For young editor Scott Dadich, another shot at rewiring Condé Nast
On the Thursday morning of this winter's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Scott Dadich was by far not the more famous of the two men seated at a circular high-top table near the start of the runway inside one of those white tents at Lincoln Center.
But he looked plausibly like a famous person, in his dark Ralph Lauren Black Label suit that fit like a glove, a customized gingham dress shirt and a blue and grey bespoke necktie made to his design. The clean-shaven 36-year-old was the picture of sleek good health, his hair pomaded and swept back like a Ken doll's, but with just enough bed-head around the edges to look current and masculine.
The star attraction at the 11 a.m. portion of the “Decoded Fashion Forum,” an all-day gabfest on the intersection of fashion and technology co-hosted by Dadich’s employer, Condé Nast, was Zac Posen. Dadich was there to interview him in front of several hundred people.
His questions for the Soho-bred womenswear designer and “Project Runway” judge were those of a tech geek: What is it about Instagram that Posen enjoys so much? How had social media influenced his creative process? Had he seen any technologically-inspired changes in fabric over the past few years?
Posen, Dadich noted, had started his own company at a young age—21—just like some of the Wunderkinder who’ve left their marks on Silicon Valley (and Silicon Alley), where youth is an asset.
“What advice would you have for a young person engaged in a start-up today?,” asked Dadich, wrapping up the 15-minute Q&A.
FOR HIS PART, DADICH IS NOT ENGAGED IN A START-UP AT ALL. At Condé Nast, he has recently been named editor-in-chief of Wired, the now venerable magazine of technology and futurism. But his role at Condé, one way or another, has always been to bring some of the sheen of the digital revolution to a media company that publishes the industry's oldest standard-bearers: Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker.
The Lubbock, Tex. native’s meteoric rise was a product of his ability to dazzle his bosses, first as the precocious 24-year-old art director of Texas Monthly and later as Wired’s celebrated creative chief, as a keen translator of those magazines' high-minded 20th-century sensibilities into the new imperatives of the 21st. People have thought of him, for quite a while now, as a bit of a messiah.
A former engineering major who cut his teeth at an ad agency before getting into magazines, Dadich climbed the ladder from the South Plains to hip Austin and finally the bustling halls of 4 Times Square. His mantle strains under the weight of more than 50 gold and silver medals from the Society of Publication Designers and seven Ellies from the American Society of Magazine Editors. And as the architect of Wired’s iPad app, one of the first tablet editions not only to launch but to show some early signs of success (100,000 single-copy sales, more than the print edition, for the inaugural June 2010 issue, although that number plummeted somewhat in the ensuing months), Dadich comes to his latest role with no shortage of wind in his sails.
And yet Dadich has always seemed impatient with his progress. That speaks both to the scale of his ambition and the nerve-wracked magazine industry's hopes for him, as well as its own impatience. It hasn't been easy to integrate what the company's bosses see in him into the Condé Nast DNA. In his most recent position, he held the rather vague title of vice president of the Editorial Development Group, meaning his job was to sit down with big-shots like David Remnick and Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour and help them figure out the best way to present and—more importantly—persuade readers to buy their issues every month on those shiny mobile devices. But it's hard to really be someone at Condé Nast with an interdepartmental brief. People who have "books" are, still, the stars of the magazine universe.
Which may go some of the way to explaining why Dadich, who has never actually been an editor, now gets a magazine of his own.
Dadich, however, won't agree that there's anything strange in a long-time designer and digital business enthusiast becoming the editor-in-chief of a marquee magazine.
“Creative directors and designers are very much editors,” he said, a few hours after the Fashion Week event. He was lounging cross-legged on a black leather sofa in the 19th-floor office of Wired publisher Howard Mittman, who was out that afternoon. Wired publicist Jonathan Hammond was there, seated to his left. On a coffee table in front of them were three small bottles of Poland Spring and three carefully arranged copies of the magazine’s hot-off-the-presses March issue, the first with Dadich’s name at the top of the masthead since he was installed following long-time editor Chris Anderson’s resignation last November.
“We read stories in the same way that a traditional editor would read them, looking for tone, for voice, for structure,” Dadich went on. “I’ve always been afforded a seat at the editorial table.”
It’s not as though Si Newhouse and his lieutenants have always been predictable in their choice of editors for big titles. Back in 1984, who would have thought that the precocious British editor of the very English society magazine Tatler, a young woman named Tina Brown, was on Newhouse's list of people to revive Vanity Fair? And while Remnick today seems like a natural in The New Yorker’s top slot, at the time when he was elevated from a staff-writing position in 1998 to succeed Brown, who’d jumped from Vanity Fair six years earlier, he’d never actually served as an editor. Nor were Dadich's predecessors at Wired conventional magazine guys. (Anderson, after all, is leaving to run his robotics company full-time.)
But in the publishing house that cultivated the very image of what an editor is, Dadich seems a more exotic creature, and you have to look deeper into Condé Nast's history for the right precedent, to Alexander Liberman, the Russian painter, photographer and sculptor who was crowned editorial director of Condé Nast in 1962 after rising through the ranks of Vogue's art department.
Simply put, Dadich is that rare example of a design guy being given editorial control of a famous journalism brand—one whose value to the kingmakers at Condé Nast has been steadily rising.
"Wired is a tremendously important brand in the Condé Nast portfolio and has always been at the forefront, not only of reporting on the future, but actually inhabiting it,” Bob Sauerberg, the company’s president, told Capital through a spokeswoman, who passed his quote along via email. (Sauerberg was unavailable for an interview.) “Under Scott's leadership, Wired will continue to inspire the media industry at large and advance the brand into its next exciting chapter."
That same idea was put more succinctly and perhaps directly by C.E.O. Chuck Townsend in a meeting with the magazine's sales and marketing team not that long ago, according to a knowledgeable source: “We’ve spent the past 10 years trying to make Wired more Condé Nast. We’ll spend the next 10 trying to make Condé Nast more Wired.”
In that sense, Dadich is arguably on his way to becoming one of the most important editors in the joint.
"I think everyone's watching him closely," said Pamela Maffei McCarthy, deputy editor of The New Yorker, who worked with Dadich in putting the finishing touches on the The New Yorker's iPad app. "It's exciting to see something unexpected like that happen. To see someone so creative being cast in a quite different role."
Last year, Dadich was working on the launch of a tablet magazine called Slingshot. It was pitched to him by the New York-based movie producer Jason Kliot, who decided to try Condé Nast after a potential deal with Hearst didn't pan out, according to multiple well-placed sources with knowledge of the situation. The idea was to do a general interest magazine in which every article was a short film.
Kliot and Dadich, who championed the proposal internally, were to be co-editors. Condé Nast editorial director Tom Wallace was a big proponent of Slingshot as well, and he was confident that Dadich had the chops to pull it off. But Condé slammed on the brakes after a launch partner failed to materialize, sources said. Kliot, Dadich and Condé Nast all declined to comment on the matter.
Dadich continued to toil away at the digital transformation of the company as a whole, but was essentially a king in need of a kingdom.
He got his wish after Hurricane Sandy, when Dadich and his wife, Amy, were temporarily displaced from their two-bedroom, 26th-floor apartment in the Frank Gehry-designed 8 Spruce Street, the tallest residential building in New York City. They got a room at the City Club in Midtown for a few days so Dadich could walk to work. When he returned to his desk that Wednesday, there was a voicemail waiting for him from Wallace, who brought Dadich into his office. Anderson was leaving Wired, Wallace told him. He asked Dadich if he was interested. Dadich spent the next week working on an ideas memo before meeting with Wallace, Mittman, Sauerberg, Townsend and the rest of the gang.
Who else? Condé Nast approached Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel about the job, but Tyrangiel didn't pursue it, a person familiar with the matter told Capital. (Tyrangiel declined to comment.) There was also talk internally that several Wired veterans were in the running. (Condé Nast wouldn't say how many candidates were considered.)
Wallace, who helmed the search, was likewise unavailable to take questions from Capital about the ways in which Dadich had blown everyone's socks off. But on the day of Dadich's coronation last November, he gave Adweek some color.
"He's been pivotal in helping Condé Nast win a leadership position in the industry," said Wallace. "Wired we think of as the first word on the future, and to a very large degree, Wired’s future will have a profound influence on Condé Nast’s future. It is the largest website; it is where we launched the digital strategy; it has the biggest digital circulation."
Some company insiders were surprised by the decision, especially given Wired's reputation for hardcore reporting and deep narrative storytelling, whether it's an Oscar-bound feature about declassified C.I.A. documents or a crazytown Central American murder saga involving a fugitive former tech billionaire.
Also, Dadich's stint in corporate was not without a whiff of controversy—specifically his role in locking Condé Nast into an exclusive deal with Adobe for app development. What works for one publication, the thinking goes, does not necessarily work for another, and there are Conde employees who consider the Adobe software cumbersome and bristle at the non-customizability. Sources said the Adobe frustration is still very much an issue among editors. (“Change is hard, and it’s not for everybody," Dadich told Capital.)
Nor have iPad sales, still an arguably small part of the bottom line, been as strong as executives might have hoped for during the heady days of 2010, when the medium was touted as the savior of traditional magazine-making. Industry-wide, they accounted for a mere 2.4 percent of total average circulation during the second half of last year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, though Wired was in the top 25 magazines in terms of digital subscriptions for the period, with 84,118, up from 33,237 a year earlier.
The company says it wasn't a miscalculation: their expectations were never as high as people believed.
"We at Condé Nast never said the iPad was going to be the savior of the industry because the industry wasn't actually in need of saving, that was external hyperbole," a spokeswoman told Capital. "What we did say was that we wanted our content to be available for consumers on as many platforms as possible. That said, we were thrilled with the quality and ubiquity of the iPad. It was a perfect match to our content."
In either case, the appointment of Dadich was popular with industry watchers.
"This was the right move," said Ethan Grey, vice president of digital for the Association of Magazine Media. "One of the things I really enjoy about Scott is his background. There's a new marriage between design, information architecture, editorial and advertising. The reason you saw Wired's iPad app have such great early success is because he has that aesthetic."
"I think it's unusual to hire a creative director and design guy to run a big title," said Bob Cohn, editorial director of Atlantic Digital, who knows Dadich well from their days working together during the mid-aughts at Wired, when Cohn was executive editor. "But for Scott to make the leap from the design side does not really surprise me. He always had a full 360 picture of the magazine even when he was running the design shop."
IF WIRED IS INDEED SUPPOSED TO BE THE FUTURE of Condé Nast, Dadich will have to achieve some concrete results to prove it. He's well positioned to do so. While ad pages are basically flat year-over-year, the magazine's print ad revenue was up 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. That same quarter also was the first in which Wired's print and digital advertising revenues were split 50-50, while wired.com had record-breaking traffic in January (19 million uniques, per Omniture) and is closing in on its biggest money-making quarter ever, said Hammond, the title's spokesman.
In terms of content, Dadich already has a few tricks up his sleeve ("It's time to blow some stuff up," he wrote in his first editor's letter), such as a roll-out next month of enhanced video content (CPM bait!) for wired.com. There's also been some chatter about a product called "Wired TV." Dadich declined to comment, but Hammond confirmed that Condé Nast owns the URL for wired.tv.
Other Dadichisms? The app now has a video tab and is pushing out content that doesn't appear in the print edition, such as Steve Levy's recent feature on Facebook's Graph Search. The iPad edition used to hit digital newsstands a week after the magazine was out. Then it was bumped up to land on the same day. Dadich has pushed up digital delivery even further, to one week ahead of the magazine.
Editorially, Dadich plans to move away from the Chris Anderson model of story-selection, in which pitch packets would be distributed to editors and members of the art department and put up for a vote. The big redesign is slated for June, following a special 20th anniversary issue in May.
In the meantime, Dadich, who works out of Wired's San Francisco headquarters with the exception of his monthly powwow with Condé brass, has lined up his senior editorial team, parting ways with veterans Thomas Goetz and Evan Hansen, but retaining powerhouse features editors like Mark Robinson and Robert Capps since he himself doesn't plan on getting down and dirty with copy. He's also building up the magazine's New York bureau, which will be helmed by Joe Brown, an ex-Wired guy who's beaming back up to the mothership after a successful stint editing Gizmodo.
But in lots of ways, what Dadich does with Wired matters less for Wired than for Conde Nast as a whole. Can Dadich show a way forward? Arguably just making other (mostly older) editors jealous, of Wired's numbers, its cachet, its digital-forwardness, is a better way to get something done at the company than lots of big ideas meetings with people who might feel a bit like they're being lectured to. Between the lines, that seems like just the opportunity Dadich has been looking for since he arrived there.
“I feel really at home when I'm challenged and when I'm by far not the smartest person in the room," he said. "There are so many bright and ambitious people here. I'm just looking to capitalize on the opportunity we have at this company with Wired being a leader, and in some ways, with the industry looking for us to lead the way.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Scott Dadich's most recent title at Condé Nast prior to being named editor of Wired. The title was not "executive director of digital magazine development" but "vice president of the Editorial Development Group." This version has been corrected.