Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: You joined at a time of quite significant change for Glamour. How have you been helping their transformation into a digital-first brand?

Deborah: I started almost two years ago, when they’d already made the decision to change from print to digital first, and it was my job to hire a new digital team to redesign the print.

We changed the paper to matte paper, obviously for a biannual coffee table feel, and worked across all the different platforms from commercial with our Publisher Camilla Newman, to events…it was really rebranding, redesigning the website and thinking of a new visual future for the brand.

Do you think it was easier to come in, so a bit fresher to that, rather than being aware of what had gone before?

Well it was interesting because I actually worked on the launch of Glamour 17 years ago! I was on the launch team, and I worked on it for nearly five years. So I was privy to the excitement and amazingness around the launch of it, and it being so innovative at the time, being a magazine that fitted into your handbag, which was completely new thinking at the time. And I love the idea then that you walk around with the magazine with you.

And in a funny way, going mobile-first is exactly the same feeling. You’re asking women to walk around with Glamour in their handbag again, but on their phone this time, so that was a really interesting symmetry.

The interesting thing is also I’ve been out of magazines for seven years, I hadn’t been working in print at all, I’d gone to work for app startups. I’d worked for five different startups. I’d also worked for Jenny Packham, and setting up some social media and consulting for her.

So, I really did come back to the industry with a completely fresh perspective, and a very digital perspective on it. I think I came with a new thinking that I’ve learned from startups, and that was very much that you have to pivot, you have to be agile, your team has to be agile, if something isn’t working, you move quickly and you change. And that thinking very much came from startups.

It must help as well to have the background on how people interact with phones and apps as well. That must be useful.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s exactly what I was doing. When I went into apps, the thinking was, well, actually, the future is that there won’t be any websites, which obviously hasn’t ended up being the case! But a lot of the apps I was working for, were just solely mobile, they weren’t creating websites at all.

And what have been some of the biggest challenges over the last two years with changing everything round and getting Glamour fully digital first?

It was really challenging to begin with, actually. I think for me at the very beginning, the challenge was the reaction from the industry, and also from readers towards the change. We don’t like change as people, we don’t like it. I remember the story of when Facebook initially introduced its newsfeed, someone set up a group against it that had a million people in it saying, this is terrible. Obviously none of us can imagine a life now without the Facebook newsfeed, but we’re creatures of habit.

And also Glamour was a very loved brand. The magazine was very loved for 17 years, a lot of people had read it and grown up with it. And it was difficult explaining to people why a brand would make this decision, and why they would change.

Because a lot of people said Glamour was closing.

Yes, exactly. The language around it was incorrect. It never closed, it pivoted. It changed. We looked at the future, and I think it was future-proofing itself because the old business model wasn’t working. And as a company, Conde Nast had to think, ‘Okay, this business model doesn’t work, currently. What can we do?’

Glamour was 83% mobile. So 83% of people were reading the website on their phone, and I always think, you have to go to where your audience is, you can’t pull them to where you are. So if they weren’t in print, and they were going online.

And it wasn’t just the readers actually, it was also the advertisers were saying to our Publisher, ‘What’s your digital offering, how can we work with you digitally?’ Because they were also as businesses also moving away from print and going into digital. Our audience is very millennial, it’s very Gen Z, and that’s where audiences is, it’s on their phone.

Have advertisers got the idea now?

Well, what’s the interesting thing is they’ve gone through similar transitions themselves in the last two years. There was an advertiser, a beauty advertiser that I initially went in to explain the new vision for Glamour to two years ago. And they’ve just said to me, ‘I have to tell you, when you walked out the room, we looked at each other and thought, mmm, not sure about this.’

And now recently, they’ve come on, and they do loads and loads of work with us, because their business has also gone through a digital transformation, and now they’re in exactly the same space as we are of always wanting to be innovative and creative, and forward-thinking online. And so that’s why they’re working with us.

What do advertisers make of the print magazine change?

They seem to like it. I’ve had really good feedback. I mean, one person said to me, it’s the most woke magazine they’ve ever read! It covers sustainability, it covers cruelty free, it covers allowing your body hair to grow naturally, it covers a lot of topics that are very Gen Z, millennial and very social media topics. And people seem to want to be part of that conversation.

Does being digital-first help inform what the magazine should be then in that sense, rather than it being you dictating what women should be interested in, women are almost saying to you via social, this is what we actually really care about?

Oh that’s definitely changed. I think, 17 years ago, or even 20 years ago, when I started in magazines, it was very much journalists deciding what a readers should be reading about, whereas now we’re very inspired as journalists by what’s going on on social media.

When we have features meetings, someone will say, ‘Oh, there’s this trend on Instagram, or I’ve seen this video on Facebook.’ It absolutely feeds into what we then write about.

Digital publishing has been a pretty tough market for publishers that have been through that transformation already. What are Glamour doing to ensure that you’re resilient against things like platform changes, ad revenue changes, and that sort of thing?

The platform change is a really interesting one, because when I first came on board, Facebook was the biggest traffic driver from a social media platform. And we really focused on Facebook to begin with. And very quickly, I can’t remember…

It was about three months in [from October 2017] they had that big pivot.

Yes, within three months of me starting this job, they had a big pivot, Facebook had an algorithm change, and they didn’t promote publishers. So our content wasn’t being shown as much on Facebook, which obviously affected our traffic hugely.

So that’s what I was saying earlier, you have to then pivot very quickly you can’t sit on your laurels and go, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to continue doing it.’ No, you have to think, ‘Right, this is no longer how it works. How are we going to change it?’

So then we moved to Instagram stories. We set up a seven day Instagram story schedule, with a lot of swipe ups to the articles.

But again, recently, we think there has been a slight algorithm change, we’ve noticed less swipe up traffic. Google have also had an algorithm change.

So what we’ve decided is very much that it’s important to spread, when it comes to social media platforms, never rely too much on one platform for traffic, spread it across lots of them. So then if one changes a little bit, you’re not massively affected in terms of traffic.

The print magazine hasn’t closed, it just prints twice a year. So what are some things you’ve done to ensure that that remains relevant and true to the brand, which itself has also changed?

I mean, for me everything we do is 360. So the messaging we have on print is the same messaging we have online, is the same messaging we have at our events. They’re all interconnected.

So when we think of any idea, we don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, this is print idea or this is a website idea.’ We think, ‘Okay, this is what we want to do,’ for example, in print, and then we do a whole 360 plan around that. So what are we going to do on social, what are we going to do online for it, can we create an event around it, that’s how we do everything.

So there should be a synergy between them all, there shouldn’t be anything different between print and social in terms of our messaging.

That must have been quite challenging to get a team from that print mindset two years ago…how have you brought them into being a team that can think about all that stuff at once?

Well, when I first started, I employed a whole new team. So I employed a digital first team, but also there were some ex print people who came to work for us as well. I think it wasn’t whether they were print or digital, I think it was just this fast paced mindset that, if we try something, not to be afraid of failure. So if you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s absolutely fine. You have to pivot and be quick and change.

And that shift in mindset in the team did take a while. And I think not being afraid of failing was one of the biggest changes. Now, we’ll try something, if it doesn’t work, we’re like, you know, it’s not working, we’ll try something else. It’s really not even a big deal. I love that about digital as well the fast pace, the ability to change and improve, and add on to things.

We set up a Facebook group when I first started, because we wanted to own the beauty conversation on Facebook. It’s separate to the Facebook feed, we’ve got almost 10,000 members now, 90% engagement daily. So we’ve got 90% of the people on there are talking about beauty all day long. And I remember when I first suggested it to the team, they were like, ‘Ooh not sure, Facebook’s old. Not sure how many younger people are on Facebook.’

Actually, it’s been a huge success. But I remember saying to them, ‘Okay, let’s talk this through. Let’s just say we launch it, and nobody wants to join it, and three people are on there, and it’s a disaster. What’s the worst that can happen? And we’re like, Okay, well, we’ll just close it then.’ That’s not so terrible, is it? There’s nothing lost there. And maybe a lot gained because we’ve learned from it.

So I think that’s been the biggest change in mindset.

Maybe trying TikTok next then!

Yes! You know what, I’m thinking about it actually. I am very much thinking, how do brands like ours work on that platform? I think that as a digital publisher, we have to always be thinking about what’s next. It’s the balance between not overwhelming the team by taking on absolutely everything, and just being selective and have a strategy around the things that we do take on.

Victoria Beckham chose to launch her new beauty range with Glamour. So why are celebrities still keen on partnering with major magazine brands, when she could just announce it on her Instagram?

Magazine brands have huge kudos. That has never ever gone away. They might not be selling as many…our biannual issues….it might only be biannual, not every month, but it still has huge kudos. It’s on the newsstand for five months. That very tangible image away from their own brand brings a huge amount to any brand.

Kylie Jenner also wanted to launch with us. I mean, when we launched with her she had 115 million Instagram followers, so she didn’t need to, in terms of numbers, launch with anybody.

But there’s a recognition that we have a very loyal, beauty-loving audience at Glamour, and there’s a benefit in that unity between our brand and their brand.

One of the things that Camilla [Newman] was saying at the PPA festival is that not having monthly print cover stars means that you do miss out on a bit of a sort of monthly spike and the buzz around that. So what do you do to continue having a focal point around beauty stars and covers, and things like that?

That’s a really interesting question, because when we first launched, the big buzz was around the print because that’s I think, what people are used to. And also as I said, it’s something tangible, they see on the newsstand, you see it in people’s houses on their coffee tables, you talk about it.

So then we were like, ‘Okay, well, this is challenging, how do we keep the PR around the brand going monthly without the print brand?’

So we launched our digital covers. So again, this was another example, it was a bit of a crazy idea, we were like, ‘Okay, we’re digital first brand. What if we give celebrities a mobile phone and we say to them, you shoot your own cover. Do it exactly how you want to be perceived, how you want to be portrayed, and messaging you want to give, we wont even get involved with it, you do it.’ And it’s been hugely successful.

But again, when the idea first came up in the office, there were questions like, is any big celebrity really going to do this? Are they going to want hair and make up, are they going to want the lighting, the big photographer, is anyone going to go for this? We’ve been absolutely amazed how many people have gone for it. Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, Lily Collins, Millie Bobby Brown, we’ve had major names doing it, and they’re really into the idea because they like the idea of controlling their own image. And they’re kind of doing that on Instagram anyway, a lot of them. And I think it’s fun, and they don’t have to go up a whole day for a shoot.

And it’s really been incredible because some of our covers have had 73 pieces of press around the digital cover. In fact Irina Shayk had 73 pieces of press, it went international. And also the funny thing is, sometimes the Evening Standard and The Metro then print our digital covers in their newspaper, so it ends up being in print anyway!

And we’ve also now monetised it. We did a sponsorship deal with Estee Lauder recently where they sponsored our digital cover. We got the singer Mayble on the cover, wearing their foundation, and so it ended up being a commercial deal as well. So it’s been a really interesting experience.

It’s interesting that they see commercial potential, not even having a print cover as well. That’s really interesting.

I think all the content we work on has potential for commercial partnership there. And in terms of challenges, when I first started in journalism, and as an editor, editorial and commercial were church and state, you just didn’t get involved with each other. Whereas now, we’re very much involved with each other, but we have complete control of how it looks. So if a commercial deal comes in, it’s the editorial team who are creating those images, creating the videos, so the content is always in keeping with, and in tune with what we do every day anyway. And I like that synergy. I think it works really well.

What are your views on the role of influencers? Are they complimentary or are they a bit of a competitor to magazine media?

Well it’s interesting, some people view them as competitors. But actually on my first ever issue as editor of the print, I had three influencers on the cover. I had Huda Beauty, I had Patricia Bright, and Zoella. And the reason I did it was because, when I was looking at it, it’s like, okay, we’re going digital-first, we’re going beauty-first, who are the stars in that space? And for me at that time, two years ago, it was very much the influencers.

I remember having a conversation with my boss, and he was saying, ‘Do people really know who these people are?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, 90 million people know who these people are, you might not know, but actually, there’s a whole generation of women and stars who are growing up online, who aren’t your traditional celebrity in movies or on TV, but have a massive and engaged following.’

And it was interesting seeing that engagement when they hit the newsstand, the social reach was enormous. And the conversation online, especially on Instagram, I remember particularly around Patricia Bright was enormous.

So from that perspective, we work really well with influencers. We have influencers sometimes as columnists, we have them as speakers at our Beauty Festival.

But I think also we’ve noticed from a brand perspective, brands were spending a lot of money with influencers two years ago, and again, we’ve noticed them coming back to us because they like the expertise of the journalists. And also some journalists are now becoming influencers, so it’s a really interesting relationship going on there.

I suppose you can offer the best of both worlds with access to the influencers, and the credibility that you’re not just…

Well, I mean, a lot of the influencers I know most of them are great, they’re really hard working, but they’ve experienced the same as magazines experienced ago which is, how authentic are you if you’re being sponsored? That’s really changed the influencer landscape in terms of how advertisers are working with them. If you’re being sponsored by 20 brands a year, how authentic is that?

Some people are still really hugely authentic, and some people aren’t, but we’ve definitely noticed a move back towards…and a lot of people want to work with our team as influencers. Our beauty editor Lottie Winter is often asked to be part of commercial deals.

Talking of the Beauty Festival, that’s been going for four years now, it’s about to have its Manchester debut next week. Why Manchester?

Well I’m from Manchester…! Well our largest audience is in London. The second largest audience is in Manchester, so it makes sense from that perspective. Manchester has a huge beauty loving audience…have you been?

I’ve been a couple of times.

So you’ll know how much effort and time is put into beauty for a Saturday night out, it’s a two day affair! Hair, makeup nails, skincare. Selfridges and Harvey Nichols launched there, quite a few years ago now. There’s a great love for beauty in that city, and there’s a highly engaged female audience.

So we wanted to not just be London-centric, we want to be as inclusive as possible. And there’s a whole load of women out there who we weren’t accessing. I’m really excited to go there, really excited.

And how important you think it is for publishers to have events outside of that London bubble?

I think sometimes it’s in London because of the ease, because our offices are in London, but it’s ridiculous to think that women outside London aren’t interested in the same things that we’re interested in London, and I know it firsthand from my friends in [Manchester], the amount they spend, and effort on fashion and beauty, it’s actually more than we spend in London.

Expenses are much higher in London, we might not have as much money to spend on that kind of stuff, out there they really focus on it.

What sort of things have you got going on next week?

It’s really exciting. We’ve got Boots as our sponsor. They’re bringing loads of amazing brands. We’ve got Ole Henrikson, we’ve got Fenty Beauty, we’ve got also a separate brand, we’ve got Henkel doing hair. We’ve got hair braiding bars, we’ve got people doing eye makeup, Huda is doing eyes I think.

It’s just really bringing Glamour to life experience. And also lots of panel talks as well about inclusivity, a few celebrities, lots of influencers, hair and makeup tutorials. It’s a really fun experience.

And why is it so important for Glamour have tangible touch points like the festival in London and Manchester?

I think it brings the brand alive. Where else do you get to really talk to your audience in that way, and to meet them face to face, see how engaged they are, see what they’re interested in, see what brands they’re engaging with?

And also it’s a great way for us to communicate with our brands in that way as well, for brands to see how massively engaged our audience is. It’s really fun, I love it. We do loads of events and they’re all really successful, that’s something we’re very proud of in the last two years.