Jessica Pels, digital director of Cosmopolitan, first moved to New York as a 14-year-old to study ballet at the American Ballet Theatre. Her parents had only one condition: Pels, coming from Atlanta, had to stay at a nunnery in Chelsea.
In her spare time between ballet practices and following the convent’s rules, Pels fell in love with the city and vowed to come back full time. Five years later she returned, studying at New York University, interning at The New Yorker and graduating with a degree in film production.
Following stints at Glamour and Teen Vogue, Pels worked her way up in the magazine industry, landing at Marie Claire as digital director in late 2014. After three years in the role, she joined Cosmopolitan in January 2018.
In just six months, Pels has pushed the boundaries of the Hearst title’s digital presence, leading a team of 40 people based in New York—all of whom are “flying a mile a minute all day, every day,” she said.
Pels oversees all the brand’s digital efforts, the website, original video production, and social and ecommerce initiatives. “There’s so much happening that there’s something new and exciting to get into almost every day,” she said.
The team has worked to establish a consistent aesthetic across social media and the website with strategies for each platform, including GIF stickers for fans on Instagram and ramped-up video production. For example, Cosmopolitan’s video crew went inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to show what it was like the first week back after a mass school shooting.
The hard work has paid off. In May, Cosmopolitan.com had a record-breaking month with 26 million unique visitors, according to comScore—up 105 percent year over year and 37 percent month over month.
In the next few months, Pels says she’ll focus on the publication’s in-depth reporting on topics including mental health and the border. She also plans to welcome a wave of new hires and further develop the brand’s storytelling via video. Oh, and maybe find some time to dance too.
“I just really love what I do,” Pels said. “I love it more than anything, and after a long, hard day—because they can be long, hard days—all I do is sit down and start editing a story, and I get excited all over again.”
Early in her career, Pels pulled an all-nighter to finish a presentation for her boss. “I was so frayed and frazzled by the time she reviewed it with me the next day that when she said she had a few changes, I abruptly excused myself (I think she was mid-sentence) and had a breakdown in the bathroom,” she said. “It was deeply embarrassing to lose my cool over such tiny edits, especially since she didn’t know I’d put in the hours.”
The experience “taught me that pushing yourself too hard has diminishing returns,” Pels said.
How She Got the Gig
It’s all about loving what you do. “My vision on management and leadership, editorial and the passion that I bring to it,” Pels said.
Pels says always take the informational interview. “I get a lot of young people who are looking to make their break into media, who email, slide into my DMs, send Twitter messages, Instagram messages. And I always do my best to say yes and meet with those people,” Pels said. “I did that, and it opened doors for me, and it helped me forge connections that I’ve never forgotten that have been helpful in my career.”