Time might be an elusive concept for many of us these days, but for Vanessa Craft, the demarcation of the seasons came in a rather marked way in 2020: a slide from editor-in-chief of Elle Canada to a senior position at TikTok.
She did what?
The news, when it swung this fall, stirred a fair bit of talk in the concentric orbits of Toronto media and fashion. And though Craft, known for her easy charm and her rainforest of hair, is hardly the first journo at large to make the move from a legacy magazine to the tentacles of tech — Eva Chen was the Amelia Earhart when she transitioned from the editor’s perch at Lucky to a top post at Instagram — she is part of a fresher platoon: masthead-types at both Marie Claire and Nylon, among others, scouted for jobs at Pinterest and Netflix, respectively, in recent months.
“You get to a point in your career where you ask: what are my values?” Craft started to tell me when I rang her up to get the scoop, mere weeks into her life as — exact title! — director of content partnerships, Canada. “With TikTok, it is a new way of looking at storytelling … the democratization of storytelling.”
Her goal? To help encourage content from both industrious newbies as well as established brands. Up there on her to-do list these days, she mentions: get the Art Gallery of Ontario on TikTok!
Talking to me as much as she was speaking, perhaps, with her 1995 self — reflecting back to a time when being the editor-in-chief of a big brand publication might have been the be-all pinnacle in the media-sphere — she continued: “Coming from magazines, and from fashion magazines, in particular … you are always obsessed with the new, obsessed with what is happening right now. And obviously that is the transferable thing here: what is more happening than this?”
TikTok’s short videos and delightful DIY chaos are seen by many to be the social-media freight train of the pandemic; the New York Times writes that it’s the fastest growing platform, with over 800 million active users, more than Twitter, Reddit or Snapchat. The app’s emergence has been everywhere lately: from starting no end of dance crazes on the planet to health authorities using its feeds to boost mask-wearing (Toronto Mayor John Tory has used it this way!) to the manner in which it’s been leveraged for food demos, even by folks old enough to remember the Cold War.
“Nonna TikTok is one of my favourite places to be!” Craft interjected enthusiastically when I brought up videos I’ve caught of pasta-bearing Italian grannies.
With the world of politics not exempt from the social-media behemoth either, many have noted how much TikTok made a splash during the 2020 election, and also how it was used to generate messaging during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer. This, despite some of the politics around TikTok itself, with Trump attempting to outright ban the app based on Chinese security concerns — a matter delved into with great detail on a recent episode of “60 Minutes.” (My own TikTok obsession came via Claudia Conway, the wilful teenage daughter caught between her politically minded — and politically divergent — parents, George and Kellyanne Conway. Using her feed as a Morse code of sorts, while also spilling tea from behind the walls of the Trump presidency, her TikTok has been one of the best shows of 2020 — full stop!)
Craft is one of the more high-profile hires this year at TikTok’s rapidly growing Canadian headquarters, coming soon to Liberty Village and led by Canadian GM Daniel Habashi. Stopping to talk about her career arc, Craft — who grew up here near Finch Avenue West and Weston Road, and faced her own share of barriers — tells me: “I did not have resources that would have been helpful. I had to make my own path. My whole career trajectory is remembering what it was like not to belong.”
Her motto? She calls it “inclusive aspiration.”
Her own winding road — winding roads being the stuff of most interesting careers, I find — included moving to the U.K. in her teens, using the bucks she saved up from a job at Ticketmaster. She stayed for more than a decade, hopping from jobs in music to fashion and even, for a stint, to a secretarial gig which really helped her master the art of making a mean cuppa tea. As she told me: “The Brits are obsessed!”
Living overseas helped sharpened her social instincts and also helped nurture that one most vital natural resource: courage.
Reflecting on her years at Elle Canada — she joined the mag in 2011 and held the top job for the last four — she says that what she is most proud of is bringing in more voices and faces. And new engagement. Example: the cover she shot earlier this year with Stephan James and Winnie Harlow, two Canadians making their marks in different ways. They did the shoot on Eglinton Avenue West — highlighting their Jamaican-Canadian connections — and Craft was thrilled to see that issue hit a chord. It was third for the year in sales, in fact — behind editions with safer cover subjects like Beyoncé and Céline Dion. (Sadly, Elle shut down its Toronto office last month, shortly after Craft left.)
When I mention that something that stands out for me is an article she herself penned a while back about the multi-generational impact of hair in her family — her mother had long, silky blond hair while she took after her African-American father who sported a ’fro — she confirms that, yes, it elicited much response. In that piece, she talked about having a daughter who has fine, soft hair herself — and the emotional negotiations rising from that — but turns out she has an update. “I actually need to revise that piece because now my daughter’s hair is as curly as mine!”
Speaking of that daughter, Cleo — now 15 — she confirms that her new job at TikTok has, indeed, garnered her some mega-cool mom points. “You know it has! How could it not?” she says, laughing.
“She could not wait to tell her friends. I told them, though: do not come for me to get verified! Elle was one thing … but this is the ultimate clout. ”
Vanessa Craft points to six Canadian TikToks to check out:
“He joined TikTok less than a year ago as a Ryerson grad with an affinity for reality TV and comedy — now has an agent with CAA!”
“James Jones is an Indigenous creator sharing his life and story with the world.”
“Financial literacy and education = one of my favourite growing educational content channels on the platform.”
“A compellingly creative and inspirational approach to styling thrift finds.”
“Mayor Tory has gone all in on the platform sharing safety messages around COVID-19.”
“A wonderful account highlighting Ethiopian food and culture.”