Balancing the Grind with Isabel Thomson-Officer, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Manifest Melbourne

Isabel Thomson-Officer is the co-founder and managing director of Manifest Melbourne, which opened in December 2020, turning Manifest’s integrated global creative team into a seamless 24 hour operation.

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

My background lies in PR, journalism events and hospitality. I spent a long time working in restaurants before transitioning into agency life where I would also do freelance journalism on the side writing for and covering all things the Kardashians and The Bachelor for Nine Digital. 

I got my start working at the MoVida Restaurant Group in Melbourne where I worked my way up from a waiting position to PR and Social Media Manager overseeing five restaurants’ social media activity, boutique wine dinners starring internationally renowned chefs and celebrity chef and owner Frank Camorra’s publicity.

It was an amazing role to land while still studying at RMIT and I learned a lot very quickly! At the same time I was working for Melbourne food blogger and journalist Ed Charles writing content for a number of restaurants throughout Melbourne.

In 2014 I moved to New York City which had been something I’d wanted to do since spending a summer there in 2010. No one was really interested in what I’d done prior to New York and so I started from the beginning landing an entry level role at lifestyle tech agency ASTRSK PR.

Despite my junior position I was trusted with a lot of responsibility early on working on accounts such as HelloFresh, AptDeco and LANDR leading on the music tech’s Series A funding announcement led by Warner Music Group, Nas and Richie Hawtin.

It was there I met one of the most inspiring PR people in my life Elisabeth Rosario. Her work ethic and PR know-how is seriously admirable and I found her very inspiring to work under.

From there I switched gears and started working at Plexi PR, a boutique agency servicing the electronic music industry. My clients included destination music festivals like Secret Solstice in Iceland, Oasis Festival in Morocco and The BPM Festival in Portugal, Mexico and Costa Rica as well as techno queen Nicole Moudaber. It was a lot of fun getting to travel the world working with artists whose music I loved. I ended up staying with Plexi for three years.

In early 2019 I by chance stumbled across Manifest. I was completely blown away by the agency’s work and loved that like ASTRSK they worked with brands from a broad range of industries. After meeting the leadership team in New York I knew it was where I wanted to be.

Manifest has only two rules: work hard and be nice to people and I can confidently say everyone within the company abides by this policy. Not only that, but the Mani-fam whether in Stockholm, London or Manchester is exceptionally talented and creative. I’m obsessed with the WWF campaign the London crew dreamed up which saw zebra crossings transformed into animal crossings with elephant holograms and just about everything we’ve done for Hot Octopuss.

Moving back to Melbourne in 2020 was not planned. I came back in March for what was meant to be a two-week trip for a friend’s wedding, however the world turned upside down with COVID hitting and staying in Australia aside from being pretty much my only option, felt like the sensible thing to do.

Despite all of 2020’s weirdness and challenges, I do count myself extremely fortunate landing a dream job setting up Manifest’s first office in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Being the new kid on the Manifest and Melbourne block, we are a small but mighty team and so I find myself wearing a lot of hats as Managing Director. From account and campaign management through to operations, business development, sales and hiring, no job is too big or small as we get settled into our new home.

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

Like almost everyone else in agency land, I am working from home which I do enjoy but I’m ready to get back into the office. I’ve definitely perfected dressing for Zoom meetings focusing on what to wear on top!

I’m usually up at about 7am reading and watching the news. I’m an avid news junkie and probably check the New York Times website at least five times a day. Work starts at 9-9:30am and I meet with my business partner and creative director to discuss what needs to be done and priorities for the rest of the week.

At the moment I’m spending a lot of time on new business outreach as well as 2021 planning. We only launched in December so it’s an exciting time for the business as we start thinking about where we want to be 12 months, 5 years and 10 years from now.

We’re also planning for an upcoming campaign with global infant feeding brand Tommee Tippee and working closely with sex-tech pioneers Hot Octopuss on some exciting developments slated to drop soon Down Under.

I try to stretch my legs and do some exercise around lunchtime either going for a stroll along the Merri Creek near where I live or taking an online exercise class. The work day will finish usually around 6pm, however sometimes we’ll have calls later in the evening with the UK to check in with the team over there.

The time difference really isn’t great at the moment but we make it work and will usually just start later on the days we have calls with them to balance it out.

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

Manifest has always embraced remote and flexible working arrangements — it’s a core part of our culture. Going entirely remote while at first took a bit of getting used to, was a pretty seamless transition right across the group.

We live and breathe Slack, use Asana for project management, Airtable for new business, store files on Dropbox and hold meetings via Zoom which makes working remotely pretty easy to manage. With that said, I do think being in an office when you’re a creative agency is important as it’s just so much easier to brainstorm and bounce around ideas when you’re together as a team. 

Much like everyone else the future of how we will work at Manifest looks different to how we’ve done things in the past. I don’t think we’ll ever expect everyone back in the office five days a week even after COVID.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Truth be told, work-life balance has never been something I’ve been particularly good at, mostly because I just love what I do. Even when I was studying full time I was working full time hours.

While setting up Melbourne I decided it would be a good idea to start an MBA part-time because, well, I’m just a sucker for punishment. For two years in New York I worked nearly seven days a week moonlighting as a celebrity journalist for Nine Digital on weekends.

In all seriousness, I just like being busy and feel I am most productive when I have a million and one things to do.

I am trying to be better though and am limiting my Slack time after hours. I schedule send emails if I’m writing them later at night in order to respect others’ quiet time and try to limit working late. Weekends these days are pretty much off limits unless there’s a looming deadline.  

Even making these changes which would seem small for some is a challenge for me but I’m determined to be better at it. I have a lot of respect for some of my peers that seem to be nailing the whole work-life balance thing!

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I do exercise but seem to be good one week and then slack the next. I really need to get a gym membership to keep myself motivated! Taking time out for a 20-30 minute walk around the middle of the day has been a bit of a game changer and something I’ve managed to stick with over the past year. 

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Hariri as well as Freakonomics by Stephen J Dubner and Steven Levitt and The Virgin Way by Richard Branson were some of the best books I read in 2020.

I’m also in a book club and love fiction although I’ve been a bit lousy about reading of late. I’m currently making my way rather slowly through Beloved by Toni Morrison and have been enjoying it.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

The Nike Run Club and Nike Training Apps are fantastic for working out as they have a huge selection of workouts available for free.

I’m a big fan of the Smiling Mind meditation app as well as BorrowBox which is where I borrow ebooks from my local library. Being a music lover I’m also really into Shazam and regularly use it to ID a new favourite track.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be? 

Richard Branson. The guy just loves life and work and seems to have found a way to seamlessly blend the two.

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

If you’ve worked it out, then I’m in awe and I’m keen to know your secret!

Photo credit: Kim Jane Photography

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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.