Career Over Coffee: Nicola Allum, SVP of Strategy, Culture & Influence for the projects*

Career Over Coffee: Nicola Allum, SVP of Strategy, Culture & Influence for the projects*

Please briefly describe your background. What do you do? How did you end up where you are today?

I have 30 years as a cultural expert and provocateur. I’ve played a number of roles in entertainment and marketing—from musician to apprentice to producer to business development leader, then event production and promotion, creative direction and finally, strategic consultant. I began my career in London working on the illustrious Reading & Phoenix festivals and collaborating with the events’ founders.  From there I moved to Sydney where I spent several years, and that’s where I met the projects*. Working here I was able to fuse my love of culture and events with my strategic skills and deep knowledge of culture. I established the projects* strategy offering and after four years in the Sydney office I moved to Los Angeles to further establish their North American offering. I now consult with senior executives and C-Suite officials at top brands on cultural relevance and influence.

I ended up where I am today by sheer bloody hard work, focus, discipline and awareness of my distinct USP, as I’ve never lost sight of that. Essentially, I’m a great big culture geek!!

What do you love about what you do?

I love that I get to use all my senses to uncover and understand what’s going on in culture—and then inspire brands to participate in a meaningful, respectful, and timely way.

This has never been more defined than the work I’m currently doing at the projects* with Target, where my team and I are constantly looking for, and connecting with, creators, commentators and celebrities who represent the zeitgeist in a positive, optimistic way. I get to work closely with the who’s who in culture this very hot second, from Troye Sivan and Jonathan Van Ness to Tiffany Haddish and Theron Humphrey i’m really proud of the way we are able to our ability to move at the speed of culture and bring amazing talented people into our world.

I have a lot of room at the projects* to be on the absolute forefront of culture and how that intersects in the stories and success of some of the best brands in the world. It makes me very, very proud because I’ve been able to make my passions my life’s work.

How have you experienced the change of the digital space throughout your career?

I’m at an age where I experienced the birth of the “digital space” in marketing, so it’s been a fascinating ride. I remember using AltaVista, Napster, de.li.cio.us and MySpace, right at the beginning, when the digital landscape was just forming. I worked very closely with Lifelounge and MP3.com very early on, and it was amazing to see these communities pop up to share ideas on a freeform global basis.

In today’s landscape, I do think we’ve gotten way too reliant on technology, and in some respects it’s making us lazier, as we’re less resourceful when it comes to how we seek out information, learn and experience the world.

It goes without saying that people’s heads are in their phones more often than actual human-to-human, face-to-face communication is happening—so I’m keen, through my work, to explore ways of achieving balance between real-world experiences and digital content/conversation.

It’s a great privilege to be able to conceive ideas that live in both the real world and the digital domain and I value both equally. That’s where the magic is in the 21st century.

Where do you see creative direction/marketing going in the next five years?

For creative direction, I think that the socio-political climate will encourage more brands to take risks with their campaigns. What Nike did with Colin Kaepernick is a perfect example of this in action.

Companies are realizing that people are not just consumers, which means they, as brands, have to stand for something far beyond just being profitable.

Patagonia is another company that’s on the forefront of this trajectory of companies who have carved a place for themselves in a crowded market through a strong commitment to their values, including a strong stance against political power; something which other brands haven’t been brave enough to do. I think we’ll see more of this, as the cultural landscape forces everyone to get clear on where they stand and who’s standing by them.

My expectation, however, is somewhat different, as a lot of brands are obsessed with scale and also trying to please everyone, and those are two things that will curb bravery and stifle creativity. I think we’ll continue seeing a lot of vanilla work from brands that are playing it safe, unless there’s a major revolution from those who have the power to say yes to new ideas.

I’d therefore appeal to all my Gen X colleagues in C-Suite decision-making roles: Step outside your comfort zone! Walk the walk and talk the talk. You are the change makers that this industry needs.

If you were advising someone trying to make their start in creative direction/marketing, what top skills would you recommend they learn?

It goes back to our earlier conversation about the technology vs. humanity debate, because I think some genuinely very human skills are starting to disappear as we increase our reliance on digital assistance instead of developing real world skills.

Amazingly, it’s those very simple and basic skills that really have a positive impact on your professional relationships, your work and your success. All the rest of it, the email chatter, apps, presentations and meetings are actually just noise.

Therefore, I always go back to the basics when I’m mentoring anyone:

  • Learn how to write well, in plain, simple language, so that you can communicate and share your point of view effectively.
  • Learn how to present your ideas without using slides or visual aids.
  • Never be afraid to ask “why.” Your willingness to learn what you don’t know and understand new concepts, ideas or the reasons behind things, is crucial.
  • Learn how to connect with people on a simple, kind and human basis. This is far more powerful than “networking.” which just doesn’t cut it.

Beyond that, figure out what your unique “eye” or “ear” is—the creative lens through which you see the world that’s yours and yours alone—so that you can keep developing and refining it. That’s your point of difference. Your superpower. The thing that makes you completely original. Once you’re able to harness that, it gives you the absolute confidence to show up as your genuine, unique, quirky self— the authentic you is where your power lies. I can guarantee you that you’ll never regret it, and I’m living proof of that.

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