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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