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Lucky Spin-Off Underscores Condé Nast's Tech Weaknesses

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Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

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More than three years ago, I left Curbed (now Vox Media) for the hallowed halls of Condé Nast to be the web editor of Lucky Magazine. As many Condé web editors know but rarely (if ever) discuss publicly, it is not a glamorous gig. Nor is it an easy one. For all of the company's success—indeed, it is still a powerhouse in the publishing world—it has a very serious weakness: digital. This week's announcement that Condé is parting ways with Lucky makes that internal flaw very clear.

From the start, walls were built between editorial and tech. Even now, most of the staff at Condé Nast Digital—the tech side of the business—is tucked away from editorial in an entirely separate building. One current staffer confirms that for years the majority of CND operations were housed at 1166 Sixth Avenue, a few blocks from the company's HQ at 4 Times Square; now they've been relocated to 222 Broadway, near Condé's future home at One World Trade Center.

This basically ensures that web writers and editors have very little contact with engineers and other behind-the-scenes staff. Furthermore, digital resources can be tight. "The more traffic you have, the more valuable you are and the more resources you get," says one web editor about the allocation of CND staff and work hours. "Trouble is, you can't get high traffic without resources, so you're sort of left in a strange limbo."

Adds a former Condé Nast Digital employee, "It seemed like every [magazine] title was kind of its own nation state in a Balkanized empire. It was an extremely political place to work. Some of their back-end tools were...primitive. Everyone had to do their best within a system that was less than ideal."

In the case of Lucky, the company canned founding EIC Kim France in 2010 and then watched while her replacement, Brandon Holley, failed to fix what was already broken. Holley, off a successful run at Yahoo! Shine, was in turn replaced by Eva Chen, a hard-working editor with a massive social presence who was hand-picked by Anna Wintour, Lucky's new artistic director. But no matter how hard Lucky's team worked, or how many staffers they hired to write for the website, or who was in charge, the brand was handicapped by the company's tech limitations.

Perhaps you've noticed broken links, jammed-in ads or dead ends? Lucky editors have endured website relaunch after relaunch in search of increased web traffic and functional e-commerce, the golden unicorn that was never fully realized. Vogue, the favored child, escaped this fate with a front- and back-end site redesign engineered by an outside agency, Code and Theory, in 2010. While Code and Theory was not tasked with any other Condé builds in the States, competitor Hearst has since retained the web shop to work on its stable of brands including Cosmo, which just last month debuted a glossy new look that will serve as a template for Hearst's other sites. Conversely, at Condé there are "a lot of band-aids," says one web editor: "Nobody is on one easy-to-use CMS across the board. It stifles creativity and certainly the amount of content."

This is not to say that Condé Nast is entirely uninterested in the digital space. The company has invested millions in tech startups like Rent the Runway, Farfetch, Moda Operandi and Vestiaire Collective. It also owns Reddit, purchased in 2006 for a reported $20 million, and Ars Technica. Condé has been lauded for simply leaving Reddit alone, with entrepreneur Anil Dash commenting to the New York Times, "Condé gave it enough rope and left the people there to their own devices. I don't know whether it was a brilliant strategy or accidental neglect." Update: A commenter points out that Reddit (according to Reddit) is now an independent property, with Condé as its largest shareholder.

What's happening to Lucky right now feels similar to what Condé did with one of its other beloved brands, Domino. Last year, the publisher spun Domino off, creating Domino Media (of which it is a minority investor), owned by the startup minds behind sites like Seamless and Project Décor. Since then, it's already burned through an editor-in-chief. Like Domino Media, Condé Nast is an investor in The Lucky Group.

Which brings us to the merger with BeachMint, a Santa Monica startup focusing on low-cost merchandise that's had its own share of problems. As PandoDaily details, BeachMint, like Lucky, has been struggling. The company was chasing profitability and trying to pivot after its initial business model—lots of celebrity-fronted verticals peddling low-cost merchandise—failed, causing it to miss revenue goals.

The Lucky deal is sure to bring it additional exposure. As Women's Wear Daily (also owned by Condé Nast) explains, "The hope is that consumers will readily shop with the new platform, with Lucky providing editorial content, and BeachMint providing commerce operations, customer service and technology." It's a little perplexing that Condé is placing such trust in BeachMint, a company that's still trying to find its footing and profit model in the digital space.

For now, Condé Nast will continue to publish ten issues of Lucky per year, though the magazine won't be joining the other Condé titles at the much-hyped One World Trade Center, instead searching for its own office space. Some on the inside don't see this as such a bad thing.

"A lot of people are skeptical, but Lucky will now operate on its own," a Condé editor told Racked. "It will have its own CMS, its own vision, and can really become something that perhaps it never could have in the past."