Field Notes

Field Notes: Digital Branding with Susan Plagemann

Connie Chan

Posted May 3, 2023
ABOUT FIELD NOTES This is Field Notes, a video podcast series by a16z that explores the business models and behaviors that are changing consumer technology. In this episode, host Connie Chan talks to Susan Plagemann, the president of WME Fashion and a veteran of the fashion and publishing industries—she previously helped build brands including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Vogue. They discuss how tech has transformed the media industry, how to turn editorial vision into influence, and how creators and companies can build standout digital brands.  

Episode Transcript

Connie Chan: Welcome to the show, Susan.

Susan Plagemann: Thank you, Connie. It’s great to be here.

Connie: To me, fashion feels night-and-day different than what it was like 20 years ago—even in terms of where we’re getting our influences and where we hear about what’s stylish. In 1998, when you were at Hearst, you were the second-ever female publisher of Cosmopolitan and the youngest publisher of Cosmo at that time. Tell us about the huge role magazines—and Cosmo in particular—played in fashion and media back then.

Susan: When I look back at it, one thing that I can share with you is that when I was given that job, I was terrified. And I remember talking to my husband saying, “I’m never gonna be able to do it. It’s too big a job. Will I be able to be successful?”

I was really young and I thought, oh my gosh, can I actually do this? And what was so interesting at that time was there were two brands, Cosmo and Glamour, that were really big leaders in terms of the women’s arena. When I say the women’s arena, I mean reaching women [aged] 18 to 34. What everyone has to remember is that at that time, the internet wasn’t there. We didn’t have websites yet. So it was literally just [print] circulation.

Connie: And fashion magazines had a huge influence at the time.

Susan: Huge, huge.

Connie: This was how every person figured out what was trending, what was in style, which celebrity was worth following…That was all dictated by these magazines.

Susan: Yeah, definitely. Cosmo undeniably was not just a leader, it was really a market-maker, especially in the beauty arena. It was a place where you had key beauty companies that advertised not only to continue their trajectory, but also to acquire new consumers. One thing about Cosmo was: It was constantly bringing new readers into the fold. So as people would age out, they were constantly bringing new people in. 

Connie: And how did the business lines change? Back then the main revenue driver was print ads, full-page ads.

Susan: It was interesting. While I was there, one of the [initiatives] that our company was leading was how to make Cosmo into a mega-brand. So, how are we going to make it like Coca-Cola or as big as McDonald’s, or what have you. And so there were definitely forays into new spaces. One was that they looked at doing a Cosmo cruise. Another was that they looked at doing Cosmo en Espanol. And then the other option was Cosmo Girl. And of the three, the one that really took off and did well was Cosmo Girl. And that was really reaching the next generation of Cosmo consumers.

Connie: What are some other business lines outside of Cosmo Girl that you launched and oversaw? And then how did you respond to the internet—for example, email starting to be a more popular communication channel for everyday readers.

Susan: So after Cosmo, I went to Marie Claire. We launched the first-ever video podcast series. And the fact that I’m calling it a video podcast series just shows you…

Connie: No, actually, video podcasts are back!

Susan: Well, right. So what we did was: every month we would take the magazine, pick 10 to 12 stories from the issue, and produce a video story based on that editorial content. So, not vice versa. We weren’t creating video-first. We were creating print-first, and print was leading what we were doing.

Connie: So you would have to go back and almost re-report the topic? Go re-interview the person or go back to the scene of the event and recreate it?

Susan: I mean, honestly, Connie. I wish I knew where they were. It’s kind of miraculous what we did. It was the first of its kind. No one else was doing it.

Connie: Where were people watching the videos?

Susan: They watched it on the website, which I think probably had 15 people on it at the time. I mean, I’m sure it was more than that, but we were not dealing with a website [of today’s volume], or an Instagram following like I had at Vogue of 20 million, 30 million, 40 million people. It was very specific. I’ll say it was very targeted.

Connie: If you remember back to the 2000s, how did media publications respond to the internet? Were they largely just taking the same idea and putting it online? Who was innovating?

Susan: In the beginning, 100 percent. I think we all had our eyes wide open. And I think whether people want to acknowledge it or not, all that newness was exhilarating, but also terrifying. But you need to anticipate consumers’ behavior and you need to get there before they do. And then when you’re there, you need to guide them and teach them how to consume your content. And that was probably the hardest thing. 

I mean, I remember talking to web editors and being like, “Okay, how are we putting the content up there?” In the early days, everyone was really mesmerized: Great, the contact can go up and down, or it can go left to right. We didn’t know that, actually, you want content to move in one direction, which is now the scroll. It took a really long time for people to figure that out.

Connie: When media was adapting at that time, it was about format and length. But was also the amount of content you now have to produce. With the internet, you can’t just stick with the same number of articles and expect it to be sufficient. How did publications respond to this new demand, where you need new stuff at least on a daily basis?

Susan: One of the things that was really the highlight of my career was obviously going to Vogue in 2010. When I arrived, I was tasked to build a website. The company had changed strategy and they were now doing individual websites for all the brands. And I remember thinking like, Okay, build a website. It’s not like I have to go sew a hem a dress, I’ve gotta go build a website. And so, you know, we were very well resourced and we were very well supported. 

Connie: Wait, so, so Vogue didn’t have a website at that time?

Susan: It did not, not when I arrived. It had a website that it shared with another brand, but there was no We built it.

Connie: Wow.

Susan: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t just me. Obviously, there was an army of people involved in it. But we built it and then we monetized it. And one of the best things I think that ever happened in my life was that freedom to go and explore and create and try things. And [we saw] just how hungry our partners in the market were to see what we were doing because we were the market leader. We were the global leader.

Connie: It’s fascinating that, as the global leader in those years, you could king-make any designer, any beauty brand, any fashion brand. And so I think all eyes were on what you were building.

Susan: This is apropos of how you and I came to meet. But one of the best things about that entire experience was that I had a conversation with my boss and I said, “Look, I want to do this learning trip, this learning expedition. We’re going to take some of the editors and we’re going to take some of the business execs and we’re literally going to go to Silicon Valley and meet with companies that can help us solve these issues on the business side and these things on the editorial side.”

It was the first time the editorial and the business side had gone together on a strategy tip trip. And I was super grateful that my business partner on the editorial side was supportive. And we had three days of just meeting companies. You likely remember that, because Andreessen Horowitz was one of the first places we went. And we just got to listen and learn. Those trips provided a really, really critical foundation for how we led and created and built our digital brand.

Connie: That’s fantastic to hear. I have a question about Vogue. You had to operate and maintain this pristine, beautiful magazine that is still hugely influential, but you also needed to have this thriving online platform destination. If you think back, was it the same editorial person running both sides?Are those treated as two businesses? Or how do you intertwine them? 

Susan: So, listen. The success of Vogue, in my humble opinion, is because it has always had a really strong, clear editorial vision. And at the end of the day, brands are only as good as the clarity in which they can articulate why they matter in someone’s life. And so, both on the print side and digitally, Vogue was run by the same person: our editor in chief [Anna Wintour]. But real success—and the genesis of really great digital reporting—comes from your team’s ability to respond to what’s happening in the culture and in the news on a daily basis.

And that’s what Vogue was genius at. Really, I think they were genius at it. We created the first dancing video. We created the first video where you saw a musician like Dev Hynes dancing. I mean, we created the first video where we had people running down Park Avenue in ball gowns getting excited for the Met Ball. 

Connie: And they embraced the video format. They took something that wasn’t possible on print and said, “How much more can we make if we’re now on the internet using audio or video?”

Susan: Yeah. I mean, listen: the economics always come into play. That was my responsibility. It’s like, okay, now how do we monetize this? And I think we did a really good job at that. And we had so much fun doing that. And we had really, really great things to sell and to market.

Connie: And how did Vogue respond to the proliferation of social media? During that time there was the App store, there was Facebook, there was Instagram, there was Snapchat. What was the response to social media?

Susan: They embraced it. They embraced it, big time, and I think people were just hungry for it. We really took advantage of the visuals. We really took advantage of play-on-words. I mean, the wordsmithing and the hashtags, I think were some of the most genius ever. And then videos and gifs and everything that you could imagine—we would go there.

Connie: How much did the content that was created on Instagram influence editorial in print and vice versa? One thing that I think about a lot is that companies that have both a website and a mobile app sometimes feel the need to fully replicate feature functionality or content. Do you think it’s possible to have a different set of content or a different set of features?

Susan: I don’t know if it was so much different as it was a place to further explore the content that was being created. For instance, I’ll just stay on the theme of the Met [Gala]. The May issue was traditionally the Met issue. So we used online digital formats to further explore and speak to our readers in ways that we couldn’t necessarily do just in print. And, and definitely vice versa.

Connie: How did social media influence your thinking of new business lines or new revenue streams for the company?

Susan: The biggest thing that I always wanted to do was to charge consumers to follow us on social. And I’ve been told “no” for as long as we’ve had social. And so now—as you’ve seen in recent weeks—now that the platforms are being asked to actually compensate the publishers for the content, I’m like, “Hallelujah, of course you should be.” Because like I would argue that brands like Vogue and other really, really great brands actually helped make Instagram as cool and as great as it is. And the same thing with TikTok. I mean, these are highways where people can put their content up, but not all content is created equal. Some of that content I think has greater value than others and should be recognized.

Connie: Okay. We’re gonna fast forward to your current role as president of WME Fashion. Tell me a little bit more about that role. What are all the different things that you oversee?

Susan: Essentially, we have four really great, incredible companies here. There’s Art and Commerce, which really is the premier leadership representation company in terms of photography, hair and makeup, and stylists. Then we have the Wall Group, which is a representation business in hair, makeup, and stylists, and both have an incredible roster of artists. And then the next company is IMG, which is the global premier modeling agency. And the last company is IMG Fashion and Events, which is charged with creating buzz and provocation, if you will, around New York Fashion Week, Australian Fashion Week, and any other fashion week that we may decide to dip into. So it’s those four companies.

There are three goals in taking them over. One is to really highlight our talent, our artists. They’re our biggest priority because without them, we don’t survive. To really be able to articulate to them: what’s our meaningful differentiation? What do we offer them, not just in terms of jobs, but in terms of strategy, creativity, and support? The second piece is getting much further upstream with brands, which is probably my biggest strength, through my relationships and having done it for so long. How do we sit across from these leading global fashion brands and beauty brands and luxury brands and help anticipate what they need and come to them with solutions, even solutions before they know that they need them?

Connie: And Susan, I’m sure you’ve negotiated so many deals with brands in your career. What’s your advice to the people that you represent or even just creators today? You talk about hairstylists, makeup artists. There are so many Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube creators that fall into that bucket of expertise. How would you counsel them on how they can work with brands or other kinds of revenue streams in general?

Susan: Well, I think asking questions and then actually listening is something that everybody can get re-schooled in that.

Connie: Well, what are the questions? What are the questions that these creators should be asking?

Susan: The first one I would ask would be: In your role, how do you define success? Because that very quickly will tell you the priority of the person sitting across you. And when you know someone’s priority, then you can start to solve for it.

Connie: Right, because it could be viewership or fame, or it could be money-oriented, very different solutions, potentially.

Susan: Totally. So I think that’s a really important question. The other question that I think is really important to ask is: What are the three most important things that you have to do this year for your company? And that, too, will give you very quickly where their focus is.

Connie: Interesting. So your approach is more to figure out the problem that brand is trying to solve and then create your solution around that? Versus just saying, “Hey, I’m a creator. This is the type of content I create. This is my audience, this is my viewership, this is the kind of engagement I get on every video. Do you wanna work with me for X, Y, and Z dollars?”

Susan: Yeah, I recommend asking the questions first because I think it will further inform how you answer and present yourself in the right way to the audience.

Connie: What are your best tips for creators today as they’re thinking about how to adapt to this evolving world of tech?

Susan: Don’t be afraid to disrupt yourself. I think that’s a big, big thing. I think the other thing is to really lean into the strength of your brand and what you stand for. Really make sure that you ask yourself, “Is everything I’m doing feeding this strength? Am I really, really focused on keeping all of this benefit in this lane?” And I think another big thing is making sure you’re really clear on what that lane is.

Connie: Vogue was very clear in that—their voice and purpose.

Susan: Most definitely. But I think for any brand, whether it’s a software company that provides utility in a space, I think it’s really understanding what you stand for and making sure that you continue to be best in class for that benefit that you’re giving the consumer.

Connie: Yeah, I agree. I think a lot of our startup founders know branding is important, but a lot of them don’t know how to go about thinking about it. But a lot of it is coming back to that vision statement: What is your right to exist? How are you impacting the lives of your customers? 

Susan: Absolutely, 100 percent.

Connie: You’re at the intersection of so many interesting things. What are different opportunities for say, fashion and sports and entertainment to collaborate or collide going forward? Because it seems like even a sports influencer has influence in fashion, or has influence in entertainment. It seems like influencers can cover so many different vectors now.

Susan: They can, and they do. It’s interesting. When I arrived here, everybody said, “Okay, great. Now we have fashion [covered].” And one of the things I’m doing now is getting deeper on what that means. So when somebody says, “Well, I love fashion.” Okay, great. What part of fashion do you love? Do you like the storytelling? Do you like the clothing? Do you want to do a collaboration? Do you just want to be at a show? What part of fashion do you want to be a part of? And I’ve said it a lot, we have a ton of people in this company that intersect with fashion. They work with different fashion companies. And I think what’s exciting about our division is that we’re bringing a deeper understanding of how fashion companies actually work, and using that expertise to actually inform people in sports, in music.

Connie: What you’re saying, Susan, is that every kind of content creator or company—even in software—could figure out a fashion strategy.

Susan: Absolutely. I always say, you know, people have to get dressed in the morning. And people get dressed in the morning in a myriad of ways.

Connie: I also remember you sharing that fashion is about the feeling that it gives you. You know, we all have enough clothes in our closet as is, but it’s about being able to put together a feeling so you can tell your story in the way that you want to tell it.

Susan: Absolutely.

Connie: Awesome. I can’t wait to help our companies think through their fashion strategies.

Susan: Me too. Thank you so much, Connie.

Connie: Thank you, Susan.

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More About This Podcast

Field Notes is a video podcast series by a16z general partner Connie Chan on the business models and emerging behaviors driving consumer technology. In a series of candid interviews, Connie talks to the builders, creators, and investors behind the tech that shapes our daily lives.

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