"Managing a business on a numbers basis, particularly in a creative environment, is counterproductive," Mr. Townsend says with a shrug. Minutes later, he adds: "In the old days, I would talk to you about how many ad pages we have relative to Time Inc. and say, 'We are unequivocally No. 1.' Today, I don't care. I don't."
But in 2007, it is the numbers that attest to Cond� Nast's dominance. Cond� Nast Publications sold 8,662 ad pages during the first quarter, up 5.3% from last year, according to Media Industry Newsletter data for group publishers. That dwarfed runner-up Time Inc.'s 6,408.
But really -- Mr. Townsend doesn't care about such yardsticks of success? When some of these numbers are run past him, he doesn't take the bait: "You can slice us and dice us. You can put us on the list anywhere you want. We keep our noses down. We take a great deal of solace in that we know what we're doing."
Taking their pick
What they're doing is skimming the cream of readers in competitive magazine categories. One recent example is Cookie, Advertising Age's 2007 Launch of the Year, which takes an upscale approach to motherhood. Another might be Portfolio, Cond� Nast's new business title.
PUBLISHING COMPANY OF THE YEAR
MAGAZINES INCLUDE: Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, Cookie, Domino, Glamour, Gourmet, Self, Vogue, WiredWHY IT WON: A stable of great magazines strongly supported on corporate level
Once known as a publishing house populated by Town-Car-riding star editors such as Anna Wintour, Cond� Nast and its tony titles are posting solid gains by attracting readers who are also upwardly mobile. Ms. Wintour's Vogue, by the way, increased ad pages 6.1% through October, helping earn it a spot on Ad Age's 2007 A-List.
Mag-world pundits and media buyers alike praise Cond� Nast for its almost pathological focus on upper-tier audiences and the strength of its branding efforts on both a companywide and title-by-title basis. They echo what Cond� Nasters themselves say about the consistently high quality of their products and practically break into song about its willingness to craft outside-the-mag programs -- effective ones, not ones that devolve into "logo soup" for marketers.
George Janson, managing partner-director of print at Mediaedge:cia, New York, lauds Cond� Nast's "incredibly strong arsenal. ... They invest in their properties [and] are committed to excellence."
'Leading the pack'
Adds Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch: "They live the premium positioning in every aspect of what they do. They get called arrogant and all that, but they're leading the pack."
Perhaps there's no better testimonial to Cond� Nast's recent fortunes than the fact that competing executives no longer regularly dispense sharp-elbowed comments about its chichi 'tude or titles.
In fact, only one would offer an on- or off-the-record assessment of late-2007 Cond� Nast. Says Steven Kotok, general manager of Dennis Publishing's The Week: "They targeted a niche, and they wanted to own it, and now they do. Being a Cond� Nast magazine really means something within the luxury categories."
Asked about external perceptions of his company, Mr. Townsend can't quite suppress a smirk, one that suggests he fields this question quite often.
"We're sort of a different kind of target now," he says. "Before, we weren't a target because of our success; we were a target because we had a lot of interesting people who stirred up a lot of excitement. We were under constant criticism of being a frivolous company."
At the same time, Mr. Townsend acknowledges that perception matters quite a bit inside and outside Cond� Nast.
"We have a Frank Gehry-designed dining room. We have sedan car service as required. We have arguably one of the most attractive employee bases in the world," he says off-handedly. "I have no interest in changing that, and it's not in conflict with running a great business. My hope is that the outside world has seen us become progressively more stable, progressively more businesslike without losing the critical elements of that culture."
But even now, Cond� Nast can't avoid the darts of some media critics.
Mr. Townsend and Richard Beckman, the enormously well-regarded president of Cond� Nast Media Group, say they were mostly unaffected by the sniping that greeted the arrival earlier this year of Portfolio.
"Given the four- or five-month hiatus between the first and second issue, we left ourselves vulnerable," Mr. Beckman says. "But come on, nobody in his right mind expects to hit the consumer in the center of the bull's-eye the first time out."
The fourth issue of Portfolio came out this month.
In fact, the media community seems to be turning around on Portfolio already. Mr. Janson chides media folk for their selective amnesia: "No one remembers that the first few issues of Real Simple, InStyle and Entertainment Weekly were markedly different from subsequent issues."
Cond� Nast's other major bump of the past year came when it shuttered Jane a few months before that magazine's 10th birthday. Mr. Beckman calls the decision a "low point" but says, "We saw no way to make this book work."
Then there are the company's efforts to make inroads in the digital space, where observers most recently have cast doubt on the prospects of Flip.com, the networking site for teens that made its debut earlier this year.
"The word 'painful' would be a gross understatement," Mr. Townsend says of Cond� Nast's digital forays. "We didn't necessarily see [the speed at with the digital landscape is evolving] coming any more than my colleagues did. We've all banged our way around."
For now, Cond� Nast plans to continue growing its magazine-affiliated sites steadily, ever conscious of what Mr. Townsend calls "the positioning pressure put on us -- that if we're not digitally adaptive, we're an old company."
Most of the news about Cond� Nast has, of course, been positive. The magazines Mr. Townsend has dubbed "workhorse titles" -- Vogue, Glamour, Cond� Nast Traveler -- have fueled the company's growth in recent months, while "growth titles" Gourmet, Wired, Bon App�tit and Self have similarly surged.
"They essentially do not show weakness," Mr. Gardiner says admiringly.
Mr. Townsend says he sees no crisis for the magazine industry.
"When I read my esteemed colleagues' comments about [magazines having trouble], it makes me nauseous in a way," he says. "These are people whose businesses are rocking and rolling, and because one or two of them stumble and fall, they try to make an excuse that it's really a digital business and [they] didn't just run a business into the ground.
"It'd be a hell of a lot better fessing up and saying, 'I couldn't make the damn thing run, so I had to shut it down.' Enough of this bologna that 'This is really a digital opportunity.' That's bunk."