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How I Got Here: Former Vogue editor and Mecca’s head of content on the importance of staying curious

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

“Have initiative, be thoughtful and be interested.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?

Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

This week, Mecca’s Head of Content, Zara Wong, shares what it takes to make it in the competitive and ever-changing world of women’s media. Zara grew up in Papua New Guinea, where working in the world of fashion always seemed like a faraway dream, but it was one she was determined to make a reality. She started out studying an arts and commerce degree in Australia, and took on an array of covetable New York-based internships at places like WWD and Vogue US before returning to our shores and undertaking an internship at Harper’s Bazaar Australia, which turned into a job post-graduation.

Zara entered the industry without any contacts or insider connections, which made her particularly driven – she cold emailed, researched, and made sure that she was a fast learner. After Harper’s Bazaar, she moved to Vogue Australia, where she worked her way up to the Fashion Features Director and Content Strategy Director roles, along the way getting to travel the world for work and interview people like Taylor Swift and Agnes Varda (yes, really).

Post-Vogue, she started her current role at Australian beauty institution Mecca, where, as the job title suggests, she heads up all content – the words, videos and photography. Zara understands the importance of remaining curious and open to new ideas, no matter where you’re at in your career, and believes that having initiative, being thoughtful and, most importantly, being interested are what’s helped her get to where she is today. Here’s what she’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title? 

I’m the Head of Content at Mecca, which means overseeing all the words, videos and photography at Mecca – the ‘content’!

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

In industries I’ve worked in, I don’t think you necessarily need to study exactly for the career you want; I did art history, English literature, finance and international business majors as part of my arts/commerce degree. I love hiring and working with people who have studied outside of their vocation, because it brings in a different way of thinking. I always did want to work in media, so I interned at WWD, American Vogue, Lane Crawford and Harper’s Bazaar, which turned into a job when I graduated.

A few years later I went to Vogue Australia where I worked my way up to Fashion Features Director and Content Strategy Director where I wrote about so many different topics (from fashion to celebrity and designer interviews), travelled annually for international fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, and started an annual summit celebrating women in technology, Vogue Codes.

Along the way I also was the online editor at Vogue Australia and ran its social media – I had the most amazing opportunities and access there. At Vogue I worked with people at who were at the top of the league in fashion media. They really honed my eye, really trained me up, backed me, and helped pave the way to some pretty can’t-believe-I-did-it-experiences (going to Rio for the Louis Vuitton cruise show, interviewing people from Dries Van Noten to Agnes Varda to Taylor Swift). I grew up in Papua New Guinea watching Style with Elsa Klensch on CNN so all of this was literally like a dream come true, not to sound all cliched.

Then, the opportunity at Mecca arose and there really isn’t anywhere else like it in Australia or New Zealand with such a focus on content alongside its physical stores and eCommerce. I genuinely think there are not many other places quite like it. We have a whole section of the website dedicated to editorial content, The Memo, which lives beyond the website and gets pushed out on Instagram, Facebook, newsletters and more. Beauty is so personal in so many ways, and we can really get into it through Mecca’s content. And, seriously, when I tell people I work at Mecca, they get all starry-eyed! That’s how you can see just how much Mecca is so beloved and respected by customers and the beauty industry.


Zara hosting a Mecca event

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?

Definitely deciding whether to even pursue a career in this space. One of my degrees was commerce so the option of going into something more straight business or finance-related was always there. And those types of careers are always more clear cut with a more defined career progression – and, there are just more of them out there, to be frank.

I remember being devasted that I wasn’t able to apply for an editorial coordinator job at a magazine that I was interning at. At the time, I was in full-time university and only had a few more subjects to go; I felt so close. It feels so silly and trivial when I think back on it now and I actually forgot about it until I read this question – but at the time I thought it was my one and only chance to go from intern to full-time employee.

Traditionally, the editorial coordinator role is where to start before moving up (yes, like The Devil Wears Prada). Those roles are quite rare because they’re so highly coveted and filled up quickly through word of mouth or by existing interns. You can’t get despondent when something doesn’t happen to ‘plan’ – because, that might not be the plan for you; it’s someone else’s plan, but not yours. There are always other chances, and it’s just being open and ready for it when it passes by again – in a way that might have looked a bit different to the first time around.

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

You need so much more than a passion for fashion or makeup. You need to understand how it works as a business, that behind the glamorous facade there’s a lot of things about it that make it like many other office jobs. (And yes, there are some “Wow, this is amazing” moments for sure – many that I regret trying to be ‘too cool’ for and not taking photos of them at the time!) The ones who don’t realise this end up getting disillusioned quickly. It can be difficult to separate the two – what is real, and what is the reality – because it literally is the business of making it look effortlessly beautiful and easy.

What’s the best part about your role?

Seeing something that goes from an idea to actually being executed, to being on a store window, or on Instagram or the website, is a thrill that doesn’t get old. It’s always so satisfying to see something to come to fruition and to get the customer feedback on it. And then, to think about what they’ve said, what else is happening in the world and in the beauty/style/fashion spheres, and applying it to the next project!

What would surprise people about your role?

Creativity isn’t just whether you can write or have a visual mind (although, that helps, especially with what I do of course). Creativity comes about in how you solve problems and come up with ingenious ways of approaching something, or interacting with people, even. Sometimes, the most creative solutions, or the most worthwhile, beautiful and interesting projects, can unexpectedly come out of constraints! You can always expect something to go wrong.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

Being adaptable and flexible. When I started, the job I have now, heading up content at a brand or jobs I’ve had before, like running websites and social media, just did not exist, and definitely not in the way they do now. I love change and I don’t mind dealing with surprises and often that’s how something really interesting actually happens. In something like what I do, the industry, environment and market are constantly evolving.

What works this year, may not work next year. And that old adage from Henry Ford about cars: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” For creatives, don’t fall in love with your work. A little bit of infatuation is nice, but being able to stand back and edit your own work is valuable.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

Keep your eyes and ears open. Social media is wonderful in so many ways, but watch film, read books, get outside your own Twitter feed, try to understand someone else’s point of view or aesthetics, even if it’s not something that you’re naturally drawn to. Inspirations and ideas are everywhere – I’m all about encouraging more cross-disciplinary thinking. I really thoroughly believe in expanding your point of view, and challenging how you see the world. Challenge yourself – every image or every sentence can be improved.

I always think of how trends happen – and I don’t mean just fashion or beauty trends, either. How many times have you not been sure about something new in technology or a type of music, and then fast-forward a few years later, not only have you adopted it, but everyone else has as well? Things don’t happen in silos, either – how will one broader change in lifestyle affect how we dress, how we eat, and how we live? Everything is so interconnected and has a knock-on effect, so I think there’s value in staying curious and open.

What about a practical tip?

Research. So much is out there on the internet now – you can reach out to people whose careers you admire to ask them for advice. And ask smart questions, because whether you’re sliding into someone’s DMs or speaking to them through work or social occasions, make the most of it. Asking them something that can be easily found with some Googling isn’t maximising your time with them. I basically got to where I am because I did so much research – I didn’t know anyone working where I wanted to work so I didn’t have any contacts or family friends, so I cold emailed, researched, and was a fast learner. Have initiative, be thoughtful and be interested.

@zara_wong

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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