Interview: ESSENCE General Manger Joy Collins

Published July 5, 2010

The old adage “black don’t crack,” might be best applied to ESSENCE Magazine. As the publication celebrates its 40th anniversary, the brand’s exponential growth illustrates that it only gets better with time.

Joy Collins, ESSENCE Communication Inc.’s general manager is one of the leaders guiding the company’s strategic growth. Since 2008, Collins has been instrumental in sustaining the company in a challenged economic climate and increasing the ESSENCE Music Festival’s attendance by 37% from 2008 to 2009. She is certainly no stranger to success; during her time at NBC Universal as vice president of business development, she played a pivotal role in brokering  the $2.7 billion acquisition of Telemundo Communications.

In her current position, the Harvard graduate combines her professional experience and personal identity as an African-American women to make ESSENCE's case in the boardroom.  While en route to New Orleans to prepare for The ESSENCE Music Festival, she spoke to TAP about this year’s festivities, her career and the future of the ESSENCE brand.


What is a typical day like for you?


Most of my days are different.  I come in on Monday and assess the goals that we are trying to accomplish for the week. As the general manager, I partner with the leadership teams on various strategic and financial initiatives that ultimately generate growth for ESSENCE. My main [targets] are revenue and building strategies to extend ESSENCE into a full multimedia company. Weekly,  I look at the goals to help us meet our overarching business, strategic initiatives and map the steps to get us there. So, my job combines strategy, planning and execution. There are a lot of  meetings and conference calls to ensure we are hitting  our goals and executing properly.

What is it like to play a key role in the most reputable publication for African-American women?


It’s an honor. When I accepted General Manager position two years ago, I knew this position would be more than just a job. I knew that it would be a role where I could contribute to building up and giving back to the African-American community. Everyday I come in it’s about being able to provide a service to people and being able to live a purpose larger than myself, that’s really what motivates me. Day-to-day the challenges are monumental and executing our visions is no easy task but what keeps me going is the amazing team I work with and being an ambassador for Essence and all of its extensions that serve the African-American community each and everyday.


How would you characterize your leadership style?


As a leader, I set the vision and am a model to the staff. I equip them with the tools to perform their job well, step aside and empower them. I also provide balanced feedback and objectives. So while I hold everyone accountable for achieving the objectives we set out to accomplish, I also focus on rewarding the team for the things they have achieved.


Are you involved in the trenches or do you rely on the directors to stay in the know of each department’s activities?


ESSENCE is large brand with a very small and passionate team. What that means is that in addition to getting involved in the strategy, and setting the vision and goals, I am oftentimes a part of executing it. I get to roll up my sleeves and work hand in hand with the staff, who are extremely talented and gifted. Consequently, I see how they’re executing things, how they’re accomplishing their tasks and how they delegate to their team. Everyday is not only a process of modeling a better way of doing things but  also being that channel to provide feedback to the team as to how we can be more effective and efficient.


How has the digital shift impacted the ESSENCE brand?


There is no doubt that digital media is becoming a huge part of consumers’ daily activities. We have research that reveals that African-American women over index in their consumption of technology versus the women in the general market. ESSENCE is a service provider, so we know that we have to be prepared to provide information and entertainment content through devices that she is getting them from, which is digital media. So we endeavor constantly to provide those mechanisms and ESSENCE.com is a perfect example of this. We have a very robust site that provides entertainment , news, topicality and has mobile extensions. We challenge ourselves to be on the pulse of what our consumers are seeking. Essence.com is doing very well and is an integral part of the ESSENCE brand as we celebrate our 40th anniversary.


Have any advertisers showed preference of where to spend their dollars?

Our advertisers know that while digital is heavily consumed by African-American women,  the magazine over indexes the level of engagement that we provide versus our competitive set. What the magazine allows our brand to relay to our audience is still very important–the physical publication is still a valuable part of the media mix for a lot of advertisers. Digital has allowed them to augment how they are already hitting the African-American women through Essence Magazine. Oftentimes, our advertisers have integrated buys, where we create a program for them around a theme and they will express that theme in the magazine and on ESSENCE.com. it now includes digital whereas one  time it did not. The ESSENCE Music Festival is  a third leg to such a buy and a property that is reserved for our largest clients across the company.


Are there any initiatives in place to give ESSENCE a more global presence?


Yes, we are always trying to find relevant ways to extend the brand. We will be looking for opportunities to create international licensing businesses for our magazine where its applicable and makes sense. Additionally, we will be looking for ways to extend the brand into opportunities that are relevant for audiences abroad.  For example, film and television are areas we can take content that is very ubiquitous, universal in nature and extend into other regions. The ESSENCE Music Festival is another example where music is a universal experience and the artists we feature at the festival have very notable careers and are known across the globe. Our goal is to take this content and place it into those global markets. We are actually looking into an opportunity to have The ESSENCE Musical Festival broadcast in London and other regions.

How is the success of ESSENCE measured?


In this day we are all reminded that we operate for profit. As the leadership team, we have to ensure that we are financially, fiscally responsible in delivering profitability for ESSSENCE and ensuring our ongoing concerns. In the end, our audience is the voice lets us know that we are on track in the obligation to serve them. We do a fair deal of consumer research that allows us to experience ESSENCE through the lens of the consumer. We want to know what they come to ESSENCE for, if there were three things they could say about the brand, what would those things be? What are those those things they want ESSENCE to provide more of? It’s an ongoing focus group, so to speak, to make sure we are on target with providing our audience what she needs, when she needs and how she needs it.


What are your responsibilities in respect to The ESSENCE Music festival?


I oversee The ESSENCE Musical Festival. I am the person who sets the strategic and financial objectives for the Essence brand. I also organize the staff, various work plans, and talent to make sure we meet the objectives. I am responsible for overseeing the relationship we built with New Orleans and the state of Louisiana and executing the festival every year. I am responsible for the revenue operations of the festival which include our sponsorship and ticket sales.  I bring on necessary vendors, the production company and our partners together to make sure that at the end of the day, we have a successful event, not only for ESSENCE, Time Inc., but for our festival goers as well.


What can be expected from this year’s festival?


This years festival is exciting! We are celebrating our 40th anniversary and we worked hard to put together the best line up the festival has ever seen. We said, ‘as we reflect on 40 years of the ESSENCe Magazine legacy, how can we use a musical festival to translate what ESSENCE has meant to people all those years?’ So we found three of the most beautiful women to ever grace the cover [Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson and Alicia Keys] and we made them the headliners this year. I am really excited because you will see the covers of ESSENCE Magazine come to life in our evening performances this year. I cannot wait myself. We are putting together a 40th anniversary tribute that we will do each night and to have the beauty and likeness of these ladies as headliners is so exciting. Everything they’re about, from their beauty to their stories are what helped ESSSENCE be what it is. The dynamic performers that we have throughout the entire weekend and empowerment seminars are amazing. In my opinion, there has never been a lineup like it.


Who will be on the panels of the empowerment seminars?


Each day is designed to have its own personality. Some of the lineup includes, Steve Harvey, Sherri Shepard, Hill Harper and Ed Gordon. On Saturday July 3rd, we are having our first ever education summit. We want to dig deep and discover the gap facing the African-American community, as they relate to educating our children. How do we provide solutions for empowering parents and motivating students and for closing the gap to fulfill the dream. That day so many people will be there including, Al Sharpton, Jada Pinkett-Smith, CEOs of companies, presidents of colleges and Tom Joyner. On Sunday, we will wrap it up with our gospel tribute to Kirk Franklin, Shirley Ceaser, Bishop Paul & Deborah Morton.


What about the economic contributions the ESSENCE Music festival brings to the city of New Orleans?


We’ve always looked at the relationship we have had with New Orleans and Louisiana as being paramount to creating a successful event. When ESSENCE comes to New Orleans, we take over the city. To be able to bring 428,000 people to the city, as we did in 2009 is no small feat but a tremendous gift. We deliver about $200 million of economic impact by way of hospitality, food and beverage, retail and transportation. The partnership has its merits and benefits, not only in what it generates for ESSENCE and consumers but also what it does for New Orleans and we look forward to continuing that in the future.


What is the most important professional lesson you have learned since joining ESSENCE in 2008?


The challenges to grow our brand in the current economic climate to where it needs to be–for our customers and for the next forty years looking–is not easy. However, focusing on the task at hand that is bigger than ourselves has to be the anchor that gets us through and keeps us motivated. For me, what enables me to deliver the results and step into the challenges is that gift of service that ESSENCE provides. Ultimately, what I have learned to do is to stay focused on that purpose.


What has been your formula for climbing the corporate ladder?


It has been as much about my character, as it has been my ability to perform. I work hard everyday at being the best I can be and I work hard at learning. In addition to producing results everyday, I am taking in what I need to do to constantly expand myself to become a better person and become more effective at what I do. I am always focusing to ensure my character is one of humility and grace. As an African-American women, I believe our gift to corporate is our ability to stay graceful and calm in anything that we do. I take that with me in every single meeting and deal negotiation and that’s what the ESSENCE brand is all about.


If you could pinpoint one success you have influenced in all your positions which would it be?


It has been The ESSENCE Music Festival. It touches me deeply when we get an e-mail or a letter from a consumer or even when staff comes to me and says “The Essence Music Festival has grown to be more than it has ever been.” It has grown from 270,000 people in 2008 to 428,000 in 2009. That is a gift and great accomplishment.


In five years Joy Collins will be…


A stronger leader and giver to my family, job, friends and community.

For more interviews, news and commentary, visit the Atlanta Post.com

Written by <P>By De'Juan Galloway, The Atlanta Post</P>

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