Like the robe dress I wore to the job interview, my resumé lacked any real structure. Studying it, the head of HR struggled to find connections – from beauty and fashion editor, to editor in chief at a website… to manager at a mobile carrier? I might as well have had an L shape (for lost) on my forehead.
But like Eva Chen at Instagram, Joe Zee at Yahoo, and other magazine editors before me, two years ago I waved au revoir to the online magazine that I edited, and bonjour to the Philippines’ biggest telco. Joining its corporate strategy office, I flew to El Segundo, California, a short Uber ride away from LAX, to spend time with startups of the new ‘creative economy.’ In a co-working space designed like a summer camp, complete with taxidermy head, fire pit, and jean-shorted receptionist, my new boss, the chief strategy officer at the time, would meet us in a room past others marked VISUAL ICON (an entertainment licensing company for memes), HOPSCOTCH (an app development platform), and SOUNDCLOUD (no one ever seemed to be inside). There we would have our daily briefings, at which his chief of staff would run down the meetings she scheduled with companies like Science Inc. – investor in Dollar Shave Club and Wishbone, an app that enables millennials to poll each other on which of Gigi Hadid’s outfits they like better. It is a huge hit. Not to mention, the kind of stuff I’d ask of my former staff writers at my online fashion magazine. “Marj, can you make a poll called Battle of the Teen Queens?” I’d lilt from my cubicle. “Or what about Battle of the Celebrity Barkadas? You know what, let’s do the other one first…” Serious business.
Back home in Manila, my first real project for the telco, which was invested in all kinds of consumer technologies, was an app. I had to a) work on designing user experience (a.k.a. what anyone who uses the app will get to do) and b) make sure our developers delivered on time. For the first task, I leaned on my own tastes, as I once did to overhaul the ‘look and feel’ of the online magazine. Now for the second task? Think of the biggest diva you’ve ever dressed for a shoot. Devs are kind of like that, entering the room like they made it. However, having been trained to coax creative work out of artistes like writers, art directors, photographers, and videographers, I was up to the task of being a dev whisperer. But at my first meetings, I nearly got a bloody nose trying to understand what anyone was saying.
APIs? SDK? Sorry what are those? Smirks were exchanged over my questions and ‘wireframes’ built on PowerPoint. When I reported back to my boss, he teased me, “Wow… it’s like you know what a stream URL is.”
I was the office Romy or Michelle, better at applying foundation than applying for patents. People on my floor commented on everything from my hair (“Beh, hindi ka talaga nagsusuklay?”) to my Joey Samson waistcoat.
One colleague eyed its raw-edged sleeves like he was wondering if someone had ripped them off at halftime. “Uh… anything happen to your jacket?” he asked.
I said, “Nah. You should see the other guy.”
To be fair I’m not a complete noob. I did take a Data Journalism class in grad school that required me to write simple computer scripts. There I learned that to build any application, you have to cut down the concept into its building blocks. Say, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a choose-your-own-adventure game, so it needs a set of commands, plotted like a decision tree. Depending on the user’s input or what button they tap, it takes them to another scene or prompts a different dialogue from another character. And so to cope with this new assignment, I did the same, digging online to get a better idea of what it took to build this thing. For example, something that kept coming up was APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. With not even a minute’s YouTubing, I found the answer, oversimplified: it’s the invisible messenger that powers almost every consumer app, making it possible for devices and databases to talk to each other. So you can do things like book an Uber (your phone talking to a map talking to many drivers’ phones) or an Airbnb (your app talking to a database of homes).
For moral support, I stalked magazine folk who’d gone the tech route to see how they were doing.
Not so hot? Elle’s former creative director, Joe Zee, who was poached by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to launch Yahoo Fashion, a digital magazine that looks like Pinterest got hijacked by AOL’s engineers.
Someone that succeeded? Natalie Massenet, founder of luxury e-commerce empire, Net-a-Porter, which has since been bought by the Italian e-tailer, Yoox. A former fashion journalist at Women’s Wear Daily and assistant to Isabella Blow, she built her site, like any seasoned magazine editor would do, on high quality photography and solid product captions that made you want to Add To Cart. After a dramatic departure on the eve of the Yoox merger, Massenet has resurfaced as co-chairman at rival site, Farfetch. Speaking to the Financial Times, she said, “I will bring my love of fashion, technology and relationships with the brand to Farfetch,” before praising the company’s chief executive José Neves for his business model, which aggregates different luxury e-tailers rather than building one from scratch. It’s basically the Amazon version of her baby, Net-a-Porter. Guess what, it’s built on APIs.
Someone on the rise? Emily Weiss – erstwhile super-intern at Teen Vogue (you may remember her out-performing LC and Whitney on The Hills). After building a popular blog with a highly active comments section around the skin and makeup routines of models, actresses, and career women all over the world, she started a beauty brand called Glossier. The essentially crowd-sourced beauty company raised $24 million in Series B funding late last year, shipping millions of dollars’ worth of the ultimate brow gel. The ultimate cleanser. The ultimate-foundation-that’s-not-a-foundation. The blog basically did all the research for each SKU before they were developed. Speaking at a venture capitalists’ event, Weiss even said, “I think about our products themselves as pieces of content.” In that they will be ‘Grammed and Snapped by their customers. Genius. I saw her at a Glossier pop-up in New York once. Of course she had perfect skin. And of course I wanted to offer my left kidney in exchange for an informational interview with her: Was Glossier always part of the plan? Did you know The Hills made me want to work at a magazine? Do you accept senior interns? But instead I patted Glossier Priming Moisturizer on the apples of my cheeks, like the Instagram star/shop girl told me to. 5 stars.
Now as for a magazine professional that continues to perplex? Jury’s still out on Eva Chen, longtime Teen Vogue beauty editor and sainted Anna Wintour pick to turn shop-mag Lucky into an online-offline commerce force. After redesigning the title but before really moving the needle, she quit Conde Nast to work at Instagram. Based on her timelines she is probably involved in the algorithm that pre-selects what’s relevant for you. I hated this idea but admittedly now get more likes on my own posts. So fine, Eva, I’m warm for you. Warmer than my thoughts to the question of whether Karlie Kan Kode.
Like Chen, to make the transition to tech, magazine editors will have to stretch from their hyper focus on product and brand – writing, creative directing, editing – and put on the hat traditionally worn by their publishers – inventing new revenue opportunities, or upending accepted beliefs about how the business should be structured. In other words, Massenet-ing it, something I have to push myself to do every damn day. It’s hard! By the nature of the ADHD pit that is the Internet, customers are much less loyal online, that once you have them, you have to monetize them (‘see-now, buy-now’ is an attempt at this), and so the roles of creative director and financial minder become more integrated. The ideal hire is a CEO type who can build not only a sexy brand but a profitable one. The magazine editor who can balance brand image with business model is poised to build an empire in the world of 1’s and 0’s, while picking up a few more zeroes on his or her paycheck.
If magazines or consumer technologies have anything in common, it’s that they both rely on a user base who like what they see. To the ex- or future ex- magazine lifer, this is easy; cultivating desire comes out of our pores. When I got back to my desk one day, a co-worker had taped up a piece of paper on which she’d written in black marker: Anna Canlas, Digital Strategy. And below it, two words that made me cup my hands over my mouth…
I guess others can’t help but see it, too.