- Player: Alex van Tonder
- Company: The Concept Phase
- Claim to fame: Author
- Other endeavours: Alex van Tonder worked as a senior creative in advertising for more than 11 years. She has created work for clients such as Johnnie Walker, Levi’s, Allan Gray, Microsoft, Virgin Active, Sanlam and Woolworths.
- Visit: alexvantonder.com
Time is one of the biggest constraints we face. In an endless race to achieve our goals, it’s often a lack of time that hinders us. Alex van Tonder is determined to squeeze so much into life, that mastering time is an essential skill.
She speaks so fast it’s difficult to keep up with her. Her sentences are succinct and clever, often quotable. It’s not difficult to understand why she has the ability to do many different things at the same time, and to do them well.
She started out as an advertising copywriter, and worked as a senior creative for more than ten years. An early adopter of social media, she is a powerful influencer and has created viral and social content for some of the country’s biggest brands.
She’s also well-known for her satirical blogs, My Branded Life and Cape Town Girl. In 2011, she was named one of South Africa’s most influential women on Twitter by Memeburn. In 2013, she won the Woman & Home short story competition with a thriller titled The Drive. Two years later, her debut novel This One Time was published. There’s another in the pipeline. She’s got a lot on the go, and it would be easy to let things slip through the cracks or remain unfinished. Instead, she’s meeting every one of her goals.
How did it happen?
Where does this rare ability to do so many different things at the same time, and to do them well, come from?
“South Africans like to box people,” she says. “But I’m a true millennial, and I see myself as a creative polymath. Someone who knows a lot about a lot and does a lot. I’m at my best when I turn my mind to many things.”
When Van Tonder entered the ad industry, the social media phenomenon was in its infancy. Her bosses weren’t interested in this new fad, but she was fascinated and read a lot about how brands were using it overseas.
“I started developing that stream of my career independently,” she says. “At just 25 I was promoted to creative group head, mostly because they thought I was a weird copywriter who liked Myspace, and they let me get on with it.”
It’s a powerful lesson for anyone with ambition — never stop learning. In her own time and at her own expense, Van Tonder made sure she was becoming a master in something that was still in its infancy. She made time to read and watch online videos when she could have been relaxing and watching TV. It’s a dedication that has
The power of words
She’s a fiction addict which has always added to her skills as a creative person. It took a decade for her to find a publisher interested in her writing, but she didn’t let how long it took her to achieve this goal derail her plans. In a sea of ‘no’s’, it takes just one yes to achieve success, a lesson that many successful entrepreneurs have learnt over the years.
She used her experience in the social media world to craft a psychological thriller about a man who creates an online persona that represents everything awful about social media — revenge porn, trolling, machismo, fake celebrity — until he gets his comeuppance.
“I’ve had a particularly unconventional career, but all these different perspectives and contrasting insights have added to my expertise, allowing me to continue to develop my creativity.”
She cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as an important read on self-actualisation. To live creatively, Gilbert says, does not necessarily mean “pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts,” but “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. Creative entitlement,” she adds, “simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that — merely by being here — you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”
She talks about reaching consumers through all social touch-points by means of storytelling. “In the past, an agency would launch a three-month campaign to get a brand out there. Nowadays, with mobile, the brand’s story never ends, and people are carrying it around in their pockets.”
That’s why she’s recently launched her own business, The Concept Phase, which focuses on writing, copy, social and storytelling solutions for brands.
“As an archetypal millennial, the stories I am most interested in telling are those about genuinely good causes, such as creating awareness about the critical importance of sustainability.”
One of her most recent projects was Woolworths’ ‘Are you with us?’ collaboration with Pharrell Williams, which saw the superstar and the business align their values and actions to make a difference in the lives of people, and the planet. “It was great to be part of an initiative that encourages people to change their behaviour,” she says. The initiative was all the more powerful because it wasn’t just Woolworths telling a story, but inviting a community to join that story, share it and even own it themselves.
Ways to build a personal brand
“I have never passed myself off as a ‘brand expert’,” says Van Tonder. “What I love is building brands online and understanding what works, and what doesn’t. As I moved from project to project, I gained traction in the market and that is how I built my own brand. I never set out to become a brand, but by applying the principles of branding to my online persona, I did.”
Adding that she is a ‘serial auto-didact’, Van Tonder says she learns something new every night. How to run a business, how to start a blog, how to do basic accounting — these are all topics she has explored online. “I find key mentors and then I watch every interview they do and devour everything they write.”
It’s this approach that has allowed her to develop a signature image. “The more you learn, the more you create your unique voice — one that your fans, readers, and customers can recognise.”
Wearing different hats isn’t easy. Success often lies in being able to compartmentalise. When working on a specific task, you need to be really focused on it. If you can’t give something a lot of time — give it your focused attention when you do work on it.