WALL STREET JOURNAL. January 30, 2017

Hearst Content Chief Joanna Coles Pushes Snapchat and TV
Former ‘Cosmo’ editor forges ties with tech titans, seeking growth

Joanna Coles, Hearst's chief content officer, is pushing the boundaries at the media company.

Joanna Coles, Hearst’s chief content officer, is pushing the boundaries at the media company. Photo: Caitlin Ochs for The Wall Street Journal

When Cosmopolitan magazine editor Joanna Coles showed up at Snapchat’s California offices in the spring of 2015 to pitch a new digital venture, she quickly realized she’d left something important in the car: mock-ups meant to illustrate her idea.

“It was a dreadful faux pas, but in the end it didn’t matter,” says Ms. Coles, who was promoted last fall to chief content officer at Cosmo parent Hearst Magazines, a unit of closely held Hearst Corp.

That is partly because she and the messaging app’s chief executive, the famously private Evan Spiegel, already had developed a strong rapport.

Ms. Coles had been one of Snapchat’s earliest champions at a time when other media companies were skeptical, teaming up with Mr. Spiegel to launch the highly successful Cosmo “channel” on the app’s “Discover” newsstand. On this visit, they hashed out a plan to jointly launch another Discover channel, “Sweet,” which focuses on pop culture, beauty and fashion.

“She saw how important Snapchat was becoming for her target audience and wanted to be in the driver’s seat and not the caboose,” says Peter Kreisky, a media-industry consultant.

Ms. Coles is pushing the boundaries at the legacy media company to keep it relevant. Beyond forging ties with tech companies like Snap Inc., whose holdings include Snapchat, and Airbnb Inc., she has been experimenting with TV and has taken an active role in advertising efforts and events, showing a willingness to let business and editorial activities intersect in ways once considered heresy in publishing.

Before her promotion, Ms. Coles was best known as a veteran U.K. journalist who joined Hearst Magazines in 2006 as Marie Claire’s editor in chief before jumping to flagship Cosmopolitan in 2012.

The editor in chief role used to be the plum job at media companies, a role with outsize influence and perks to match. For Ms. Coles and many of her contemporaries, however, content chief is the new aspirational title, imparting and stretching the sensibility of a brand like Cosmopolitan across platforms from Instagram to cable television.

Few have gone as far as Ms. Coles, whose flair for fast, clever editorial ideas often generated revenue, says one former insider. The 54-year old is carving out her place in an industry that has had its share of celebrities, such as Condé Nast artistic director and editor-in-chief of Vogue Anna Wintour—the fashion powerhouse many believe inspired the fictional film “The Devil Wears Prada”—and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

Observes Ms. Coles: “I’m an overnight sensation 30 years in the making.”

Not everything has worked. During her tenure as Cosmo’s editor, she was unable to reverse a steady, ongoing decline in newsstand sales—Cosmopolitan sold an average of 350,000 copies for the six-month period ended June 30, 2016, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, compared with an average of 1 million copies monthly for the six-month period ended June 30, 2013.

Hearst Magazines reported profit growth for the third consecutive year in 2016. But Cosmopolitan struggled with a 15% decline in ad page sales through October compared to the same 10-month period in 2015, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Ms. Coles said the decline reflected weakness at retail in beauty and fashion.

A self-described extrovert, Ms. Coles is a fixture in the rarefied social scene of media elites, with pals including power brokers like Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of WME-IMG talent agency, and John Wren, chief executive of ad giant Omnicom Group Inc.

“She’s classically literate, business literate, digitally literate and socially literate, but she’s the type of person who would never use the word literate,” says Josh Sapan, the chief executive of cable programmer AMC Networks and a friend of Ms. Coles.

Pop culture can be tricky. When Ms. Coles put the Kardashian family on the cover of Cosmopolitan’s 50th anniversary issue with a cover line that read “America’s First Family” she was stunned to see thousands of negative comments quickly appear on Instagram. “It was so vehement,” she says.

Ms. Coles’s rise comes as Hearst and its rivals—like Time Inc. and Condé Nast—are struggling with print advertising and newsstand revenue. They’re also battling for every digital dollar at a time when Google and Facebook attract nearly 58% of U.S. digital ad spending, according to eMarketer.

Ms. Coles believes Snap, whose board she joined in late 2015, is part of the answer to that challenge. The Cosmopolitan channel on Snapchat draws an estimated 26 million monthly unique visitors, while Sweet attracts 15 million, according to Hearst. Although the two channels account for less than 10% of digital revenue from Hearst Magazines, they are expected to become vital contributors, said David Carey,president of Hearst Magazines.

“Snapchat isn’t Facebook yet, but it has huge potential,” he says. Snapchat declined to comment.

Ms. Coles also forged a friendship with Brian Chesky, the chief executive of online home-sharing business Airbnb Inc. That has led to the impending publication of an Airbnb print magazine in May through a joint venture.

On Feb. 8, a new one-hour reality show about the inner workings of Cosmopolitan called “So Cosmo” makes its debut on Comcast Corp.’s E! cable channel. Ms. Coles, who has a prominent role, is also an executive producer.

In addition, a TV series inspired by Ms. Coles’s stint at Cosmopolitan called “The Bold Type” is expected to launch this summer on Walt Disney Co.’s Freeform network. A promotional release for the show promises a “glimpse into the outrageous lives and loves” of people working at the fictional women’s magazine Scarlet.

She has also been involved in orchestrating live events, including a deal with fintech lender Social Finance Inc. that involved a recent conference focused on women and their relationship to money and career.

“Joanna isn’t easily intimidated by traditional barriers,” says Joanne Bradford,SoFi’s chief operating officer. “That’s what the media business needs right now.”

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at jeffrey.trachtenberg@wsj.com