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Memo Pad: Bill Wackermann's Circuitous Route... Layoffs at AOL...

Bill Wackermann wasn’t always the hard-charging, elegant suit-wearing publishing executive that many see him as today at Condé Nast.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 03/11/2011

TOO MUCH INFORMATION: It may come as a surprise to some that Bill Wackermann wasn’t always the hard-charging, elegant suit-wearing publishing executive that many see him as today at Condé Nast. Wackermann got his start in academia where his first job, postcollege, was as an English teacher to 10th- and 11th-graders. Yes, years before batting clean-up at Condé Nast, Wackermann held court in the classroom. “I thought it would be like ‘Dead Poets Society,’ but it was more dodging spit balls,” he said during a lecture he gave to students at New York University’s Stern School of Business on Thursday.

He left teaching for the insurance business and was accepted into a yearlong training program that had him, at one point, having to call his boss to apologize for dirty dancing while in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. “I had forgotten I was in the work world,” Wackermann said with a smile.

His next gig came in the marketing department at BusinessWeek, but he wanted to make more money so he interviewed at PC Magazine for a sales job, but decided to pass. He eventually landed at The New York Times, in sales for Child magazine. On sales calls, he would put headphones on potential clients and play sounds from a baby’s beating heart. The gimmick worked. Some nine months later, he got a call from the woman who’d interviewed him at PC Magazine. She’d moved to Condé Nast and said there was a job open at Vanity Fair. She said he probably wouldn’t get it, but should apply anyway. “She said, ‘I kept your résumé and thought, he’s either the most arrogant guy in the world or he’ll be a huge success,’” Wackermann said. He got the job and went on to become the youngest publisher in Condé Nast history, when he took over Details at age 31.

Today, Wackermann is in charge of not only Details, but also Glamour, Bon Appetit and W. After the lecture, as students munched on pizza, Wackermann answered questions mostly relating to the digital sides of these brands, talking about a recent meeting he had with Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. and chief executive officer Charles Townsend. “I know there’s a lot of energy here [in digital] but let’s not take our eyes off the prize of where the actual money is coming in,” Wackermann said. “There’s big money at those big brands — these are $300 million businesses and you’re talking about selling 4,000 apps for $2? The energy needs to be here, but you have to keep the balance.”

As far as Glamour’s efforts on the Web, he said the site gets 60 percent of its traffic driven from social media, as opposed to word search optimization and buying keywords through Google. “The consumer wants red carpet, breaking news or gossip and relationship and sex advice,” Wackermann said. While publishing has been playing catch-up on the Web, he said the same mistakes won’t be made with the tablet business. “We’re working hard to get premium opportunities online. It took us a while to figure out what the business should look like on the Web, but we won’t make that mistake on the iPad. Consumers will pay for this technology. I don’t care if we only sell 5,000 apps. You’re going to pay for it.”

— Amy Wicks

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 03/11/2011

CULTURE SHOCK: Thursday morning at 7:16 a.m., Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, e-mailed his staff. “Today is the next critical step on the comeback trail for AOL,” he wrote. He was sending a blast to explain his decision to lay off 900 employees — 700 in India and 200 in the U.S., many of them working on the company’s editorial teams as content producers. Exactly two hours later, he stepped onstage to applause at the Bloomberg Media Summit and began fielding questions from Eric Pooley, the deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Armstrong looked tired. The interview was starting late.

“The press at large writes these unbelievably crazy articles about the content farming and all that other stuff,” he said. “We’re trying to serve magical content experiences and use technology to help do that,” he continued. Armstrong was explaining how the company was changing after the acquisition of the Huffington Post for $315 million. An AOL spokesman said that, with the addition of HuffPo, the company has seen a “net increase” in journalists.

“And I think one of the benefits of the negative press is, we’re not getting employees who aren’t mission-driven on what we’re doing,” he added later. “And I think that’s an important part of the culture.” Armstrong has already eliminated 2,300 jobs since he joined the company; about 5,000 remain. There has been 90 percent executive turnover during his tenure after Armstrong eliminated their retention bonuses.

He told a story to illustrate cultural changes at the company: the time he removed glass doors from the executive suite. “The first day I showed up, an employee came up to me crying,” he said. “And it was somebody who’d worked at AOL for a long time. I said, ‘What are you crying for?’ And they said, ‘I used to have to wait outside that glass door to come in the executive [suite]. I sometimes would wait out there for two hours before somebody let me in.’

“And it’s nice to bring it back to the human element, which is at the heart of everything we do,” Armstrong said at the end of the interview. “And the media are sometimes guilty of forgetting about that, you know, just a testament to, I think, what the cultural change will be at this company. And I think that’s important.”

— Zeke Turner