They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but across her career, Viviane Paxinos has found herself at the heart of not one but two youth-driven media revolutions. At MTV, she was there when they rolled out across Europe – and now as UNiDAYS general manager for EMEA, APAC & America, she’s bang in the middle of Gen Z. At 20 million members across 114 countries, UNiDAYS is at the intersection of content and e-commerce.
For someone who is passionate about mentorship, it’s also an exciting place to be and Viviane has plenty of advice for university and school leaders trying to get their foot in the door of the media and marketing worlds. Viviane started her own career by accident – and by following her own curiosity. Her first job was working for a photographic agency and soon she found herself at MTV Europe – followed by a string of media brands, including Discovery and BBC Worldwide.
LBB> What first attracted you to the world of media and content? Where do you think that passion comes from?
Viviane> I wish I had a better answer, but I fell into it by mistake! When I moved to London, I was working for an agency that represented some big photographers like Michael Roberts, Helmut Newton and so on. I was working with art buyers, CMOs and marketing directors on their next campaign shoots, and proposing photographers, and so I got to work on these fantastic global fashion shoots, and that’s where I fell in love with that kind of creative and advertising editorial approach.
Then one day, I saw an ad in a creative magazine I was reading at the time to work at MTV. I applied, I got interviewed, and I got the job, and then I worked with the same boss for 13 years! Working at MTV is where I developed my love - not just for content and media - but also working with the youth audience, which I thought was super cool at the time. We got to create some fantastic content for a dynamic audience, and I got curious about understanding what works and what doesn’t work - and then considering how we would work with the different teams to bring that to life. But I mostly became obsessed with consumers and audiences. I also got to go to a lot of free gigs!
LBB> What was your first role after university – and what were the most important lessons you learned in those early days?
Viviane> My first role was working for a photography agency in Montreal (where I’m from), where I was a production assistant for some big photographers. I worked on complex shoots in very stressful situations, where things changed very quickly, so I learnt the importance of staying calm and being agile. I understood that almost nothing ever went my way, but I always figured out a solution. Organisation was key, as well as not panicking or getting stressed when things didn’t go a certain way. I think the top lessons were – the importance of being agile, and the importance of listening to the client. Everything we did was for big commercial fashion brands, so it was important to understand what the partner wanted and then making sure that I worked with the photographer to deliver against it.
LBB> You’ve worked for a string of massive global media companies – what have been your proudest achievements in that time?
Viviane> There have been quite a lot of different achievements. I was at MTV at a time when we were still expanding across Europe, so I got to launch lots of MTV channels and open local offices, work on recruiting the team, and think about how to bring MTV to life in a local market. I got an understanding of what works for the local market and an understanding of cultural differences. I did the same when I was at the BBC – we launched BBC Worldwide channels outside of the UK and so I worked on between 10 and 12 launches. So that international expansion is probably one of the things I’m most proud of. When I was at Discovery I got to work on the Olympics for EuroSport, which was fantastic, so that was probably one of the highlights of my role there. I’m proud that I got to build great teams and work with amazing people.
LBB> As business models have changed and new consumer behaviours have emerged (VOD, skippable ads etc.), how did you approach these changes at the brands you were working at?
Viviane> I think what ties everything together is really understanding what works for consumers and viewers at the time. We identified the need to be more creative and to create strong branded content that helps cut through some of the new technologies like skippable ads. We always thought - ‘What does the audience want? What is important to them?’ and came up with solutions from there.
When digital started to play a bigger role, we created content on-demand across different platforms, making sure that we’ve got second screen opportunities, and that we’re leveraging wherever the customer is. When I was at the BBC working on Dancing with the Stars, for example, we developed It Takes Two - a digital behind-the-scenes / making-of in partnership with Samsung – which was designed to complement and continue that viewing experience on another screen.
LBB> And how is the relationship between the commercial and creative side of media brands evolving?
Viviane> It used to be that the creative and editorial teams would do things really separate from commercial, and that commercial were people that only cared about money and that’s it, but I think that over the years the business models have evolved so much. Now, because of these new business models, you must work more closely together. There isn’t as much funding, perhaps, as there used to be for new content, so you need to be creative from a commercial perspective and look at different models.
When I was at A&E Networks UK we worked on Britain’s Next Top Model and that was a great example where we had a funding gap from a production point of view, so I worked very closely with other stakeholders in the business to fill that gap. We made sure that whatever was done creatively for the show first made sense for the viewer, because if it wasn’t going to work for the viewer, then it wasn’t going to work for a commercial partner. Once we understood that, then we thought about how to weave in a brand in a way that feels authentic, and I think that’s the key – as long as you’re thinking about customer first or viewer first and making sure that it comes across as a real and authentic experience, then there are so many opportunities to work with programming, editorial and creative teams.
When you look at creative and you look at marketing, the roles have evolved so much – everyone needs to be commercially savvy or aware. Just like commercial roles have evolved - you have to be thinking about the customer and thinking about what works. I love working with creative teams; I love getting into a room with UNiDAYS creative director Owen Hender and brainstorming ideas together to think about what we can do for partners that’s different to help drive conversion.
LBB> When you joined UNIDAYS, what were your goals for the company and how did you go about achieving them?
Viviane> When I joined UNiDAYS I had very little experience in e-commerce, but I really wanted to learn about it. I figured the best way to learn was to throw myself in and work for a company. My personal goal was to learn as much as possible, in terms of what works and what the product was, what students wanted from us and what the gaps were, and get a really thorough understanding.
My professional goal was to drive growth - both from a member and partner perspective. I had to tailor it per market, so it was around driving member growth, member acquisition, frequency of use and engagements. From a partner perspective, it was about working with brands on different models – building strategic relationships and making sure that we’re much more than just a transactional partner - and that they know that we are a partner that can drive affinity and reach within Gen Z.
There has been a massive cultural change over the last few years. When I joined UNiDAYS, the teams were very much working in silos. I tried to bring creative, marketing, content, and commercial teams together. Having them work as one team really shifted the dial for us – allowing us to understand what we needed to achieve from a member perspective, and how we do that, whilst at the same time making sure that we’re achieving our goals from a business perspective. All our initiatives had to be tied back to a business goal as well, so we had to make sure that we had very clear KPIs and deliverables.
LBB> What were the interesting or unexpected changes or challenges that have come up along the way?
Viviane> That’s a good question. The last year and a half has been a challenge with Covid – like all businesses, we had to react to that very quickly - mobilising the team and innovating during this time has been important for us. We’ve had tremendous growth but we had to change our approach - partners weren’t focused on investing in brand campaigns and we pivoted our approach to focus more on performance marketing. As a growth company, it is a challenge to prioritise, because there is so much to do!
I did this by aligning our resources with growth areas, really honing in on effort vs. reward, being clear about our strategic priorities, and focusing on fewer goals, but aiming to win.
LBB> We hear so much about what’s changing in terms of how people, especially Gen Z, consume media. New platforms, new tools, new priorities… but I’m curious, are there any values or principles that remain unchanged?
Viviane> Gen Z place a lot of importance on value, and I think that remains unchanged – and value means different things to them - it could be value in terms of the ethical aspect of a product, or how much they’re paying for something. When we’ve done research at UNiDAYS we see that value always ranks at the top, and that is something that is consistently important to them. They want to be spoken to in a very authentic way - not talked at, but to be part of the conversation, and I don’t think that will change. They want to feel involved and to co-create content, and that’s consistent across every platform. Co-creation is very much at the heart of this generation – you can see it across TikTok and other platforms.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or didn’t want to be? And how did you develop your leadership style?
Viviane> When I was at MTV I worked with a great leader for over 13 years – he was really empowering, he trusted the team, and was always clear on communication. I worked with him at three companies. I learnt a lot about what kind of leader I wanted to be through that. I remember once he told me, ‘I’ll stand next to you if you need me to, and work with you on something, I’ll stand in front of you and bash things down and put out fires if you need me to, but most of the time I’ll stand behind you, so you can do your job’, and that’s what I aspire to do with my team. I always think about how I want to be treated. I have no room for leaders who aren’t hands-on anymore, who will just sit back and delegate. I’m a leader who is really involved with the most junior or senior person if they need support.
LBB> Given the demographics of UNiDAYS socially and politically engaged who expect the platforms and brands they engage with to be authentic and also embody values like inclusion etc. I was curious to know if that was reflected in what you’re seeing from the audience and, if so, how that shapes UNiDAYS content and engagement strategy?
Viviane> That’s definitely what we see when we survey our audience. Gen Z redefine what diversity and inclusion means - they have a much broader definition than other generations. We see all the time how important that is. We have a UNiDAYS student council, and we are constantly asking our students what’s important to them and how they feel, and that feeds into our content strategy and approach. We have some initiatives that we’ve launched over the last few years, to make sure that we’re addressing some of these issues at the heart of Gen Z, and we have ambitions to do much more in this area.
For the last four years, we’ve had our Student Woman of the Year Awards which celebrate female students who have had an impact on their community, and these have been really successful. We partnered with All Bright, a digital network to upskill women, and held a webinar where we had 600 women participate. We asked them what they wanted to learn about and shaped it for them.
We also do a lot of collaborations with brands – for example with Converse, we had students design a shoe that represented Pride to them for LGBT month. We had over four million impressions with that campaign, with 300 entries, and the winner got a creative mentorship from Converse.
We recently launched an internship initiative called Studio X which involves working on our creative team – so our creative is done by students for students, involving Gen Z in our messaging. We’ve also done an Earth Day initiative this year where, as a company, we planted 50,000 trees - which was important to us. It’s an area we’re exploring a lot more, and there is room for us to do a lot more.
LBB> You’re also in a space that needs to stay at the forefront of meme culture as well as ever-shifting platforms. How does UNiDAYS stay flexible and responsive and on top of these shifts?
Viviane> When we look at meme culture, we tailor our approach per market – there is a specific approach to the US which is different to UK and Australia. We don’t assume all English-speaking countries want the same – we adapt our social approach and memes are locally relevant. We try to stay in touch with what’s important culturally and we tailor it per market. We also work with an influencer and social agency that helps us with our social and influencer strategy globally. The students in the Studio X programme designed our latest acquisition campaign that we’re putting out on social. There’s nobody better to create content for Gen Z than Gen Z. This approach allows us to be in touch with what works for them.
LBB> Obviously, the past year has been a year like no other! I’m guessing as a very online business, UNiDAYS would be well set up for remote working etc., but what were the biggest challenges you and the team faced and how did you navigate them?
Viviane> At the beginning, we had to figure out our ways of working, understanding everyone’s needs, and making sure that we put the right processes, meetings, and communication channels in place - to make sure that everyone felt connected to each other. We also had challenges around how we communicate with partners that we can’t see face-to-face. As there was a huge increase in performance in e-commerce, we asked ourselves how we could respond to that and innovate during this period - for example, we developed different segmentation models to communicate with members.
Because of this huge spike in performance things were so busy, so looking after our mental health was important. Mental wellness during the pandemic was a challenge for many, especially for those who work alone and live alone, and in small flats – this meant working, eating, and sleeping in the same space. There was a sense of urgency all the time, so part of my role as a leader has been making sure we were focused on priorities – I talked a lot about effort versus reward. I think the best way to get the best out of people, is to ensure they have a good work-life balance. To support staff, UNiDAYS introduced a ‘Good Vibes’ calendar which had fun activities like yoga, calligraphy, and cocktail making.
LBB> Internally, how would you describe the culture at UNiDAYS, and what sort of things does the team do to support a healthy, happy, inclusive team?
Viviane> I would describe the culture at UNiDAYS as dynamic and collaborative. We are flexible with the work-life situation - we’ve moved to a distributed workforce model so you’re able to come into the office twice a week, but it’s not mandatory. We make sure we have regular face-to-face meetings to see each other. We have our Good Vibes activity calendar, and we try and keep it fun and light-hearted, and we vote on what to do. We go bowling a lot. We’ve done sushi-making, afternoon tea... We also had a remote murder mystery during Covid. I would say though the further up you go (more senior), the lonelier it can be. My team go out a lot, which I encourage, but I don’t always get invited… Invite me, guys!
LBB> I know that mentoring talent is very important to you – what advice would you give to this year’s college and school leavers hoping to build a career in media?
Viviane> Firstly, the advice I’d give is to network. Sign up to go to events - there are loads of free events around London - listen to presentations and reach out to people on LinkedIn if you read something that’s interesting. Women, in particular, don’t network enough - it’s something I’ve always done throughout my career to build my network of contacts.
When you meet with somebody, have a clear ask. Don’t just meet with somebody for coffee to find out how they’re doing. If you’re meeting someone from your network or someone has introduced you, have a clear request – be upfront about it. Quite often we get introduced to someone and we just want to grab a coffee, but whilst I love grabbing coffee, I want to understand how I can help them. So don’t be afraid to ask and be clear about what you want to get out of a meeting with somebody.
Applying for different work experiences will also help you build relationships and connections. We’re looking to extend the internship for a couple of students who applied to our Studio X programme, so it just shows the value of work experience - really be present, show up, and do your best every day.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you mentally and creatively ‘fuelled’?
Viviane> Outside of work, I’m a busy mother of two children. I’m finishing up my MBA which keeps me really motivated in a different way – it challenges me to think about different areas – whether it is HR, finance, or so on etc. People think I’m insane for doing it, but it allows me to use a different part of my brain and is a nice step away from work and focusing on learning something different. I take part in a lot of female networking events and have even invested in a female founder startup recently.
Otherwise, I exercise which keeps me sane. I do a lot of ‘Barry’s Bootcamps’ - my saviour! I absolutely love jazz and most live music events – I was at Ronny Scott’s for the first time last Saturday since covid and it was amazing! I don’t have that much spare time as my family keeps me busy. I am usually chauffeuring children to football matches or swimming classes! I am lucky to have a wonderful husband, who is supportive, and we make sure we take time to do fun things (i.e. without kids).
LBB> Moving forward, what are your big goals for UNiDAYS?
Viviane> We want to continue expanding globally. We recently launched in India and we want to continue our expansions in key markets around the world. Growing our graduate proposition is also really important to us. We launched GradLife at the end of last year, so building that out and growing that as a product is a key priority. We are also looking at how we diversify what we do into other areas so that students spend more time on UNiDAYS beyond just retail. So we’re looking at services – whether that is from an education, employment, or fitness perspective – and thinking about how we incorporate these to build UNiDAYS out beyond the retail side of the business, to drive a high lifetime value for members.