Next Stop: Your Magazine Dream Job

Q&A With Alyssa Vitrano, Head of Brand and Creative in Support of Acoustic at IBM

By Chandra Turner

The Talent Fairy chats with people who hire content people 

The best part of my role as Talent Fairy is that I get to talk to people constantly. I talk to folks who still work in print magazines and love it and want to ride it out. I talk to folks who have transitioned to new roles outside the magazine industry. And I talk to lots and lots of people who are trying to transition out of traditional media into new roles and careers. But what I’ve found is that those three groups don’t necessarily talk to each other. There is a knowledge gap between those who are looking for content jobs and those who are hiring for them. In this series of posts: Chatting With People Who Hire Content People, I bridge that gap, and answer questions that career pivotors might have about roles and organizations outside of traditional media. I will be talking to folks who have content backgrounds and “get it” and those who don’t, but they will all have one thing in common: They hire content people, people like you. 

My interview this week is with Alyssa Vitrano, Head of Brand and Creative in support of Acoustic at IBM (more on that in a minute). Alyssa and I worked together at YM magazine back in the late 90s. She was the entertainment director writing and editing celebrity cover stories (think ‘N Sync and early Britney) and I was the features editor covering eating disorders and relationship advice. She’s had a jagged but fascinating path from her days covering pop culture to her current role branding a massive global company. We talked about what she looks for when hiring her content creators, what the heck a marketing cloud is, and why she insists that her magazine training led her to where she is now. 

Talent Fairy: My god. It’s been a long time! You’ve come a long way from our YM days!

Alyssa Vitrano: It hasn’t been a straight line, that’s for sure. 

After YM you went to MTV, then an agency? Right, those were all obviously really different places to work. After all that, I had to figure out what I was. What was my common trait? I realized I was always telling stories, whether it was writing cover stories and coverlines at YM or producing news segments at MTV. I worked in branded content at Digitas for two years, but realized I didn’t want to just be handed the strategy and told to execute it. So then I worked doing content strategy at Mindshare for two years. I learned a ton, but after a while I wanted to get back closer to creating the content and being more of a higher level creative. Those two years of pure strategy were critical though; I was learning how to tell a more strategic, outcomes-driven story. It’s always going to come back to understanding the human truth in any story you’re telling, for any publication or brand. You need to connect with people via your message.

And then you were at IBM for a while, but then splintered off into what is now Acoustic? 

AV: Yes, I’ve been at IBM for almost three years. They hired me along with about 25 other very senior people to elevate the storytelling at IBM, and called us editors in chief. Each of us were embedded within different business units at IBM to show the teams how to tell better stories — within the company and for public consumption — and to have more rigor and process around it. I was overseeing three mini business units, one of which was Watson Marketing which sells marketing technology for CMOs. [Adobe, Oracle, and Salesforce are our competitors.] Then the Watson Marketing products were divested to a private equity firm and they asked if I wanted to come over and brand this new huge company — it has 3500 clients and 1100 employees across the globe.  

Wow, that is huge! What does it mean exactly to “brand” a company? 

AV: It was a tremendous: We had to come up with a new name, brand messaging, visual identity, even what our office spaces would look like. We closed the deal in June and had an urgent need to brand a very large company very quickly. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked, but we made it and launched the brand on July 15! 

I love the name Acoustic! 

AV: Thanks! We started with hundreds of names and whittled them down to three. I thought Acoustic was amazing because it plays into what we’re trying to do as a marketing technology company: Cut through the noise of all the messaging out there and reflect how we listen to our clients and how they can listen to their customers better with our products. The name also really is a rich source for amazing stories. A lot of other people weren’t thinking about that aspect or how it would apply to all the different parts of the company. I had to make my final pitch for the name on a conference call and after everyone was just silent, and I thought, Well, I guess that didn’t go over so well. But then a colleague called me right after and was like, That was like Don Draper!  

I love hearing how editorial folks have this instinctive sense that others who come from business or marketing backgrounds don’t. I hear it all the time when I talk to people like you, and it never gets old! 

AV: We are, at our core, storytellers! You can find a story in any industry. We cut our teeth in magazines, learning how to find the story. As writers, we do that well because we’ve been trained to think that way. We had proper editors and fact-checking departments, copyeditors, and consistent style guidelines. Man, did they get my stories in shape. Editors help you find your own voice or help you write in a particular voice for a brand, the magazine brand. Man, did they get my stories in shape! Working in magazines has helped me do everything I’ve done since. 

How does Watson fit into all this? All I know about Watson is he won Jeopardy!

AV: That’s what most people know. That’s our challenge: Explaining AI and what its benefits are. At Acoustic we no longer have Watson per se because that’s owned by IBM, but we still have AI. 

Got it. When I read up on Acoustic it’s referred to as a “marketing cloud.” I know marketing and I know the cloud but what is a marketing cloud? 

AV: It’s basically a set of products or tools that marketers can use to better connect with their customers. With AI embedded in these products you can get better analytics, insights, and recommendations. For example, learning what time of day is best to send an email to a customer. What does that person’s behavior look like? If they open that email and then follow the link to browse on the site and then bail, how do you get them to come back? How do you predict what they’ll do next? Or, this person purchased an umbrella on your site: What was the journey that got them there? Was it an email to a link to an ad? It analyzes that behavior and recommends what action you can take next. 

So it’s like a super fancy sophisticated Google Analytics ?

AV: Much more sophisticated. There’s so much more data than a regular human can mine — so AI processes and analyzes it really fast and then uses it to, say, predict what the consumer will do next. It’s mind blowing and seeing it put in action is so fascinating. It’s an amazing time to be involved in it. 

It is so wild that you used to be working in pop culture and for teenagers at YM and MTV and now you’re deep into AI technology and analytics! 

AV: Well, I think that the YM and MTV stuff is also a specific knowledge base. If someone at IBM went to MTV they’d be like, Who is Pusha T? I mean, you can stay in the exact same industry and become a deep expert in one subject — like health or entertainment or even AI. Or you can jump around and be an expert in a capability like content or storytelling. I think it’s amazing that IBM hired people who weren’t experts in technology. The head of the content who hired me also came from an agency, and the former head of marketing for the Acoustic products came from Starwood [now Marriott]. When I was interviewing I asked them how they learned about all of the products because I’d never worked in technology or with AI, and everyone just said you’ll learn from all the subject matter experts.

If you’re curious and know how to dig for a story, you can learn anything. Every week I ping my product experts, and we work on asset briefs and outlines together. I don’t know all the details of the product features, and am never going to. It’s like if you’re interviewing a doctor to get details about how a certain medicine works. It’s just journalism 101. And it sort of becomes a mutual respect: I respect their product knowledge and they respect that I can write or make a creative video. But I can’t write that script accurately without their help. 

When you were hiring content creators on your team at IBM — or when you will be at Acoustic — what are you looking for? 

AV: Three key elements: 1) Overall curiosity. You need to have a hunger to learn. Our products and the industry aren’t easy stuff. It can be technical and granular. You need to have that desire to dig deep. The onboarding process is harder than if, say, you go to Coke where you already know and understand the product. 2) You need to be proactive and collaborative. It’s a huge organization, so you have to work with a lot of different people and different kinds of people. And 3) you need to be able to tell the story creatively and find how to emotionally connect with your audience. There aren’t a lot of people who are excellent at all of that at once. It’s really hard to find good talent, and it’s also hard to find good jobs. Marrying them together is very difficult. 

Well you just pitched my job as a recruiter in this industry perfectly! What parting words do you have for folks who are interested in doing what you do? 

AV: Overall, the most important thing for life and for your career: You have to have an open mind. You can’t follow a traditional path any more. Print is over. Then came digital. Then social. Where do I see myself in 5 years? I don’t know, and not sure I want to know any more because following the next interesting opportunity has served me well. Sometimes it can help you define what you don’t want to do, too. But you need to try different things and keep an open mind. If you think it was changing quickly before, it’s going to evolve even more rapidly now. 

Totally agree. That’s one of the things I am trying to communicate to my coaching clients: it can be overwhelming to pivot from doing the same job you’ve been doing your whole life, but you have the skills to do it! 

It can be confusing, but it’s not necessarily about direct experience anymore. You could be losing out on a candidate that would take a while to onboard because they don’t have direct experience, but they could be fantastic! It’s about mindset and skill set. So don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that aren’t directly tied to your experience; look for the elements that you can add value to. There are so many brands that are open to different types of people and backgrounds now, so keep an open mind. And keep telling stories! 

Well put! Thanks so much Alyssa! I learned so much. 

AV: Thank you! 


Chandra Turner is founder and CEO of Ed2010 and Talent Fairy. She is a talent recruiter specializing in the content and media space. She also offers personalized career coaching for media professionals at all stages of their career. 


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