Media Interview with Mandie Gower, editor of Zest
This month saw the reveal of the redesigned Zest magazine, now fitter, fresher and…zestier! In today's chat with editor Mandie Gower, find out how changing trends in women's fitness influenced the magazine's makeover, as well as the importance of brand expansion to keep readers running out to get the latest issue.
What prompted the recent redesign, and can you take us through some of the new elements in the magazine?
We felt that attitudes to health and fitness have significantly changed over the last few years. Our long-term readers have always prioritised their wellbeing, but recently living holistically has become part of the zeitgeist, and we recognised that some women might not associate themselves with traditional health and fitness magazines. There’s this new tribe of women who are really into taking care of themselves, and generally trying to be good to themselves, without being slaves to it – rather than being niche hobbies, running a 10k, trying different superfoods, or going on a yoga break as a holiday is now part of a fashionable lifestyle. It’s the way we live, not something that we simply do as an emergency measure, and we wanted the magazine to reflect these new converts to healthy living too.
We’ve always been experts in health and fitness but we started to think about what healthy really means – if you’re stressed, frantic, or you’ve got baggage from a bad break-up, it doesn’t matter how many marathons you’ve run, or that you’re a size ten, you’re actually not completely healthy. So we’ve added more about inner health. And we also added features for those times when you don’t have time to follow an eating plan – what’s there for you when you’re not looking for a new workout to follow? Compelling reads and beautiful shoots that you can curl up with on the sofa with, alongside all our expert content for say, when you hit the gym. In short, we wanted Zest to be much more of a healthy lifestyle companion, with something for every aspect of your life, while keeping all of the expert content that we’re known for.
Will the increased focus on self-development change the way the editorial team put the issues together?
That content has always been there, but it’s becoming more ‘coverline-able’. We recognise that it’s a bigger draw for our readers, so we’re shouting about it a bit more. Health, fitness and nutrition are equally important though. Everything we do is very expert-driven, and we have high profile experts in all areas. Our resident life coach is psychologist Emma Kenny, our GP is Dr Pixie from 'Embarrassing Bodies', and we’ve just signed Dame Kelly Holmes as our fitness expert which we’re hugely excited about .
What makes Zest stand out from the other titles in the same sector?
We’ve been the number one monthly women’s health magazine for about five years, and I think that’s down to the fact that we offer a well-rounded package, with real authority and practical info alongside lots of inspiration and positivity – it’s quite a unique package. If you want a recipe, a holiday idea, skincare tips, a new workout idea, relationship advice, it’s in there. It’s your life, but with a ‘Zesty’ twist. And there’s a really strong Zest community – not only is the magazine very supportive and encouraging, but readers really feel part of a gang, blogging at zest.co.uk, meeting at our events, talking to our experts in our web chats, and swapping tips on twitter and in our forums.
Zest has been publishing for around 20 years?
Just under, around 18/19 years, yeah…
How do you think personal fitness goals have changed for women in that time, and how does the magazine reflect this?
I think that the ideal of trying to live up to celebrities is on the wane. We’re not exactly a celebrity-free zone, but we rarely put them on the cover and we don’t have loads in the magazine. I think our readers find it refreshing that we’re about being the ‘best you’, instead of trying to be ‘like her’.
Women are also much more motivated by achieving something these days. Yes, our readers want to be healthy and fit, but often it’s about breaking out of your comfort zone and trying something different. It’s gone beyond “I’m going to the gym because I want to lose half a stone,” people are waking up to the mental benefits a bit more.
And the explosion of events and communal group challenges – 10ks, 5ks, and cycling is huge now. It’s a badge of honour to do those things, and less about “it’s going to change my legs!” Fitness is becoming more sociable, and those events really tap into that. The achievement you get at the end is something you can’t get from a treadmill.
Do the editorial team take part in events together?
Yeah, we do! We’re not serial marathon runners; we reflect the readership, I think but, yeah, we run events together – there’s always someone doing something! We have our own Zest challenge event in June (I did it last year) – A 10k obstacle course that’s really fun. The team have done trekking and climbing challenges, marathons, and cycled London to Paris, so we do live it, but it’s not about being obsessive. It’s about thinking, “yeah, I’d like to give that a go!” We definitely reflect that.
Describe a typical day at work, if there is one…
There’s never a typical day at work! But… safe to say, it includes coming in and first checking Zest.co.uk, Twitter and our Facebook page, a quick flick through the papers, then there’s always an update with the team, whether it’s forward planning features, or discussing an upcoming shoot. At the moment we’re planning a covers trip where some of the team will shoot covers and beauty stories abroad, so there might be a catch-up on the budget for that. I go through the proofs and layouts; I always read every bit of copy that comes through before it’s designed. Planning events is a big thing at the moment – there’s the event coming up in June, so I’ll meet with the events team and get an update on the ticket sales, the different challenges we’re adding, and the people who are going to be exhibiting there.
There’s so much beyond the magazine now – we work on specials, we did a standalone nutrition bookazine (we’re working on our second one of those now). There’re so many things!
And there’s a lot going on out of the office. This morning I was at the Jasmine Awards as we’d been nominated for two awards, and I’m out with a PR for dinner tonight; it’s very busy. There’s no typical day, but there’s a lot going on.
To be a successful magazine in today’s climate, is brand expansion vital?
Definitely. Monthly magazines are brilliant because you have the space to go into more detail with topics and features, not just a top line on a health story. But a month is a long time, and loyal readers who really buy into the brand want more. We’re used to getting constant news all the time now, every second there’s something new on twitter and Facebook and our brains are conditioned to want things more quickly, so you’ve got to be out there.
For our brand, where we’re motivating women to try things and experiment, it makes sense that we give them not just the inspiration to do it, but the means to do it. So last year we launched a series of masterclasses – a happiness masterclass, we’re doing a day’s running class next month, and of course we have our annual 10k. It works when it’s a natural extension of the brand, and there are so many obvious ways that we can extend ours. Readers can go online and see a workout in practice, find an eating plan, and we do web chats with experts, bringing our content to the readers wherever they are.
Do you still plan features far in advance?
PRs often ask about a features list, and of course we have to plan (we work three months in advance), but we try to be as agile as possible so that if there’s a better story that comes along, we’ll swap it out. There are sections of the magazine that are more fixed – recipes and travel, for instance.
About Zest and freelance journalists
How should freelance journalists pitch ideas for the magazine?
They shouldn’t pitch to me, or email me asking who to pitch to! If you’re a journalist, you should be skilled in finding things out. It always worries me when people email me to ask. That means you haven’t bought the magazine. So, that’s a pet hate, if I’m honest! After all, you might have a brilliant idea, but if it’s sent to me, it could easily be missed as my day is so busy.
Of all the press releases that come through for Zest on a daily basis, what percentage of them result in a feature?
I try to scan things, but editors are always racing around – if you’re pitching, the editor really isn’t the best place to start. The ones that come to me… probably a really small percentage!
My team are coming up with the ideas, and they don’t come purely from press releases; we get ideas from what we see going on around us. The features editor might be over in New York and find a new fitness trend, and then we might get a press release that feeds into that. But our ideas come from what people are talking about – at a party, at the gym, wherever. We don’t purely take a press release and rewrite it for the magazine. You must hear that a lot.
Yes – it’s interesting, the way the relationship between PR and journalism is changing…
Yeah, I mean a PR’s job is for their client, ultimately – they’re trying to get exposure for a product or brand, which I totally respect and understand. Our job is sourcing interesting new stories – we work for our readers; there’s a big difference there. Readers don’t want to be told “here’s something new: buy it!” They’re sophisticated; they want to know, “what’s in it for me? Why is this good for me?” and Zest is all about inspiring ways of living well, so it has to be relevant and appropriate.
I think PRs need to understand that their stories and their press releases are going to become part of a bigger story. It’s best when the PR really understands the magazine and the brand and can ring the relevant person and say, “I saw you did something on this last month; here’s the new version of it, here’s a new spin on it”. Just come with something that moves on from a press release. If they can understand how it’ll be good for the publication, than that’s a big step forward, rather than just saying “we’ve launched a new trainer in a different colour”.
What’s the best thing about being editor of Zest? Is there anything you’d change about the job?
Like all editors, I'd probably say I'd like a bigger budget, a bigger team, and more pages in the magazine, because we always have so many things we want to put in that we have to make tough calls on.
The best things are working with creative people – my team, who are brilliant. Also, to be able to have a relationship with our readers, all the technological changes that have happened over the last few years – that’s something that has really improved, I think. With the redesign in March we changed a lot of things – the masthead, the cover treatment, the whole thing – and being able to see the reactions on Twitter and Facebook was heart-stopping at times, but actually really heartening and rewarding. Back in the day, you’d get letters through a few weeks later, so getting immediate feedback is amazing.
Of course, we get to test some nice things too; nice spas and things like that, that’s always lovely.
That does sound pretty good! Do you tweet personally, or on behalf of the magazine?
We tweet as a magazine, and I tweet as the editor of Zest (@zestedmandie), but invariably I’ll also connect with friends via Twitter and talk about what I’m doing on the weekend as well. So it’s a mixture of job and me.
Is it really important for editors to have a social media presence now?
I find it really useful – that constant stream of info, ideas and commentary is fascinating. It’s like earwigging on a million different conversations. As a journalist, you’re inherently nosy and keen to know what’s going on so it’s a brilliant window into all of that. I often come into the office and say “I saw this thing on Twitter!” For me, it’s invaluable, and for my team as well.
What’s your exercise of choice?
A mixture! These days I’m doing a bit more running, which is great because it’s so instant – you’re out there and you’re doing it rather than having to go to a class. I do pilates one on one. And yoga, although I haven’t done so much of that this year yet. I have a two-year-old, so it’s that juggle of trying to do a bit of everything. And as soon as it stops raining, I’ll be back out there on the tennis courts!
What do you think about the pole-dancing fad? Maybe it’s starting to go out of fashion…
In terms of a fun fitness trend, I think it’s been replaced by the trend for music video dance classes, where you’re taught the routine to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ or Rhianna, whatever. It’s working out, but it’s fun – getting you moving, getting your heart racing, but it’s also creative and you can let off steam, it’s a giggle. What I think sounds quite frightening – though I think we’re about to test it – is ‘hot spinning’. It’s like ‘hot yoga’ but, yeah, spinning in a very hot environment. Not one for the faint hearted!
Get in touch with Mandie and Zest on Twitter @zestedmandie.