FMA Winner:’s Phillip Picardi, Media Brand of the Year

by Alexandra Ilyashov

Phillip Picardi (Photography: William Jess Laird)

Phillip Picardi has utterly transformed since becoming digital director at the Condé Nast brand in April 2015. Last March, he started overseeing, too, revamping the beauty mag’s site with a similar mix of the woke, politically charged content that’s proven so fruitful for Ahead, Picardi decodes the “healthy diet” of one of Condé Nast’s biggest digital success stories.

What was your vision for when you tackled the director role?
I was 23 when I was coming in for this job, and I was asked, “How do you take from 2 million to 10 million unique visitors a month?” The thesis of the presentation I gave to Amy Astley [then Teen Vogue editor in chief] was, “We need to give her more.” We were assuming by omission that our readers weren’t interested in things like politics, or gender and sexuality, or the general news cycle at large. It was important to figure out how we could cover the news in the way that was relevant to young people.

How did you go about doing that?
We mapped out a strategy of launching wellness and then politics sections, and also have the mantras or mission statements of those sections infiltrate our fashion, beauty, and celebrity sections—we needed to have the way we talked about gender reflected across the site. For example, you can’t have a “Who wore it best” story pitting women against each other in fashion coverage, but then talk about the importance of gender equality and women supporting women in politics. We had to make sure the site was tonally consistent.

Did that approach gain traction initially with readers?
With news, it took a lot longer for us to hit our stride and figure out what was working—and it took longer for the audience to understand our new mission. Early on, before we had a features editor on board, I worked on a piece about Freddie Gray and the importance of protest in terms of how we convey emotion, especially against our government. We needed to educate our readers about why people were protesting in the first place, why protests sometimes turn violent, and why we can’t be reductive about how people express themselves. The comments were not very warm or friendly; we stood by our decision to publish the piece, and we leaned into it even more. Eventually, the comments turned positive for the most part, and were supportive of our coverage.

Have these types of stories been traffic wins?
I always say it’s all about a healthy diet and perfect balance, so every vertical has played a role in contributing to overall site traffic. Around the election, politics was beating entertainment month over month; since then, entertainment has had some of its best months ever and reclaimed its throne. Sometimes, it’s beauty. You never really know—it just depends on who published the thing that had the most resonance. A fashion piece called “Dear White Women,” published during Coachella, was one of our best performers ever; wellness has had its moments, too. Before, it was just celebrity, celebrity, celebrity, celebrity.

How have you staffed up?
It hasn’t always been a perfect transition, I will say. The team has grown a lot since I first started. The implementation of our new style guide—how we talk about topics like gender identity, wellness, suicide—was important, and having one copy and research person looking at every single story initially was key to tonal consistency. But it was also about hiring people already familiar with, and sensitive to, talking about those things. A lot of new hires didn’t come from traditional women’s magazine backgrounds: our social media editor came from Gawker, our deputy editor came from Yahoo Health, our wellness editor came from Vice, our politics editor came from The New York Times. They don’t have this expectation about what we “should” be doing.

Was it a hard sell for any hires you were courting?
It was so challenging. Especially with wellness and politics, it was hard to get people to understand. I used to talk to editors or freelancers we were recruiting on the phone to sell them on the new mission—especially more established, progressive voices, who were unsure they could trust their work with us. The response now whenever we post about a job opening—and the number of résumés I get in my in-box every single day—is so overwhelming. When I first started, it was the opposite.

Any talents in particular that have really shaped the new
The impact that our wellness editor, Vera Papisova, has had on the website is immeasurable. She’s been recognized by the Institute on Reproductive Health, local and national chapters of Planned Parenthood, [PP President] Cecile Richards herself. Our news and politics editor, Alli Maloney, came over earlier this year from [The New York Times] Women in the World, so a lot of her work has been about refining our coverage, producing fewer stories, but making more of an impact with the things we do cover.

Have you gotten negative feedback for tackling weightier topics?
Oh, yeah, it was expected. I’ve been hearing that since I started this job. There’s an inherently sexist predisposition for people to not trust or believe in teenage girls. As employees of a teen publication, we’re well aware of the stigmas surrounding teenage girls, but we work here because we believe in them.

What’s your growth strategy for, and how has it shifted?
Corporate sets our goals, but when I first started, it was really about production: mass quantity, how we could build an audience by producing more and more posts. Growth was first and foremost for us; we needed to grow, and fast. But I certainly wasn’t expecting our growth to happen so fast, and I don’t think our friends in corporate were expecting that, either. The goal of growing from 2 to 10 million uniques didn’t have a set timeline; it was a pie-in-the-sky thing, and it ended up happening really quickly. This year has been more about pivoting away from producing so much and focusing on what we’re passionate about. We’ve scaled way back on production numbers, and then we’ve scaled back up again, based on how our numbers are doing, but we’re at a good place now.

Are you concerned about devolving into clickbait?
We use a Slack [group messaging platform] channel, so every story has to get a hed and dek approved before it goes live; there’s peer editing, so it’s not just me and the deputies approving. If someone suggests a super clickbait-y hed, usually another editor will say, “Come on, we’re not doing that!” The [staffers] don’t want to be the types of writers or editors associated with clickbait.

Has the demographic changed since you’ve been helming
The median age on our site is 18, according to internal analytics, and that’s definitely older than when I started, when it was mid-teens. So, 18–24 is our sweet spot now, which is a definite shift. I think it’s because of the depth we bring to a lot of topics.

How have you revamped
I had a similar philosophy for—to address that it was maybe reaching a singular consumer, and had a singular point of view. So we wanted to remove anything prescriptive or corrective in terms of how we talk about beauty, and we needed to staff accordingly. We made great hires, like Sam Escobar, Sable Yong, and Hayley MacMillen. We recently made the decision to ban the phrase “anti-aging” from the lexicon. It was a digital-led initiative, unveiled in the September issue with Helen Mirren on the cover. The and teams sit right next to each other, and having the social media and audience development teams working so closely has been awesome; there are a lot of shared insights.

What was your biggest takeaway from your Refinery29 stint?
I met Mikki Halpin [now Lenny Letter’s editor at large] while I was at Refinery29, and she’s my mentor and often my compass in forming content and making editorial decisions. Meeting Mikki changed my life; her approach to media and creating content changed everything I’d been taught. A lot of the strategy here closely mirrors what Mikki’s done her entire career, and that’s not an accident. Mikki is all about fighting the man, so she’s about digging in and not backing down. At certain moments in my career, I’ve gotten spooked and let controversy get to me, and Mikki is always the first person I can rely on.

Do you ever get fatigued by the pace of digital media?
Who doesn’t? It’s my biggest concern for my employees. Working in digital is exhausting. My boyfriend is a doctor, and he says, “You work more than I do!” We’re all going to have to come to a reckoning point about what’s expected of digital talent, and how we nurture and foster it. There’s an expectation that an editor can write eight stories a day. It can be totally normal for a year or two, but then it stops happening. It’s not our simple, 150-word news piece about what a celebrity did that moves to the top in terms of traffic or brand image anymore; it’s almost always a piece we’ve spent tender loving care on. Having two years of data to prove we can grow with quality content, we’re more comfortable taking risks and allocating resources toward feature pieces. Expectations and quality of life can both be high.

How have you implemented that?
We have an awesome summer Friday program—half the team gets the day off each Friday. We’re flexible with working from home or coming in late if you need to get up your first story. That’s eased the pressure a bit.

How do you wind down or shut off from the consuming digital landscape?
At the beginning of the summer, there was definitely an element of burnout. I had to make rules for myself: on the weekends I turn off Slack, and if employees text me, I don’t respond right away. My boyfriend wants us to sleep with our phones outside the bedroom, but I don’t think I’d ever get there. [Laughs] I’ve also been traveling a lot more, and saying yes to more opportunities, for both work and pleasure.

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