Jo Elvin | 17 Years as Glamour Magazine's Editor-in-Chief
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
"If you can't beat them, join them."
Originally published: October 2018
To say I witnessed a microcosm of Jo’s world wouldn’t even reach the realms of an understatement.
Jo launched and then managed British Glamour for 17 years. She helmed one of the largest magazines in the UK, in terms of circulation and influence, and through perhaps one of the greatest cultural shifts of media consumption that has ever existed.
Even towards the end of her tenure, Glamour was circulating up to 400,000 monthly readers. Not even counting the coffee shops and doctor’s offices, it's simply a colossal engagement with her content.
This is a woman who could publish across any platform, she just gets it. As media evolved, she only became more relevant. Her wealth of experience is unparalleled and we all have a lot to learn from her.
Hi Jo Elvin, how have you found the switch (from Glamour) to ‘You’ Magazine?
Ha. I’m really starting to enjoy it, it’s an amazing job. And, to be honest with You, it’s a magazine I’ve always looked at, even when I didn’t work here, and thought that would be an amazing job. It’s so broad-reaching, it’s got such a big audience. The breadth of content that is relevant and you can justifiably do is immense.
Any new job is a transition - I’d never worked at a weekly before, I’d never worked at a newspaper before - and I was the new girl in a very very stable team. They’ve all been here 20-odd years. So, in that respect, it’s kind of crazy.
It’s my seventh month, and I’d say I’m feeling it now feels like the magazine I would edit.
There’s longevity in an editor’s role -
It’s funny you wouldn’t think so, but yes there is.
I guess people do like that familiarity, so coming into a new team - it must be difficult to immediately instigate your direction.
It’s not easy for anyone. You’ve got your ideas, you come in and, frankly the staff are a bit fearful - oh God what’s she going to do? Is she going to like me? Hate me? - All of those things. But also, what I naively hadn’t factored in was there’s a weekly deadline. So you’ve got all these great ideas… tough.
It took a while for the things I wanted to do to actually get going because you’ve just got to keep the machine running. But, I’m feeling now that everything feels much more like me. It’s now my team in place and there’s a new creative director starting just this week. So, I haven’t really changed the way it looks in a way that’s significant yet - but that’s definitely coming.
With ‘You’, would you say you have more space for print? In the sense that the last cover article you published, the Tina Turner interview - that was 3,500 words. Do you have more space to print stories like that than previously?
Yes, I think it’s because it’s an older audience, but it’s also got a cross-generational appeal. People share it with their mums, daughters, grandmothers. As I mentioned before, the breadth of content you can bring to the relevant audience is bigger, and I take into account that it’s something that specifically comes out on a Sunday.
And because of that, you’ve got that time.
We’ve got the other smaller bits about fashion, quick Q&As, and things like that. But there’s definitely room for, if you’ve got a great one, a really stonking read.
I think it’s interesting, because it’s a Sunday, you’ve got a lot of space for feature based content. People want to see a story and engage with a narrative, they don’t want maybe the same urgency that they consume on a weekday…
Yes, and that’s what I’ve always loved about magazines though. Is that a magazine’s role is to be more in-depth. I think there was a brief moment, around 10 years or so ago, where there was all this urgency about whether we kept up with the internet.
We do it in different ways, when I was at Glamour there was a real daily focus online and with content. It’s definitely ‘on-brand’ but it’s not trying to recreate what print does and I don’t think print should try and re-create what the web does. I think we’re kind of relaxed into realising there’s a position where there’s still a place for that medium.
It’s things like, when the Tsunami happened in 2004, you sit watching rolling news on Sky News where nothing’s happened for ages. There’s this pressure to have - New Information, New Information - a magazine can’t do that. But what a magazine can do is go in after the shellshock and the aftermath of something like that, and talk to people to get their deep considered stories. We have that emotional reach.
Which is what fast news, fast mediums don’t do and can’t really do because they have different pressures. So I’ve always loved that about magazines that there’s that depth in a different way.
You forgo that instant nature of digital media, but you have a more profound engagement with the content.
And that’s why people still feel a connection to those products. Even glamour, we know what changed there, but even at the end of my version of Glamour, we were selling 350,000 - 400,000 copies per month. It was huge. The market, the advertising market, is what changed around it. There’s still a huge hunger, even with a millennial audience, for printed and more considered monthly content.
Absolutely, so at Glamour you were known for fostering a sense of community around your readers, is that the same here - I know you mentioned it’s an older audience - but do you still have that loyal following?
Yes, and magazines tend to do that. I suppose when I came here I thought, because it is an older market, I was worried older people might feel silly about engaging or writing to you or just wouldn’t have the time. But, they do. And I love getting reactions to pieces, even negative ones because it shows people care about it by telling you what they thought. They like something or don’t like it, the fact that they feel entitled to give you their opinion.
It’s like they own a piece of it and it’s because they care about it. I love that dialogue with readers.
When I left Glamour, and I didn’t know I was coming here, it’s the thing I knew I felt the saddest about - you don’t have that connection with an audience. It’s a real privilege and I’m glad I get to do it again.
And that’s what you're always searching for, as an editor, that engagement with your content. Along those lines, when did you get your first editorial role?
My first editor job was at Sugar Magazine in 1994. By the time I was an editor there, I’d been a writer on Dolly magazine, a publicist at Neighbours and a deputy editor of TV Hits magazine.
From taking those leading roles, to say ‘what changed in the experience’ is extremely broad. (Oh god, yes). Could you give me something that sticks out - a point of reference of how different it was in the mid-late 90s?
When I first worked in magazines, I remember the art director sitting with an overhead projector, and taking transparent photographs, putting them on overhead projects and tracing the outline of it onto the layout. We had mistakes appearing in print when a physical letter dropped off the typesetting and everything relied on couriers. You had to have the physical picture and I remember once the editor of TV Hits lost the picture that was supposed to be the cover - he ended up tearing the entire office apart.
Those things don’t happen anymore because it’s all digital. I remember waiting days and days for pictures, besides a polaroid or two, you had nothing - this is probably like HG Wells to you.
Haha who doesn’t like War of The Worlds? But the core skills that you learned are still applicable now?
Yes, a lot of them. But we’ve undoubtedly had to add skills. You can’t do my job and not be prepared to be a huge all-rounder in terms of communicating across any platform, to any audience you have to be agile in learning how to think differently on different platforms.
But ultimately, I think if you like communicating and you like packaging things for audiences, and you like telling a story - you’re probably going to get the hang of it.
I was reading before, you have to embrace all forms of media otherwise you fall by the wayside. For instance, with Glamour, you were the first magazine to put a Youtube Star on your cover - so when you saw this digital rise..
Can’t beat them, join them!
..haha, exactly. When working for a magazine like Glamour, with Instagram popularity rising and rising, what was your reaction? Was it fear? Or was it, how ‘can we use this’?
No, it wasn’t fear. There was no point in being fearful. I could see it was going to be a competitor for advertising and possibly access to people. I could see that. But, at the end of the day, this job has never existed without fierce competition, and I just had to suck it up.
It’s always been a tricky, those social media platforms, it’s just part of the cultural fabric, it just is. You can’t not talk about it, interact with it, be a part of it. It’s also one of your bazzilion competitors. Also, I really really love social media.
It’s not something you look at and think ‘Oh God I wish it wasn’t here?'
No, I don’t. I do not understand people who think like that, and I actually get really tired with having the conversation with people who say, ‘how do you find time to do those things (on social media)?’ I mean I just… I don’t even know how to answer that question. It’s almost like asking me ‘why is the sky blue?’ It just bloody is.
I think because I’ve always been an avid consumer of those things that I have this stance.
As you say, you like social media, what is your approach to your personal accounts - I mean, I like your twitter it’s hilarious -
-haha well, I’ve kind of lost my twitter mojo a lot lately.
Oh really? Well if I hadn’t read your twitter today I wouldn’t have known there was another Royal Wedding!
[Laughs] Yeah I did do one today, didn’t I? It’s rare of me to be obsessive about Twitter and, like a lot of people, I just got tired of all the shitheads on there.
And, I dunno, there was a time on Twitter when everyone’s following and engagement just grew and grew - then it suddenly stopped. I don’t think my Twitter followers have grown for like a year. But Instagram is growing, so I’ve kind of been more attracted to that. There’s engagement from everybody else on Instagram and… it’s fun!
The audience is much nicer, I really hope that doesn’t change. I found, particularly when I was between jobs, Instagram - I’m not an influencer, I’m not out there with my concave stomach and bikini living my #bestlife in Ibiza - but it still gave me lots of work opportunity.
I think it’s interesting that you mention opportunity as I’ve spoken to other individuals in which Instagram is not their primary industry, but it can allow you to tailor your work.
I like it, it has been useful - it’s been really useful as a journalist to circumvent publicists, make connections with people - I love it.
With Instagram you’ve got a bit of a movement going with #ClothesMyHusandHates - you’ve been doing that for a while?
Yes, and I’ve been a bit lax on that lately because, unfortunately, this office does not avail itself for many nice photo opportunities.
But what’s been weird about that is what other people have taken on from it. I mean, it’s got its own page now. It’s crazy.
My poor husband though, and loads of people were going ‘Ooohhhh, you’re the husband!!’ He hates social media anyway, so he doesn’t like that vague fame - but he keeps saying to me ‘I know people who meet me will now be looking at what I wear and think - who’s he to judge -’ But, it’s just a joke.
I never thought of it in that way, people actually going up to him as a byproduct of that movement...
Yeah yeah people totally do. And I like that, it’s just what I do - whether it’s been in magazine or Instagram, I’ve always done it. Again, it’s creating that community, isn’t it? Creating that thing that people can rally around or identify with, or smile and laugh about - it’s comradery.
What’s your opinion on influencer marketing in general - or ‘Influencer’ as a concept?
I’m a little bit over the advertising obsession with them, because I feel at the end of the day, it’s a useful medium - but like every medium, there’s effective influencers and not-so-effective influencers. Just because someone has a million followers, it doesn’t mean they’re right for their brand.
I feel like there’s this nervousness in ad agencies with not going the digital age. As in, ‘If we’re not terribly modern, we’re not doing it right’. When actually, a magazine like mine has the audience, it has the audience with the money.
I think there’s a little bit of jadedness creeping in with some advertisers - influencers are great and some are incredible and they have a phenomenal reach - but it just feels like some top-tier influencers now hate being called influencers because the term has become so meaningless.
There’s going to be a rationalisation and a reckoning, it might take another couple of years, but having a load of followers on Instagram alone is not going to continue to be the key to your fortunes.
We speak about it a lot, how the biggest task is to filter. And if you attach the wrong influencer to the wrong brand it becomes meaningless...
I suppose from an advertising agencies point of view, for relatively little money you can target one of these micro influencers. However, from the outside - it’s a lot of work to find that right one, and a big gamble with their conversion rate.
I would exercise caution in being bedazzled by their followers.
Speaking of influencers, I wanted to ask your opinion about one that’s been in the news lately. Tess Holliday received (as did the magazine) controversy from being on the front cover of Cosmopolitan. I was wondering what your thoughts were on it? And did it warrant the attention?
I think it did warrant the attention, because how often do you see that on a magazine cover? I thought - well done for them for pushing that button and having that conversation. Frankly, magazines like Cosmo, and all those consumer publications, are having a tough time. So I can completely see why they would do something like that to punch above the normal newsstand attention, and get you talked about.
And, boy did it get talked about. It was everywhere - job done. Really successful, started a conversation. I’ve got no idea what it sold, but I imagine circulation was up...
I’m inclined to agree with Caitlin Moran’s view, that if that cover makes everyone wants to be a size 26, then it will be the most effective picture in history.
I mean, as if? As if, that’s the body goal for people. Of course it isn’t in our culture. So I just thought it’s really interesting that women’s bodies seem to be - whether you’re called ‘normal’ ‘too thin’, ‘too big’, whatever - they’re still commoditised and everyone still feels like there’s a judgment that must be made there.
We can’t just be a woman in this body, or that body, without everyone feeling like this is some huge comment on society. Women are supposed to be one way or another - which isn’t discussed with men.
I don’t believe at all that’s it’s promoting obesity any more than I think sticking Kate Moss on the cover is promoting her body. Why can’t we just… it would be nice if we could just stop talking about women’s bodies in this way, but it doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.
Would you rather it was a celebration of her career than an abject view of her body?
She’s who she is because she is killing it in modeling, or whatever else because she’s that size. In a way, she’s just doing what many other models do, which is using her body.
For me, I thought it was an interesting and clever move from Cosmo.
Really interesting to hear and I think we can leave that there.
You’ve worked with many brands throughout your career - when collaborating, what are the key ingredient to long and fruitful relationship?
I think just believing and having an understanding that your brand has authentic synergy. The trouble lies in - you want their money, they want your audience - but you’re not quite right for each other. Then you’re just at loggerheads.
They want to do something about their brand's message that you don’t feel readers can really relate too. It’s tough. The best ones are when they come to you because they love what you do, they love your audience. But ultimately, they trust you to speak to your audience for their brand in a way that you know your audience will like.
That’s what I find really gratifying. I don’t want that to sound like ‘You just do everything I say’ - But I hate it when I’ve had these experiences, so many times when they’re like - ‘I love Glamour or Sugar or whichever magazine. We love what you do… Oh wait, don’t do that! Just put this big ad here and make our logo bigger, etc.’ But I think we’ve reached this stage where brands understand that’s there a value in what we’re communicating.
You can’t just change your publications ethos for one campaign, but a campaign can be more fluid and should trust the creative voice where possible. Which brands have stuck out as ones you’ve really enjoyed working with?
That’s a tough one. I found Next a really good partner at Glamour Women of Years Awards. They just got it. They really wanted to know how everything was going to look and just wanted to be equal partners in how we were going to do it, what kind of winners we were going to have - but they never asked for approval of winners or any of that stuff.
The key point being, they understood that we knew our audience and what the Glamour reader is after. So I found that a really lovely collaboration.
I wouldn’t have thought that off the bat...
I guess I would have thought of something more high end, glitzy?
You’d be surprised. They were just somebody I had a close relationship with for a long time, I liked the way they loved editorial and they really understood it.
Looking back, I watched a pretty intense interview you did with Paloma Faith back in 2014 - are there any that you remember clearly at the time?
Well most of my interviews aren’t video - I’m not really a video person, but I have interviewed a lot of people.
I interviewed Britney Spears just before she went… mad. I almost think it’s my fault…
When interviewing someone what’s your approach for print?
Lots of research. Figure out what you really want to know that they haven’t discussed before - I’m an editor, so what would be my ideal cover line.
You’re looking for - and I’m not the most skilled interviewer, I get other people to do that - I’m looking for those little cues that make you understand that person in a different way. Also to be able to present them to the reader in a way they haven’t read before. It’s tough!
You mentioned delegation, how do you implement?
Hmmmm, maybe I’m not the best to ask! I’m a pretty hands-on editor, but you can’t do everything. My job is to - direct, direct, direct, - converse with people all day every day. Have guidelines, parameters, the gist of what I want from every story. So, the cover line or how I want that picture to look.
Then I love having ideas, I’m definitely a real collaborator at work. But then, I probably got to a stage in my career, particularly with this job as it’s weekly, that I’ve got so much to do and so many people to satisfy every day that I don’t have time to spend hours editing a piece.
I know there are things that I need to leave to other people, otherwise, nothing will get done.
Is that sometimes one of the hardest parts of the job, leaving work to someone else?
Hahahaha - no.
And also no one wants to be at work with a boss constantly doing everything for them, therein lies terrible self-esteem (that’s how I justify). Everyone wants their chance to do something great, no I think everyone needs to feel part of a team.
My favorite thing is having ideas, but I don’t need to be the person having the best ideas. I want to be able to recognize the best of what everyone is doing and bring it all up to the surface.
Last one: if you could pick two, what do you love about your work, and what do you hate?
I love coming up with ideas that will assume, excited and entertain people. I love engaging with an audience and working in an office full of people every day.
I hate dealing with budgets, I hate talking to people about their salaries. All that admin that you did not become a creative professional for! You didn’t think ‘when I grow up I can’t wait to talk about 1 and 2 QF with marketing.’ So it’s all that stuff.
Also, I hate commuting. I dream of one day, not having to get on the tube ever again.
Jo’s discussion of authenticity regarding brand relationship and content adds significant weight to what Whalar is always trying to educate on. Our ideals are already tried and tested, we are just pioneers in on our platforms. However, Jo’s comments are reassuring in the sense that if it’s worked for her, it’ll probably work for us too.
If you can’t beat them, join them.