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How I Got Here: The Publisher of Pedestrian Group on why you shouldn’t romanticise the media industry

WORDS BY MAGGIE ZHOU

“Whether you’re an intern or an exec, a good idea is a good idea.”

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?


We bring you weekly career advice. Head on over to our Careers page for all the tips of the trade.


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, we chat to Vanessa Lawrence, the publisher of Pedestrian Group. With seven publications under her watchful eye, Vanessa has overseen the growth of some of Australia’s top publications. She began her career by undertaking her fair share of unpaid internships before creeping her way up the ladder in Grazia and Elle.

Not many people can say that they’ve helped launched as many media publications as Vanessa has. Not many people could also say that they flew to Tokyo to interview Scarlet Johansson or sipped champagne next to Roger Federer in France. Despite her flashy big career moments, Vanessa continues to work out what a healthy work-life looks like for her. She holds a wealth of knowledge and so generously shares many gold nuggets of advice with us today.

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

I’m the Publisher of Pedestrian Group, which is home to Pedestrian.TV, Vice Australia, Business Insider Australia, Gizmodo Australia, Lifehacker Australia, Kotaku Australia and the soon-to-launch Refinery29 Australia! I’m responsible for overseeing all the content across our portfolio, as well as our native editorial/affiliate team. There’s also a large commercial element to my role; in the simplest terms, I ensure our brands are represented authentically in-market.

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.

I started out in print, with dreams of becoming editor-in-chief of a women’s title like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. Desperate to get a foot in the door, I did the requisite 1000 unpaid internships at Are Media (then ACP Magazines) during my senior years at high school and while I studied journalism at university. I finally got a break as a junior writer on Grazia, when it was still a weekly magazine, and worked my way up to news editor over the next few years. When I caught the travel bug, I left to backpack around Europe and eventually settled in London, where I freelanced for a bunch of newspapers and magazines.

Two years after I left Sydney, the opportunity to be features editor on the relaunch of Elle magazine in the Australian market came up and it was too tempting to refuse – how often do you get to work on a launch in media these days?! I packed up my bags and came home to work under one of my now-mentors, Justine Cullen, who was the editor-in-chief of Elle for a number of years. I was leading the department when one of the co-founders of Pedestrian.TV reached out to gauge my interest in taking on the role of head of editorial. It was a new role in the business and, if I’m being completely honest, taking a job in digital felt like cheating on magazines. But the opportunity scared the shit out of me, so I knew it was something I had to run at. Fast forward almost three years and the website had reached new heights, tripling its reach. That role came with some incredible opportunities for someone in her twenties; spending 36 hours in Tokyo to interview Scarlet Johansson, sipping champagne next to Roger Federer at an intimate dinner at Moët & Chandon’s HQ in Epernay, France… real pinch-me stuff.

Still, my love for print raged on and I eventually left Pedestrian.TV to join Medium Rare Creative Agency as deputy editor of Qantas Magazine and its travel inspiration website, Travel Insider. Servicing a client as iconic as Qantas was an incredible learning curve and I loved every minute of working brand-side. It wasn’t too long, though, before I was tapped on the shoulder to return to the newly-formed Pedestrian Group – which had gone from one brand to six, plus an outdoor cinema – in the role of publisher. Although it’s in many ways a completely different business to the one I first started in all those years ago (we’ve grown from eight to 110 employees across three states since), there’s something so special about this place. I guess it’s why I’ve joined it twice!

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

I’ve definitely struggled to set healthy work-life boundaries over the years. I’ve managed to accelerate my career because I’m extremely ambitious but that ambition is a double-edged sword; as crucial as it is to achieving success, particularly in digital media, too much of it is a recipe for burnout. There have been plenty of times where I’ve been so caught up in ‘climbing the ladder’ that my mental (and physical) health has taken a hit. These days, I’m much better at listening to myself – when I’m feeling run ragged, or I realise I haven’t left the office before 9pm four days in a row, I make a conscious effort to take time out. I’ll get a massage, have drinks with a friend, hang out with my baby niece (I’m obsessed) or read a book in the bath.

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

There are still so many things to love about media in Australia but you should enter the industry without an overly romanticised view of journalism. The reality is that every business needs to make money to survive, which means almost no role is totally immune to commercial considerations – even hardcore reporting ones. Understanding that, and learning what you can about the commercial side of digital publishing, will only benefit you in the long run.

What’s the best part about your role?

The creative freedom. You can’t beat the feeling that comes from voicing a half-thought or seemingly outrageous idea and then seeing it brought to life, sometimes in a matter of hours, by people who are amazing at their jobs – from writers and producers to designers and creative strategists. Ooft, gives me goosebumps every time.

What would surprise people about your role?

I think most people assume my role is very high-level – and it is, to a large degree – but I’m also very hands on. Sometimes that’s out of necessity because there are a lot of calls that can only be made by me, but I also just enjoy getting my hands dirty. When I’m lurking on Slack to see what’s being worked on and I clock a headline or story I think could be pushed further, I’ll always jump in with suggestions. And I’m forever sending links, tweets, story ideas and random thought starters to the site heads, which I’m sure leads to internal eye rolling from time to time – “Oh great, Ness has had another idea” – but they know to expect that from me and are very gracious in saying, “Ok, ok, you still have it!” when something I’ve suggested pops off. I’ll even sit with our design team while they implement changes to a creative treatment or presentation so I can save us all back-and-forth by giving feedback in real time. I’ll literally point at the screen and say, “This needs to go there” or “Can we flip that image?”

There are also plenty of times when I have no choice but to jump in; when the US election was raging, I got out of bed in the early hours of Sunday morning (Australia time), checked my phone and saw it’d been called for Joe Biden. It was such big news that I couldn’t possibly go back to bed and wait for Pedestrian.TV’s weekend writer to start at 7am, so I jumped into the CMS and wrote two stories before 5.30am. I was extremely rusty because I very rarely write or access the sites’ backends these days, but they still got up!

What skills have served you well in your industry?

Patience. Digital media is a funny one because, in a lot of ways, it moves at breakneck speed and it can be tempting to jump at every opportunity that comes knocking – sometimes out of panic that you’re going to be made redundant, which is unfortunately a very valid concern in our industry. But in so many other ways, it’s a long game and it pays to stay the course where possible; some of my biggest career breaks have arisen out of loyalty to people and businesses I’ve worked for.

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

Don’t be passive. I didn’t get where I am by keeping my hand down in meetings, or sitting on an idea to do something better, smarter, faster, more interestingly – and that’s regardless of seniority. Whether you’re an intern or an exec, a good idea is a good idea. So I’d say it’s a variation of speaking up and not taking no for an answer. But not literally, because that makes you a stalker. Don’t be one of those.

What about a practical tip?

I really dislike the adage ‘Fake it until you make it’. Why pretend you understand something when you don’t? Admitting you’re unsure about something and asking for clarity doesn’t make you weak. On the contrary; there’s strength in saying, “Listen, I actually don’t understand that term/idea/directive. Can you please explain it in more detail?” By facing it until you make it, you forge new learning paths and avenues of opportunity for yourself.

@nesslawrence

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

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