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What The Concept Phase Really Means To Alex Van Tonder

Wanting it all is one thing — making it work is another. Alex van Tonder manages to balance her work as a brand expert, a social media doyenne, and a gutsy thriller writer.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

  • 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:

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.

Related: 5 Lessons From tashas Founder Natasha Sideris

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
paid dividends.

The power of words


Image credit:

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.

Related: 27four Investment Managers Aren’t Afraid Of The Big Boys

“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.”

Remember this

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.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

Lessons Learnt

Richard Branson’s ABCs Of Business

Throughout the year, the Virgin co-founder shared what he thinks are the essential elements to success.



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If there’s one thing Richard Branson knows, it’s how to run a successful business.

Throughout last year, the Virgin founder shared what he thinks are the keys ingredients to building a successful company with each letter of the alphabet, which he slowly revealed through the 365 days.

From A for attitude to N for naivety to Z for ZZZ, check out Branson’s ABCs of success.

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Lessons Learnt

How Reflexively Apologising For Everything All The Time Undermines Your Career

How can you inspire confidence if you are constantly saying you’re sorry for doing your job?




I’m one of those weird people who gets excited about performance reviews. I like getting feedback and understanding how I can improve. A few years ago, I sat down for my first annual review as the director of communications for the Florida secretary of state, under the governor of Florida.

I had a great relationship with my chief of staff, but I had taken on a major challenge when I accepted the job a year prior. I didn’t really know what to expect.

Youth takes charge

I was 25 at the time, and everyone on my team was in their thirties and forties. I came from Washington, D.C., and was an outsider to my southern colleagues. I was asking a lot from people who had been used to very different expectations from their supervisor.

I sat down with my chief of staff who gave me some feedback about the challenges I had tackled.

She then paused and said to me, very directly,”But you have to stop apologising. You must stop saying sorry for doing your job.”

Related: 8 Valuable And Inspirational Web Series You Should Check Out

I didn’t know what to say. My reflex was to reply sheepishly, “Umm, I’m sorry?” But instead I immediately decided to be more cognisant of how often I said I was sorry. Years later, her words have stuck with me. I have what some may consider the classic female disease of apologising. When the New York Times addressed it, five of my friends and past coworkers sent it to me.

In it, writer Sloane Crosley got to the heart of the issue:

“To me, they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologising.”

Topic of debate

I’ve talked at length with other women trying to figure out this fine balance. The Washington PostTime, and Cosmopolitan have all tackled this topic. Some say it’s OK to apologise; others criticise those who are criticising women who apologise. Clearly, I’m not alone in dealing with this issue. In fact, I’m constantly telling the people I manage that by apologising they give up a lot of their power.

Related: Want To Feel Empowered? Check Out These 17 Quotes From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t apologise for doing your job.

If you’re following up with a coworker about something they said they’d get to you earlier, don’t say, “Sorry to bug you!” If you want to share your thoughts in a meeting, don’t start off by saying, “Sorry, I just want to add…” If you’re doing your job, you have absolutely nothing to apologise for.

That’s what I think. And I’m not even sorry about it.

This article was originally posted here on

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Lessons Learnt

10 Quotes On Following Your Dreams, Having Passion And Showing Hard Work From Tech Guru Michael Dell

If you’re in need of a little motivation, check out these quotes from Dell’s CEO, founder and chairman.



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There’s much to learn from one of the computer industry’s longest tenured CEOs and founders, Michael Dell. As an integral part of the computer revolution in the 1980s, Dell launched Dell Computer Corporation from his dorm room at the University of Texas. And it didn’t take Dell long before he’d launched one of the most successful computer companies. Indeed, by 1992 Dell was the youngest CEO of a fortune 500 company.

Dell’s success had been long foreshadowed. When he was 15, Dell showed great interest in technology, purchasing an early version of an Apple computer, only so he could take it apart and see how it was built. And once he got to college, Dell noticed a gap in the market for computers: There were no companies that were selling directly to consumers. So, he decided to cut out the middleman and began building and selling computers directly to his classmates. Before long, he dropped out of school officially to pursue Dell.

Fast forward to today. Dell is not only a tech genius and businessman, but a bestselling author, investor and philanthropist, with a networth of $24.7 billion. He continues his role as the CEO and chairman of Dell Technologies, making him one of the longest tenured CEOs in the computer industry.

So if you’re in need of some motivation or inspiration, take it from Dell.

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