How Larry King, a hitchhiker in Byron Bay and the miracle of birth shaped my 28-year career as a marketing professional
I can’t believe I’ve been in the communications and marketing space for 28 years! Yesterday I was flipping through my early portfolio of work samples and realised just how much has changed in 30 years. When I started in comms we used to cut and paste actual images and text onto broadsheets for printing.
I’ve had many wonderful opportunities and experiences, from publishing magazines to organising controversial media events and leaking a story that made front-page news globally. So I wanted to take you on a trip down memory lane (and at the same time, this can double as my portfolio… two birds, one stone) and share the three things that really shaped my career as a marketer.
I was working for my college newspaper when we heard Larry King was speaking at a public event in Tyler, Texas. I clamoured to cover the event.
My boss was bemused, said I could go but that I had to ask a question about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. He scribbled down a question and sent me on my way. I didn’t give it another thought until I got to the event. After all, I was 22 and my life was pretty much about boys, drinking and studying and I was about to meet Larry King.
I rocked up to the event with my friend Lori who came with me to take photos.
The meeting was in a Grand Ole Opry theatre in Tyler, Texas and it was packed with middle-aged cowboys and women with floral collar shirts, carefully curled hair and blue eyeshadow.
Larry’s talk was amazing. I sat there mesmerised as he recounted his life story.
Afterwards, he took questions from the floor. Now was my chance. I shot my hand in the air.
When Larry pointed at me, I was so nervous I just blurted out the question my boss had written down.
The room went quiet and Larry looked right at me, and asked: “What do you think?”
You know that experience when you zone out and you’re not listening and then a teacher or a parent asks you a question? It happens a lot for people with ADHD, people like me.
And, that’s exactly what I experienced at that moment.
My face was burning, and I could feel all the tobacco-chewing cowboys looking at me. I had to say something, anything, but I had no idea what I had just asked. In desperation, the words “I think it’s okay” fell out of my mouth.
Then the whole room erupted in laughter and I just went white.
I realised my error right away. Larry King was famous for deflection. It’s why he was such a great TV and radio interviewer. Why give an opinion if you can get the other person to share theirs.
I don’t remember what Larry said after that but I remember how I felt. I felt like I was being told off by my Dad.
The question my boss had given me, I can’t even remember it now but it was definitely designed to be provocative.
As I left the building I could feel the colour come back into my cheeks. A man with a Cowboy hat came up to me and said he thought my question was great. I smiled and sheepishly walked away.
I realised in that moment that I had blown a golden opportunity. If I’d done my research on Larry King and prepared a meaningful question that wasn’t designed to get a reaction but rather an insight, it might have been a different experience.
What’s funny to me now is that, when I reflect on that night, Larry’s talk in East Texas really inspired me. When he said “the world is my campus, experience my degree” and shared his life story, it planted a seed in my brain. Years later, Larry King’s words surfaced as I pulled my kids out of school to unschool them. We unschooled for eight years, going on adventures and learning through life. Larry’s story of how he got into radio and TV showed me that you don’t need a degree to interview people, you just have to be about people. I now interview people for a living.
When I think about how naive I was at 21, I’m amazed at some of the things I accomplished at that age. Of course, my views have changed significantly since then and I cringe a bit at some of the things I wrote when rereading them, but overall it was a great start to my career as a feature writer and I’ve since gone on to write for quite a few magazines and other publications.
After doing my Master’s degree in Business (Communication Studies) at QUT, I was headhunted by Bill Hauritz at the Woodford Folk Festival, Australia’s biggest outdoor cultural festival. Believe it or not, that opportunity came about because I picked up a hitchhiker in Byron Bay.
Here I was driving home with two friends from a day at the beach when I spotted this guy thumbing a ride. I don’t know why I stopped but he looked harmless enough.
He got in the car and handed me his license (for some daft reason I asked for it). Then as we hit the road he took off his hat and underneath was a bright, multicoloured mohawk. To this day I can’t remember what his name was but what I do remember is that he couldn’t shut up about this festival he was heading to. I was so intrigued I wrote a report about the Festival as part of my Tourism Marketing unit. I hadn’t even been myself at that stage.
The funny thing was, that was one of the reasons they hired me because I hadn’t been before and could look with fresh eyes. The research and work I did in those early days set the scene for the Festival solidifying their volunteers' program and creating a sustainable brand for the long term. I was thrown in the deep end well and truly. Shortly after I started they handed me the publicist gig and I set up the Festival’s first-ever media centre (which is now a slick operation. Back then it was a makeshift tent).
They’ve survived for over 30 years but sadly Covid19 disrupted the Festival in 2020 and they’ve had to pivot to providing camping events during the Pandemic.
Since those early years, I’ve worked with the Festival several times, most recently on their marketing strategy for Tourism and Events Queensland and a video story project with Curtin University. I’ve learned much from working with Bill over the years and he is still someone I’d gladly have a beer with when the opportunity presents.
After working during the festival while heavily pregnant in 2000, I took some time out to have children, live overseas and do research towards a PhD in Sustainable Tourism Marketing (that I never finished but that’s another long story).
After returning to Australia, having experienced a traumatic birth with my first baby, I became active in the birth care reform movement and put my media and marketing skills to use in supporting the campaign to get Medicare coverage for registered midwives. In 2007, we finally succeeded in our quest (well, in part) and now there are independent midwives who are covered through Medicare. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start and the fight still goes on for more equitable maternity care.
Recently, I featured as a character in my friend Jodie Miller’s book, What does it feel like being born? It was incredibly surreal but an amazing read and I’m so proud of what we achieved for the sake of future generations of women. That was the thing about it; we never did it for ourselves.
Some of the highlights for me were: doing an interview on live morning national news from parliament house in Canberra, meeting the late, great Sheila Kitzinger, meeting Ricki Lake, protesting with 4000 other women and families outside parliament house, being quoted from by my member of parliament in a parliamentary speech, leaking the story to The Courier-Mail journalist Margaret Wenham about the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital invoking new child safety laws to pressure a woman to have a caesarean. Lastly, I trained to become a birth doula after 8 years of political advocacy in maternity reform. While I no longer support birthing mothers in this way, I still can and have the skills to do so and I am grateful for that experience. There is nothing that tops supporting someone in bringing a new life into this world.
Fast forward to now
Since those pivotal years, I’ve gone on to establish a successful marketing consultancy, won a startup competition, written a business book that was a no. 1 Amazon Bestseller, wound up a startup, started working full time in corporate communications and gone on to explore other innovation projects. I owe my “never say impossible” attitude to those early career experiences and am grateful that I’ve had such a rich tapestry to draw from when the rollercoaster of life goes full tilt.
Now, at 50, I still feel like the best is yet to come but I’m incredibly grateful for the journey I’ve had. May the next 10 years of my career but just as adventurous.