Director / The Audience Agency
With her sun-bleached hair, ethereal demeanour and enviable girl gang posse, The Audience Agency’s Director Montarna McDonald has gallantly earned her reputation as one of Australia’s most radical PR mavens.
While most girls head into Year 12, slightly perplexed with life, confused with career options (or lack thereof) and over the stress of study, Montarna thrived at her selective, progressive high school in Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
Her excellent HSC results opened up a world of opportunity, gaining her entry into whatever course she wanted – but it was a chance encounter that introduced this star to the thrilling, fast-paced world of Public Relations.
Montarna slipped into the PR world, as if she had been cut for it. Working fulltime whilst completing university, her tenacious work ethic, propelled her career forward at an alarming rate and enabled her to work under the best in the business, for some of the world’s most recognised brands. But the buck doesn’t stop there. At only 23 years of age, the passionate Sydneysider took a chance on herself and launched a full service communications firm specialising in creative PR, Activations, Influencer Relations and Sponsorship.
Montarna’s #careerstory is BIG, but it’s her endearing personality and business acumen that makes this interview shine. Dare to dream.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how your experience shaped the person you are, and the career you are in today?
As a child I was really well-travelled, regularly flying long haul and visiting new countries as my parents were entrepreneurs and building global businesses. We did a stint as a family in the United States when I was very young, and I grew up in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
I’ve always loved Sydney with its mix of beach-side chic, chilled way of life but also the bustle and excitement of being in the heart of Australia’s biggest city. It wasn’t until I started travelling and exploring the world that I realised how cool it was – Sydney has the best of metropolitan life while still feeling intimate and friendly. And of course the amazing weather; I absolutely adore London but just don’t think I could cope with its small window of summer compared to our sun-drenched months.
Growing up in Sydney definitely gave me the confidence to start my own business here – it’s amazing how many times I go to a new business meeting and find out I have a shared friend or contact with the client. And because I was lucky enough to travel to Europe, America and Asia during my teens and early twenties I could scope out how things were done overseas. I think in general Australians have an ambitious streak and Sydney was definitely a great city to grow up in and find my place in the world.
Where did you go to high school, and how was that experience for you?
I started off at St. Catherine’s, and then decided to move to Reddam House in Sydney’s Bondi Beach from year eight onward. I had gone to St. Cath’s from Kindy so it was a big move but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. St Cath’s was quite a traditional strict school experience, whereas Reddam was all about breaking the mould and making school fun, while still being extremely academic with a selective entry process. Whether you had your hair up or down, wore nail polish or not, even wanted to attend yoga before school, they didn’t care or judge and I thrived in that kind of environment.
I loved high school, enjoying jumping from subject to subject – English, art, modern history and more, and also the social aspect of it, as I was lucky to have a great group of friends that I genuinely looked forward to being with all day. Because Reddam was fairly new and therefore a small school, I was free to make friends with all different age groups, not just my year which often happens in high school. I believe this makes for a better education all round – youngsters socialise with older pupils and develop confidence, and the elders mentor those in the classes below and look out for them.
Did your high school play an important role in helping you choose your further education and future career?
Yes definitely, high school pushed me to hit the books and get the marks I needed to choose my own career path. Growing up, I always considered myself to be more creative than ‘book smart’. When I made the move to change high schools, the teachers at my new school didn’t pigeon hole me as either, and this really helped me flourish.
I tried my best because that was the culture at school, getting good marks was cool, not dorky! I worked my butt off and reaped the rewards – following my HSC, I had the option of choosing pretty much any degree I wanted which was an incredible position to be in.
My parents hit the workforce very early on, so it was pretty special at the time in my family that I finished high school and had set my sights on university.
Did you go to College, University, Tafe, or another equivalent? Take us through the courses that you studied and why you chose them?
I went to Sydney University and did a Bachelor of Media Communications – however I didn’t start off in media comms. I originally signed up to a Bachelor of Interior Architecture at UNSW Australia. After week one I knew it wasn’t for me, but it was too late in the semester to enrol on anything else so I had to drop out.
It was during this time my parents had a nervous breakdown about what on earth I was doing, and I had to research which area I wanted to work in. I seriously loved fashion but didn’t want to be a designer and didn’t know any of the other roles available in the industry. It was actually my Aunty who told me about her best friend who worked in Public Relations – something I’d never heard of but sounded like a good mix of fashion, media and project management. I started to investigate properly and realised that yes, this is a job role that I could thrive in and have the added bonus of working in my favourite industry.
From there, I enrolled in Media Communications at UNSW for the next semester, and spent a few months interning at public relations agencies finding my feet. Eventually, I decided to move to Sydney Uni as I felt it was a better fit for me and that subjects were more on par with what I was working on at my internships.
I continued my degree at Sydney Uni for four years whilst working full time at a top PR agency in Sydney.
Tell us about your career journey so far?
As I mentioned, I worked throughout my degree in various Sydney PR agencies, primarily on fashion clients but also dipping in to lifestyle and beauty along the way. During this time, social media was just coming to the forefront, and within a year I saw a huge shift in media focus as online news became instant and brands and personalities connected directly with their audiences on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
I was immersed in all things digital and was enlisted to author a fashion blog for a Sydney shopping district and managed handles for various brands. After graduating, I was headhunted to run the marketing department at Belinda, The Corner Shop and MARNI at the age of 22. This was an amazing career moment, and a role that strengthened my marketing experience and also gave me an insight in to the world of fashion retail.
How did you get in to the job you are in now?
Around two years ago, some close contacts starting asking me to manage their PR or look after their brand. I told my parents that I was approached by potential clients, and they were the ones to encourage me saying that I had nothing to lose, the sky was the limit.
So I took the plunge and launched The Audience Agency; a full service communications firm specialising in creative PR, Activations, Influencer Relations and Sponsorship.
What is the hardest part of your current job?
Incredibly, I’ve not come up against any huge roadblocks since I launched The Audience Agency two years ago, but if I had to choose one ‘tough’ part of the job I would say the shifting media landscape, and educating some clients that while a newspaper clipping is brilliant coverage and definitely still forms the backbone of a strong PR campaign, an Instagram endorsement by a digital influencer or feature on a content-rich online media outlet is as valuable and should not be overlooked.
We overcome this by offering a mini media workshop to certain clients, taking them through the new wave of media outlets and guiding them on the estimated value of social media and online placements. Also sometimes all I want to do is create cool campaigns and get stuck in to the client work, but I have to run the business side of the agency too – accounts, HR and business plan forecasting aren’t nearly as thrilling as staging fashion shows and nailing press on page.
What does a typical business day look like for you in your current job?
No two days are the same, and that’s why I love what I do. My days start super early; I’m usually at my desk checking emails and social media before 8am with latte in hand. Mornings are spent pitching stories, briefing in press packs and proposals to our designer, monitoring all communication mediums for mentions of our brands, researching magazines and newspapers for opportunities and chatting to my team about creative concepts and upcoming projects.
A typical day will involve at least one catch up with a client, and I’ll either head to their offices (I like to find out what’s going on in their HQ and chat to the staff), or we’ll grab a coffee or lunch at a restaurant. We are very lucky with our amazing referrals and are regularly invited to meet brands and pitch our ideas, so the afternoon could see me sitting in a boardroom with investors and executives, or heading to a fashion store to meet the designer and talk about what The Audience Agency can do for their brand.
Late afternoon I’ll be back at my desk catching up on the day’s activity and scheduling product dispatches for the next day. I have no fixed finish time – only when the day’s work is done will I switch off my screen, and even then I sometimes head to industry events to catch up with contacts.
Who has been your hero, or greatest inspiration growing up and why?
I feel very fortunate to have had many heroes and inspiring figures growing up – however it’s hard to go past my parents who have always shown my sister and I the power of hard work and not letting anything stand in the way of achieving your goals.
They taught us to dream big and that the sky is the limit. I’ve only truly appreciated this as I’ve gotten older, as I realised this isn’t something that all parents instil in their children. I feel very lucky that I’ve had that attitude ingrained in me from a young age towards everything I’ve done in life.
Also now that I’m in a position of owning my business I have even more respect for all of my past bosses – what they all achieved and continue to deliver is inspirational to me everyday.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in your career?
I would say, don’t expect it to happen overnight. You have to get experience and make mistakes before you can be completely confident in your own abilities. And it’s never to early to start pursuing your goals. I dashed from University to PR jobs for nearly five years and barely had a life outside of work, but it was all worth it to start my own agency at 23.
Montarna, what are your ‘go to’ haunts that you turn to for inspiration?
- Favourite blogs or websites:
Where to begin! I’m constantly on Instagram and Pinterest, from these I find myself scrolling all over the place! My phone is full of screenshots of websites and blogs I want to remember and go back to. Current faves are:
www.whowhatwear.com.au for bite-sized Aussie style updates
www.businessoffashion.com to catch up on the big global trends and fashion business news
www.broadsheet.com.au/sydney/ to track down my next brunch spot
www.manrepeller.com love a good fashion blog, and this tongue-in-cheek New York style diary is entertaining and outfit-informing
- Favourite books: I’m not a big book reader, between all of the newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs and emails I read daily, when I have a moment of downtime the last thing I feel like doing is reading a book. Library lovers don’t hate me!
- Favourite people: My parents, Sandy, Ken and my sister Madison. My boyfriend, Nick and his family. My team, Milli, Amy, Amelia, Chris, Cherie and Ika. My friends – every single one of them, My amazing and supportive clients.
- Other: A perfectly-made skimmed cappuccino at my desk before a killer day. My French Bulldog Harper who is The Audience Agency’s mascot and has starred in shoots for David Jones, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan Magazine. Fresh, minimal, elegant flowers in any room. Fashion runway shows – whether I’m backstage managing media interviews or on the benches, iPhone in hand ready to snap my favourite looks. New York in spring, summers in Mykonos, Greece, winter escapes to Hawaii or Bali and quick day trips to Palm Beach.