Vanessa Kingori on how Vogue has 'transcended' competitors, the power of covers and BLM

Publishing director of British Vogue spoke at Campaign’s Media 360 conference about transforming the fashion title’s advertising operations and working with editor-in-chief Edward Enninful since 2017.

Kingori: was interviewed at Media 360
Kingori: was interviewed at Media 360

Vanessa Kingori, publishing director of British Vogue, has spoken to Campaign about the power of the magazine’s covers on social media, digital growth, how Black Lives Matter going global has been a “moment of opportunity” and why the fashion bible has now “transcended” competitiors.

Kingori also talked about how she works with Edward Enninful, who became editor-in-chief around the same time as she took charge of the advertising and commercial side in 2017.

The decision by Condé Nast to appoint two black executives to the top roles at Vogue was widely seen as a significant move in an industry where there is a lack of diversity, especially at the highest levels.    

Kingori’s conversation with Campaign took place at Media 360, an annual conference for advertisers, agencies and media owners, just days after the latest Vogue cover, starring singer Billie Eilish, had gone viral.

An edited version of the interview also features on the Campaign podcast.

The power of covers

Vogue has shown digital and print have a “symbiotic” relationship, Kingori said, citing the June issue, which showcased a new look for Eilish in a corset, and explaining how the online reveal each month is “a big cultural moment” that generates engagement.

The British Vogue website had its biggest day in terms of traffic and the Eilish images broke several Instagram records as two pictures from the shoot garnered one million likes in six minutes and five minutes. They are now in the top 20 most liked images on Instagram of all time, according to Kingori.

Using the power of print to drive digital fame is key. “When I started at Vogue and certainly for most of my time in the magazine world, there’s always been this siloing of digital and print. My feeling is the two things go together,” she said.

“There is no better marketing platform than our own digital platforms. We get to control the messaging, the awareness, by teasing out images. There’s a huge amount of thought that goes behind the strategy for the digital release of those covers.

“Our digital numbers and our digital growth are bolstered by really big print cultural moments. The two are really symbiotic and they can’t exist in silos for our brand to flourish. So, the digital release strategy of the print is probably the most important part of our month at Vogue.”

Devising the cover is “Edward’s domain” – “for the most part, he picks up the phone himself”, although “he works with a really great team”.

Some covers are “months, up to a year, a couple of years, in the making” but “the level of creativity has had to really go up” during the pandemic as Vogue needed to reflect the changing mood – notably with “Activism Now”, the September 2020 issue, which happened just weeks before deadline in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

The cover matters so much because “it drives subscription, it drives advertising, it drives everything”, Kingori said. “If we give it enough visibility, enough structure, then it generates interest.”

When they are planning an issue, they discuss: “Does the cover star have a strong social media presence and what will that do? So, there’s a lot of thought that goes behind that moment, creating big cultural moments that then drive the business. Then I have to really make the wheels turn, to make sure that moment isn’t just a lovely, great PR moment and actually make sure it is driving business and revenue.” 

Changing Vogue’s advertising sales

When Kingori took over, she restructured the team to focus on several key areas: bringing print and digital together; expanding in branded content; attracting “non-endemic” advertisers outside the fashion world; and diversifying the revenue mix through events.

A key part of her ad sales strategy is: “Everyone has to do everything.”

She explained: “You have to have ‘full platform’, because if you’re going to have a conversation with Gucci, for example, they’re talking to you about how you reach an audience, they’re not talking to you about, ‘Could someone else do the digital bit?’ It is: ‘Where is the audience? You tell me and you give me the idea.’ And they want to have one conversation.”

When she took over in 2017, she inherited a team where “everyone sat in their groups in silos” and there was only one person who handled digital partnerships, who was in the equivalent of “Siberia” in the office. 

“I had to physically take walls down in my offices,” she said. “All of these walls mean you have no idea how hard [it is] or what the other parts of the teams are doing, how you might be able to leverage what they are doing, how you might be able to connect with that and how you learn.”

By removing the silos, “suddenly digital became much less scary, when you could hear the person who was selling those deals every day and become familiar with the language”.

Expanding in branded content was also important as Vogue needed to look beyond “straight advertising” and it “actually led to a big cultural change”, she said.

“If you are going to create content for brands that connects with communities and the wider audience, then you have to have a team that understand and know that audience really well and those different communities, and that drives a lot of the need for diversity.”

There was a similar, broader and more collaborative approach when it came to attracting new advertising clients from sectors such as finance, technology and automotive – areas where often “women are making the key decisions”, yet “our business didn’t reflect that in terms of the partners we worked with”, Kingori said.

All of that “took a huge amount of transformation – to take a team that’s predominantly geared towards print fashion advertising revenue to suddenly say: we are going to be looking at many more events, we are going to be looking at consumer revenue and we are going beyond fashion.

And, by the way, we have to understand digital and social and be able to give a really great offering. It was a big transformation and a challenging one at times.” 

The revenue mix 

“Print is by far the lion’s share of our business” and remains “very profitable”, Kingori said. “There’s still a huge amount of demand. We sit in a very different space to a lot of other legacy print brands.”

However, her team spends “a lot of time and energy” on digital “because it’s growing so fast and it’s where the majority of our briefs are now starting, particularly for partnerships, which is growing so fast”.

Last year brough a “huge spike” in digital revenue and it is up 67% in the first half of 2021 on a spike year – “so that is not slowing down”. Social and video have been two boom areas – with Instagram and YouTube both being key partners. (British Vogue passed one million YouTube followers earlier this year.) 

Condé Nast worked with Instagram to develop a “global-first” augmented reality filter, initially with MAC, which allowed users to try new shades of lipstick and “feel more confident to buy it online and not at the counter”, Kingori said, adding there are similar plans to work with Ferragamo on eyewear, and with a jewellery brand that people can try on virtually.

Virtual events have been another growth area, with revenue up 50%, despite the lack of physical events.

“Because I have a really diverse team who understand our audience and communities, we were able to come up with some virtual events that really got to the heart of where our audience’s heads were at,” she said. 

Themes have included wellness, food and drink (because people have been at home) and beauty (how to cope with “Zoom face”, as Kingori calls it). All of them involved brand partnerships.

Being creative about generating revenue is essential to support editorial. “What we do editorially, which is so famous and so important, is only famous and important if you build teams who can generate [revenue] and a business model that can capitalise on all of that with new ideas,” she added.

That requires the right mindset when it comes to collaborating with brands: “The big shift that I wanted to bring in is not to start with the brand. You start with audience.”

Advertisers are “looking so much to us for consultancy” as they cope with uncertainty and change – from diversity and Black Lives Matter to how people are shopping, Kingori said.

She has encouraged her team to use its “engagement stats from our site and from our socials” to understand: “What are we seeing that people are doing? How can we meet them at that need [in terms of providing content and experiences]? And then how can the brand partner with that?”

That’s a big difference from the previous way of doing things, which was “starting with the brand and trying to shoehorn the customers around it, which just doesn’t work”, she said.

The impact of Black Lives Matter 

When Kingori first heard about the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May 2020, her initial reaction was that this was “another” incident of racist police behaviour but she soon recognised it was a pivotal moment.

“What struck me was that the world reacted to this killing more than they had to the others [in the past] and I think that’s a lot to do with the pandemic and the fact that most people were at home, the news sources were less busy, so they could give more time to the subject.

“Then suddenly [when Kingori was] being asked to talk about it, to reflect on that, to consult – lots of brands asked me for input – was emotionally really, really heavy. 

“But for Edward and I and the rest of our team, and for most people of colour I know, it was a moment of opportunity. Because what we have been saying for most of our careers is that there is this disparity, there is a difference, in how we are perceived and treated, and not just black people but people of colour in different ways and anyone of difference.”

Ever since 2017, when Enninful and Kingori (pictured right) took over, “our aspiration on joining Vogue was always to normalise the marginalised” and it was “not just about ethnicity”.

She said: “Anyone who feels othered should see themselves reflected in Vogue – that was really our north star in joining Vogue.”

That was reflected in Enninful’s choice of cover stars, right from his debut issue, which featured Adwoa Aboah in December 2017, and it meant other brands looked to Vogue when BLM went global.

“It was a really important moment in terms of brands that we work with really accelerating their conversations in that space and coming to us and saying: ‘You already authentically live here. How can we do this sensitively and properly [in terms of improving what we do in terms inclusion and diversity] and how can we make impact?

“All of these things that had felt very visceral to us and to other communities who were othered [before May 2020] were suddenly in the mainstream, being talked about – and not just being talked about but brands and outlets were trying to find real solutions.”

As the first anniversary of Floyd’s killing is happening this month, “the legacy of it is still playing out”, yet Kingori is optimistic: “I was nervous it would be a trend moment but I think there’s still good work going on.”

Attracting diverse talent

When Kingori appeared on the cover of Campaign’s Diversity issue in February 2020, she talked about challenging the “perception that doors aren’t open” to people from diverse backgrounds in large parts of the media. “Visibility” is key, she said at the time, and seeing more people from diverse backgrounds succeed will attract more diverse talent to the advertising industry.

So what is her advice when it comes to improving inclusion and diversity? For Kingori, as the publisher of a magazine brand, the starting point is not the editorial content – although that is important.  

“The place is to start with your staff – who you hire, who you collaborate with – so that you can authentically, in your ad campaign or on your cover or whatever it is, showcase people of difference correctly and authentically and with love,” she explained. “So don’t start with the output. Start with behind the scenes.”

Recruitment is key and Kingori noted that there is “a lot of talk about the challenges of hiring – perhaps it’s hard to hire people of difference because they don’t tend to come forward to organisations that they don’t know already hire [diverse talent]”.

When she has seen advertising job vacancies, she says: “I couldn’t just rely on the advert – I’d have to go to my own network [of contacts] and say, ‘Can you help me with these candidates? We need some other people in the mix.’ The [talent] funnel is really important – if a lot of people aren’t coming into our industry.”

That was the motivation for launching a new scholarship programme as part of Forces of Change, a Vogue initiative to improve inclusion and social responsibility, which gives young talent the chance to do twin internships at Vogue and BMW.

Kingori said she has “pushed myself” to speak up more about race in the past few years. “We’ve been socialised to believe that talking about race is somehow playing the race card, rather than actually helping people understand that if they haven’t lived [a particular experience], the only way they can understand is through collaborative conversation.”

It is important to “try and create a safe space” to talk and it’s OK “for people not always to agree with me” at Vogue, she said. “The whole idea of hiring diverse teams is to have people with different points of view feeding in to what you know and challenging you a little bit.

“One of the things in my life that I think is most important to fight against is echo chambers. I don’t want to only speak to people who’ve had my experiences and share my point of view.

“For me, one of the biggest learnings since the uprising after George Floyd was to use my personal experience and personal voice more, to be honest and create safe spaces.”

Vogue has transcended the competition

What’s the future of Vogue in a multi-platform world? “That is the multimillion dollar question,” Kingori said, when asked what the magazine’s business model might look like in five years’ time. “The big trick or hack, if there is one, is to go where your audience are – bravely.”

For a long time in the magazine industry, “there was this huge amount of effort trying to have our audience be where we are” and a mindset of “we want them to read a print magazine every single month because that’s what we do and we want our brands to meet where we are”, she said.

Focusing solely on a print magazine when advertisers are “focusing on digital acceleration” did not make sense.

“Now so much of our success has been shifting the business model to being where our audience is and to meeting our partners where they want to meet” – rather than because it “works for our business structure”. 

Kingori said it is difficult to predict exactly what Vogue’s future looks like because she doesn’t know how audience trends will evolve or what new platforms will emerge.

That means having a “certain level of fluiditity” and “cleverness” in “making sure you are where the audience are”.

She was bullish about the opportunity: “What I know is that, whatever I do, I will make sure that in a brand-appropriate way, we are there. Because Vogue is in a space now where we have really transcended direct competitors, I believe, and I think it feels evident to the market.

“There aren’t any specific, direct competitors to what we do with the same scale and the same zeitgeist-making content that Edward puts out.”

She went on: “When my team are doing [client] leads, which is a very old-fashioned thing to do but we still do, and they say we have X% of market share [in the magazine sector], I say we are fooling ourselves on that.

“Our main competitor is time. People are not going to the newsstand and saying, ‘Should I buy this magazine or that magazine?’ What people are saying is, ‘Do I have a moment for myself and if I have that moment, where will I choose to channel that time?’

“And so that’s why it’s really important now, whatever we do in the future, to stay true to our brand but be present where our audience are. So that’s my plan.”