Ms. Smith, 59, also had another major challenge on her hands -- boosting the magazine's share in a crowded, six-book market that includes Conde Nast's Vogue and Hearst's Marie Claire. During her first two years, leading up to the premiere of "Runway" in December 2004, Ms. Smith saw Elle's share start to rise, with newsstand sales up 11%. In 2002, the title was sixth out of six, and now the magazine ranks second to Vogue, and is finishing its fifth consecutive year in ad-page sales growth and fourth consecutive year in newsstand sales growth, with next month's September issue slated to be its biggest yet at 420 pages.
But Ms. Smith knows that the traditional magazine success metrics are not enough, as the title's recent forays into reality TV and branded entertainment have shown. In October, Elle will become the subject of a new reality competition series for the CW, "Stylista," which pits young contestants against each other in "Apprentice"-style challenges to become "Devil Wears Prada"-esque assistants to Elle editor Anne Slowey. The series will debut shortly after Elle ends its run with "Runway," which will will move to Lifetime in November with Marie Claire on board as its new editorial partner.
Its rivalry with Conde will continue to play out in another TV series this fall. The magazine will return for its role as the main competitor of Mode, the fictional Vogue-esque magazine on ABC's "Ugly Betty," after being written into the show's season finale in a campy Mode vs. Elle baseball tournament. Ms. Smith said she knew the magazine had achieved a new cultural status when she had Naomi Campbell batting for her team -- quite literally.
Ms. Smith harbors no bitterness over the "Runway" switcheroo, on the surface anyway, insisting that the past five seasons have been "a fabulous run. I look back on it and think what we accomplished is going to be something that stands out in my career."
Madison & Vine spoke with Ms. Smith the morning after the second episode of Elle's final season of "Project Runway," which just wrapped filming in New York on July 17. ("I haven't seen it yet!" she exclaimed of the most recent episode, as she is currently sans TV while her house is being renovated.)
Madison & Vine: You co-created "Project Runway" with Bravo and the Weinstein Co. at a time when the reality competition genre was still very much in its infancy. What's your key takeaway from that process?
Ms. Smith: I think the easy thing it demonstrated was we will take risks. As the story goes, it was first offered up to Conde Nast and they turned it down. ... I remember saying to myself, "What do we have to lose?" Because if it works it will be phenomenal, and if it doesn't work it was a good try. What I loved about "Project Runway" was its newness -- we launched a reality show. We started very tiny. It didn't have great reviews at first.
M&V: Elle is celebrating its fifth consecutive year in ad growth. How directly would you attribute your success to your relationship with "Project Runway?"
Ms. Smith: Where it helped on the advertising side was, of course, with the sponsors. The unbelievable genius ability to sell integration in print and commercials as a package. It could be bundled, it can be unbundled. You can't even do that within a company. This was synergy really working. There were some we brought to the table; L'Oreal was already a part of the show, Tresemme was someone we brought on. Banana Republic happened at a dinner we hosted for the Academy Awards in 2004. It was a real collaboration. It really, really works. ... But in 2003 we closed up 11% higher, 2004 we closed 13%, so we made money on it, we definitely did.
M&V: So are you worried that you'll see a loss in revenue from any of the sponsors once the show moves to Lifetime with Marie Claire?
Ms. Smith: These are all major advertisers of us. Banana Republic we brought [to the show], Cotton in the first season we brought in. How we went out about doing it was, every Friday we had a conference call, and we shared information. Bravo would tell us who they were pitching, Weinstein would say we've been here, they don't want to pay an integration fee. Bluefly definitely came through because they're big advertisers of ours. Someone like a L'Oreal, we just tagged along because they were a major advertiser of ours already. They were big before, and they'll be big after. L'Oreal as a company is our second-largest advertiser. So my goal now is to find the next "Project Runway."
M&V: It looks like you're betting on "Stylista" to do just that.
Ms. Smith: It would be nice if it was. What it is, is our next chance to experiment on something. At first I was a bit skeptical, because everyone was going, "Oh God, it's the 'Devil Wears Prada' meets 'The Apprentice.'" I hear Anne [Slowey] is quite the devil. She's so good. She was brilliant on "Project Runway." Her comments, even on "Project Runway" were not just memorable but were spot-on, so accurate. I think "Stylista" is going to be fun.
M&V: Are you selling the show with a similar sponsorship model?
Ms. Smith: We're not selling with integration. It's not the same formula, nonetheless, with H&M, they're on the show for, I think, one episode. And we are producing an in-book section for them in the September issue. As for other sponsors, there's Max Factor, which I think if it goes further we will develop something with them. I think a lot of that is the world has changed. Advertisers want this now.
M&V: Interesting that you brought that up, as much has been made about the continued blurring of lines between ad sales and editorial content in fashion magazines in light of the June Harper's Bazaar with Gwyneth Paltrow and the other Estee Lauder spokesmodels. How do you make sure you stay on the credible side of that boundary?
Ms. Smith: What I think is advertisers are looking for authentic and relevant content, and it is our job to give this to them without compromising our integrity. ... Much as we know in fashion, the church and the state work very closely. ... To say that the church and state never talk would be ridiculous. If it was foreign affairs, that'd be something else. Nonetheless I am very aware and cognizant as both a reader and as a publisher of what we should and should not do. Custom publishing is a really important opportunity for an advertiser to own relevant content, and you see a lot more of that. What you can't see is you can't be so openly blatant about something.
M&V: You've had over two decades of experience in branded entertainment. What's the most important lesson you've learned?
Ms. Smith: I think all of our experience has been positive, from the one episode of "Ugly Betty" to the partnership at "Project Runway," and now to the true ownership in many ways of "Stylista." It works on so many levels -- people get connected to the brand, people hear the brand more, they go out and buy a copy off the newsstand more. It adds to the positive brand feeling. People smile about Elle. There's a fun element and I like that, we don't take ourselves too seriously. We're all trying to be brands. The magazine is a brand, the TV show is a brand. What does fashion have when it's not a brand?