Jessica Pels: Digital Director of Cosmopolitan

Many people get a reputation these days for being change makers, but we feel a title just as vital is that of change navigator. And Cosmopolitan’s Digital Director Jessica Pels has that rare proficiency for both.

After graduating from New York University, Jessica entered the job market at a time of chaos and massive change in our economy—the recession. Although she held stellar internships at Vogue and The New Yorker, the publications’ parent company was in a hiring freeze. Fortunately, a tip from an editor she worked with led her to a job with New Yorkers For Children, a non-profit focused on providing assistance to kids in the city’s foster care system.

Jessica eventually made her return to magazines—with jobs at Glamour and Teen Vogue. Following her time at those publications, she moved to another heavy hitter in the magazine industry, Marie Claire, and while there served as the publication’s digital director. Then, earlier this year, she joined Cosmopolitan. In the eight months since, she’s generated record traffic for the popular women’s lifestyle brand—overseeing the website, video production, social and ecommerce.

“I really, really love what I do,” Jessica says. “I think you have to—the tempo in digital media is intense on an easy day, so you have to have the passion to fuel laser-focus while you juggle a lot at once.”

What was your very first job? What is something you learned in this job that sticks with you today?

My first job wasn’t in the industry, but it was a good first step—I was a communications associate at New Yorkers For Children. I wrote our official communications: letters to donors, updates to the website, invitations to fundraisers, etc. It taught me a lot about writing quickly, adjusting to “house voice,” and making my writing both clear and compelling.

We noticed your degree is in film production. With the changing social media landscape, this must give you an edge. Is it a path you would recommend to other grads looking to join the social and digital media space?

The fact that my film degree became such an asset for my editing career was a happy accident, and one that paid off because I was able to get a parallel education in magazines through my internships at The New Yorker and Vogue. While I was learning how to handle a camera at school, I was learning how to edit a story at work. But there’s also the fact that filmmaking is just another form of storytelling. I went to Tisch in the hopes of becoming a director—I directed a couple of short films and a play while I was there—and in so many ways that’s what I’m still doing now: crafting a story with a group of people who are passionate about making it as powerful as possible.

I do think that in order to succeed in media, you need to have a strong grasp of writing and editorial. But if you have that already, or if you’re learning the ropes on the job, an education in video, photo journalism or business development can only help. The people who really shine in this industry are the people who bring something extra to the table.

What does the day-to-day of your current job entail? How do you divide your day–e.g. time in meetings vs. “doing” vs. managing a team?

I spend most of my day in meetings—shaping ideas and fielding pitches, holding brainstorms and kickoffs for new initiatives, meeting with my direct reports and with new groups in and outside the company to explore new ventures for Cosmo. That means I do most of my “work” work (editing, writing, reviewing the budget, etc.) outside of a normal work day, when I can give it the most thought.

What is the culture like at Cosmopolitan?

Fun and lively—my staff is full of a lot of young women who are in our demo and whose lives and perspectives inform a lot of our content—but we’re also very focused and driven. Every day we have a million things going on at once: a photo shoot in one corner of the office, while there’s a subject being interviewed in another, while there’s a happy hour being set up at our bar, all while 20 writers and editors are moving quickly to file stories.

What is your favorite part of your job, and what is something surprising someone might not realize about the work you do?

I love to ideate, to obsess over how things look and most of all to edit. When I’m sinking my teeth into editing a big piece … ugh, heaven. As for what’s surprising about my work, SO much of it is about being responsive and answering questions—I strive to avoid holding anyone or anything up, which means I’m constantly responding to emails and Slacks, giving feedback, conveying direction and being decisive as quickly as possible.

In a job like digital that is 24/7, how do you find time to disconnect? (Or can you even do that?!)

This is what I’m bad at! Partly because when I do disconnect is often when I have ideas, which brings me right back to my laptop. There’s also a need to be available if news breaks or if there’s a fire I have to put out, which means my phone is my constant companion. C’est la digital vie!

What is a career accomplishment you are particularly proud of?

The fact that I’ve been able to work on both sides of the fence—print and digital—has been really satisfying, to see this industry from all angles. I’m also honored to have had the chance to lead several brands not only to growth but to more ambitious storytelling, and to do it in a way that fosters enthusiasm from my teams.

What are three strategies, or decisions, you attribute to helping you climb the career ladder in the magazine industry, particularly in the digital space?

I work exceptionally hard. I’m also, from my ballerina days, comfortable performing for an audience, which I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older is what every meeting and panel discussion and presentation really is. But most of all I really, really love what I do, and I think you have to—the tempo in digital media is intense on an easy day, so you have to have the passion to fuel laser-focus while you juggle a lot at once.

How did you know it was time to leave one magazine title for another?

I stay with jobs I love as long as they continue to teach and challenge me. I’m a big believer in making sure you’re constantly growing in new directions, especially if they scare you, and in being strategic about adding new skills to your skill set—after I’d spent a few years at an established print brand, I jumped to a digital startup. I think it’s important to stay on your toes, but also to be careful to take strategic next steps that build toward your ultimate goal.

What is a mistake you made starting out that you hope others can learn from?

I assumed everyone was smarter, better and more confident than I was … I didn’t realize that everyone who’s starting out, especially in a competitive industry like this one, is insecure. The people who seem like they’ve got it more figured out than you are just on the “fake it ‘til you make it” beat, which you should be too!

What are some of your future goals for your work?

I’d like to lead Cosmo into territory it’s never been in before, and to make the brand an even bigger part of the cultural conversation. I have some big plans, but you’ll have to wait and see!

What advice do you have for someone who wants your job?

Take a ton of proactive ownership in what you do now—prove to your boss that you’re thinking ahead and that you care even more than she does about the success of your work. Pitch some big ideas. Tackle some ambitious stories. Suggest and oversee a new initiative. Take it upon yourself to network with new people at your company. The more connected you are—and the more those connections lead to interesting new projects—the more invaluable you’ll seem.

I’d love to grab coffee with: The late great Helen Gurley Brown.
The books + magazines on my nightstand are: Neglected!
My favorite quote or saying is: If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
My favorite place to spend my day off is: Gardening on my patio.
I can’t live without: Wine Night, a weekly gathering with my closest friends.
My favorite way to unwind is: See above.
I feel my best when: I have a lot of irons in the fire and they’re all exciting.

I’m a big believer in making sure you’re constantly growing in new directions, especially if they scare you, and in being strategic about adding new skills to your skill set.