- Joanna Coles is the chief content officer at Hearst — the first person to hold that position at the company. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire magazines. Coles is also a Snap board member.
- As a reporter for The Guardian and The Times of London, Coles earned a reputation as a dogged and ambitious reporter.
- She is now the executive producer of Freeform’s “The Bold Type,” a show that was loosely based off 25 years’ worth of her experiences in the business.
Joanna Coles is a force in business and in publishing. The former Editor-in-Chief of Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan is now Hearst’s first-ever Chief Content Officer. She is also on the board of Snap, and she is Executive Producer of a hit new show on Freeform, “The Bold Type,” which is loosely based on her experiences in the magazine industry.
But before she was all of those things, Coles was an ambitious young reporter for The Guardian in England, where she let nothing stop her from getting a big interview. Even a bathroom stall door.
“I thought ‘Christ, I’ve got a scoop, I’m going to get the first interview but what shall I ask her? And where is she?’ And obviously she was in a bathroom stall,” Coles recalled of landing her first big scoop on Business Insider’s “Success! How I Did It” podcast.
“But then I suddenly thought: ‘What if she gets away?’ So I kicked open the door as if I was Starsky and Hutch. Poor girl was mid-pee, looked up kind of bleary-eyed at me … and that taught me my own level of ambition and also that there’s a point in which you’ve gone too far, and that was the point, I think — bursting in on people during mid-pee.”
On this episode, Coles tells us how she had to throw someone out of a cab to get a job, the power of a good network, and her negotiation strategy.
You can listen to the full interview with her on “Success! How I Did It,” here:
- Former CIA Director John Brennan
- Group Nine Media CEO Ben Lerer
- PayPal CEO Dan Shulman
- And a “Master Class” episode of advice from our guests
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
If you want to understand Joanna Coles, we have to talk about that one moment during her time at The Guardian. Here’s the scene. Coles is covering a court case. A young woman was jailed for refusing to give evidence against a boyfriend whom she feared. The judge was a tough guy, and the decision was hugely controversial. So in comes Coles.
Joanna Coles: I covered the appeal at the high court when she was released, and everybody wanted to interview her, but it turned out, because this was 25 years ago, that I was the only woman actually covering the case. Everybody else was male. And she left the high court at top speed in a cab and rushed off to King’s Cross station to get a train up north because she, too, was from Yorkshire — and actually the judge was from Yorkshire, too, Judge Pickles he was called — and of course on getting to the station, what would she naturally do, like every other person, she went to the bathroom, and all I can remember is jumping over the turnstile because you had to put sixpence in, I think, to go through the turnstile into the bathroom, and of course none of the men could follow. So then I thought: “Christ, I’ve got a scoop. I’m going to get the first interview, but what shall I ask her? And where is she?” And obviously she was in a bathroom stall. But then I suddenly thought: “What if she gets away? What if she gets away?” So I kicked open the door as if I was Starsky and Hutch. Poor girl was mid-pee, looked up kind of bleary-eyed at me, and then I thought, “What on earth do I ask her?” And I think I asked one question and then I sort of backed out and waited for her. Got a minor interview because she wasn’t a very interesting girl and then got the story and that sort of taught me my own level of ambition and also that there’s a point in which you’ve gone too far, and that was the point, I think — bursting in on people during mid-pee…
Shontell: Well you’re a dogged reporter, which is great and–
Coles: I was a dogged reporter.
Shontell: So lots to unpack about your career. It’s been an awesome, wild ride from what I can tell. But let’s go back to the beginning.
Coles: Well I hope it’s not yet over.
Shontell: No, it doesn’t seem to be, it seems like every year you’re just getting stronger and stronger. So let’s go all the way back because it helps people get to know you a little bit, helps me get to know you, too. You grew up in the UK, always interested in media, it seems like, and had a magazine that you started ambitiously from a young age, around 10.
Coles: I did. I grew up in Yorkshire, which is like the Texas of Britain. It’s a proud free state and not always liked by the other counties in Britain. Actually I’ve always thought if you go back into your childhood, you find clues that lay the track for what you’re going to end up doing. And I had two real passions as a child. One was I loved doing magazines and newspapers, which I would distribute to great yawns and eye rolls to neighbours and to friends of my parents who would dutifully stuff them in their pack and I’m sure never read them again.
But I loved the process of doing it. I liked the cutting out of the pictures from other magazines and newspapers. I liked writing the stories, I liked putting it together, I liked the mix, and I loved the idea of having an audience for it, and I actually sent one to the Queen when I was I think probably 11. A friend of mine and I, we were joint editors, and we sent it to Buckingham Palace, and about two months later we got this terribly formal letter back saying the Queen’s lady in waiting had actually been commanded by the Queen to tell us how much she enjoyed reading it and was looking forward to another issue, which was incredibly exciting, and I therefore felt the responsibility to keep on producing, which I did, and I also loved making dolls’ clothes. I had a series of dolls and trolls, strange Norwegian toys with lots of hair, and I loved making outfits for them, and when I went to edit Marie Claire, people would say to me, “How extraordinary that you’re at a fashion magazine — I can’t believe you’re interested in fashion,” and actually I thought, “Oh, I’ve always been interested, I’ve always wanted to make clothes, I’ve always loved the process of it.” It’s just I went into journalism because that was my first passion.
Shontell: And you wound up running the bureau for The Guardian when you came over to the US, is that right?
Coles: Yes, I was posted to New York for The Guardian. I did that for a year, and then I moved to The Times of London, from New York.
Transitioning from newspapers to magazines
Shontell: But what you’re really known for now is, you ran Cosmopolitan, which is a great Hearst magazine I grew up reading. You ran Marie Claire. All these publications that are much different in nature than The Guardian or The Times of London. So how did you make that transition in your career? And was it jarring to make such a big change?
Coles: It was quite jarring to go from newspapers to magazines, and the reason I did it was because I had my second son, and with my second child I just thought I can’t travel at will, which you really need to be able to do. And so I had a sort of slow realisation that I could no longer do the job that I loved. It wasn’t the job’s fault — it wasn’t the newspaper’s fault. I was just at a life stage that didn’t make sense. And I urge women in particular to think about the life stage you’re at when you’re trying to match it against a job because otherwise you can drive yourself crazy, and I think it’s important to be realistic about what you can and can’t do at any one time. Doesn’t mean you can’t go back to it at a later stage, and at some point I would love to set off across the country again with a notebook and a pen and that’s all. But I’m not quite there yet, and also I’m rather seduced by the glorious office I have at Hearst Tower.
So I moved into magazines because I thought I would have more control over my schedule. I wanted a desk job, I didn’t want to be travelling all the time, and I’m not someone who found it easy to travel with young children, and I wanted to see them. And it was very difficult. The transition of a desk job, having to be in the office at the same time every day, I found super hard. But I did it for three years, and that led to me taking over at Marie Claire, which was a really exciting experience. And then I had the opportunity to make my own schedule a bit more, which was, again, something I always try and tell women who are anxious about taking on more responsibility when they have children that, if you can create your own schedule, if you are in control of your schedule, that’s one of the most important things that helps with children, I think. So I think that flexibility is very helpful, so I always urge women to aim for the highest job they can get because you get more money and you get more support and you get more control, and those are the three things that actually make life easier.
Shontell: And so how did you get to the top of Marie Claire? That was the first time you were really running a publication.
Coles: Well by that point I had 20 years’ journalism experience. Marie Claire is a magazine that prides itself on great journalism, and they do wonderful reporting on women across the world. I loved fashion, and I covered the fashion shows for The Times and it was a mix of all the things that I loved, was passionate about, and they needed a new editor, so they called me up and I got the job.
Shontell: I mean it sounds so easy when you put it like that. It’s certainly not.
Coles: Well it wasn’t — there’s a small story around the actual interview for the job. Cathie Black, who was then running Hearst Magazines, had called me up and through a boring sort of miscommunication, I turned up for the interview at Hearst and Cathie, I was then told, was about to set off for the airport to go on a trip to Paris, so I had missed the opportunity. And actually, this was a disaster for me because I just had a blowout and bought myself a new suit, I’d had a manicure, and I was not going to let these things go to waste. So I said, “Would she mind if I rode over to the airport in her car with her? We could do the interview there?” And they called her up, and she said, “Well I’m just about to leave my house, but if Joanna can get to my house before the car leaves, absolutely she can ride in the car,” which I thought was very flexible of her. So I roared out of the then-Hearst office. I stopped a cab on Sixth Avenue, I pulled the poor, unsuspecting passenger out, sort of threw him to the curb, leapt in. The driver didn’t know what was going on. We hurtled up Park Avenue, and I saw, to my great dismay, Cathie’s black town car smoothly pull out from the curb, and we drag raced up Park Avenue until her driver saw me frantically signalling and she realised what was going on, she pulled over, and by the time I got to the airport, I knew I had the job.
Shontell: You definitely showed you want the job, I think.
Coles: I did.
Shontell: Definitely. So running a magazine in the 2000s it’s got its own celebrity to it. It still does. I mean, you have household names of Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter, so many great names, and you. What was it like running one of the premier publications during this time? Is it all glitz and glamour? Is it all black cars everywhere? What’s it really like?
Coles: No, it’s really nothing like that, although the public image of it is great fun, and there’s an element of it like that. I mean, life from the front row, it’s a good life. I’m not going to lie. I was at Michael Kors yesterday, I had Sara Bareilles performing 6 feet from where I was sitting, and I thought, “Life is good,” and it was sunny and bright and Michael’s fashion was fantastic. But really, you’re concerned about the sheer work of getting a magazine out the door. The stories, the fact checking, the ideas. Is the mix right? Does it look good? What are you trying to convey in a world where everybody is inundated with content — a lot of it’s not very good, but it’s very immediate. And also we know that millennial women in particular and Gen-Z women who would be Cosmo’s biggest readership spend a huge amount of time on their phone, so reminding people of the value of print, that when you read something in print you actually absorb it in a different way. The sheer process of holding the paper and reading it actually uses a different part of your brain, you take in information differently. And the joy of actually being able to put your phone down and retreat a little bit from it. The joy of reading something in the bath without worrying if it drops in the bath, you’ve lost it forever. I do think that, increasingly, we’re beginning to understand the overload from devices and the value of putting it away and actually engaging with something which requires a different amount of your attention.
Shontell: So going and running one of these publications, like I said, it’s incredibly different than a newspaper. But also just the subject matter: You’re running a fashion publication and then eventually Cosmopolitan, which is known for empowering women but also a lot of sex. Incredibly different.
Coles: Such fun, right.
Shontell: Could not be more different than The Guardian. Were you worried at all about taking this career that you had built up as a dogged journalist and transitioning that in such a complete 180?
Coles: What I realised, and actually what’s much more challenging about magazines is, with magazines you’re actually trying to predict the future. You’re trying to think about six months, nine months, three months in advance, all at the same time. So you’re trying to predict what people are going to talk about, you’re trying to think about what will people be watching on television. What will they be wearing? What will they be thinking about? You’re really a futurologist. Whereas on a newspaper or on a daily website, what you’re doing is clearing up the mess of that day. I now actually have to exercise a different part of my brain instead of slavishly following the news agenda, which really does have its own momentum. And then there are just the basic journalistic skills. Is this interesting? How can I present it in the most interesting way? Do we have a scoop? Can we get it before everybody else? How good will this be? Is this as good as it can be? All those things you apply on a newspaper, as well as a magazine and those are basic journalistic skills. And then I have enormous curiosity. If there was one characteristic that you could apply to me, it would be that I’m always asking questions. And so there’s a lot of that skill set wrapped up in making a magazine too.
Taking the Cosmo reins
Shontell: So you took over for Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan.
Coles: She actually became the editor of the international Cosmos, of which there were, at that point, 61 international editions. It’s in 120 countries around the world. And then there was an editor called Bonnie Fuller for a year and then an editor called Kate White who edited it for 14 years. Helen Gurley Brown died, actually, the weekend I agreed to take the job, which was an extraordinary coincidence. She was the great editor of the 20th century, an extraordinary woman who really created the template for the modern magazine. Everybody owes her a great debt.
Shontell: All these powerful women. How do you step into that position confidently and run it with her legacy in mind and then making it your brand?
Coles: Well I read as much as I could about Helen. I went back and I read her magazines, and what she did in 1965 was take a tired, old literary magazine called Cosmopolitan and really project onto what was going on right then, which was this surge in women’s freedom and the advent of the pill, which really changed everything for women. The freedom to sleep with someone without being scared of getting pregnant was huge, and it really changed the way that people felt about sex and young women felt about sex. It didn’t mean everything was easy — not at all. And Helen tapped into that brilliantly. She fully understood it. So 50 years on, when I was taking over, I was trying to figure out: “Well what’s going on in the culture now that is empowering? What’s different for women?” My taking over Cosmo coincided with the publication of “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and her brilliant realisation that there weren’t any women leaders and that we were educating women at the same rate as were educating men but they weren’t bubbling up to run companies, they weren’t bubbling up in government, and this was odd. And so that gave us the opportunity to double down at Cosmo on women’s ambition, young women’s ambition: Where was it going to get them? How could they use it to get what they wanted? How could they argue for equal pay? And how could they fight for equal opportunity to the guy in the cube next to them?
Shontell: I grew up reading Cosmo, and I remember one time my dad walked into my bedroom and looked at Cosmo and he was like, “Is there a single article in this magazine that’s not about sex?” And I was like, mortified teenager, but I was like, “Actually, now that you mention it, I’m looking at the cover, there’s not a single one.”
Coles: Well we also wrote about sex, too, because that’s important, but a lot of information about sex is now available online, although not all of it’s good, and Cosmo is a brilliant, brilliant home for very straightforward, embarrassing questions and answers about sex. But I also wanted to expound its remit, and when I was at Marie Claire, I used to say, “Listen, women are interested in mascara and the Middle East,” and this idea that women’s media should only be about fashion and beauty and relationships felt old-fashioned to me.
Inspiring ‘The Bold Type’
Shontell: So I’ve started watching your show. You’re an executive producer of a show called “The Bold Type” on Freeform, and it’s been said that some of it parallels your experiences. I was wondering how much of it is inspired by your experiences? One of the characters is very passionate about politics within this sex magazine and this beauty magazine, and the editor-in-chief in that show is showing, you know, actually women care about much more.
Coles: I have literally 25 years of anecdotes. There’s a wonderful episode where Jane is one of the young ambitious writers and she gets sued, and when a lawyer opens her notebook it’s got wine stains all over it. That very story happened to a friend of mine who was sued and, when the lawyer went to look at her notes, it was full of doodles and coffee stains. Actually we changed it to wine stains, but that was very much based on a real story. In the second episode, someone gets one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Yoni stones stuck in an unfortunate place, and that was also based on someone in the office.
Shontell: That was real?
Coles: Well it was based on someone who got a sponge stuck and couldn’t get it out, and she was trying a sponge for a story and came in mortified the next morning and various people disappeared into a bathroom stall to help her and, well, it emerges as an anecdote in the show. A lot of it came out of the real-life experience, but the real reason I wanted to do the show was I felt that on television and in popular culture there are almost no representations of positive female bosses. We are inundated with heroic men from doctors to firefighters to policemen. But actually a lot of the women seem to have emotional difficulties carrying out their work. And my experience of the workplace was that I had had lots of extremely good female bosses. I didn’t think of them as mentors — I thought of them as people who wanted something from me and I wanted to give it to them. I thought of them as colleagues, and I wanted that represented on television. And I loved the three girls in “The Bold Type” who are sort of starting out together and there’s envy between them because one gets promoted at a different time to the other, which is exactly what happens in real life. And as a friend, if your best friend gets promoted, you have to deal with that, and it’s hard and it’s scary and you and your friend have to come to a new negotiation of that friendship, and those are the relationships you see play out in the show. But what I was trying to do was bring the really strong women I have met in the workplace to life.
Key leadership skills
Shontell: And so one thing that you’ve done incredibly skillfully is build your brand personally along with the magazine’s brand. You’re very charismatic, people really like you, you have a huge Rolodex, an incredible network, you seem you know everybody.
Coles: Do I? God, how thrilling. I love the way you talk about me. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re me, but I’m thrilled that this is the impression I’m giving.
Shontell: It’s great — definitely the impression that you’re giving and I think true from everything I’ve seen. What are your tips for building a network like that of power players that you could surround yourself with, and how does that help you in your career?
Coles: The best tip for life is: Do not be an arsehole. People know when you’re being an arsehole, and you know it, too. And if you are one, people will avoid you, and they will do their best to bring you down, and I’ve seen that play out across the workplace, actually, so you kind of know that’s true. And I think the thing that I always try and say to young people starting out is your peer group is really the most important influence on your life because you are going to rise and fall together. And I have always got jobs through the loose ties of friendships and someone knowing someone who might know a job. And, you know, a group of you will start out together, and they sort of pull you with them. And in fact, we now know there’s lots of evidence that when you’re hiring someone you often hire one person, and then if they like it, they bring, over the course of perhaps the next year, five or six people with them because they’re the person reaching back into the orphanage, as it were, and pulling other people over the wall. So I would say, really pay attention to your peer group. Who’s good? What are they doing? Who are the people that are getting ahead of you? Why are they doing it? What are they doing that you’re not doing? And you know, it’s pretty straightforward: Don’t be an arsehole.
Shontell: Good advice. And one thing that you’ve done extremely well also in your career is you’ve kept up with change and embraced it. I think it can be tempting when you’ve been in an industry for so long to shy away from change. You could see it a lot in journalism right now — the whole business model is being disrupted. So how have you kind of embraced change and how are you navigating the tumultuous media environment right now?
Coles: Well, it’s a great expression. The tumultuous media environment is chaotic, and the good news is nobody knows anything, so that really is helpful. I think a lot of it’s about meeting people, talking to people, listening to people, and making sure that you’re creating partnerships with people that you think are on to something. The hardest thing in the world is to have a relationship with another human being. They don’t behave as you want them to behave, they’re unpredictable, they can be difficult. But they can also be really fun, and together you can usually create something bigger than the two of you. I’m much more interested in actually talking to people and leading conversations and being with people who are much smarter than I am, be they older or younger, and so I would urge young people in the media to spend a lot of time talking as opposed to tweeting or texting or emailing or gramming people, because that’s where the energy is and that’s where you get new ideas.
Shontell: So you are on Snap’s board. I remember during Snap’s quiet period there was a bit of a PR snafu, where some people thought that you were paid less than all the other board members. You were the only woman on the board.
Coles: I was totally depressed at the idea that someone would think that I would not be able to negotiate for myself. I’m happy to report I am paid the same as the men.
Shontell: What was that like, though, reading that? Like, why do you think everybody believed that? I mean there is definitely a pay gap.
Coles: Well there’s a narrative, right? There’s a narrative in Silicon Valley that women are badly treated, and it’s absolutely true that a lot of the bro companies in the Valley — and Snap is actually in LA — don’t have, I think, equal opportunities for women and clearly there is a shortage of women in leadership positions. I mean, going back to “Lean In,” there’s no question that that’s true, and again, because so many people now work online, I think we have lost the skill set sometimes to be able to talk about these things.
Shontell: You said you were you were a little bit upset that people would think that you couldn’t negotiate for yourself.
Coles: Well I’m only laughing because anybody who has negotiated with me knows I can be a nightmare.
Shontell: So give us some tips. It’s not something that everyone is comfortable with.
Coles: Well, listen, the best tip in any negotiation is silence.
Shontell: You just say nothing?
Coles: In any kind of negotiation, silence is often your best friend because you don’t want to give too much away, and the truth is, actually, I normally hire someone to negotiate for me. It’s just easier, and I don’t always feel comfortable telling somebody quite what I want. But I’m always amazed when I’m negotiating with people from the other side of the desk, how people will rattle on and not stop talking. People talk a lot when they’re nervous.
Looking toward the future
Shontell: You’ve had an awesome rise, all the way up to now as CCO of Hearst. What’s your mission now as the first chief content officer for Hearst? Where do you want to take the publications in this tumultuous environment that we talked about? What’s your role now?
Coles: Well I think I want to make the printiest of print magazines. I think that there was a moment when print felt under attack from the online world and was trying to make itself more like the online world, and we don’t need to do that. We predict the future, we think about things differently, and we have a bit more time to sink into our subject, to develop longform, really thoughtful pieces, which is much harder to do online when largely you’re reacting to what’s going on in the world. The great thing about magazines is they have these double-page spreads of beautiful artwork. You can show photographs in ways that you can’t online. Photographers love being in print — celebrities want to be in print. There is something tangible about a magazine which people like. You’re a member of a tribe when you have a magazine on your coffee table. You know, if you have Harvard Business Review or The Economist on your desk, you’re saying something about yourself and your ambition which is different than if you have a copy of Architectural Digest, say.
Shontell: So you don’t think that print is going to die?
Coles: Oh God no. I think print is going to get printier, I think it’s going to get richer, and I think people are going to appreciate it more. I mean books didn’t die. Everybody said, “Oh my god, everything’s going to go to e-books.” And there is nothing better than getting on a flight with an iPad stuffed full of books to read and only one small piece of digital equipment to read it on. I mean, heaven not getting on with seven books, which is how I used to travel. Now I don’t need to. But there is something about the luscious, tactile quality of a magazine which is a real luxury I think. Every week I get calls from people, either celebrities or brands or tech companies, saying, “Can you help us make a magazine?”
Shontell: And you think that Gen-Z will still be embracing magazines?
Coles: I think Gen-Z love magazines. I mean my son at one point bought a safe to keep his car magazines so his brother wouldn’t get his hands on them. I think that Gen-Z like artifacts, and I think they like the fact that holding a magazine says something about them. And people like that identifier.
Shontell: Now you’re not at the end of your career by any means, but you are at the top.
Coles: I hope not.
Shontell: No, you are certainly in a position of power at the top.
Coles: You say that, but it doesn’t feel like that because you feel like there’s so much more to do. Why haven’t I done this? Oh god, why did I make all those mistakes?
Shontell: How would you best advise someone who wants to have as ambitious a career as you’ve had?
Coles: Well I think you have to like doing it on a daily basis. There’s no point in doing it if you don’t enjoy it and you’re not doing it for anything other than the fun of doing it. And so I love getting information. I love predicting what I think people will be interested in. I love getting research from readers telling me what they enjoyed about the previous issues and what they would like more of. And I like the puzzle of putting that together, and you have to like it on a daily basis. And if you’re in media, you have to want to find information and you have to have the cojones to know that people may be lying to you and that you’re trying to actually get the information that is interesting and to get behind the spin. And you have to want to do it. And I think if you like it and you want to do it, it creates its own momentum and people help you along the way, and one good story usually leads to another good story, and what I’ve always found is that each issue of the magazine would lead to other people reaching out and saying, “Oh my goodness, have you thought about this?” or “I’ve got this” or “What about this?” And good ideas lead to other good ideas.
Shontell: Well thank you so much for the time, Joanna, it’s been a pleasure.
Coles: My pleasure. Thank you.
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