McKinsey Still a Mystery at Condé Nast

si newhouse getty McKinsey Still a Mystery at Condé NastIn the week-old, McKinsey-fied world, folks at Condé Nast remain jittery.

The consulting firm has already set up shop and will spend the next few weeks working around summer vacations to schedule interviews with editors, managing editors and publishers. Recommendations from the consulting firm are expected to begin in October, a well-placed source said.

But what exactly McKinsey has been hired to do—encourage layoffs? Recommend that Vanity Fair find sponsors for its annual Oscar party?—was still an issue of mad speculation over the last week.

Last Friday morning, it appeared that answers might surface. Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend convened publishers for a three-hour breakfast in the company’s fourth-floor executive dining room at 4 Times Square. It was a previously scheduled meeting, which happens about three times a year, where publishers and executives give presentations and talk business.

But September numbers and the Digital Group’s presentation were the last thing on people’s minds. Publishers in the room—not to mention editorial and business staffers outside the room—were eager to hear what Mr. Townsend would have to say about McKinsey.

According to people present, Mr. Townsend barely acknowledged the email he sent out last week announcing McKinsey’s recruitment, which had sent Condé Nast staffers into a full panic. Mr. Townsend told publishers that the McKinsey process was just beginning, and as more information becomes available, he will share it with them.

Translation: Even his closest colleagues, his publishers, are being shut out of the process.

Mr. Townsend, however, did make one comment that seemed to ring out especially loudly to publishers in the room (and echoed among the staffers who heard it later): “We have to run profitable businesses,” he said, when explaining McKinsey.

Hardly a novel thought, but for Condé Nast, and for Mr. Townsend, it was out of the ordinary. Way out.

“He’s never commented about profitability in a public setting,” said one attendee. “That’s rarely a discussion.”

Probably because making money has always been a given. In the past, staffers said, you’d hear Mr. Townsend say some variation of: We have emerging titles, we have developmental titles, we have established titles and we support them all. A growing business has emerging brands, and in order to grow, we need to develop new products.

In other words, sure, Portfolio will lose money! And maybe Details or Wired or even The New Yorker will, too! But not anymore. It’s a profit-or-else-situation.

“This is historic,” said one Condé Nast veteran. “We’ve never once had to think like this.”

“There are no sacred cows,” said another.

That may even stand for Mr. Townsend’s closest allies. According to one source, before major companywide announcements, Mr. Townsend will shoot off an email to a small coterie of chairman Si Newhouse’s favorite editors (guess who they are) to give them a head’s up. Last Monday, however, when Mr. Townsend sent out that special email, it was directed to a recipient list that included every publisher and every editor.

The meaning?

“It’s a sign that this is going to affect everyone,” said a source.

Mr. Townsend, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story.