Finding a job in the ever-evolving digital space can be one hell of a rollercoaster, especially when there aren't formal courses for half of the roles out there. Melanie Mahony, a senior strategist at VICE's creative agency, VIRTUE, started off in journalism before setting off to work with big brands including Contiki and QANTAS. We chatted to Mel about how she got her foot in the door, and how she logs off in a job that requires her to almost always be online.
frankie is a media partner of the Women of the Web forum, where Melanie will be presenting a talk on why representation matters in online media. WOW Sydney is happening May 10, 2019 and will bring together women leaders in the digital space to partake in important discussions.
You started out studying journalism, then pioneered native content at JUNKEE. How did you work your way up to your current role? I always had my sights set on working in digital publishing, and had a strong idea of the companies I wanted to work for, with VICE being the holy grail from the get-go. I started off interning – I did my uni placement at triple j TV, volunteered as a breakfast radio producer for Radio Adelaide, interned briefly in editorial at Crikey and finally in editorial at inthemix, which was a dance music publication owned by Junkee.
I landed my first job with Junkee as a team assistant and after 12 months, I moved into a marketing executive role. I progressed by saying yes to any opportunity or request that came my way and worked hard to do things well. In hindsight, I do have some mixed feelings about the ‘just say yes’ attitude because I think people are often taken advantage of. A good attitude is paramount, but not at the expense of your personal life or wellbeing. Now I believe it’s more about knowing when to say no, rather than always saying yes.
I eventually gravitated towards strategy and VICE’s creative agency VIRTUE because it allows me to research and make sense of really different and interesting topics and trends, but with an application beyond just writing an article that someone may or may not read. It also has a commercial and business side to it, which I’ve always liked.
What does your job at VIRTUE involve on a day-to-day basis? VIRTUE is a full service creative agency and we work with brands to help them become relevant in culture, whether it be through branding, new product development, advertising, content, events and more. There is no standard day, which is exciting but sometimes disorientating. If we’re working on a project or pitch for a new client, I’ll be in research mode which means crunching data, doing field research, conducting audience interviews or focus groups, plus lots of reading (articles, academic papers, social media). I also spend a lot of time on the phone to our creative team in Melbourne working through campaigns and ideas. Other days, we’re out pitching or meeting with clients so I’ll be Uber-ing around town, or flying down to Melbourne to do workshops or presentations.
What exactly does being a strategist in your field mean? There are different types of strategists out there. Content strategy is about using data and audience insights to find out what topics and information people want and need in their lives, and where and how said content should be distributed. Brand strategy is about looking at and understanding culture, the audience, the category and the product so your brand can find an original way to connect with your audience. You then use that direction to inform great creative ideas.
Did you feel any internal conflict going from journalism to working in branded content? I’ve always taken the approach that any branded content we make should be as good (if not better) than anything editorial would publish. All content is funded in some way at the end of the day – branded content is just a more overt version of this. Branded content and hard news are not the same thing, so I’ve never felt like I was doing journalism an injustice by working with brands. I try and approach everything with an audience first point of view, but it can be a very tricky balance to strike between the client’s objectives and what I know the audience wants or needs.
How do you explain your job to your parents? When I worked in digital media, I use to just say, “It’s like a magazine, but on the internet.” However my mum did once tell someone I got paid to party so I’m not sure they ever quite got it. Now that I’m working with VIRTUE, it’s a little easier to explain as it’s closer to advertising, which they understand because they see ads on TV.
How do you maintain a healthy digital diet? I am regularly deleting Instagram from my phone and installing it again. I throw no shade at people who enjoy scrolling through or posting to Instagram, but I’ve found that it’s really not healthy for me. If I need it for work, I’ll use the desktop version as I don’t find myself getting stuck in a vortex that way. I have grand plans of creating a new account and just following stuff that adds value to my life, but it doesn’t seem like the best use of my time at the moment.
What excites you about working in the digital space? Digital is endless and somewhat egalitarian; everyone can participate and you don’t need to conform to a page size or time slot. If you want to self-publish a book or make a three-hour podcast, you can. I also love that it has allowed us to see perspectives and information from all over the world. I think this has played a huge role in how much more open-minded and accepting younger generations are today.
What's your favourite campaign you’ve worked on so far? My favourite is one that's currently in the works, so I can't say just yet. But if I had to cast my mind back, I would say that running a 'House Party' competition with Future Music Festival, where the winner got to have Swedish House Mafia DJ at their house to 30 of their mates was pretty unbelievable and an invaluable learning experience.
What would you tell your 20-year-old self? To spend more time with your friends and family because they are what matters most. Also, to maybe drink a little less and start doing pilates sooner.
Catch Melanie and a dozen other kick-arse guest speakers at WOW Sydney.