Posted 30 November 2023
Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Emma Lees

How Emma Lees is tackling growing up through storytelling

Mental health, messy feelings and major life changes – these are just a few of the big topics that Emma Lees covers in Growing Pains, a magazine dedicated to real people and the challenges they’ve faced. It’s a deeply personal project: Emma was inspired to start collecting these stories after encountering difficult situations of her own, such as seeing friends suffer serious health issues and experiencing burnout in her first job. “I wanted to make the guidebook that I wished I had when I was younger,” she explains – and so Growing Pains was born. Here, Emma opens up about pursuing passion projects, getting back into studying, and overcoming struggle through storytelling.

Emma Lees

Emma Lees

Job Title

Student and Editor-in-Chief of Growing Pains



Previous Employment

Account Executive, Frame Communications, 2022-2023

Place of Study

MSc Creative Advertising, Edinburgh Napier University, 2023-2024
BA Media and Communication, Glasgow Caledonian University, 2022-2023


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I would say that I wear a few different hats! At Growing Pains, I edit and write interviews as well as make lists of topics to include.

Initially, the magazine was centred on mental health issues that commonly affect young adults, like anxiety and depression. But I started to include topics that weren’t talked about as often – such as dementia, psychosis and schizophrenic disorders – after realising how little understanding we have about some of these problems.

For instance, I had a friend who was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases in our early twenties and the diagnostic process was hellish. It’s upsetting to see someone you grew up with stuck in a limbo where they’re constantly unwell but have no answers. Other people – especially in the workplace – might also struggle to wrap their head around how an invisible illness manifests. You could look fine one day but be unwell the next day, and you aren’t going to understand how that feels from typing “lupus” into Google. With these illnesses, it has to be in that person’s own words.

Emma Lees Magazine

Print edition of Growing Pains

Emma Lees Magazine Contents

Topics covered in the first issue

So, in a way, the magazine was born out of hindsight and situations where I felt a bit like I had failed people. I wanted to make Growing Pains a sort of guidebook that I wished I had when I was younger, with stories that people would relate to and feel seen by, along with solid tips on how to help. For each topic, I find someone to share about their experience as well as an illustrator who brings their story to life.

Alongside that, I’m currently studying a master’s in Creative Advertising.

“I wanted to make the guidebook that I wished I had when I was younger, with stories that people would relate to and feel seen by.”

You were working for a while before starting your master’s, so what made you decide to return to studying?
When I graduated from my BA and started working in account management, I felt a bit like an octopus: I put a lot of myself into the job, which didn’t come naturally to me, and felt quite burnt out. That also made me pull back from working on Growing Pains.

I realised I wanted to move into the creative side but I wasn’t sure how to switch from one department to another. So I started looking around for opportunities to work on briefs and get feedback from agencies, which is how I came across the MSc programme. I’m not actually sure where I first heard about it, but I can’t recommend it enough.

The course mainly helps you develop into either a copywriter, art director, or a hybrid of both. It can also lead you into other areas of the industry – such as strategy, marketing, or account management – and really supports you in developing your ideas and skills.

Emma's master's cohort

You get so many interesting briefs to work on in class, and everyone on the course is passionate and excited to come in each day. It’s worlds away from my undergrad where there was a collective sense of doom (but that was also during the lockdown, so it was a generally doom-filled time). We have lots of group projects too, so you quickly build experience working with a range of people and personalities. It’s a lot of fun – and a bit like creative speed dating!

It’s also amazing for networking as we get to meet experienced creatives who we wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from through guest lectures. I’m not the most amazing at networking, so it’s a great way to meet people in the industry if you’re a bit shy. It really boosts your confidence when connecting with people.

”I wanted to move into the creative side but I wasn’t sure how to switch from one department to another. So I started looking around for opportunities, which is how I came across the MSc programme.”

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
I’m really enjoying working on the D&AD New Blood competition briefs as well as different passion projects for my master’s. They can be about anything, but I’ve found myself leaning towards campaigns about mental health and wellness. I’m always tinkering away at things on my portfolio website as well and always keen for feedback!

Also, when I was working as an account manager last Christmas, I got to put forward some really cool ideas for a collaboration between the IRN-BRU Carnival, an annual indoor funfair in Glasgow, and NAF! Salon, an award-winning nail salon. I even got to work with an artist who I had met through Growing Pains, so that was a special crossover for me. That was really fun and got some great coverage.

Selling Growing Pains at the House of NAF Christmas market

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
The broad range of things I studied during my BA in Media and Communication really came in handy when I started Growing Pains. I think that’s the good part about studying Media and Comms instead of specialising in, say, marketing, journalism, film or radio production – you dabble in a lot of different modules, so you get to figure out what you enjoy and find useful to take forward with you. I had also interviewed people for a blog that I started years ago, so I already had a lot of practice with that.

As a writer, I think the main skill you need is to be really curious about people and follow where your interests lead you. For example, I already had an interest in illustrators and would follow lots of them on Instagram. So when I started making the magazine, there were a bunch of people I already knew I wanted to work with and I reached out to them.

“As a writer, you need to be really curious about people and follow where your interests lead you.”

With making your own magazine (or making anything, really), you have to be self-disciplined and set your own deadlines – but you also have to be good at knowing when to turn off and take a breather. For about a year, I would be sending and replying to emails wherever I was - whether that was at home, in bed, in the pub, or out for dinner. I was a woman possessed by emails. I’ve realised now that it’s okay to step away from the screen and be in the moment sometimes.

How I got here

What inspired you to start your own magazine?
I actually started making Growing Pains for a college project. We were tasked to make either a podcast, a script, or a magazine, and I chose the latter as I wanted to make a collection of stories about people I knew in real life, talking about real things they had experienced. The pandemic happened and our graded units were scrapped, but by then so many people had shared stories with me and it just grew from there.

The main inspiration behind it was probably my mum and her work as a psychiatric nurse. She’s seen a lot from her experiences working in psychiatric units, so she always has great advice and an ease around things that seem overwhelming and scary. She also used to have all these little health leaflets, which were colourful and fun to look at but dealt with serious topics.

The experiences that my friends and I were having while growing up also inspired the theme of the magazine. I wanted to make a collection of stories that teenagers and those in their early twenties could relate to or empathise with, so that they could better understand what others are going through and how to be there for them. Whether it’s something that’s happening to your friend, sibling, or parent – when you have an inside look into an issue and can ask questions, you get a totally different understanding and set of tools for when you next come across it.

Emma Lees Magazine 1

A spread from the magazine on sexuality

Emma Lees Magazine 2

A spread from the magazine on fibromyalgia

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
When I was first starting out, it was very liberating to make something that I liked in the way I wanted to make it. I spent a lot of time watching Youtube videos about how to use InDesign and drove myself up the wall at times trying to figure out how to make what I had in my head, but I tried to be realistic about what I could learn on my own and what I should ask for help with.

How did you go about reaching out to guests and landing interviews?
At first, I mainly interviewed people I personally knew. I then branched out and began contacting people online or on social media who had experiences with the topics I was covering. Sometimes, people even contacted me directly saying that they had a story which fit with the theme of the magazine and I would be happy to include it.

With all my interviewees, I would send a giant email explaining what the magazine was about and how I wanted it to be something that people can see themselves or their loved ones in. To get more out of the interviews, I would also add prompts beyond the standard questions. This helped when people sometimes answered without giving much context, which meant there weren’t any personal details that stood out and related to the readers.

I think communicating all of that made people feel quite safe doing the interviews, and it’s built a really sincere community around the magazine. I heard from a lot of interviewees that it was quite therapeutic to sit down and put these stories into words. Many had shared snippets of their experiences to people close to them but never fully told anyone what happened from A to Z.

I’ve said it before, but I think there’s a lot of power in storytelling, especially after something frightening or difficult has happened to you. It allows you to take back a bit of control over the narrative.

“There’s a lot of power in storytelling, especially after something difficult has happened. It allows you to take back control over the narrative.”

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Being stuck in a cycle of feeling like I never have enough time as it’s been challenging at times to juggle the magazine with my other commitments. I think we all feel like that at some point! I like using things like Trello and blocking out time on a calendar to see how much I can get done in a certain amount of time. I usually end up doing much more that way, as compared to if I had the whole stretch of a day or night to potter about and get distracted.

Also, finding an entry-level role after graduating from my BA was difficult. A lot of jobs advertise being entry-level with entry-level pay, but they want years(!) of experience, so you really have to start early with trying to get internships and jobs before your final year.

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful to your work or career, what would they be and why?
is so handy for mocking things up quickly, creating social posts and even making pitch decks. Adobe InDesign has been essential for creating the magazine. And 13 Going On 30! The movie inspired me to make a magazine with no ads – just stories about real people and real things that have happened to them.

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
A social media account is pretty crucial for starting a passion project that you want other people to be interested in. It also helps to have a community cheering you on, giving you feedback and ultimately holding you accountable.

If you are collaborating with people, especially people with a bigger online audience than you, definitely tag their accounts in your posts. Hopefully they’ll share it and get more eyes on what you’ve been working on. Not to mention, people like to be a part of the process and see everything come to life together.

Bribing friends to stage social content for the magazine

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Realistically, I don’t think a lot of people can say that their creative passion projects are their day jobs. I spent so much of my own money that I didn’t earn back for the magazine, but it didn’t really matter to me at the end of it. I got to work on a project I loved and I’m proud of it - it’s something that really speaks to who I am and what I care about.

As for working in the creative industries generally, everything you do is a big investment of your time and you might not see that reflected monetarily as much as you would like. When I first left university, I realised I had friends working in supermarkets and fast food companies that were making more money than me – but they weren’t waking up in the morning feeling the way I was. If you love what you are doing, that tradeoff is worthwhile to me.

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes you have would recommend to get into your sector?
If you are interested in the creative industries, or just want to be a better creative, definitely check out the MSc Creative Advertising course at Edinburgh Napier. I can’t say enough good things about the course and the team who run it - George, Alex and Visia.

“I had friends making more money than me – but they weren’t waking up feeling the way I was. If you love what you are doing, that tradeoff is worthwhile.”

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
My parents have always told me that it’s okay not to do things that I don’t love doing, so I definitely spent a lot of time experimenting with different jobs and courses before I found something that I enjoyed. Another piece of advice is to know that everybody else feels like an imposter too!

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Be persistent! Don’t be afraid of being annoying – people want to know that you are keen. It’s better to be a bit annoying than unknown.

Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Emma Lees