Olivia Parker
Apr 3, 2017

Karen Nelson-Field’s career checklist: from "Dumb Blonde" to CEO

Professor and founder of Media Intelligence Co. Karen Nelson-Field reflects on being the driver of her own career destiny

Karen Nelson-Field
Karen Nelson-Field

When Karen Nelson-Field was born in 1970’s Australia, nobody thought she’d become anything special. Nobody except herself, that is.

“My parents did not think I would have a career, let alone a proper education, and now I have a PhD,” says Nelson-Field, who last year founded her own artificial-intelligence marketing research company. “I’ve had to fight extra hard against the odds because as three daughters born in that era we were not encouraged at all.”

Luckily, Nelson-Field was born with a fighting streak. Here she describes her path from first job to current one.

First job: Costume shop assistant

It’s so embarrassing. I was 16. A costume shop sounds fun, except that owner was a real cheapskate. I had to sniff the costumes to see how foul they were each weekend, to decide whether they should be dry-cleaned or not. Isn’t that disgusting? It was a wake-up call. I thought: ‘Is this what my life is going to be like?’

I did a lot of other retail jobs in my teens and a few of them were OK, but I remember thinking even then that I had to get a baseline degree and be the driver of my own career destiny.

Early career: The News Corp and “Dumb Blonde” years

I applied for a sales executive role at News Corp about a year before I got it, missing out because they said I didn’t have enough experience.

When I saw the job advertised again I was so determined to get into the media industry that I actually studied for my interview. I bought David Ogilvy’s book ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ and treated it like a textbook on how advertising works. So when I started my tiny, poorly-paid advertising executive job at The Advertiser, they thought I was amazing. The job changed my life.

I spent six or seven years at News Corp and became the youngest-ever advertising team leader in Australia at about 24. There were men there three times my age and they really struggled.

I remember being bullied because I was young and blond: there were lots of stereotypical men there who didn’t even call me by my name, just called me Dumb Blonde. But that sort of stuff just motivates me—it always has.

First degree: Business Management

I was already working at News Corp when I got my university placement and I couldn’t afford to leave my job to study, so I had to work during the day and then go to night lectures. I loved every second of it—and News Corp paid for the degree, which was great.

Moving on up: Triple M radio and Diageo

I remember thinking I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in newspapers so I got a job at Triple M, a radio network in Australia, as senior advertising team manager. I hated it. I don’t engage at all with radio and I think it’s a waste of money for advertisers.

I stayed for 15 months before I was offered a role at Diageo, which was United Distillers back then. It was liquor, so there were lots of slimy, 30-something year old men who all looked like they were from a magazine. They were mean and sexist and it was not at all fun—but I’m not normal in my responses to something like this. I’m one for thinking ‘the universe is teaching me something right now’. And I learned so much there. I was brand manager for premium brands so it was all Johnnie Walker gold, premium single malts and top end scotches. It was such a learning curve.

I was also given an analyst’s role on the side and this was what introduced me, in some ways, to research. I did a big research piece on Johnnie Walker and I remember getting quite a serious accolade for it at the time, which was really encouraging.

Retail and redundancy: Harris Scarfe

I moved to Harris Scarfe because it was a national role, whereas in Diageo I’d been limited to just one region. Harris Scarfe is a $400 million retailer, but at the time it was in financial distress. I only got to spend 18 months there learning how to be a national marketing director, managing about 30 staff, before it went into administration and along with hundreds of other people I lost my job. It was good for me, actually, because it meant I spent some time thinking about what I wanted next.

Red tape, children and a Master’s degree: The Australian Tourism Commission

I worked here for three years in an executive role with 60 staff and many millions of dollars in budget. It was a really amazing experience, working across all sectors of government, despite all the red tape making it very non-agile and slow to move.

I did my Master’s degree in Marketing during my time at the Australian Commission, again paid for by the company. I had also married by this point, at the age of 30, and I had two baby boys in one year.

PhD and digital research: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

My husband left while the boys were still tiny, and I couldn’t continue at the tourism commission because of the long hours, so I took stock and decided I had to be with my kids. Soon afterwards, I was offered a PhD in Media Science by the University of South Australia. The degree itself cost $100,000 but on the scholarship you don’t pay anything, and they also give you money to survive. I negotiated my hours so I could work in my own time and I loved it.

The degree took two years—taking me up to a decade of study in total—and I decided to treat this academic ship of mine like a job. I thought ‘How can I do the best at what I’m doing?’ So I picked digital media as a research interest, got lots of publicity, started to write lots of papers and got my professorship in record time.

I also had three business clients during my years as an academic, which is unheard of. My professor didn’t agree with me working with outside companies. He thought Facebook was sad and he was very discouraging of my agenda in the digital space. I didn’t care, I did it anyway.

THREE THINGS I'VE LEARNED

  1. Bad business partners are harder to divorce than bad husbands. The only times I’ve got myself into trouble are times I’ve partnered with the wrong people. I call myself an under-confident high-achiever: I need to trust myself.
  2. ‘In times of uncertainty, move faster’. I take a lot of inspiration from Sarah Wood, the founder of the video ad tech company Unruly; this is one of her favourite quotes.
  3. Build your own non-negotiables. These are certain rules I’ve made that I can’t break, such as living in Adelaide with my boys. And dancing in my car to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’—that keeps me sane.

Going it alone: Media Intelligence Co.

I stayed at Ehrenberg-Bass for 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, and then won multi-millions of dollars to set up my own research centre in digital video. I did that for a year before being offered an opportunity to spin out—and now all of my researchers now work for me in a commercial enterprise, Media Intelligence Co., which I founded last year.

Owning a company has been refreshing in that it is agile and I can run the ship; difficult because I now have to do all the HR and business stuff at the same time. We’ve been in business for 10 months now and have grown from two people to 12: it’s growing out of control.

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