How Being Fearless Helped Keith Pollock Become a Digital Vanguard

"I always say to friends, 'You should never take a job that doesn't terrify you.'"
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Keith Pollock. Photo: Courtesy

Keith Pollock. Photo: Courtesy

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

For many people, the role of editor-in-chief is a final destination, a place to ride out the rest of a career with the worries of climbing the corporate ladder in the rearview window. But Keith Pollock, the current executive director of digital at Architectural Digest, isn't like most people. From the very beginning of his career, Pollock has never shied away from challenging roles, whether it was working at Elle.com before digital was an established part of the industry's strategy, or launching DuJour magazine when it was just a blank slate.

Even his college choice was unexpected: Despite the fact that he grew up outside of New York City, he eschewed the Big Apple's art schools for The Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied fashion and fine arts. "For me, it was really about deciding to get away from New York for as long as I could... I always knew I would come back to New York, and I thought Chicago was a great place to go to school because you don't have many distractions," Pollock says. Knowing he wanted a career in shelter, he also worked on the side doing interiors. When he finally did move back to New York, he struggled for two years to land a job in publishing.

"It's a very competitive industry to break into, so I would cold call people from mastheads to try to get appointments to meet with them," he recalls. "I was setting out to become a market editor, but I didn't know what a market editor was. I almost immediately got an interview at Vogue. I remember going there and explaining to the person I was meeting with that I had designed clothes in college; she was like, 'You don't really understand what this is.'"

Eventually, Pollock landed a job at PR Consulting; while it wasn't his dream gig, he ended up learning some valuable lessons and making connections that propelled him to where he is today. He met Joe Zee, who would become a valuable mentor, and Dirk Standen, who recruited him to be the market editor of Men.Style.com. From there, his risk-taking maneuvers led him to head up digital teams at both Elle and Interview, as well as to land two plum editor-in-chief roles at DuJour and Interview.

Today, he's joined Amy Astley in the task of bringing Architectural Digest into the digital age. Fashionista caught up with Pollock in-between meetings about his new vision for the AD website to chat about everything from his early days in digital to the importance of mentorships in his career — and, of course, how he's making Architectural Digest into the premiere resource for shelter professionals.

A screenshot of AD's "Clever" vertical. Photo: Courtesy

A screenshot of AD's "Clever" vertical. Photo: Courtesy

How did you break into the industry?

I actually never took an internship, which I think set me back. It definitely was harder for me to break into the fashion business because, again, I hadn't gone to school in New York, so I didn't have the relationships that most people that go to Parsons or FIT would have when they graduate. I moved to New York, I worked in retail, I really struggled for almost two years. I took any kind of freelance jobs I could get. I did model casting, I worked in showrooms and finally I got a freelance job working at Balenciaga during their market days for wholesale. That's how I came to work at PR Consulting. But it really took some time and determination to get there. I was doing fashion PR, and I remember at that time being somehow disappointed that I hadn't wound up doing the thing that I set out to do, which was working in publishing. But I got a very good lesson early on, which is to do the best that you can at the place you're at. There's such a correlation between PR and editorial, so I was very lucky to have worked in PR.

You went to Men.Style.com at a time that was very early for digital.

Very early. In fact, I remember when I was heading there, there was a lot of criticism from people that I worked with saying this "digital thing" is not going to take off. It was like the ugly stepchild; digital was not as respected in the fashion world at that point. We had to figure it out as we went along, and I was there for maybe three or four years. [In that time], digital had changed so much — even in the first few years, our team had expanded, we got more resources, we did some really great things, we won some awards. 

I was then called by Robbie Myers to come and head up digital for Elle, and at the time I had no experience working in women's fashion, so I initially didn't take the offer seriously. Joe [Zee] is a great friend of mine and he said this is an exciting time at Elle — he had just joined as creative director. I really loved Robbie, so I made the jump, and I went over to be the executive editor of Elle's website. From there, I moved on within Hachette, the publishing company of Elle at the time, to have oversight at the women's and shelter and entertainment group, so I got to lead several teams across different magazines.

It was a little overwhelming because there were some titles within that group that I wasn't so aligned with. I went from editing Elle.com to Women's Day and Premiere, so I had my hands on a lot of different kinds of content. I was younger; it was a little bit of a chaotic time at Hachette, but it was a great learning experience. It was thinking strategically about each of these different brands and how to grow their audiences and best work with their print to optimize the stories coming from there. 

How did you get the print editors on board with digital at that time?

There weren't as many competitors back then. At that time it was really Style.com; even Vogue.com wasn't much of a player in the digital space. We had set out to really create Elle.com as a true competitor to Style.com in terms of show coverage and then just broader coverage with fashion, and beauty and women's issues. But one of the things I'm most proud of is attracting the old school print editors to participate in the site and to have pride in what we were doing. That was getting Robbie, Anne [Slowey], and Joe working with our design director at the time to really feel a sense of ownership and inclusion in what we were doing digitally. I think Elle is a brand that has done some great things just to be more experimental; they were very early in the reality TV phenomenon. There was an experimentation that happened with Elle and digital was part of that where people were working to try things and think of the magazine as more of a brand and not just as a printed magazine.

I left to join Interview, or I should say Brant Publications, and I oversaw digital there. As I was joining, Twitter just launched, and I remember having a meeting where I said, "You know we're going to have to update this site hourly." I built the digital teams for Brant Publications, and that was an amazing experience, but those titles were a bit more academic; how do you translate the magazine Antiques into a digital experience, what is that reader, what is our audience, what are the goals for this site?

A screenshot of AD's Pro vertical. Photo: Courtesy

A screenshot of AD's Pro vertical. Photo: Courtesy

How did the DuJour opportunity come about?

I got a phone call from Jason Binn, who I had never met before, and he said, "What are you doing tonight?" He asked me to meet him at 11 P.M. at a restaurant in Tribeca, which I thought was insane; if you know Jason Binn, you know that that happens. He explained to me that he was launching a magazine that was a print/digital hybrid. I was really impressed with the business model and the distribution model. It was kind of a blank canvas; he said that we have the title DuJour, and everything else is a work in progress. There's things that we did at DuJour that I'm most proud of in my career, and that was just building a brand from the ground up and taking a risk that in the end paid off really well, because I learned so much and I made great relationships with people. There was just a fierce determination to make the magazine work and to make it as great as we could with all the obstacles in front of us.

I was at DuJour for a little under two years, and I got the phone call to come interview for editor-in-chief of Interview, which was an offer I could not refuse. Previously, I had been working only on the digital side of Interview, so it was a brand that I knew inside and out; to be able to work both on digital and print was extremely exciting to me.

How did you view your role as editor-in-chief of Interview?

Interview is such an established brand, and it has such a formula to what works there. I was not brought in there to reinvent the magazine. We were trying to broaden certain categories within the magazine, looking at who is an Interview subject and bringing in everyone from chefs, athletes, activists and politicians to interior designers and mathematicians. I was also working with our business side to make sure that we were creating a brand that was sellable and that was attractive to advertisers. 

Digitally, I'm really proud of what we did; it was a very lean, small staff but they did amazing work, and I think that they continue to just have such integrity in what they do. While everyone out there is chasing clips and maybe doing some things that are a bit compromising for the brand, at Interview, we were very committed to making sure that what we did was purposeful, smart and totally on brand. Digitally speaking, we would do exclusive interviews with people that are cover subjects for other magazines. We really held ourselves to a high standard. Even now, one of the last issues that came out was something that we had worked on while I was there for almost two years. We really were quite committed to executing things the way that we wanted to and making sure that everything was beautifully packaged, smart and representative of what we thought our brand deserved.

A lot of people might consider being editor-in-chief of a magazine to be a career pinnacle. What was it about Architectural Digest and moving back into digital that was so appealing to you?

Certainly being the editor of Interview was a highlight of my career, but hopefully the through line of my career is taking risks and seizing opportunities. Back in November when I started to talk to Amy about this opportunity, the ability to build something with the Architectural Digest website was just a tremendous opportunity for us to do something big, and that's what attracted me to it. One of the things that I'm really proud of here at AD is that we have managed in the very short time to engage the print staff and get them involved in what we're doing on the site. One of the challenges when I got here was attracting talent and getting designers and architects to feel like this was an environment where they would want to see their projects. Amy has done a really good job to create that bridge that gets people excited about the site.

I've spent the past four or five months really building our team; we just hired a new home editor, we have our video team in place. Now we are organizing the site into different verticals, so we're looking at what our platform is and what our strategy is. To expand into different areas like small space living is a huge part of our growth plan and continuing to show beautiful, elevated homes but that are maybe a little bit more accessible, adding a layer of service and approachability to what we do.

I've also got a features department, which will be focused on topical news; we're finding our social voice and making sure that we are a part of that global conversation about everything from the environment to Trump's infrastructure plan, to low-income housing. We'll be creating more accessible living solutions for people that maybe are designing homes on a budget but have great taste and look to Architectural Digest as an authority. 

Another huge area for us is what we're calling PRO, and that is to build a destination for people in the design trade industry and making sure we're the Women's Wear Daily of design and architecture, because I think that we hadn't been a resource for people in that world digitally. We're very committed right now to make sure that we are a destination for people in that world. Also, celebrity does tremendously well for us. Architectural Digest has had a long history of amazing access into people's home, and we want to be able to serve that up more frequently with digital exclusive material. 

A screenshot of AD's Celebrity Style vertical. Photo: Courtesy

A screenshot of AD's Celebrity Style vertical. Photo: Courtesy

How does social media and that influencer sphere factor into that plan?

It's funny because in some cases we're finding that these influencers or design celebrities resonate more with our audience than Hollywood celebrities. We are starting to engage with them, not just in terms of creating and helping us promote their own content but a look inside their homes. Amy is very involved in what we're doing digitally. She's been a tremendous support and boss, and what she's done with the magazine is create an environment where it's about storytelling and people and the way people live; it's not just about these ostentatious homes that are for rich people, but it's about the personalities of the people living in them. In some cases, we're shooting homes that are modest, but they have amazing people living in them and they have interesting stories behind them and they're living interesting lives, and they're designing their homes in a personalized way that inspires us.

What do you look for in the people that you hire?

There is a handful of people that I have brought to several jobs I've had because they are just solid. They're reliable, they're always looking outwards at what's going on in the world, they have fantastic ideas and enthusiasm. I'm always looking for people that are plugged in to what's happening because there's so much happening right now that we need people who are knowledgeable about what's happening in this space and fearless, and competitive and clever. One of the biggest things I say in our editorial meetings is to think clever: clever packaging, clever solutions, what sets us apart. 

How important have mentorships been to your career?

I feel like I've been so fortunate to work for wonderful, supportive, generous people, everyone from Fabian, and Joe, and Robbie, and certainly Amy. There's a trust, aligning yourself with mentors and people that can help lift you up and guide you a bit. I believe also, especially in our line of work, that you will work with these people again. Especially walking around this building when my career started here at Condé Nast, I feel like I grew up with so many people. You never know where you're going to work with them again, so obviously it's about treating everyone with respect and building these relationships that will potentially last your entire career.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

Early on, I had my first job at PR Consulting. I was the assistant to a woman who was really amazing at her job, and I would sit in front of her, hearing her on the phone every day; she was just incredibly talented at working with editors and pitching stories and working with clients. I remember feeling kind of resentful that I was there, and I felt like that wasn't what I was meant to be doing. One day I said to her, "Oh, so you went to college for PR?" And she was like, "No, there's no such thing. I studied French literature but I love this job because it allows me to go to Paris and work with our clients and speak French." There's such a great learning experience there because I had been operating under the assumption that everyone is doing the job that they think they are meant to do. I realized this is what I'm doing at this moment; I have to do it as best as I possibly can, even if it's not what I think I'm meant to be doing, because that will lead you somewhere else into something else.

Although it's great to have a path, you never know where you're going to wind up. You can be very prescriptive about what you think your career is, but really, when those opportunities arise, you just have to be willing to take the risk and try it. I feel like that's the most success I've had in my career, just taking the risk and doing those things that make you really scared. In fact, I always say to friends, "You should never take a job that doesn't terrify you." If you're just going to make a lateral move, then you're not growing professionally. 

What is your ultimate goal?

I want to continue to feel inspired every day and to not be scared by change. We have a lot of goals in terms of the scale of the site and the engagement, all that, but really our goal is to reposition what Architectural Digest is digitally to attract an entirely different audience and to not be too beholden to some of the previous notions of what Architectural Digest is. I would feel tremendously successful if in a few years we look back and we have reimagined what Architectural Digest is to our audience and to our advertisers and to really build on what is a strong brand.

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