It turned out to be anything but. The publisher of the glossy bible of the fashion world, a jocular but hard-driving Brit named Richard Beckman, urged two of his subordinates -- Los Angeles Ad Manager Carol Matthews and International Fashion Director Emily Jahncke Davis -- to kiss. He pushed their heads together, breaking Ms. Matthews' nose.
Seven months later, the shock has worn off but the debate still rages behind closed doors and on the cocktail circuit. Was the Vogue shocker an isolated incident or a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when sales organizations tolerate -- even reward -- bad-boy behavior?
In the wake of the incident, Ms. Matthews resigned her post at the Conde Nast cash cow and negotiated an out-of-court settlement believed to be worth several million dollars. Mr. Beckman issued an apology to his staff and underwent sensitivity training. But he kept his job, much to the chagrin of some female employees at Conde Nast.
Mr. Beckman's action has been roundly denounced by colleagues, competitors and advertisers. But while the Vogue controversy was disturbing, the unfortunate truth is that abuse -- for the most part of the verbal variety -- is not unheard of in the high-pressure world of magazine advertising sales.
From that viewpoint, the Beckman episode sent a warning about what can happen when overly aggressive sales tactics are ignored. If publishers are willing to overlook bullying behavior so long as the offender delivers to the bottom line, and if clients are willing to dismiss such incidents as internal matters, then the glamorous world of magazine sales loses some of its gloss.
"There is a gladiator approach that is encouraged," said Catherine Viscardi Johnston, a longtime Conde Nast executive who was forced out of the company last fall after clashing with Chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. Ms. Viscardi Johnston won't discuss the Beckman incident but was known to be a vocal internal critic of the matter.
The last decade in particular has witnessed the rise of pit-bull publishers who thrived as magazines battled an ad-sales recession. Forced to negotiate rates, they elbowed for space at cluttered newsstands, and were squeezed by competition from cable TV and the Internet.
Motivation by fear became a successful sales tactic at some magazines, and tales circulated through the industry about publishers who tossed furniture or dressed down sales executives in front of their peers, in at least one case comparing them to trained dogs. Surviving such tirades was considered a badge of honor.
But as we enter a new millennium, some observers -- and even many of those in the trenches -- insist the magazine sales world has become more sophisticated and polished, particularly as more women have risen through the ranks.
"Selling has become much more professional, especially since there are so many choices in the media," said Sam Craig, professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School.
SENSE OF URGENCY
Interviews with publishers, magazine company heads, clients and agency media executives indicate there is a more palpable sense of urgency to magazine sales. But they are quick to add that abusive behavior is not an acceptable modus operandi.
"Good salespeople go the extra mile not because they are beaten down but because the bar has been set higher," said Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, a top Conde Nast rival. In a thinly veiled shot at Conde Nast CEO Steven T. Florio, she said abusive situations "would be dealt with abruptly" at Hearst. "In my judgment, the tone for a company has to be set from the top. That means defining expectations of results, but also values."
Ms. Black pointed to the ability of publishers such as Cosmopolitan's Donna Kalajian to inspire loyalty despite her reputation as an aggressive seller.
Mr. Beckman, too, has loyalists as well as critics. "I would follow him to Soap Opera Digest," said Vogue Associate Publisher Ellen Carucci, who has already worked for Mr. Beckman at three other titles. Ms. Carucci, who believes the L.A. incident was overblown, said Mr. Beckman "takes amazing care of his staff, setting incentives so they can make a lot of money."
A former concert promoter, Mr. Beckman first joined Conde Nast in 1985, as European ad manager in The New Yorker's London office. He quickly developed close friendships with three other company stars known for their intensity and swagger: Mr. Florio; his younger brother, Tom, now publisher of GQ; and Ron Galotti, a former Vogue publisher who left Conde Nast last year to launch Talk with Tina Brown.
Mr. Beckman, whose take-no-prisoners style earned him the nickname "Mad Dog," rose rapidly through the ranks, eventually serving as publisher of Conde Nast Traveler and GQ. He moved to Vogue in 1998.
The publishing executive has kept a low profile in recent months. Even now, he refuses to discuss what a Conde Nast spokeswoman has dubbed the "unfortunate incident." But in an interview with Advertising Age, he spoke proudly about his track record as a publisher, pointing up strong ad page gains at each of the three titles he has helmed in the last six years.
"I am very passionate about what I do, I have a fierce loyalty to my staff. You do not reach the stars if you don't shoot for them," Mr. Beckman said in his mellifluous British accent. "I find people who are as passionate as I am about what I do. If that makes me hard-driving, so be it."
Steve Florio also refuses to discuss the Beckman flap specifically. But he notes that 12 of 17 Conde Nast publishers are women, and dismisses critics who say Conde Nast rewards rabid sales tactics.
"People stay here because they love the company and they're loyal to their publisher," Mr. Florio said. "We have magazines that are the gold standard, and people who work here know that. In the six years that I've been CEO there is only one publisher who left that I didn't want to lose, Ron Galotti, who left because he wanted to be an owner."
Other executives who departed Conde Nast in recent years, including Michael Clinton (now senior VP-chief marketing officer at Hearst) and Jack Kliger (now CEO at Hachette Filipacchi Magazines) moved on because "they wanted my job," Mr. Florio said. "When I got it, they left for other opportunities."
Mr. Kliger said that throughout his career in sales and marketing he has seen publishers who motivate by fear. But he said there's a line between being tough and being abusive that should never be crossed. If the current sales environment is more heated, Mr. Kliger attributes that to the dual impacts of rate negotiation and "a greater focus on the short-term increase in revenues."
SENSITIVE TO RATES
Publishers have to be particularly sensitive to advertising rates with the emergence of the dot-com category. And fashion and beauty titles already conduct business in a fast-paced, tense and hotly competitive field.
"There are a lot more decisions being made at the last minute and that certainly increases the competition," said Ellen Oppenheim, senior VP-media director at FCB Worldwide, New York.
Added David Long, president of media sales and marketing at Time Inc., "There is a horrific battle of share and revenue at Conde Nast and Hearst because they're much more dependent on fashion business. Fashion and beauty advertising is a ferociously competitive, very ego-driven marketplace." It's also one that Time Inc., best known as the publisher of Time and Sports Illustrated, now competes in via In Style and Teen People.
Buyers of magazine space also feel the pressure. "I am getting a great deal of `I have to see you' demands from magazines sales staffs, and `My manager insists I get on your calendar,' " said Valerie Muller, a veteran buyer who is now senior VP-media director at Pedone & Partners, New York. "Everybody is hungry, so afraid that someone else is going to get the business."
Others say dramatic and aggressive tactics are nothing new, and are even fading. Steve Greenberger, senior VP-director of print media at Grey Advertising's Mediacom, New York, said years ago a magazine sales executive climbed up on his desk and threatened to jump out the window if she didn't get his client's business. "That wouldn't happen today," he said.
David Verklin, CEO at Carat North America, said he sees more "super-aggressive sellers" in the magazine marketplace, but adds that the medium "is just following what has happened in the TV business with the commoditization of media and the acceptance that rates will be negotiated."
Mr. Kliger counters that in many instances media buyers are fanning the flames by leveraging one magazine against another. "They have created this dance of give me your best price, claiming your competitor is giving them a better price."
In that environment, it's easy to see why toughness is rewarded. Ms. Viscardi Johnston, the former Conde Nast executive, said some publishers are not abusive but can be characterized as "aggressively passionate."
"Ron [Galotti] couldn't fathom a salesperson who wouldn't work as hard as him to get the business," she said. "It's just that he wouldn't express it quietly."
TOUGH, BUT ADMIRED
Indeed, some of the "toughest" publishers in the business are also some of the most admired. Among those cited by buyers and sellers as tough but fair (and talented) are former Glamour Publisher Mary Berner, now president-CEO of Conde Nast sibling Fairchild Publications; Peter King Hunsinger, now publisher of Vanity Fair; Nora McAniff, president of People; and Cosmo's Ms. Kalajian.
"I've always thought the greatest salespeople are often self-motivated by their own fear of failure," said Ms. McAniff, a 16-year Time Inc. veteran.
Ms. Berner, who worked at the Rupert Murdoch-owned TV Guide before she joined Conde Nast, said good publishers "build long-term relationships." Asked if she sometimes sees locker-room behavior in the magazine sales world, she said, "There are some publishers everywhere who are insecure."
Marketers whose ads fill magazines are often shielded from the aggressive sales tactics at media companies. And that's just fine with them.
"Beckman has always been a supreme salesman, smart and fast to react," said an executive at a beauty-products company, who asked not to be named. "Is he aggressive? I wouldn't embarrass him by asking, and I don't care."
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
A publishing executive who requested anonymity said the verbal abuse often takes place behind closed doors, and is followed by what amounts to an apology. "You get beaten up verbally, then the next day the publisher sends you flowers and tells you to take your husband out to dinner at a four-star restaurant," the executive said.
But even Mr. Florio, who suffered a serious health scare last year, speaks of a more sobering time in the business and says "bad-boy" practices once tolerated in the business are a thing of the past.
"The bravado is gone. Gold watches are gone," he said. "My brother is worn out by the wars at The New Yorker; he spends a lot of time with his three kids. Galotti is now super daddy. He married a Colorado girl who was on the ski team, and his idea of a hot weekend is a bicycle trip with the wife and the baby on the backseat."