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'The Firm' Sheds Light on McKinsey, Condé Nast Relations

Duff McDonald's new book, out Tuesday, is a history of one of the most influential companies in the country that challenges its reputation for infallibility.

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The Firm by Duff McDonald

"The Firm" by Duff McDonald

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MISTY WATER-COLORED MEMORIES: It’s a giddy time in fashion and fashion journalism, of endless Town Car rides flitting editors to and from shows, frequent costume changes, lavish parties with even more lavish tabs, when expense receipts just pile up and wait to be dealt with at a later date.

Crashing the party is a sobering new book from Simon & Schuster, out Tuesday, that recalls that unhappy time in 2009 when McKinsey & Co., the efficiency consultancy, was the most fashionable name in media. “The Firm,” by Duff McDonald, is really a history of one of the most influential companies in the country — its clients have included everyone from the government to, most scandalously, Enron — that challenges its reputation for infallibility. McDonald, a contributing editor at Fortune who has also written for Vanity Fair and GQ, also sheds some more light on the transformative effect McKinsey had on the media companies it did work for, like Condé Nast and Time Inc. Its influence is still felt at both publishers, where the consultants have stayed on retainer to deal with recent layoffs. McDonald reports that although former Time Inc. chief executive officer Laura Lang hired rivals Bain & Co. to eliminate 6 percent of the publisher’s workforce, McKinsey was back in the building by the end of last year.

In 2009, McKinsey’s consultants were the angels of death in the media industry, the mere mention of the name an ominous sign that cutbacks were imminent. They spent time at Meredith Corp. and Dow Jones, and were brought in to shave $100 million in costs at Time Inc; earlier it had argued in favor of Time Warner’s merger with AOL.

But of all the media companies name-checked in McDonald’s book, none gets more ink than Condé, which hired the firm in 2009 to help the publisher “resize itself for a new post-real estate bubble advertising climate.” At the time, ceo Charles Townsend told the New York Observer the consultants would help the company’s staffers and high-spending editors tighten their belts, even if it threatened to diminish Condé’s glitzy image.

“If the most efficient way to do business is to take a Town Car, then for Christ sake, I’m not going to insist people take subways and destroy their approach to business. I’m just asking people to be sensible,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to lose the speciality or the quirkiness, but a lot of this stuff that has been part and parcel of it is just meaningless.” He concluded, referring to mini-fridges stocked with expensive drinks, “You don’t need it! You don’t need the Orangina!”

On McKinsey’s advice, Condé killed four magazines that October, including Gourmet — the rationale was that the storied magazine wasn’t as profitable as Bon Appétit; Cookie, whose Pilar Guzman is now back in the family at Condé Nast Traveler, and Elegant Bride and Modern Bride. Domino was shuttered in January 2009, though it is returning this year in e-commerce form.

Condé management was clearly satisfied with the consultants’ work, but their advice rankled publishers and editors in a way that apparently still lingers. One of McDonald’s anonymous disgruntled sources is described as “the publisher of one of the company’s most successful magazines.”

“How much they understood about our business, I cannot tell you,” the publisher says. “How the [expletive] can you coach a football team if you’ve never played football in your life? And I’m not even talking pro. I’m talking at any level. They don’t have a clue. I don’t care how many hours they spent firing people at Time Inc. or Meredith Corp. They had this stupid red/yellow/green system, which they explained to me like I was a five-year-old. I wanted to reach across the table, grab one of them and throw him across the room.”

The consultants were not pleased either when press reports, like the Observer’s, trickled out about their efforts.

“They were bug-eyed, like white-gloved society women who only want to be in the paper when they get married and when they die,” the publisher said.

It’s not clear if the anonymous source still works at 4 Times Square, and McDonald declined to elaborate to protect the source’s identity.

“What I will tell you is that it certainly didn’t strike me as a fleeting emotion, and you should be able to see from the content of the quotes that it was as much about how the McKinsey people comported themselves as it was about the details of that particular engagement. I’d be pretty confident they’d say the same thing if asked about it today, whoever they are and wherever they may be working,” McDonald said.