In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
"I grew up as a magazine devotee," Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, tells Fashionista. "I loved Seventeen, Glamour, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Even before that, I read Ranger Rick and Cricket. I just grew up really enjoying the medium."
Sitting down for a comfy chat in her plush and welcoming office, high up in Hearst Tower in Midtown Manhattan, we're surrounded by imaginative mood boards for the next month's covers and an expansive wall of neatly organized bookshelves dotted with photos of Lewis with various luminaries. She admitted, however, that the stately wood-paneled filing cabinets lining the bottom rows now conceal a multitude of shoe options, instead of paper files — because, hey, it's a digital world, and Lewis is constantly multitasking a slew of evolving responsibilities, which require a quick change of footwear.
But back to how Lewis turned her childhood love of magazines into a legit first job after completing her undergraduate degree in European Studies at Amherst College. Her senior year, she was so moved by a Vogue essay that she wrote an impassioned Letter to the Editor, which essentially became her first published body of work — similar to a blog post or a compelling Twitter feed for aspiring editors these days. "Of course, I still have [the letter] if you need to see it," says Lewis.
The effort came in especially handy when Lewis secured her for real job interview at the other storied legacy publishing house, Condé Nast. Spoiler: She landed the gig, which eventually led to an assistant role at Vanity Fair, with a brief stint in book publishing in between. Energized by the team environment, she began her path to Managing Editor in magazine publishing, first at the now-shuttered Mademoiselle and then Self, during the digital transitional years.
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Lewis rode that wave to apply her editorial strategy and team management skills toward "pure-play" digital at Say Media in 2013. She quickly returned to the legacy publishing world the next year, but this time, into a whole new social media, video and evolving content-filled media landscape. Since joining Hearst Magazines Digital Media in 2014 as Vice President, Content Operations & Editorial Director, Lewis quickly ascended to her current role in August 2018 under Hearst Magazines President Troy Young.
Now, she directs content strategy for print, digital and beyond for over 25 titles, including Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Elle, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan to reach more than 160 million readers across the board. She's also tripled monthly uniques across the Hearst Magazines Digital Media properties, including Cosmopolitan.com and Delish. Lewis helped usher Hearst brands, including Esquire and Seventeen, onto the Snapchat Discovery platform, while also overseeing the creation of Hearst's 26,000-square-foot multimedia studio, which speaks to both consumers and advertisers in an industry grappling with declining subscriber rates and shrinking ad pages.
Of course, her job requires Lewis to be on the pulse of new technologies and platforms within a media landscape constantly in consolidation and flux. "I had a crisis about it the other day," she laughs. "I signed up for TikTok a few months ago before my kids left for the summer and I totally was like, 'This is a rabbit hole.'"
But Lewis did take time out of her busy schedule — and social media experimentation — to sit down with Fashionista in her calm oasis up in Hearst HQ, to share how dressing for the job she wanted helped her win two interviews at prestigious media outlets, who helped her along the way and what skills we all need to navigate this unpredictable, disrupted media world.
What did you write about in your letter to the editor at Vogue?
Marina Rust had written an article about her parents' divorce and how terrible it was. My parents are also divorced and I wrote a letter saying that I rejected her point of view on it and that divorce had saved my family. It was a little controversial, so I'm sure that's why they liked it.
Did you talk about it in your first interview with Condé Nast?
Oh 100%, yes. Yes. If I were giving advice to young people, I would say one important thing to do is engage and interact with the media you're interested in. Without a doubt. It was meaningful in my interview that I was like, 'I'm published!' I was like, 'I have been in the pages of Vogue. This is how devoted I am. This upfront column that's a personal essay, I responded to.' That was a useful tool.
You've recounted this story in past interviews: Your senior year of college, you walked into a job fair and saw a sea of black suits. You immediately went and bought a red suit, which you credit for helping you land two interviews: one with Condé Nast and the other ABC. So I have to ask: what did the suit look like and where did you find it?
I really wish I still had it. It was '94, so it had the power suit vibe to it. I was at Madison Square Garden [for the fair], so Lord & Taylor was close by. Also I thought, 'Professionals shop here, so that is where I will go because I am now going to be professional.' It was a linen-y fabric, but it was very shaped. It was quite precise in its detail and it was a below-the-knee skirt suit.
Looking back now, black suits are traditionally 'masculine,' while red could be considered a more 'feminine' color. How do you think affected how you were perceived or helped you stand out?
I do think that's true. It was a New York City job fair for undergraduates, so there were a number of people there who were [looking for jobs in] much more corporate staid businesses than Condé Nast or even ABC. But also, when you're 21 and you're going into the job market, you don't know what self expression even feels like yet. I was like, 'I need to look professional and that's a black suit.' I've never thought about that before: defined by masculinity. Now I think if you went to a job fair for 21 year olds you'd find women in floral dresses and high heels or women in pantsuits. You'd find men in fuchsia. Who knows? But at that moment it was really like, 'just look grown up.' It was fortuitous that worked out. Thanks mom for letting me use the emergency credit card.
After you were hired, what did you learn in that six-month program at Condé Nast?
Condé Nast used to have the Rover Program; you basically filled in for assistants when they went on holiday. One week, I was assisting the Managing Editor of GQ, then the next week, I was in the Condé Nast archives, where they kept their photography.
When I went into the job force, I knew that I wanted to be in magazines, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I thought, 'people here are editors or art directors,' but I didn't understand what that was. I never knew there were people who did public relations, so the extraordinary thing about this experience is you get to understand the breadth of the magazine. Seeing all those departments, what I realized was that I wanted to work with all of them. I just wanted to be in the center of this team, which is really what a Managing Editor does, so it was helpful in that regard.
After the program ended, you went into book publishing, but then returned to Condé in an assistant role. What was that transition like and why did you return to magazines?
When I went to book publishing, I didn't last very long. My boss worked at Random House, which was owned by Advance, a Condé Nast sister company at the time, so I still had a little bit of both. But I was not cut out for book publishing, because it is less of a team sport. The editor gets the manuscript, they edit it and they are back and forth with the writer, but each writer is an individual exchange. There's not an art team or that sense of 'we're a team building it,' so I was lonely. I think some people really love that kind of work; one of my best friends is a book publisher and I have a bunch of agent friends and they really like the intimacy of creating something alone with a person or sitting and noodling through it. But, for me, I was like, ‘'where are the people?!' So when I had the chance to go back to Condé Nast, it was a no-brainer.
Did you start on the path you wanted right away?
Nope. This is my solid career advice for those starting out: Take anything that you can get. I got a job at Vanity Fair, which was an extraordinary piece of luck, in the art department. Also, it furthered that whole thing of seeing how a team comes together because the art department is where the text, pictures and production all happen. That was an extraordinary experience and I was at Vanity Fair for five years. I had a tremendous experience with Graydon [Carter, Editor-in-Chief from 1992 to 2017]. I was promoted a couple of times; I had more opportunity to be at the hub of the team, so it really solidified my desire to do that.
Did you have a mentor along the way?
I totally did: Chris Garrett. She is now working with Graydon at "Airmail," his new start-up newsletter [as Deputy Editor]. She was the Managing Editor at Vanity Fair for his whole tenure. She's an extraordinarily decisive person, which was really great to watch. She is compassionate, but not at all saccharine. There was a lot to learn from how she managed people and how she made decisions and she was a total inspiration.
What experience during your time in print publishing helped you make that pivot to digital?
During the end of my time at Condé Nast, I [was a Managing Editor at] Self, which was one of the first digital pioneers for Condé Nast. We created the Self Challenge, which was a three-month fitness program. We ran it in print issues, but we wanted to have more daily connectivity with people: 'This is your menu' or 'this is your workout for the day.' Not a lot of content moves nimbly from print to digital, but that really did. You could log your workout and we really built some things that were quite technically progressive for the time, so I had had a lot of exposure to that — plus we had newsletter strategies. There was a lot that we were playing with there.
But my real education in digital happened when I left Condé Nast and went to Say Media [from January to December 2013]. I was hired to be the Editorial Director of a group of digital properties and I had a lot of confidence in my ability to help them navigate content. But the digital piece of it was new to me, so it was symbiotic in a way because they had never had someone in that role of: 'What is editorial excellence and performance?' And I had never been in a place that was pure-play digital. So I learned so much at Say from people who had never worked anywhere but digital.
What did you find to be the most challenging during the pivot?
I had to learn how to move faster. My judgement was good. I quickly adapted to understanding digital content, but I was used to a more meticulous and crafted process. But digital is not always meticulous and crafted. Sometimes it makes sense to be, but not always. It wasn't even a piece of learning. That was a behavior change in myself.
I began to understand social marketing of content, which is something I had not really dug into before, and search strategy. I began to understand even the notion, every day on the Internet, we all start with no audience — that whole notion really of having to market your content and not having a built-in audience. Those were skills I began to learn there. We're all learning them every day.
That's the other thing: The definition of content is constantly growing and so vast. It used to be words, pictures, but now you have social media, consumer events and conferences ...
How do you manage the pressure of keeping up with it all?
Part of it is, there's an extraordinary team here. I actually just had lunch today with six of our Editors-in-Chief and I almost just sat back and listened to them. Because they — and their teams — are so living in the moment of every kind of content experience we do here, from print to video to the web to social. They force each other and encourage each other to continue to be experimental. So frankly, how I keep up is from the boots on the ground team here. It's really important for me to connect with people of all levels of the editorial organization because everyone has a different cluster of knowledge, depending on what their role is and what they're doing all day.
You've made it a priority to integrate print and digital at Hearst properties, which can sometimes involve resistance from both parties, especially in the beginning. What is your approach to the process and making people feel comfortable with that crossover?
Since I came into this job this past year, I have found that with the desire to create together, the resistance is gone. Digital people are curious and want to understand print. Print people are curious and want to understand and participate in digital. So I have not actually struggled with resistance. But there's a really different skill set in both sides — which is actually quite complementary — so that has been the challenge. I only say 'the challenge' not because the disposition wasn't there, but because the skill sets were different in the past years. We've had a lot of really great success with getting people to figure out how they can contribute to platforms they're unfamiliar with and to get in the habit of it. But, you know, it takes awhile.
Women's Health is one of the brands that was the most interesting to me because we integrated, but they remained, 'OK, we're integrated. We sit near each other, but digital does digital and we do print.' One day the Editor-in-Chief Liz Plosser had a 'eureka!' moment and she was like, 'We're gonna change how we do everything.' I just love watching that team now because they all feel real ownership of the brand on every platform. No one is [only] print or digital. Then you look at some of our other brands, where it's been a slow steady, every day they're more integrated.
At one point we thought to do a road map. But I was like, 'The greatest asset we have are the human beings that work here and I cannot tell them not to be themselves. They have to figure out how to be themselves.' I tell them where they need to get to and I can facilitate the path and sometimes push on the path, sometimes push harder or less hard. But the reality is that what will work for one team won't work for another.
What type of advice would you give someone starting out in the industry about the skills and experiences they need in order to be nimble and navigate the unpredictable landscape?
Having a real passion for this is incredibly important. You're going to work hard and you're gonna falter — and find success — and you've gotta really want this.
Tess Koman, who works at our food brand 'delish,' started out at Cosmo, where she was a star writer. She's just so funny. One of the things I liked about Tess was she wasn't a chef. But now she stars in videos where she goes on tours of amusement parks, usually Disney, and she eats all the food there. She went to Dollywood. That is not where she saw her career going at all. She's a brilliant writer. But also it turns out that she's funny, wry and delightful on film. What we saw in Tess is that this is a person who has a voice and she loves using it and that's the skill she brought. So it was like, 'How do we help her? How do we get that out there in the world?' Have a passion and know that you are invested in this kind of media and then be extraordinarily adaptable.
Some people we talk to come in and they want to work at what they think a print magazine is. They've seen 'The September Issue' or one of the myriads of movies that feature magazines as if they're extraordinarily glamorous. And they are. There's the opportunity to touch glamour here every day, but it's also a job. We're also in a disrupted time and that means you cannot come in and expect this is what your job will be.
When I started at Vanity Fair, it was like the golden age of magazines. I worked on the first Hollywood Issue cover. The O.J. trial happened while I was there and Dominick Dunne was writing about it. The people who worked there were extraordinarily smart and connected and talented. It was the golden age and I wouldn't trade that for anything. The moment we're in now, to me, is almost more interesting because we are inventing it. So you have to come into this career with an open mind about how we build the future.
For people like me, who have been in media for five to 10 years, what should we be doing not just to stay relevant, but also plan ahead for our careers in this disrupted industry?
Diversifying your skill set is really important. So playing with other types of media feels more relevant now than ever. But also those things are just in an attitude. Many of the people that appear in videos for us or even are producing them aren't actually trained in school. It's almost a little bit like your first job and say, 'yes.'
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.