Six years later, she's delivered. Elle may be parting ways with cable's "Project Runway" after five highly successful seasons, but the magazine's star has already ascended along with the show's ratings and regard. Elle's participation was Ms. Smith's work.
Along the way, the show allowed Elle to sell a lot of integrated marketing deals no other magazine could match. But a big role in a smash series, plus brand cameos on "Ugly Betty," was not enough. There were other ad packages to conceive and sell, other advertisers to bring into Elle.
It reflects well on Ms. Smith and her team, then, that 2007 marked Elle's fifth consecutive year of ad growth. In 2008, a particularly grim year for many publishers, Elle finished through September up 5.2% in ad pages, according to Media Industry Newsletter, buoyed by 42 new advertisers including Express, Nissan, Novartis, Timex and Verizon Wireless. Ad pages at Condé Nast Publications' Vogue, ever the imposing leader, fell 3.9% during that period vs. a year ago. Time Inc.'s InStyle, No. 2 to Vogue and ahead of Elle through September, gave up 11.4%.
We have to note, however, that Elle usurped the No. 2 spot during the first quarter of this year, landing behind Vogue but ahead of InStyle. And it's that fact, plus its recognition inside the offices of Elle, that show how far Elle has come since 2002.
The era bred complacency, she says. Time Inc. introduced InStyle in 1994, a new kid, not part of the long-running battle among fashion bibles. But InStyle was a tremendous success. Elle was distracted by a booming economy.
"[Elle] reaped the benefits of a lot of money, but I think that they weren't paying attention to the real competitive set," says Ms. Smith, 59. "And InStyle became a significant threat. Then as soon as the economy took a turn for the worse after 9/11, and even before, there was no real foundation to keep [Elle] going."
Elle finished 2002 down 18.2% in ad pages, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. InStyle landed up 2.3%.
Ms. Smith changed Elle's approach. Her first task, as she saw it, was to regain the fashion pages the magazine had lost; after that would come beauty. With those back in full force, the magazine would pursue liquor, finance and other categories.
Her background lent itself to more of a marketing approach than the emotional sell that permeates fashion. Ms. Smith began developing a marketing plan -- then demanding the money to back it up. The title needed new consumer research. It produced an insight: No one knew what Elle was about.
"It was sort of interesting," Ms. Smith says. "InStyle is celebrity. Vogue is the bible. What is Elle? We had to own a position in fashion. And then you had to repeat it over and over and over again. Ours was all about individual style."
By 2003, she was convinced that Elle should establish a presence on "Runway," even though the show's eventual success was by no means clear. "Initially what drove Elle was Carol saying, 'This could be very, very lucrative,'" recalls Eli Holzman, then the VP in charge of Miramax Television, which developed the show. "Carol saw the business right away."
The show's audience, buzz and visibility benefited all parties. "First of all, Elle legitimized 'Project Runway,'" Mr. Holzman says. "Making sure that the fashion community at large would take our project seriously was vital. Elle was a huge part of that."
Ms. Smith could offer advertisers integrated packages including pages in Elle and a presence on TV.
The Elle brand
"Carol, I think, is definitely ahead of the curve," says an executive at one large beauty advertiser, speaking anonymously to avoid antagonizing other magazine partners. "She recognized a lot quicker than a lot of other publishers that magazines are brands. And she actively sought other opportunities to get Elle out there in the marketplace.
"They are able to offer unique programs due to these integrated deals that they've made with these networks, which I think absolutely helps sell ad pages," the executive says.
The past few years have put to the test many magazine executives' plans for escaping the bounds of the printed monthly and fighting for a kind of multichannel domination. Elle has been doing a good job of pursuing extensions -- not just on TV but in books and online -- without diluting its brand, says Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo and chief innovation officer for Publicis Groupe Media. "Now, if you take the fact that they can do their editing and tastemaking in multiple dimensions, they can serve as a sort of resource," he says, adding, "They're still using the magazine as a central focal point to do things, but they are expanding."
With "Runway" riding off from Bravo to Lifetime (assuming a recent court injunction to stop the move is overcome) and the ousted Elle editor Nina Garcia following as Marie Claire's fashion director, Elle is looking to its next project. It will arrive Oct. 22, when the CW will start running "Stylista," a reality show on which contestants compete as assistants to Anne Slowey, Elle's fashion-news director.
It remains to be seen how that show will perform and whether integrated "Stylista" packages will excite advertisers the way "Runway" ones did. After years of growth, especially heading into worsening economic conditions, it may be hard for Ms. Smith and her team to keep up the growth. Already, small jewelers are spending less to advertise with Elle, she says.
But that's just the next challenge. There was a time when skeptics said Ms. Smith, the Parenting Group veteran, could sell only Pampers, not Prada. She proved them wrong -- and now looks forward to a repeat performance.