Media People: Simone Oliver, Global Editor in Chief, Refinery29

·16 min read

“If it looks like I’m sitting at a bar it’s because I’m elevating my foot,” Simone Oliver, Refinery29’s global editor in chief, explains over Zoom during a rare trip to her office at Vice Media’s Williamsburg headquarters.

Oliver recently took up roller-skating with her family while they were living outside of New York City for a short time and kept it up on their return, only to sprain her ankle in one of the city’s hectic roads. It hasn’t put her off her new hobby, though.

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“You see skaters on your Instagram feed and obviously that’s one of the things that came out of the pandemic is people started looking out their usual habits and what do I actually enjoy, what do I want to do,” she said. “So I was late to the game but I get it, I love this, I need to exercise more.”

Taking up skating isn’t the only change in her life over the last year. In September 2020, Oliver was tapped to take over the helm at Refinery29, which was acquired by Vice the previous year for a reported $400 million. Her predecessor Christene Barberich, had stepped down a few months earlier after a number of women of color, who previously worked at the feminist lifestyle site, shared their negative experiences during their time there.

In doing so, she’s one of the few editors to have moved from tech back into journalism as she was formerly on the global media partnerships team at Facebook and Instagram, where she led collaborations with magazines and lifestyle publishers. Many former magazine editors are moving in the opposite direction, with Allure’s Michelle Lee landing at Netflix, Marie Claire’s Aya Kanai at Pinterest, Vogue’s Sally Singer at Amazon, and Self’s Carolyn Kylstra at Google, to name a few.

“When Cory Haik [Vice Media Group’s chief digital officer] and Refinery29 came calling it’s one of those things where you have to tap back into the things that you love and your passions,” Oliver said of her decision to venture back into the fray. “I had to think to myself, yes I’m enjoying myself where I am. I’m challenged. I love this company, the people I work with. But when I’m 80 and someone asks me do you regret not taking that Refinery29 editor in chief role and the only answer if I’m truly being honest with myself is, yes you will regret it.”

Here, the Howard University graduate, who also spent 13 years at The New York Times and had a stint as Allure’s digital director, chats with WWD about her career and her plans for Refinery29.

WWD: Was journalism always the end goal for you?

Simone Oliver: In college I was an English major. While I enjoyed some of it I could feel myself searching for another way to express myself and do storytelling so I started writing for Howard University’s school paper, called The Hilltop, and that was my first introduction to a newsroom. At the end of that time I had learned about The New York Times’ student journalism institute. That was a new project so we were the guinea pigs. I applied to it, ended up getting in and even today when I think of it I get chills because it was one of the most intense experiences of my life to date. It changed everything for me. We basically took over a school’s computer lab and we turned that into a student newsroom and we were tasked with creating a student version of The New York Times. It was me and 29 other students and it was editors from The New York Times who came in and they were holding us to very high standards. I still have a copy of that paper and I’m really proud of it for unleashing that passion in me that I didn’t know existed. After graduating I got in contact with the director of that program and I ended up getting an interview for a news assistant role at The Times, so that was the ultimate education starting at the foreign desk of The Times and working eventually across all the desks. That was basically like my master’s [degree].

WWD: You eventually ended up on the digital site of the Times on the Styles desk, right?

S.O.: Yes, and I think as far as timing when that happened I was about two and a half, three years into my time there and that’s when the media industry at large really started to acknowledge that dot-coms are a destination.

WWD: I read an anecdote that you had to fight to get an Instagram account for The Times’ Styles desk. Is that true?

S.O.: I’m into style and fashion and beauty and lifestyle and that’s a very visual space and I thought there’s an opportunity here and our competitors were starting to spend a lot of time on this thing called Instagram and this is back when it was mainly a photo sharing app. It wasn’t the robust ecosystem that it is now. But I noticed this is where people are hanging out, this is where they’re getting a lot of inspiration, they’re also learning things here. And we as a very powerful brand with a lot of trust and amazing photography should be here where our audience is and these are future subscribers. I felt very strongly about that and not limiting ourselves to one metric for defining success or engagement.

WWD: What was their argument against it?

S.O.: It was really only one thing: “It doesn’t link back to the site. We want site traffic.” Then it came down to resources and my colleague Joanna Nikas (she was junior editor at The Times when we were doing this) and I were like, “oh, resourcing, we’ll do it. We’ll just create the content.” For us, it was going to shows, capturing runway videos and then creating native content. Street style was still feeling pretty new. We were, like, this is ripe.

WWD: Were you bringing some of Bill Cunningham’s street style onto Instagram?

S.O.: Not onto the Instagram account. That was a rights issue. It took a long time to convince our leadership that we should translate what he was doing in print form to digital form. He was just this incredible knowledgeable resource but also person. I would listen to him talk to the copy editors several feet away when we were closing the pages a couple of times a week and I thought that’s interesting. It would distract me. I would be typing and then I would just hear his voice and think I want to hear more of this. Then I thought, I know people who already love his column in print form would love to hear directly from the man himself about how he sees people and how people express themselves on the street. And then he’d bring “in the ’60s people did that” and “in the ’50s people did that.” He’d bring all the social part of it in and that context and the complexities and nuances that make up how we express ourselves in general. No one else has that. There’s only one Bill.

WWD: After The Times you moved to Allure and then Facebook. How did the Facebook position come about and can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing there?

S.O.: [A friend had been] trying to get me there for a couple of years and I never imagined in a million years that I would get myself to a platform. I loved social as a story telling tool, etc., but I just never pictured myself there. Eventually she pinged me a job description that was for lifestyle publishers and magazines and I read it and I was like, “OK, this has my name written all over it.” I’ll be honest: By that time I was very burnt out. I felt like legacy media was catching up to the fact that digital was something that we need to take seriously. It was goals, goals, goals and KPIs. I realized I was thinking more about that than working with my team on ideas and telling stories and being creative. Because of that I was really, really burnt out and I started looking at this job through a new lens.

When I started I worked with all sorts of companies. Refinery was one of them. It was a way for me to get a bird’s eye view of the industry as a whole in the interest areas that I love and that I’m passionate about but also media as a whole — not just publishing. Creators, agencies, influencers, etc. Being part of the global media partnerships team [at Facebook] I feel like I accelerated my understanding of different business models, different ways that people are using social to tell stories and helping them through that — especially because I’d done so much of it in previous roles.

WWD: How has it been taking on the Refinery29 role during a pandemic and doing it remotely?

S.O.: I love getting to know people on a personal level so starting remotely was a big challenge, especially because we exist in a few different regions and personally it’s my style to be where you are and meet you and get to know you — even if it can’t be all the time. But of course, we’re all going through this together so I think keeping that always front of mind that we’re all not in an ideal situation. When I first came in I was like, “how do I inspire the team at a time when we’re all feeling pretty isolated, we’re tired.” The R29 team was tired, a lot of change happening around them all at once. And usually we feed off of each other’s energy.

WWD: How did you overcome that and build trust with a team that had been through a lot?

S.O.: The first thing I did was schedule one-on-one time with every single person. Again, if we were in the office I could just take a coffee walk with someone or go get ice cream or literally just walk to the elevator. We don’t have that luxury and everything has to be scheduled and Zoomed. I just carved out that time and I really tried to do a listening tour and I think anyone when they start a new role they say they’re going to do that but things come at you fast. I really tried to preserve parts of my day and my week so that I could schedule time across our different teams so that I think just having one-on-one time, just getting to know who people are, what they’re thinking about, what they’re excited about, what they’re pissed off about, all the things in one conversation. It took longer than I would like, but I got it done. My ultimate goal in doing that was to establish myself as an empathetic leader. I really wanted to build trust across the team and people have to see who you are and know who you are before you can even establish the foundation of trust.

WWD: Since you became editor in chief what are the biggest changes you’ve made?

S.O.: Number one, the transparency part. I get a lot of positive feedback, surprising feedback that people have felt included in what we’re talking about, what we’re thinking about — even if we’re just undecided as a leadership team, people have felt included in the conversation and they appreciate being asked their point of view even if we go in a completely different direction. But also going back to the challenges of working during a pandemic I think the fatigue and the burnout I’ve been trying to counteract that, so one thing that I started to do was no-meetings Fridays. We’re trying it out for the summer. I’m borrowing this from the tech world. It’s not a new concept by any means.

WWD: I was going to ask you about that because I was reading some of the criticisms about working for the site before you joined and burnout seemed to be a big one, as well as all the traffic goals. It just seems to have become a problem among journalists during the pandemic and knowing when to turn off.

S.O.: Oh, my goodness so true. Another thing that I try to do is whenever we get over the hump of a crazy news cycle or a project is just allowing the team leaders to establish a day of pause or a half day or even just schedule a team Zoom outing/a team get-together. It could be something that’s hard news and as a society we’re like this is a tough week, plus we all had to do our jobs on top of this.

WWD: I also read that people who worked for Unbothered were frustrated that it was understaffed and there wasn’t a focus on it. Can you talk me through some of the work you’ve done with Unbothered and Somos since you joined?

S.O.: I thought it was important to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to investing. We want to lean into building communities and we want to focus on acknowledging underrepresented groups within underrepresented groups. Bringing on Keke [Palmer], she embodies Unbothered’s values in terms of reclaiming Black joy, creativity, choice, all of that. I think her creative partnership will be something that is going to blossom and we’re still developing content and brainstorming, so look ahead to that. In terms of the team, we hired four more people. We’re talking now about how we can invest more in both Unbothered and Somos. That’s important. You understand the media landscape today. We have to do it strategically.

WWD: In terms of burnout and defining your work and home boundaries, was that a challenge when you started a new job while working from home with your family there?

S.O.: If I seem extra happy it’s because I’m in the office and it’s a glorious feeling. We’re day two with a new child care professional so she’s texting me a lot. I think the biggest challenge with work-from-home boundaries is one I alluded to earlier of actual boundaries. Many of us struggled with that pre-COVID-19. When do you turn off, especially with our devices. And when can you give yourself that space to rejuvenate, to see the big picture, to strategize, to breathe, to be creative, to be inspired. I struggle with having that space because someone needs their diaper changed or they want their 10th apple of the day and they want the skin peeled. I’m like, “I’m working on a strategy document right now.” Everyone’s dealing with this and I think there’s a sense of solidarity because I’ve been on the phone with other executives and someone’s throwing something at their head and we’re talking about the future of the company. I think that also reinforces my empathy as a leader because I’m just trying to get through the day, but I’m also very inspired by the work that I do.

WWD: I know at the beginning of the pandemic R29 launched a clothing line. Is that still going and what is your larger e-commerce strategy?

S.O.: That’s still in development. We’re still moving forward with that. Everything is moving at a steady pace for all the reasons related to the pandemic. Overall, we’re just continuing to see growth in our affiliate business. R29 set the blueprint in strategy for Vice’s recently launched affiliate program.

WWD: In the pandemic, podcasts and newsletters have gone from strength to strength. What’s R29 doing in these areas?

S.O.: With Unbothered our podcast is Go Off, Sis and the team has won a couple of awards this year. We’ve had partners like Target come in and that’s been really exciting to see because our missions are aligned and that’s how I see our partnership landscape evolving where we are creating podcasts, we’re continuing our newsletter strategy but we’re able to monetize in a way that we all feel really good about and with partners whose heads are on the same wave length. We’re going to continue to invest in podcasts, especially Go Off, Sis. On the newsletter front, that’s one of our biggest sources of loyalists, especially when it comes to franchises like Money Diaries. With Unbothered, its newsletter is still in its infancy so we want to see that continue to grow.

WWD: The whole industry was hit hard with a fall in advertising, but a lot of people enjoyed strong engagement. Where is R29?

S.O.: That’s only an ebb and flow, right? I think when it comes to advertising it’s going well. What’s really interesting though is our combined revenue. In terms of Vice Media Group as a whole we have a unique portfolio and I think that’s really appealing and attractive to advertisers and I’m really interested in making sure that our brand partners are true partners that share our values, especially in terms of driving inclusivity and service across our audience. That to me is just paramount.

WWD: I wanted to ask you about fashion, beauty and styles coverage. You were on The New York Times’ Styles desk for quite a long time. What’s your vision for coverage in these areas at R29?

S.O.: For us it’s continuing to be a discovery engine and a place of inspiration. Inclusivity is a word that we throw around all the time – people in the media world, marketers, everyone – but we’ve always been living and breathing that in terms of how people express themselves. Inclusive beauty, in particular, is really important.

WWD: Do you have a date for when you’re planning on going back to the office?

S.O.: We’re talking about the fall. We’re just trying to work through the logistics of that.

WWD: What do you do to relax and turn yourself off from work?

S.O.: I’m still working through that! So one thing I do is I go through my to-do list and whatever didn’t get done today I move it tomorrow and it’s something about crossing things off the list as well as being ready when you go to sleep to conquer the next day. I love watching movies. I’m a big movie person. I love shows. My husband and I, we’re delayed on everything because COVID-19 left us without child care. I also took up skating very recently.

For more, see:

Media People: David Haskell, Editor in Chief of New York Magazine

Media People: Robin Givhan of The Washington Post

Media People: Graydon Carter and Alessandra Stanley of Air Mail

Media People: Linsey Davis, ABC News Live Prime and World News Tonight Sunday Anchor

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