Add more content here...
June, 2024

My Brilliant Career – Zeina Khodr


We talk about audiences and how to keep them listening a lot in marketing. Well, my first ‘career’ position back in the mid-90s meant I had to do exactly that. At age 17, a friend and I were obsessed with dance music, clubbing and being able to express ourselves creatively.

So, when our local community radio station needed someone to fill the Saturday 6pm slot for two hours we filled some crates with dance vinyl and presented ourselves as Western Sydney’s latest dance DJ duo.

Spinning vinyl as a part-time DJ was fun and a great learning curve but it wasn’t going to keep me interested as a career option, particularly with the entrepreneurial spirit and work ethos my parents had instilled in me.

In the spirit of going for it and still wanting to be able to express myself creativity, I decided that an internship in an advertising agency would let me do both even though I had no idea what it might entail. Mad Men’s inside look at the industry was still a way off.

I landed an internship with a few other hopefuls at George Patterson Bates in North Sydney, at the time one of Australia’s most prolific ad agencies. It was overwhelming and new but we had a blast and it gave me a tiny sneak peek into a world which seemed intriguing. The combination of the internship and my radio experience did lead me into studying a BA Communications and Media.

Post-degree, I landed a paid internship at ABC radio as a journalist, covering basic stories and working shifts. And it all seemed surprisingly unglamorous with press conferences compressed into sound bites and 60-second stories rewrites over and over again while being paid minimal wage. It was only later that I realised it has given me a real nose for a story which has never left me.

The world was booming and the internet was an exciting place to work. Radio news journalism seemed old school and I had recently completed my Honours thesis on the emergence of the internet and media. I jumped ship to a multimedia company working as a creative and writer. With no real mentor or career guidance I felt my way through this evolving new media landscape, designing and building websites, coding, copywriting and, like a lot of us at the time, pretending to be an expert.

I’ve lost count of how many times my career has evolved over the last 25 years, but I do know I love to drive innovation especially when an industry is on the cusp of disruption.

From the floor of the ABC newsroom, I was running the newsroom and commercial operations of Australia’s largest B2B publisher of well-regarded titles. But it was publishing’s turn to be disrupted and I made another major career leap into motherhood for the second time.

We rarely acknowledge the skills and competency gained from motherhood. It was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in my career, because being a mother has made me more resilient, determined and focused than any job that I’ve had in the past. But nine months in and my maternity leave was cut short when the world’s oldest advertising agency came calling.

J. Walter Thompson (famous for the Invention of the Kraft cheese toastie and Stephen King as it’s original planner) tasked me with creating a new agency which could help brands become audience-first and embrace the always-on world of social media. Professional headshots were taken, an agency name – Colloquial – was announced, the trade media were alerted and the agency took up some space in JWT’s Pyrmont office.

I had to build an agency from the ground up, hire talent, find clients, convince my advertising colleagues that brands wanted more than TVCs and educate the market on how to be audience-first and create and publish non-branded content. I’ve felt out of my depth many times in my career but if ever imposter syndrome kicked in it was at this point

The challenges were huge. So, for the first time in my career I formally embraced mentorship and built deep relationships with my global and local mentors that helped me turn Colloquial into a nimble start-up agency. I often look back and reflect on the power of mentorship and why it took me 20 years to realise it. It’s the reason I mentor through the AMI’s Emerging Marketers Program and guest lecture in Advertising and Marketing. A key bit of advice I give to colleagues and peers, whatever stage their careers are at.

After four years leading Colloquial, I was close to burn out and decided to take a little time out to spend it with my youngest before she started school. I was also ready, after building a business for someone else, to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit my parents had instilled in me and do it for myself.

I took a blank canvas, a creative idea and lit the spark. Paper + Spark was born – a different sort of creative marketing agency that was people-first, embraced flexibility and with a work from anywhere ethos. With an approach of partnering with clients to problem solve I invited in trusted colleagues to join the collective and help shepherd brands through the digital wilds using data to supercharge storytelling.

Fast forward five years and we have received a tonne of industry recognition, including being named AMI Agency of the Year twice and being picked as one of AFR Boss Magazine’s Best Places to Work in Media & Marketing. I’m also proud to have been named AMI Certified Marketer of the Year (2022)

I’ve no idea what my next career juncture takes me but for now I’m embracing the role of marketing head on. I have a brilliant team of bright sparks, am confident in my own skills and self, know exactly what I want to achieve, who I want to work with and my purposes and why. I love being a marketeer for all that it can achieve; we can invent, change culture, shift behaviour and tell stories that have impact.

I don’t believe in a career ladder because that seems too much like straight-line thinking. It’s more like snakes and ladders where unexpected twists, turns and trips have to be navigated and embraced to keep moving forward.