Nicholas Coleridge: Empire builder

The Condé Nast chief tells Ian Burrell about his magazines' expansion into the Indian subcontinent
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The Independent Online

Which helps to explain his enthusiasm as he prepares to embark on an Indian publishing campaign, taking magazines that he has developed into some of the most iconic titles on the British newsstand - Vogue, GQ, Glamour - and repackaging them for the subcontinent.

This adventure, which will see him flying back and forth between London, Mumbai and Delhi for much of the next year and a half, is the culmination of Coleridge's 25-year love affair with India. (He proposed to his wife Georgia in Calcutta.) "My father was born in Bombay, as it then was, in the Malabar Hills. From the first time I went to India there was something about the combination of the light, the climate and the people. I always seem to get on very well with Indian people, especially publishers and journalists," he says.

As he sits at his desk - in a grand fourth-floor office in Hanover Square, overlooking the Mexican embassy - Coleridge, dressed in a crisp white shirt and buzzing with energy, shows little sign of having just flown back from a single day visit to bustling Mumbai, where he has been applying finishing touches to his plans.

"We hope we will have magazines within 18 months," he says, admitting that India will "not be an overnight market" and that there are regulatory hurdles to clear before his titles become fixtures on the coffee tables of the Indian middle classes.

The expansion makes sense in business terms - of that he appears in no doubt. "Between meetings in Mumbai we kept rushing out through the monsoon rain to see the different stores that are opening, and within the past year there has been a big Dolce & Gabbana outlet, Stella McCartney, Chloé, Fendi, a lot of familiar names," he enthuses. "There's a very big culture of Indians who have been studying or working in the States, here in Britain or Hong Kong, returning and powering what's going to happen in India. Some of the stores that we saw are fantastic, as good as anything you would see in Madison Avenue or Bond Street with very interesting architecture."

At the age of 48, Coleridge appears very comfortable in himself, a result, surely, of having been at the helm of Condé Nast in Britain for 13 years, reporting to US publishing tycoon SI (Si) Newhouse and his cousin Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International. Coleridge has also just put down his pen after completing his latest novel and ninth book called A Much Married Man. "I wrote every single Saturday and Sunday from 6.30am till 10.30am for two and a half years," he says. "I'm quite disciplined about it. My children watch TV until 10.30am so they don't notice I'm not there. Then I force them to go outdoors and do something. If you write 2,000 words for enough weekends you have a 200,000-word book." The tale is set in the Cotswolds and London, the places where Coleridge lives, although this story of a four-times married man with many stepchildren is not autobiographical.

His first two works of non-fiction were thrillers set in the publishing industry but it was Godchildren, a 2002 novel aimed at the general market, that brought most success (including a one-week appearance at number two in the bestseller list).

Coleridge - who grew up in the King's Road area of Chelsea, left Eton to go up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and took a position as associate editor of Tatler at the age of 22 - has the self-confidence of someone who moves easily in upscale circles. He is, after all, the son of a chairman of Lloyd's.

Yet he is not so much stuffy as avuncular and personable. He appears and sounds a little older than his age but has a zest that would shame someone 15 years younger. Each working day he is at his desk by 7.30am, leaving promptly by 6.15pm but only in order that he has time with his four children.

It is a rhythm of life that does not sit easily with the late-night networking and champagne-fuelled partying that is more than ever a feature of the British magazine industry. It is the start of the seemingly endless magazine awards season and Coleridge, the chairman of the Periodical Publishers' Association, moans: "I always feel that by November if I hear the words 'and the winner is...' one more time I will die."

Even so, he doesn't mind his Condé Nast editors putting on their glad rags - in fact he considers it a pre-requisite of the modern-day magazine editor. "The 12 or so editors here are all pretty famous and that's encouraged," he says. "The days of an editor who just sits in their office and edits copy - although that is central to the task - I also think you have to be a fairly public evangelist."

Coleridge notes with some pride that television and radio stations from around the world came to Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman for comment on the Kate Moss saga. GQ's Dylan Jones has "become the Simon Cowell of magazines", says Coleridge, strangely comparing The Independent's style columnist to a man who famously wears his trousers high around his waist. The comparison is, however, meant as a compliment.

"Dylan manages to put on things like the GQ Man of the Year and waltzes an incredible number of celebrities on to the platform. If you were the editor of Esquire or Arena, frankly you would have to leave England over that fortnight because you would be physically eaten up with envy over the constant coverage."

Another of the great Condé Nast socialites is Geordie Greig, editor of Tatler, which will be 300 years old in 2007, and has just posted a 10.9 per cent increase in newsstand circulation. "Geordie is London's greatest networker. He is one of those people who manages to network across an extraordinarily wide savannah. He's very big with all the literary and arts set. He's forever networking with tycoons and getting lifts on people's Gulf Stream jets," says Coleridge.

In his awfully nice, always smiling kind of way, the publisher still manages to direct a bespoke, fully brogued foot deftly towards the backside of the opposition. The Emap men's title Arena is one target. "I love the spats that have been going on between the editor of Arena (Anthony Noguera) and Dylan. [Noguera] never interviews without saying something rude about Dylan. Dylan never says anything rude about him. I think at the moment he thinks it's not worth bothering about, it's like a flea flying round his head," laughs Coleridge, administering a sound but subtle kicking while ignoring the fact that Jones recently denounced Arena as "just a porn mag with a trendy designer".

Natmags' Harpers & Queen is a "good mag", he says, before adding that he finds the title "blander than it used to be ... but bland can be good". Coleridge edited Harpers between 1986 and 1989 (and indeed had his first article published in the same magazine in 1975, at the age of 18).

He bears Natmags no ill will, you understand. "The thing about Natmags is that I started over there and we share a distribution company and I get on very well with (chief executive) Duncan Edwards over there..."

You are waiting for the 'but' and, sure enough, Coleridge continues "...but it's a bit of an echo machine, a poor man's Condé Nast and people who work there realise that - it's just one of those things people understand."

The Natmags echo machine is about to generate its latest reverberation, he claims, in the form of the relaunch of the famous title She. The relaunch, says the Condé Nast MD, is a direct response to his own launch earlier this year of Easy Living, a classy production aimed at urbane thirty-something women with busy lives. "We are told [She] looks very like [Easy Living]. But that would be nothing new with Natmags - he laughs rolling his eyes," says Coleridge, as if dictating his latest novel.

Easy Living is doing well, he predictably claims. In the past two months it has twice outsold its first ABC figure of 171,000, which was itself up on the 150,000 target set at launch. Subscriptions are at 40,000, compared with an initial goal of 8,000 to 10,000, and advertising is set to hit 1,000 ad pages over the first 10 issues.

All this in a tough market with "formidable opposition", he notes. Red magazine took seven years to hit the 200,000 level that he would like Easy Living to reach "in due course".

Good Housekeeping (Natmags again, circulation a staggering 475,838) is a "very strong magazine", he admits. "It's full of good stuff but it's a magazine that is perceived as very old. It's very hard to sell that magazine to cooler, more urban younger people," adds Coleridge, as the finely cobbled shoe strikes home again.

Condé Nast has recently conducted some focus group research for Easy Living in the perhaps unlikely location of Huddersfield. Coleridge seems slightly perturbed that only two out of the 20 members of the focus group seemed to know anything about his lavish new mag. "That's both good and bad," he observes, quickly identifying a silver lining and estimating that only 40 per cent of Easy Living's potential market has been reached.

Coleridge appears to have a strong business acumen and a sharp eye for an untapped source of advertising that can be drilled with the launch of a new title. But the 1982 British Press Awards Young Journalist of the Year (when he was at the London Evening Standard) says that despite the prevalence of "advertorial" features in some of his titles, "editorial is always what drives a magazine". He says: " Off the top of my head I would think I spend 40 per cent thinking about editorial and about 30 per cent in advertising things and the rest is ego control.

"The thing about Condé Nast is that there are a lot of people with strong opinions who work here and as far as I'm concerned the more the merrier. I don't see the point of a whole lot of yes men editors or publishers and we sure haven't got many. I can't think of any."

In appearance Coleridge has been compared to Frasier Crane. One less disposed towards Coleridge unkindly compares him to a budgerigar. Except this budgie dwells in a cage gilded with sumptuous Vogue photography and shelves bearing latest editions of some of the most successful magazines in Britain, all of which fall under his editorial control.

Decisions on the content of Condé Nast covers are taken in Coleridge's office in the presence of the editor and four or five senior members of staff. "Sometimes the meetings take five seconds, where everyone says 'yes, that's the one' when we have a great picture of Uma Thurman. Sometimes it's more difficult. The editor gets more votes than everybody else," he says.

Being put in charge of the foray into India is a great challenge for Coleridge. He was asked by Jonathan Newhouse to do the job, possibly because Coleridge has already led the expansion of Condé Nast's online operations into 11 countries.

Coleridge's love of the internet is a further indication that he is more the driven figure who embraces change and life and less the fusty suit born on the right side of the tracks. It is 10 years this month since he launched

"We started experimenting and I became rather fascinated by it and started reading a lot of stuff about it," he says. "I like it for two reasons. The people who work in it are exceptionally pleasant and almost entirely free of ego. We have meetings twice a year in London and people are very open in saying what's happening in a way that wouldn't happen with quite the same transparency with a room full of GQ editors or Vogue editors."

It is a world that has changed enormously, he admits. "When I look back, God knows we have learned a lot," he says. "Some of the things we did now seem crazy. The pages were far too complicated and the downloads were so slow. I remember giving a presentation and you could have gone out and boiled a kettle and you were still waiting for the page."

In the UK alone, the Condé Nast sites, profitable for four years, generate 48 million page impressions a month and the advertising is growing at around 25 to 35 per cent annually. Part of the reason for this growth is that early competitors pulled out. In the women's fashion arena, is the chief rival.

"The National Magazine Company initially announced an enormous internet business and gave a lot of interviews and then got cold feet and pulled out," notes Coleridge, putting the boot in again.

In future months, India will largely be his focus. His first task is to find an Indian managing director and editors for the titles. These glossy upmarket magazines might be the chosen read of a moneyed Western elite but that does not mean Coleridge is on a latter-day colonial mission in instructing the locals on British style and etiquette.

"It always works best when you have a local editor of the country. We've found that it never works so well if you try to parachute in a Western person," he says, praising Angelica Chong, editor of Chinese Vogue.

"There would be a balance [in Indian Vogue etc] between the hunger for Western clothes and for local dress. There's a big tradition for very expensive - astonishingly expensive! - couture saris."

For 25 years Coleridge has been taking holidays in India, hiring a car and driver and heading off on great journeys across Kerala or Rajasthan.

Also for the past quarter of a century, Coleridge has been baffled by a strange, recurring dream about him being driven around India in a luxuriously decorated London bus. Premonitions, perhaps, of his plans to bring the splendour his corner of Hanover Square to the country where, after England, he feels most at home.