Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Desiree Rogers, Johnson Publishing Co.

Former White House Staffer's Top Priority: Growing Ebony and Jet Mags' Digital Presence

By Published on .

In 2009, after shot-calling stints at Allstate Financial, Chicago utility Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas and the Illinois State Lottery, Desiree Rogers embarked on what would become her most high-profile role yet, as White House social secretary for the Obama administration. On the job for a little more than a year and credited with the success of more than 300 events, Ms. Rogers left the White House after taking the heat for the much-hyped "gate crashers" incident in which an uninvited couple managed to slip into a state dinner.

Desiree Rogers
Desiree Rogers

With Washington behind her, the New Orleans native returned to Chicago and in August was named CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., which owns Ebony and Jet. "After leaving the White House, I knew I wanted to work on something exciting and iconic, and I couldn't think of a better landing strip," said Ms. Rogers, 51. "And while I have great respect for what [founder] John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice, created, I knew it was time for a change."

It's a change that advertisers and readers are finally beginning to see. In March, Ebony unveiled its first cover-to-cover redesign in its 65-year history, involving the introduction of a new logo and several new sections, including Elevate. "The intent is to inspire, elevate and educate, speaking from an authentic African-American voice. We want our readers to live the best life they can live," Ms. Rogers said. "It's about a new movement, a new call to action."

While progression of its readers is key, Ms. Rogers and Johnson Publishing have their work cut out for them. After Ebony saw a decline in ad pages of 11.2% in 2010, compared to a 0.1% drop across magazines as a whole, according to the Publishers Information Bureau (the prior year ad pages toppled 38.9% while magazines on the whole fell 25.6%), the company made the decision to overhaul its sales department and outsource its circulation management. The publishing house has also been slow to advance its digital presence, an issue Ms. Rogers says is a top priority.

Transitional challenges aside, recent bright spots for Ebony -- such as two successful partnerships with Macy's and Sony Pictures' "Jumping the Broom," which incorporated cosmetic lines from Fashion Fair, the beauty-products subsidiary of Johnson Publishing -- signal a promising rebound for the company. "It's important that we're not salespeople but, rather, marketers," Ms. Rogers said. "It's not about selling a page, it's about how can we provide solutions to what [advertisers] are encountering, and how we can ensure our readers are receiving their message."

The message Ms. Rogers stresses to her team as it looks to rebuild is one of learning your lesson. "Life is about continuing to learn and continuing to move forward. Spend less time talking about why something didn't work and focus on the solutions. Just keep it moving. Like I always say, I'm gonna fall in my heels, but I always get back up smarter."

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