top accounting firms,” he adds. “A significant and exciting development has been the growth of our digital copies – PDF as well as Enhanced, the latter with interactivity and video. The digital copies are going to increase the reach of our titles substantially with heightened levels of engagement.”
Thinking BIG Helps
One of Kuruvilla’s success mantras is to think big, and ensure precision down to the last detail. An example is the Vogue India Launch event. “We were not about to get a second chance to launch Vogue, so we chartered four aircraft, flew in 400 people from Delhi and Bombay to Jodhpur, booked hotels – from Umaid Bhawan Palace to every property available there, and gave these people the weekend of their life. We had people from Bollywood, corporate CEOs, and the entire fashion world. Till today, people say that they have never had such a magical experience. We had the launch event projected on the palace walls. We curated an art show with a world famous curator who went through the archives of Vogue and presented a book called ‘75 years of Vogue’s love affair with India’, with Vogue fashion images shot in India,” relates Kuruvilla. For him, it has to be nothing less than the best, never cutting corners even in the toughest of times, to deliver content and experiences which advertisers and consumers appreciate.
All the Condé Nast websites keep up with the rapid technology changes that make user experience a delight. The CN Traveller site re-launch, for instance, is part of the company’s strategy to make all sites mobile responsive. The response has been fantastic. Travel content is often generic, but the content on cntraveller.in has a unique voice that reflects its upscale audience. “The Insider guides to cities are priceless. So are big-name writers like Fatima Bhutto, Richard Quest, Steve McCurry and many more writing for us,” Kuruvilla says.
The Bottomline is Profit
The Condé Nast India business is profitable overall, with individual titles typically breaking even at an operating level as early as two to three years after launch. “We are a profitable business, delivering a double-digit bottomline. We have our graph growing year on year. Revenue is up, circulation is up and profitability is up. This is because we are investing in content, in paper, in marketing, in people, in growth. We keep doing new things which will help in organic growth. It delivers a certain return, but on top of that, if I add inorganic growth, then I can double my business and profits every 2-3 years,” says Kuruvilla, comfortable in his space, and secure in the knowledge that the entry barrier keeps getting higher and higher for competitors. “Now, if you want to compete with Vogue, you will have to put in five times the investment that we put in, and you still need a brand.” In his case, he is happy that even before Vogue India launched, there was 100 per cent brand awareness.
(With inputs from Henna Achhpal)