Balancing the Grind With Alison Tilling, Chief Strategy Officer at VMLY&R AU-NZ

Alison Tilling is the Chief Strategy Officer at global marketing agency, VMLY&R AU-NZ, where she leads a team of strategists.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m currently CSO for VMLY&R (say that three times fast) across Australia and NZ. I’ve been in this role for just over a year, and it means I’m fortunate enough to lead a brilliant team of strategists of different backgrounds, perspectives and specialisms.

Before that, I spent ten incredible years at BMF, and before that, if I can stretch my mind back, I worked at TBWA\LONDON, client-side at Apple Europe and at Wieden+ Kennedy London. While there are always challenges, I love what I do, so that helps.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Every day really is different. I travel quite a bit, so that gives the day a really different shape. The unpredictability can be tricky, and I am lucky in having an incredibly supportive partner and family.

Sometimes it’s lonely, if I’m honest, but how privileged I am to spend time in different parts of the country and region, with different teams.

I often start the day pretty early, either with a wake-up call from our three-year old, a shorter-than-it-should-be run, or a global conference call (where I have to hide my coffee and pyjamas from the video conference).

Coffee features heavily. There are usually a lot of meetings. Meetings have a bad name but I like them if they are about working together rather than just talking. I also like kitchen chats so I often just make lots of cups of tea and make progress on things that way.

There is time catching up with teams around the region, time spent with clients, and really importantly time spent with people, talking about and using the brands we work on, to get some better understanding that way.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

It doesn’t only allow for it, the role demands it.

The ideal is making life and work, work and life fit together, rather than making one thing fit another. That’s not to say that it always works out perfectly. It’s less about routine than navigating the peaks and troughs and really making the most of every nook and cranny of extra energy you can find for both life and work.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

Absolutely – but these are all tips I need to learn better too!

Learn how and when to say no. Say it kindly, say it selectively, mean it and stick to it. This is hard though – see below. Learn how and when to say yes. Sometimes you do need to just have a go and hope it works out.

This doesn’t sound like a tip to manage a schedule but I kinda think it is: say thank you.

Say it however works best – in a card, with a call, in person, with a tea or some flowers, in email if you must. However you do it, recognising others always makes the workload feel less of a load, in one way or another – whether right now or down the track.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

I’m not sure I always do strive for success and balance. I mostly just strive to get through the week intact, and that in itself is not a good habit.

There is a lot of discussion in marketing at the moment about the importance of long-term brand building, which I am a huge proponent of for the work we do, but probably need to create longer-term conditions in my own life.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say I have many good habits. I have a lot of ‘shoulds’ in my life, things that I would love to improve on. Here are some:

  • I should work on a better ‘no’ reflex
  • I should work on getting better sleep
  • I should work on not bloody well swearing so much
  • I should work to stop apologising
  • Oh yes and timesheets

There’s also a l bit of me that thinks, some of these are the things that make us who we are and in a way they should be cherished. Success and balance are different for everyone and don’t require us to be carbon copies of each other.

Good habits? I guess I must have some. I try to stay optimistic, but not blindly so; and I always try to respect others and recognise their contributions.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?


Management theory and self-help usually makes me feel worse. I don’t really want the art of not to giving a fuck, or seven habits, though I get that some people respond to these, which is great.

Getting lost in a story helps me. I’m reading Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko at the moment and it is hilarious and sort of excruciating at the same time. It’s making me realise how little I really understand about indigenous culture here in Australia.

I’ve read almost every Agatha Christie book out there, too, and they’ve actually really helped me – comfort reading, yes, but also understanding how narrative arcs work and also the power of surprise.

Go and read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and then think about all the ways the wool was gently yet firmly pulled over your eyes. That’s kinda self-improvement with a bit of crime thrown in.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Accept that I won’t get the most out of every day. I don’t believe anyone can. Life’s ups and downs and ins and outs are what make it.

I’m also a firm believer that getting the most out of some days means getting the least out of others – but those frustrations and disappointments usually contribute positively in the end.

Oh and coffee always helps. While alcohol I can enjoy but it is a very false friend.

8) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Yes. This is an Ali theory not fact, but I reckon the actual balance is between going easy on yourself and pushing yourself hard. Knowing when and where and how much and most importantly, why. Cut yourself some slack and then hit the accelerator pedal.

If you’d like to have a conversation with us about how you balance the grind, get in touch with us!

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.