Fun, fearless, female. That’s Cosmopolitan’s pay off line. It should follow, then, that the editor of the glossy, glamorous title should embrace those qualities (and be glossy and glamorous herself!)
Newly appointed editor, Sbu Mpungose, lives up to those ideals. A driving work ethic, boundless ambition and a gut feel for what her readers’ want – plus the ability to wear high high heels without toppling over – has seen this nearly-30-year-old woman, who won the 1st for Women in The Media Rising Star Award – take charge of her first job as an editor at a mere 23 years old.
“Fun? I have fun 24/7 when I’m at work. I don’t think I’m a bore. I was VERY serious when I first started out, but now I can more easily go with the flow.
“Fearless? Well, my friends have been known to pull me back from the stage and the pole when I visit strip clubs. I just want to get up there and dance. But I’m nearly 30, so it’s probably time to retire from strip clubs,” she says, laughing.
“Fearful? I do have fear in my heart when I define myself beyond what I do. You know, people talk about the ‘golden shackles of success’ and sometimes I fear letting go of my career. But with age comes grace and the ability to move on. Not that I’m planning to move on from Cosmo any time soon! But I have difficulty in envisioning my second act,” she says.
Cosmopolitan has only had two editors in all its years in South Africa. First, media titan Jane Raphaely, followed by her daughter, Vanessa. These are BIG Jimmy Choo’s to fill. But Sbu is confident. At 23, she took over the editorship of Move magazine. “I believed in this reader. I understood her. She wasn’t the media stereotype of a township woman, one who is lazy and drinks too much. I spoke to good women in the townships, and I was passionate about those readers. We looked at things differently,” she says.
Sbu had come out cadet training at Independent Newspapers, where she was told she was “too pretty for hard news”. She’d also taken the time to learn subbing skills and those, she says, gave her an edge. “I learnt to manage other people’s copy. As journalists, we have egos. As a sub, you learn to handle other people’s creativity. Sometimes I thought I was working with idiots, as the arrogance of some reporters floored me.”
But it gave her the skills to manage people, something an editor needs to do. Soon, though, Cape Town – where Move is based – became a bit small for the ambitious young woman. “I didn’t want to be the shining black person in Cape Town. I wanted to pit myself against other talented and ambitious young women. And they were in Johannesburg.” So off she went. And honed her skills on various titles, such as Bona, Drum, Edgars Club and, finally, the mass-selling True Love.
Now she’s at the helm of South Africa’s biggest selling glossy women’s interest magazine, and back in Cape Town. And it’s a challenge. “The picture is becoming clearer on a daily basis. It’s more difficult to take on a powerful brand that isn’t broken. It’s easier when they’re broken. My skill has been at turning around magazines,” Sbu says.
That’s not to say she doesn’t have ideas. “I’m concentrating on design right now. The opportunity is there to have a different visual language. The magazine has been through what Vanessa calls ‘a tweak’ but I think there’s more to be done. The other challenge is local covers. Our pool of celebrities is smaller here, but I think there’s space to tell local stories using the hook of South African celebrities.”
And the issues of black cover models, long a topic of debate? “Covers are a challenge, and it’s not just about black and white. But yes, I’d like to see more local to offset the international covers. Cosmopoliltan has always made an effort with black models. We’ve had Rihanna and Beyonce. But it is true people are nervous in slow markets, such as we’re experiencing now.”
Cosmopolitan has a strong digital presence. “We have conversations with our readers daily, and we make money off our digital product, which is the Holy Grail. But you have to also protect the print magazine,” says Sbu. She is on Twitter, using the handle @CosmoSbu, and understands that she needs to be active – like her boss, @HurricaneVaness, a prolific ‘tweeter’.
“I’ve got over 1000 followers now and get excited when I get more. But you know aggression can be heightened on Twitter, and it’s hard sometimes not being able to size up your ‘opponent’ face-to-face! And you can’t get drunk on power, like @HelenZille did with @SimphiweDana. Don’t let people bait you. BIG mistake.”
Sbu was a Cosmo reader, up until the age of 20. “I know what it did for me. It gave me confidence to learn about stuff I didn’t want to ask my mother. It had a ‘buddy’ tone of voice that was reassuring, not patronising.
Perhaps that’s something she’s taking to Cosmo? “I like to believe I’m compassionate, that I’m a good ideas ‘maker’. I can take control of a situation too, and am comfortable being in control. I used to be a ‘win-at-all-costs’ kind of person, with no empathy. But since I had my son – Qhauue, which means ‘hero’ – I try to be kind. Have eyes of encouragement,” Sbu says. Her son lives with her mother in KwaZulu-Natal. “It’s hard being away from him. But I travel a lot so this is the best solution for now.”
Her advice to young women who would like to emulate her success? “Listen, it’s so difficult. As a woman, and as a black woman in particular, you feel as if your voice is not heard. That you’re fighting your way up. It’s easy to feel discouraged. So you have to be tough. Really. And you have to find your voice. Speak up. Don’t be intimidated. It will give you the strength you need.”
Cosmo fast facts:
- Print circulation: 83 273 (Apr – Jun 2011, Total Circ, ABC)
- Weekly newsletter subscribers: more than 25 000
- Online monthly unique visitors: 45 000
- Online monthly page impressions: more than 550 000
- Mobile site: 33 000 unique visitors; 760 000 page impressions
- Facebook likes: 35 000+
- Twitter followers: 19 700+