Condé Nast chairman Nicholas Coleridge on ‘The Glossy Years’

Nicholas Coleridge IS magazines. Some refer to him as “Mr Condé Nast”; The Guardian describes him as “The Mr Big of the Glossies”. Coleridge is also chair of the Victoria & Albert Museum (“V&A”), a philanthropist, novelist and an environmental activist.

And now, he has written a memoir, entitled ‘The Glossy Years’. The book came about, he told us at a brilliant Daunt’s talk, at the publisher Penguin’s suggestion: “My agent, Ed Vintner, asked me if I was in the market to write a memoir. I’d never even considered it before”. It took Coleridge three days to accept the offer, while he pondered: “Will I be seen as vain? Is it too early? If I don’t do it, will anyone ever ask me again? If I do it, will I forget things?”

Having taken the plunge, Coleridge set out to “…write a full memoir, i.e. not just about my forty years in magazine publishing – although that would have given me plenty of material”. Said memoir begins with Coleridge’s early life in London and follows him to school in Sussex and elsewhere through university and on to his 20-something life in London, where he spent a “very enjoyable” time flat-sharing off the King’s Road. Five years in newspapers are followed by the magazine years, becoming a novelist and a whole new life with the V&A.

“I knew exactly whose memoirs I did – and didn’t – want to emulate”, Coleridge remarked, adding that he aimed to be “accurate but fast-moving”, whilst bringing to life the many different personalities he’s met over the years. He was also determined that the book would contain only one ‘misery memoir’, choosing his “ghastly” prep school, Ashdown House, which Boris and Rachel Johnson also attended. Even though he was only eight years old, Nicholas’s parents had been advised that, if their son made his first train journey to school unaccompanied, he’d stand a better chance of making friends: “I remember them waving me off at the station…but I was too shy to catch anyone’s eye”.

Ashdown House was nightmarish, staffed by “…recovering PoWs, borderline paedophiles and a headmaster who spoke Latin fluently and hated hippies and The Beatles”. And yet: “I don’t feel screwed up by it: it was the world back then”. Instead, the experience spurred him on to do what he wanted “And everything else has been joyful since then”.

Secondary school was a happier experience. Whilst Coleridge arrived, aged 13, very shy (“Unlike now!”), he immediately became friends with a number of fellow students who would go on to become very successful journalists and writers, including Charles Moore – and who remain his friends to this day.

A seminal moment came when, aged 16, Coleridge was sent home ill from school to convalesce. Reading his way through his mother’s copies of Harpers & Queen, Coleridge experienced “…one of those rare light bulb moments: I knew this was something I wanted terribly to do”. This was the first glossy magazine the young Nicholas had ever opened and he found himself mesmerised by its blend of wit and serious journalism.

Inspired by what he’d read, Coleridge submitted an article to the magazine and was touched when its editor took the time to personally edit it on his behalf. Whilst studying History of Art at Cambridge, Coleridge spent two and a half days a week working for the magazine. It paid off: on the day of his graduation, Coleridge read a “tiny” Evening Standard article stating that Tatler had hired a 28-year-old new editor, Tina Brown, who was looking for new staff. Summoned for an interview at Brown’s kitchen table, Coleridge found himself hired upon the basis of a joke about ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – and without ever having discussed salary (“A big mistake”).

Tina Brown

Coleridge enjoyed working for Tina Brown but found her “incredibly ruthless”. These were the early 1980s and standard HR practices were yet to be introduced; if Brown was displeased by an article published by the magazine, she would simply fire its author. This worked out well for Nicholas, who began life with Tatler as no. 14 in its pecking order, but within a year became the magazine’s deputy editor. Tatler, he remarked tonight, hasn’t changed much at all over the years.

Then, as now, there was little budget, so Coleridge was empowered to write all sorts of different articles. This experience led him into newspapers, where he worked for the Evening Standard for five years. What, on the surface, might appear a dream job, actually proved anything but – Coleridge freely admits that he found it difficult to come up with sufficient variety of content, finding himself with huge spaces to fill and constantly chased by the paper’s Picture Desk.

Having returned to magazines, Coleridge found himself editing Harpers & Queen, which he “enjoyed enormously”: the magazine’s circulation was going up, as was advertising revenue, meaning great production budgets. Finally, the magazine could compete with Condé Nast.

When Coleridge was headhunted by Condé Nast, it was “Like being asked to leave a happy marriage”. He made the leap, however – and ended up staying with the publisher for over 30 years. This would be a period of great change: Condé Nast expanded from a portfolio of 25 magazines to over 140. Coleridge remains very proud of having handpicked all the editors – some of whom, such as Alexandra Shulman, went on to become both successful and famous.

He feels, Coleridge told us, very proud of Conde Nast’s success and will miss it greatly when he steps down at the end of this year. However: “The V&A has proved to be very similar!” Each of the museum’s departments is incredibly self-interested and competitive, making museum life as compelling as anywhere else he’s worked.

Much as he’ll miss the magazine world, Nicholas Coleridge admits that this is an opportune time to be leaving. High-end glossies such as Vogue and Vanity Fair are still doing well, but the middle market is suffering: Marie-Claire has just gone out of business and Cosmopolitan’s sales are one-fifth of what they once were. The magazine industry is having to work incredibly hard on subscription revenue; these days, 25% of sales come from subscriptions and the remainder are impulse buys.

What a fascinating talk this was. Nicholas Coleridge has led a full and varied life and is as charming and insightful speaker as I’ve encountered. I cannot wait to read his memoir and familiarise myself further with those Glossy Years.

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