An Interview with Jennifer Smith Tapp, Director of Editorial and Brand Strategy

Jennifer Smith Tapp is the Director of Editorial and Brand Strategy at Chicago Woman magazine. With over a decade of writing and editing experience and spearheading two magazines, Jennifer’s expertise and advice is important for anyone looking to break into the writing and publishing world. Beyond that, as a busy business woman and mom, her dedication to work and the Chicago Woman brand is an example of the growth that we all strive to have in our careers.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Woman magazine.

Meet The Contributors

This is Nora

Nora Philbin

Nora is the managing editor of Happy Spectacular.

Jennifer Smith Tapp

Jennifer is the director of editorial and brand strategy for Chicago Woman magazine and has been in the industry for over 15 years.

Nora Philbin

Can you tell me a little bit about your career path, and how you got where you are?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

Magazines are something that I’ve always wanted to be a part of. I remember reading magazines, Vogue magazine, those teenage magazine when I was a kid, but Vogue and Elle and bigger fashion magazines are always the ones I looked up to the most, so fashion editorial was something that I always wanted to do. My career in that started as a freelance writer, writing for free just to build my clips and portfolio. I did that probably off and on for three or four years and then sort of slowly moved up to an editorial position.
I was fashion editor for a couple of different magazines, kind of smaller magazines. And then I think in maybe 2008 I was recommended to a publisher who was starting a magazine based in Atlanta called Kouture. It was a fashion and beauty magazine for women of color, and she had the idea for the magazine, and we met and talked about and she basically laid out her idea for what she wanted the magazine to be and basically asked me, could I make it happen/pull it together?

Nora Philbin

That's great. Did you feel ready for it based on where you were and what you'd done?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I said yes even though I hadn’t really done it before, but I knew what it should look like. Once you are really into magazines you kind of understand what they’re supposed to look like and sound like and read like and so I did that for a couple of years, for three years.
That was a lot of fun, the pay wasn’t very good, but it was a lot of fun. I got to experience a whole sort of – going to new York for the shows twice a year and all that that involved, which isn’t as fun as people think it is. I did that for a while and really learned a lot and learned a lot about how to get things done with a really small staff. I did that for three years, and the magazine didn’t grow in the way that it needed to grow in order for me to keep being involved in it. There wasn’t a lot of return anymore on the amount of work I was putting into it, so I left that magazine.

Nora Philbin

Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing now, and how that came to be?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I connected with Kendra Chaplin who’s the publisher of Chicago Woman magazine in March of 2015, and it was the same sort of thing. She gave me her idea for the magazine, back then called Forward Chicago and so it was the same situation, “This is my idea for a lifestyle magazine for professional women in the city, can you help me bring this to life?” That was a little over two years ago, and we’re now Chicago Woman magazine. I learned a lot when I was with the fashion magazine about how to manage budgets with magazines which can very quickly get out of control, especially with shooting fashion editorials.
With Chicago Woman I started out as editorial director, and I run the editorial for the print book and have a lot of influence over the editorial that goes up on the website as well, but now I also am director of brand strategy. So, there’s a lot of, in addition to running the print book, there’s a lot of growth of the magazine into other areas, so there’s a lot I’m involved with beyond just the print book which to me, I really like that a lot.
Because I feel like this magazine is a space that I know really well, and I could just keep doing that for a really long time, but it’s really interesting to be able to view the print magazine as part of Chicago Woman brand and not have the brand be just the magazine, understanding that it is important for people to see certain parts of the editorial come to life. I think it’s important that people see us, the magazine team, in person and be able to interact with us, and I think it’s important to be able to see what we’re doing as part of growing a brand. So that part of it has been most interesting to me. It’s been 15 years since I started freelancing in a really full-time way to now.

Nora Philbin

That growth with the brand really gives you the ability to grow and develop new skills and developing the brand for the magazine as well. And it’s such an important part of media now. That’s such a nice progression.

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I think it is. It’s a way to get your brand story out there. Again, people want to be able to experience the brand and people too. But it’s also another way to generate revenue. It can’t be the only advertising. Advertisers also now want something more than just an ad in a magazine. They want people to experience their brands too, and so if we want a catering company to advertise with us, they may be amenable to that but they may also say well hey, why don’t you have your issue launch party here.
So, it’s really been interesting to me because as an editor you kind of have to have the content in mind obviously, but my job too is also to be a steward for the business side of the magazine.
I think the most important thing that we’ve learned, probably within the past few months, is to make sure that we’re always placing a high value on what it is we’ve built. You’ll probably see this too with your company, once you get to a certain point, people will want to attach themselves to you which we want, obviously, we like that people see the Chicago-Woman brand as a brand that has value, but we also have to make sure that whoever it is that we decide to partner with and align ourselves with, we need to make sure the benefits we get from aligning with them are the same as what they get from aligning with us.

Nora Philbin

With the two hats that you always have to keep in mind, do you have a typical day?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I should probably say a typical week for me is probably having time at home just working, which the skill for that requires a lot of self-discipline to sit there and work. Sometimes I get tired, or I have a headache, or I just want to watch something on Netflix or whatever, and I know that no, if it don’t do this we won’t have a magazine, and I’ll get in trouble.
So, I would say a typical week is a combination of events, planning editorial meetings with our staff, strategic planning with Kendra — we talk on the phone almost every day — and working at home, working on the actual magazine. I’m basically the staff for the print magazine. We have contributors, so it’s my job to pull all of that together every issue. And there’s some weeks where there’s a lot of events and other weeks I get to spend a lot of time working to be able to spread it out more.

Nora Philbin

What would you say are the skills that serve you best in your day to day?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

The main skills would be self-discipline - a lot of patience because it is a start-up. We’ll probably always consider ourselves a start-up, and so as you mentioned before things don’t always move as quickly as you want but it’s important to take time to appreciate the work we’ve put into this and the what we’ve built. Sometimes we have to be reminded by other people.
So, discipline, being patient, having an open mind. Also, one of the reasons Kendra and I work so well together, is for us, we don’t care if an idea we go forward with is my idea and she doesn’t care if it’s her idea. We just want to go forward with the best idea. There’s a lot of people who are really dead set on their idea whether it’s the best idea or not. They get offended if you don’t go forward with their idea. For us it’s just, I don’t care. It needs to be the best idea, or we’re not going to do it because we have 15 other things we need to get through in the list, and so I think that’s really important too. To be open minded and be a sponge when you’re putting something like this together because with a magazine it can’t be something that’s stagnant, and so for me, its just always keeping an open mind, paying attention to what other people in the space are doing and really being open to other people’s ideas.

Nora Philbin

That’s a great point. When you get a lot of writers in the room, maybe one would write it one way but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better it just means “I’m making it mine now.” That’s something I always try to keep in mind as we moving forward.

Jennifer Smith Tapp

Exactly. That’s the thing, business is business. Work is work. It’s not an indictment on you as a person or human just because your idea isn’t the best idea. It has nothing to do with who you are as a person, it just means someone’s idea was more efficient or more cost effective or easier to do or just better. I think a lot of people don’t separate those two things, that it has nothing to do with who you are as a person.

Nora Philbin

It definitely takes practice

Jennifer Smith Tapp

Yeah, it’s something you have to constantly thinking about. I mean, people bring whatever insecurities they have about themselves as a person to their work life and it’s unfortunate but everyone has seen that in action and it’s just not productive.

Nora Philbin

How do you try to manage that? Do you try and separate it for them?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I don’t know what else you can do to separate those two things but just say, “look this is just the better idea.” Deep down they probably know it. They just need to put their flag in the ground to make them feel better in that moment until there’s something else they feel insecure about 15 minutes later. It’s a hole that will never be filled so you can’t play that game.

Nora Philbin

What is the most unexpected part of your job?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I think when I first started, I didn’t expect that I would be as involved with the day-to-day strategy. I would have never thought that I would have been involved in the building of the brand of Chicago Woman. A lot of that is the events and things like that and who do we have to speak on this panel and so that’s probably the most unexpected part of it. And it’s been a pleasant surprise because it adds another dimension to what I’m doing, and in a lot of ways it puts a much finer point on what my primary job is, which is to edit the magazine

Nora Philbin

What part makes you the happiest?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

The part that I love the most, the thing I love the most is just being at our launch events and seeing, part of it is 95% women and just looking around the room and seeing the women drinking champagne or a glass of wine and actually flipping through the magazine or seeing people they recognize in the magazine. My favorite thing is seeing people experiencing the magazine.

Nora Philbin

What part do you dread?

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I don’t know. I don’t have anything with the magazine that I dread other than, sometimes randomly when I have to be at an event and I know I have to be there, but other than that those are such first world problems. I feel like a moron complaining about that. I don’t really have anything I dread. I mean everyone has days where you just want to be lazy and do nothing but I haven’t encountered anything about working with the magazine that I dread or really don’t like doing because it’s all for the greater good of the magazine.

Nora Philbin

When you were freelancing, at the beginning for free and then with some success, what are some tips you have for people in that position? 

Jennifer Smith Tapp

I would advise taking some time to think about what topics you really want to write about. What are your strengths? What are you eager to learn more about? As an editor, I am always weary of cover letters that list 15 different subjects that a writer feels they can effectively write about. Choose an area (lifestyle, food/drink, technology, etc.,) and focus on that. You want to be a writer that an editor immediately thinks of as a need arises. I would also say to read. A lot. Study writers and publications that you love and use that as a basis for developing your own voice as a writer. 

Nora Philbin

How long should you work for free? 

Jennifer Smith Tapp

This is a tricky one to answer, because unless you are independently wealthy, working for free is not desirable. But for me, it was a matter of getting the assignments in order to build up my clips so I could get paying jobs in the future while I was raising my daughter. There just aren't many editorial opportunities (especially in Chicago) and sometimes you have to write gratis articles in order to get your career going. It will be up to you to decide how long you want to spend doing this and at what point you will begin to demand payment for your work. 

Nora Philbin

What are some tips people who want to become editors but don’t know how to get there/where to start? 

Jennifer Smith Tapp

As I mentioned earlier, obsessively study the publications that you love and even some that you don't. There could be something about the way they deliver their mission that is interesting, even if the subject matter is not appealing to you. Being an editor means that you have a specific point of view regarding editorial: what it should look like, what it sounds like and who will be drawn to it and why. Your ideas have to be focused.
You also have to hone your own voice as a writer before you can ever help anyone refine theirs, so make sure that you have invested that time as a writer. Like any other industry, you have to work your way up the masthead, often starting as an editorial intern. You will never go wrong taking the time to look, listen and learn from those who are already doing what you want ultimately want to do. Seek out new magazines and inquire about working with them and getting in on the ground floor. I learned a lot by doing this, and even if the pay was horrible, I eventually developed the skills I needed to have the confidence to take on Editor-in-Chief positions. Finally, being an editor of a magazine also means that you have to have an eye trained on the budget - learn about the business of magazine publishing and how editorial can enhance what potential advertisers are looking for to help them get their brands' message across in the pages of your publication. If you really love magazines, it will show in your work.

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).

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