By Olwen Van Dijk-Hildebrand
“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”
When Anthony J. D’Angelo said these words, he impacted many individuals and industries alike – especially those in the marketing and communications sector. Creativity, passion, and learning all go hand in hand with a marketer’s ability to deliver relevant and insightful information to our readers. The way in which marketers harness creativity leads directly to some of the massive innovations that they are able to put to use.
From the cradle to a whirlwind of a life that traverses the world, Marta Grutka has never let go of her passion for learning, a passion that has allowed her to empower the marketing industry for more nearly two decades. With experiences spanning AOL, Hollywood, corporates, and personal businesses, Marta’s expertise ranges from setting up company communication departments from scratch to stepping into full leadership roles. She has advised corporations, mentored individuals, and now she shares her story with us. Join us now in the second issue of our Marketing Expert Series, and be inspired by Marta’s passion, and her drive to share that enthusiasm with the world.
Hello, Marta, and thank you for joining us in our Marketing Expert Series. You’ve done so many amazing things in your life, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
Thank you for the kind words, I feel very blessed to have lived such an adventurous life and often ask myself that exact question: How DID I get to where I am now? It’s been a bit of a windy path that has taken me all around the world, and admittedly not all of it has been “by design,” as I have tended to follow my heart more than a “step-by-step” plan.
I’ve moved cities, countries and continents in six weeks or less eight times now: three times primarily for love, and the rest primarily for work. I’ve been a “career learner” more than a “career ladder climber,” so many of my decisions have been based on the opportunity I saw to stretch and enjoy myself while making a meaningful contribution. I’ve also started three companies/side businesses since 2002, again, based on the opportunity I saw in the market and my confidence that I could deliver something better.
At the moment, I am working to make some quantum leaps and am committed to being more intentional with the career and life choices I make next. Hopefully the rest of the interview will give you a bit more insight into the types of experiences I’ve had, and that they will inspire!
What was it that first drew you to this work? Was it something you were always going to do?
My father used to talk about me “reading my linen book” when I was in my crib as a baby – he swore I could understand what I was looking at. Whether he was right or not, storytelling was a big part of my foundation. I grew up doing musical theatre and playing violin, and was drawn to foreign languages, studying French and German in both high school and college. When I was young I journaled a lot, did public speaking and improv and was the Editor-in-Chief of my high school yearbook. So I guess it was a theme throughout my life, though I never thought of working in communications or marketing per se. As it turned out, it’s been the perfect path to bring my love of learning, languages and travel together with some of my natural gifts.
When we look at your website and your CV there’s a list of some serious achievements, for example, you describe yourself as ‘one of the original digital storytellers at AOL’, what was that like?
It was one of the most incredible work experiences I have ever had, actually, and is a good example of the types of career journeys that the best companies can take people on to retain them. It was the late 90’s and America Online (AOL) was leading the way in terms of bringing the Internet to the U.S. My second day on the job, we celebrated reaching five million members nationwide – a very exciting moment!
Back then we were mailing floppy disks to people’s homes so they could load AOL software onto their computers. Email, instant messaging, and participating in online communities were brand new concepts to most people, and a big part of the jobs I had over six years at AOL was to educate the general public about the possibilities getting online could bring to their lives.
I started in the AOL Greenhouse, which operated like a VC firm for entrepreneurs who had great ideas for online businesses that they wanted to bring to market. If we liked the concept and felt it had legs, we invested some seed funding and gave them a full launch team providing tech development, content/creative services, and PR and marketing support. I was an account executive driving the teams to pull everything together, and also did quite a bit of execution on every front – it was a great way to learn what it takes to create a successful digital brand from start to finish!
Six months later, I moved to the International Channel, one of the content areas on AOL targeting a US-based audience interested in global affairs – a dream come true for me at the time because I’d just finished my Masters in International Relations in Belgium and loved the idea of being able to bring people from all around the world together in an instant!
In this role, I was the head of content strategy and programming and led a team of 300 remote staff/volunteers who received free AOL accounts and other perks in exchange for creating or curating and cross-linking to the “best of the Web” and helping me to come up with fresh topics and fun ways to engage people. We developed very niche communities – like Tagalog chat rooms or Royal Family fan clubs – with regularly scheduled activities and special events – it was very dynamic and incredibly creative work.
In that position, I was also responsible for business development and built an advertising model that today people are calling “programmatic.” Back then, it was just common sense: sell a banner ad to the BBC or Financial Times on our global news page, for example – but the intention was a bit different than it is today. Today, it’s about “getting eyeballs.” But then, the intention was about making it easy for people to find the very best quality content available anywhere.
It was well before Google, so the AOL pages were a gateway to the content that was out there, and we had strict editorial standards about what we promoted and exposed people to. Before leaving this role and moving to the new product marketing team, I helped to support the launch of AOL into the UK, Australia, and, finally, Hong Kong during the handover from British rule – it’s incredible to see the state of things in Hong Kong today as I remember this!
My last role as comms director in the new product marketing group involved even more complex education and engagement, as we were talking about things that were very futuristic at the time. I traveled the world attending trade shows promoting our “AOL Anywhere” strategy and vision of a world where “You can watch a movie on your phone.” You could literally see people’s eyes glaze over – they simply couldn’t comprehend what we were talking about – so we did a lot of work with early adopters and REAL influencers and media who were not paid, but received early demos and tester samples of the AOL service on some of the first mobile phones, internet appliances, and interactive televisions, and in exchange they could help write or talk about the experience.
By this time, the inherent issues associated with the Internet started to emerge, too, and so my job became as much about customer service and crisis comms as it was about generating positive consumer press. Before I left, AOL was big enough to buy Time Warner – it was the largest corporate merger in history and a case study of what happens when such an integration is done too quickly and the culture clash is mismanaged.
The work I did at AOL set me up for my next role in Hollywood, and that role brought me to Asia.
You’ve also worked with a lot of other brands during your career, like Disney, Alibaba, Danone, and the NBN project in Australia. What do you find most rewarding about working for brands or projects like these?
The people. The other day a friend and former colleague and I were lamenting the fact that it’s been very hard to find a place with as many creative, fun, smart and generally talented people as the group we worked with at AOL. You can find a few here and there but it’s not the norm as much anymore to see entire companies with exceptional talent from the top to bottom and across the organization.
I like to have fun while getting things done and to learn from the people I am working with. In that way, I’ve been lucky to work with some great individuals at every brand, and almost every one of them has been on the leading edge of their respective industry or issue. The most progressive people and companies have always been purpose-led, too, which is what makes the work truly rewarding.
At the moment you’re not in a full-time position, instead you’re consulting and helping other companies all over the world from the comfort of your Singapore home. Is remote work something you’ve done regularly for brands or is it a result of the circumstances we find ourselves in this year?
I have been working remotely and managing remote teams since 1996 – it’s been interesting to realize that so many companies and people were still not as familiar or comfortable with that this year, and that many places weren’t even offering flexible work options!
Over the years, though, I’ve done too much of it!! I am much more in my power when I can put on a nice outfit, go to a proper office, be organized in my own space, see other people and co-create solutions in person than I am when working from home, in cafes, or even coworking spaces all the time. So, ironically, my primary focus this year was to land a full-time, in-house leadership position, and the opportunities that came to me were in other countries, which made COVID a hindering factor in terms of making a move. I am fortunate that because I’ve done so much working from home and consulting I was able to negotiate remote working arrangements with those companies – it’s also a sign of how progressive and open they were in their thinking.
I don’t feel it’s desirable or sustainable for us to imagine that we’ll never go back to the office again. I think it’s dangerous also, to imagine that everyone will be “doing their own thing.” It takes HUGE amounts of energy to do your own thing in a way that is sustainable and not everyone is cut out for it. I don’t see companies micro-hiring indefinitely, either.
Where do you see your work going due to the impact of COVID-19 in 2020, any big changes you’re gearing up for?
Like many, I’ve been asking lots of questions about how I can make the most impact now. And I am realizing that my diverse, global, remote, digital, marcomms, consulting, entrepreneurial, professional background, as well as some of the personal challenges and deep heartaches I have overcome and hard lessons I have learned along the way as a result of this unconventional, “leading edge lifestyle” make me uniquely qualified to help a lot of people and companies right now.
In other words, I am starting to see how my whole life has prepared me for a time like this. I can help create conscious solutions and would love a true leadership/C-suite role where I can have a meaningful impact.
In the meantime, I am ramping up my executive mentoring work and offering some COVID specials to help people prepare for 2021. I also have just started a three-month program that will teach me how to lay the foundation for a thought leadership practice, and am excited about that.
What about for you, personally, when this pandemic is over, what’s next for you?
A massive trip to visit my friends in various countries – I am sure I am not alone in that – and especially London, which has been calling to me for years! 🙂
I shared in another interview earlier this year that I have not given up on finding a loving life partner, and during COVID I received some dedicated coaching in this area that I believe has made me ready for that relationship to drop in soon. I also enjoyed virtual voice lessons twice a month since May, and would love to get back to doing some singing with other people when this is over.
Any advice you’d give to young and aspiring marketers or communication specialists?
The words we speak and the pictures we see create our reality. In this regard, you have a very real and incredibly important responsibility to be mindful in the work you do – always look for the most meaningful story you can tell and then do so in the most positive way you can.
Treat your job like an artform, but always think like a savvy executive, ensuring it adds real value to your audience and the business.
Comms and marketing roles give you insight into entire organizations and industries, and access to some of the most influential people in the world, if you can learn to work across the marcomms mix, you will have even more choice – the world will be your oyster, playground, and your stage.
For Heaven’s sake, PLEASE learn how to write!!!!
Don’t buy the hype! Get a great mentor, be open minded and focus always on doing what is right for real people – make that your “bottom line.”