Life After Luxury Advertising at Condé Nast: Bon Appétit, Carol Smith

0913carol Life After Luxury Advertising at Condé Nast: Bon Appétit, Carol SmithOn Sunday afternoon, Carol Smith was thinking about what to order for lunch, but she already knew. She was sitting on the booth side of a table facing the center of the dining room that was set up in Avery Fisher Hall for Fashion Week. The space was called the Bon Appétit Café, and it represented one of Ms. Smith’s first big displays as the publishing director of Condé Nast’s food group.

Ms. Smith stared down at a tri-fold menu printed on glossy paper. On the cover, a heavily mascaraed model with black nail polish was biting into a piece of roasted lamb skewered on a rosemary sprig. “I know I’m having the lobster roll and a tomato soup,” she told The Observer.

“I don’t remember when I stopped counting how many ad pages came out of the Condé Nast building,” Ms. Smith said. “But when the luxury market went away you did have to take a deep breath and say, ‘O.K., what do I do?’”

Ms. Smith left her position as chief brand officer at Elle to take over the business side of Bon Appétit and Gourmet four months ago. At the time Condé Nast was starting to think about other ways to make money besides print advertising. Brand licensing, which for years seemed too down-market, was now on the table.

Condé Nast publicists arrived with lobster rolls on faux bamboo plates and tomato soup in white to-go cups. The soup was sponsored by Visa Signature, according to bold-faced type on the menu and conceived by Bon Appétit executive chef Cat Cora. Ms. Cora frequently appears on the Food Network show Iron Chef America.

“I wasn’t here three months ago. I wasn’t here when Si had very clear ideas of what he was doing,” Ms. Smith said, swallowing a piece of lobster meat. “But the world changed.”

Bon Appétit has sponsored “pop-up cafés” before, but never for Fashion Week, and never with so many big-name chefs. Ms. Smith asked the likes of Mario Batali, Emeril Lagase, Michael Laiskonis and Daniel Boulud to contribute items to the menu. She got designers from the fashion world to work with the chefs and do publicity for the café.

John Delucie, the chef behind The Lion, had just finished lunch across the room and came over to say goodbye to Ms. Smith before heading out.

“Nice to see you! I’ll see you soon,” Mr. Delucie said.

“Absolutely. You’ll see me for sure,” Ms. Smith replied with a beaming smile.

Is this the man who made the lobster rolls, The Observer wondered? Ms. Smith leaned in. “No,” she said quietly. They were from Laurent Toroundel’s BLT Market. “Nor is it his soup, so I hope he didn’t look over,” she said.

While Condé Nast was turning its nose up at licensing, Ms. Smith was cutting deals with Harvey Weinstein to put Elle on television in Project Runway and thinking of other ways to make money on the magazine’s brand. Then Elle started to beat Vogue in ad pages, too. “That’s the thing about magazine publishing,” she said. “When you start to make money, you make a lot of money.” Ms. Smith added more than 1,500 ad pages to Elle in six years.

But why leave Elle?

“It was an opportunity,” she said. “There was no Condé Nast food group. It was yet to be born. There was no Gourmet. What will it be? What can Bon Appétit be in a post-Gourmet world? Can I get Bon Appétit onto television? Is there a licensing opportunity? If so, what would that look like. All of the things that I had done at Elle.”

Shortly after Elle took first place away from Vogue, Ms. Smith got a call from Condé Nast fashion publishing director Tom Florio “He and I were not friends then,” she said. “We were enemies. As I said to someone, I’d much rather work with him than compete with him.” Mr. Florio asked her if she could do the same thing for food that she did for fashion.

“Even my arrival” she said, was a sign of changes at Condé. “They would never hire me. Never ever ever ever. I’m a brand builder! I’ve always been a brand builder.”

And there’s a lot of building to do in the food group at Condé Nast. There has never been an business person in charge of both Gourmet and Bon Appétit.

Bon Appétit and Gourmet were always in competition. “They fought like feuding families, like Romeo and Juliet,” she said. “They wanted each other dead!”

Last fall the company announced that it was closing Gourmet and then, this spring, Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend unveiled the resurrection of Ruth Reichl’s brand as an iPad app, Gourmet Live.

“My coming and, of course, Gourmet closing as a magazine was a moment in time which said ‘there’s no more fighting. We’re a group,’” Ms. Smith said. “The editor of Bon Appétit is the editor of Bon Appétit and the editors of Gourmet Live now are the editors of Gourmet Live — producers,” she corrected herself. “Dare I call them editors. But the business side, me, I’m all things. I’m all things food.”

Ms. Smith’s hair — short, blonde, with bangs — draws comparisons to Anna Wintour, though it’s a few shades darker. Ms. Smith, 61, dressed in a navy blue V-neck sweater over a plain white T-shirt for lunch. She wore her wristwatch on top of her sleeve for most of the meal, but when she was done with her lobster roll and soup, she slipped the watch beneath her sweater and pulled her cuffs down over her hands. She pulled a tube from her purse and casually applied a fresh layer of makeup to her lips.

Ms. Smith was always intimidated by Condé Nast. She’s shy, she said. In more than 25 years in the magazine business, she never set foot in Four Times Square until this year. “It’s always been very intimidating to me,” she said. “Time Inc. didn’t intimidate me. Forbes didn’t intimidate me. Hachette didn’t intimidate me. Condé Nast intimidated me,” she said.

“They’re so focused on producing the highest quality that they will stop at nothing. There’s something very religious about it I guess,” she said. “You feel in awe of the place, no matter what.”

At Hachette, Ms. Smith used to sell advertising against Condé’s smug superiority. “When I was at Elle I used to go ‘Oh, Elle, we’re the club you can get into. Everyone’s welcome at Elle,” she said. “What you realize is, no, Condé Nast is the club you can get into. Anyone can read Vogue. Anyone can be part of that world.”

“There’s a mystique. Whether it’s the mystique of Anna or Graydon or Bon Appétit. No one would want that to go away, would they? I don’t want that to go away,” she said. “But nonetheless even Anna talks about the democratizing of Vogue and fashion. Who would have thought that Vera Wang would be in Kohl’s five years ago?”

Ms. Smith said the company is worried much less about taking risks with its brands or getting creative on the business side. There is, after all, money to be made. “At Condé Nast that’s very new,” she added. “Imagine Condé Nast doing Gourmet Live. Imagine Condé Nast announcing Gourmet Live before they built it. I mean, just totally amazing.”

Ms. Smith was thinking big-picture. “I mean the big game-change would be to own a network,” she said. “Where’s the Bon Appétit network?”

A marketing executive from Belvedere stopped at Ms. Smith’s table to thank her for lunch. She invited him to a City Ballet Gala in the fall. She sits on the ballet’s board.

“I’d love to come,” he said. “I used to always, always, always go to the opera, but I just haven’t the last couple of years because I sort of needed a break, and I thought ‘why don’t I go to the ballet?’”

“It’s going to be great. It’s an amazing, amazing evening,” Ms. Smith said.

“I’d love to come,” he said. ” And, Carol, thank you for lunch.”

Ms. Smith seemed to enjoy the perks of owning a restaurant, at least temporarily.

“All I want is my own bar — one bar,” Ms. Smith said, turning back to The Observer. “We’re working on a TV show about building a bar. I am like ‘this could be mine!’”

“I just think owning a bar would be the coolest thing,” she continued.

Ms. Smith would also like to be a ballerina. “In another life I wanted to be a ballerina. I wanted to give birth to a ballerina,” she said. Her eyes darted around the room.

“Ballet needs to reinvent itself,” she said. “Back when I was coming of age, ballet — they were celebrities! Darci Kistler was in ads for scotch.”

zturner@observer.com / @zekeft

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