Thalia Mavros is a creative director, filmmaker, former record label owner, and until recently, Executive Creative Director at VICE Media, a global youth media company with over 36 offices worldwide. She began with VICE 7 years ago when the founders decided to expand beyond publishing into online video and branded content, creating the youth media empire the world knows today. Her role extended across disciplines and all VICE properties—VIRTUE (the creative agency), VICE, Motherboard (tech & science), Noisey (music), thump (electronic music), Fightland (MMA), VICE on HBO, Munchies (Food) and i-D (fashion) channels, and she led the inception, development and execution of the award-winning joint venture with Intel, The Creators Project, in its first years of its life.
As she writes in her personal website -and as you will see becomes obvious through her answers- she is not a fan of traditional methods. Instead, she draws from her background in film, music and arts to approach projects from a novel and unconventional approach creating and curating powerful narratives. Applying the techniques and principles of documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, she teases out the central stories or narrative threads that run through the brands and reveal their goals, values, and essential humanity. The result doesn’t simply mimic its editorial counterpart as a smokescreen for advertising, but embodies the goals of great art and filmmaking alike, to allow the viewer the experience of connecting with its subject on an emotional, human level.
Beyond film, she extends content development to Experiential Design.
Here’s what she had to tell me a few days before appearing in the Digital Disruption Session titled “Content Frontiers” powered by Valuecom in the context of this year’s Delphi Economic Forum.
Q: You are a seasoned media executive and I bet you are well as hell aware of the conflicts between the editorial and the business sides that most media ventures face. So, what are the most important lessons your career has taught you about this ongoing struggle/delicate balancing act?
A: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially since I’ve been navigating a startup media & entertainment company.. And I’ve come to this conclusion: without a doubt, everyone who works in media today has to understand how companies generate revenue, regardless of on which side of the the editorial-business line they reside. We are at an inflection point as an industry and in this moment all media and entertainment business models are being challenged, torn apart, and rethought. Journalists—present and future—have to take part in solving the massive economic problems facing the industry, while protecting their journalistic integrity. Gone are the days when journalists who cared about the business side carried a scarlet letter. We have a responsibility to ourselves, the industry, and the audience to be a part of the solution.
At The FRONT, we don’t have physical or psychological separation between editorial and sales & marketing, especially because we’re not a news organization. Ideas come from everywhere and everyone is encouraged to voice their thoughts, ideas or opinions. If the journalistic ethics instilled in us throughout our professional careers cannot withstand conversation with someone from the business side, the problem may be the stability of our ethics, not the conversation itself.
And yes, it pains me that advertisers have so much power and I’m definitely not suggesting blurring the line between the editorial and the business sides in a news organization; we all believe in the ethical foundation that says a news organization’s business concerns cannot impact its editorial (although I might argue that cultural journalism can take more liberties). We see too many journalists use that ethical line as an excuse not to engage in any conversation about the health of their company and the industry and this is where the damage is done. Without new, innovative revenue models or a diversity of revenue streams, the survival of independent journalism is at stake. And every single one of us is called upon to create these new paradigms.
Q: Original vs branded – where do you draw the line? What are the values that inform your branded work and how hard is it to sustain a business based on these values?
A: Our goal is to always work with brands that have values and intentions that align with ours. We look for brands that are inclusive and strive to have a positive impact on the world. We have quite a few areas we avoid—military, cigarettes, products that poison people’s minds and bodies, brands with politics that aren’t progressive or open-minded, and brands that don’t value quality. The reality is that it’s a mutually selective process.
We like to act as an agent of transformation in anything we’re involved in; if our work doesn’t create a significant impact or positive change in our partner’s internal or external culture, then it’s not a good fit. There are a slew of agencies, production companies, and
consultants that can maintain the status quo; we want to electrify any environment we inhabit.
Is this easy to sustain? Not necessarily, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are infinite ways to make money and I’d rather work harder and have us be proud of our collective work.
National Geographic is a good example of a brand partner we believe in; beyond the exceptional quality of their creative work, they donate a portion of their profits to National Geographic Society that is a global nonprofit organization committed to exploring and protecting our planet. They fund hundreds of research and conservation projects around the world each year and inspire young generations through education initiatives and resources. Plus, have you seen their Instagram? Magic.
The difference between our original and branded work is that within our branded work, we have to temper our subversive, radical tendencies. Yet, we create change in more subtle ways. For example, we curate and assign majority-inclusive creative and production teams for all the work we do. In a production world that has been dominated by men for so long, it cannot be understated how impactful this practice is.
Q: In DDS II you will talk about how content influences the shaping of our cultural consciousness. In what direction would you like your own content to shape our cultural consciousness? What do you think are the most important, the most essential issues that the world should be talking about today? What are you trying to explore and communicate through your work? What is it that you want to say?
A: The Front is an energy center from which we are called to nourish our world. I love tackling subjects that make people uncomfortable, the topics that cause people to take pause and really think about the world in which we live and our role within it. My dream is that our work inspires courage. Being courageous does not mean without fears. It means having fears but not being dominated by them. Seeing them for what they are and moving past them into who we really are and how we’re meant to live.
As filmmakers, I believe we are a great conduit of energy—we honor people, stories, ideas and ourselves with our work. And the more people we touch, the more powerful change we can impact with even one film, one video, or one series.
Q: What has moved me very much is something you say in your website: “This notion of making room—creating and supporting equal space at the front for everyone—is what drives us.” What does “making room” takes at this moment in time? What resistances (others’ and ours) do we have to tackle in order to make more people make room?
A: I think it’s less about tackling resistance or creating opposition to the resistance and more about working skillfully with the resistance. Defense structures are part of human nature. There are audiences that might react to our content with anger, denial, frustration or rage. We can’t change that, and to oppose it would only serve to strengthen the reaction. But as storytellers, we can try to work skillfully within these defense structures.
We want to tell stories with universal human themes. Some of our stories might touch on suffering, or struggle, or what it feels like to be unseen or unheard as a human being.
And our belief is that even the most resistant audience might come away from one of our stories with a seed or a sliver, some beginning of an empathetic connection because every human has experienced these feelings. We all yearn for connection and meaning.
Q: What would you say is the most pressing problem that media face today, compared to how things were when you first established yourself in the industry?
A: The most pernicious problem the media industry faces today is finding sustainable business models. The industry is under a lot of pressure, as evidenced by ongoing layoffs, closures, and restructurings. This challenge isn’t going away anytime soon and media is undergoing seismic changes..
But, like all entrepreneurs, I like to think of problems as opportunities. Figuring out the right monetization model is also an opportunity in that it forces media to innovate. And when industries are going through cataclysmic change, it can also open the door for a rearrangement of the levers of power. The changes media businesses are going through actually create big opportunities for women and other minorities to come into positions of power.
The difference between now and when I started in media is that all the problems we saw coming down the line are now starting to unfold. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors in the early days of digital media, selling impossible ideas, and now that the dust has settled a bit more it is time for us to do the actual work of making sure incredible work can get made and the stories we need to tell get told.
Q: The Front’s message is “By women, for the world.” What are your thoughts about the women’s movement today? What does it need, where is it heading to, what does it have to be careful about? Do we need special platforms, events, teams? Do we need to engage men in this conversation about gender and if yes, how? Do we need openness, or do we need to fight?
I could write a whole book about this topic. The women’s movement in 2019 is a disparate movement. In the US, the unity that Trump sparked initially has somewhat dissipated and we are dealing with many competing factions. The movement has been co-opted by celebrities, influencers, and consumer brands; we have siloed ourselves into groups based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, forgetting our common goals of equality, compassion and love. And when we look outside of the US, it gets even trickier. I don’t have an answer for how to reunite the movement, but I do think the solution lies in creating digital and physical hubs for content, information, and community that are inclusive of all groups and allow for cross-pollination and collaboration. We need openness, we need tenacious new ideas and ways forward, we need women, men, and everyone in between and we needed it all yesterday.
Q: You have talked about your role in the sexism culture in Vice, about the changes you tried to make, and I am wondering what does it take for someone, a woman mainly, to be a change agent within a more or less hostile culture? Where lies our hope to succeed?
A: What does it take to be a change agent? It takes frustration, resolve, commitment, persistence. It takes a community and hope. And honestly, all transformation starts when you get sick and tired of everyone’s bullshit, most importantly your own.
I started The FRONT because I saw a vacuum of power and a lack of strong creative female voices with which I identified. I also felt strongly that I hadn’t fulfilled my responsibility as a leader at VICE to work with and mentor other women. So I decided to take Ghandi’s advice and be the change I wanted to see in the world. Hope is ultimately grounded in faith—faith in the vision, in the process, in the small changes that lead to big ones.
Q: In Greece, those dealing with equality issues are often deplore the situation here by saying that we are indeed very sexist, phallocratic, conservative. Having spent so many years in U.S., do you think this is the case? Are things better than in Greece? And if so, how?
A: There is sexism, conservatism, and backwards thinking in every corner of the world. It is not unique to Greece nor is it unique to the United States. Hell, look at the US President —is there anyone more sexist, phallocratic or conservative? The internet age has made the dissemination of radical opinions easier than ever before. It allows for many places to be both backwards and forwards at the same time. Greece, unlike the US, gets to hide behind this Old World façade of mythology and ancient history. There is ample excuse for a preoccupation with the past, yet there are so many inspiring people rightfully looking to the future in Greece, which looks brighter every year. There is always a fight to fight and we do so with hope in our eyes and fire in our hearts.
Q: I read that you love nature and you like shark diving and I was wondering what is the most important thing that you draw from these experiences. What do we have to learn today, even from this somewhat curated contact with nature?
A: I have always had this impulse to live dangerously, because I thrive most when I embrace risk. By reaching higher, going deeper, traveling farther away from civilization, from the routine life, we again become wild, we again become part of the animal world. In this space, no boredom exists, questions cease to plague us, there is no dust of the past and no anticipation for the future. Only the present moment exists, sharp like a flame, fueling a deep spiritual experience. Nature is the greatest teacher and the place in which I feel most at home and profoundly connected. Rather than reading my words, I’d prefer for people go out into the world and learn for themselves, filling their souls with wonder and awe.
Q: What brought you to DDS? What made you want to be a part of it? Why do you think such events are important and what do you expect from this particular initiative?
A: I am always eager to return to Greece and connect with friends, peers, and the country I grew up in. It is important to gather with purpose and what I like about this event is how explicit its purpose is. New York City can become an echo chamber, and so it is refreshing to connect with new people in such a historically significant place and hear their perspectives on what’s going on. I often struggle with the idea that our country has lost so much of its talent to foreign countries and would love to find ways to contribute and collaborate, applying my deep experience and learnings here in Greece.
I hope the conversations we have here can have tangible outcomes and propel the leaders sitting on these panels into action. Leadership in media and most industries has long been good at talking ad nauseum about the potential of starting to address the
nature of problems in the abstract. I’m hoping we can start the real work of solving them. Most importantly though, I want to realize my dream of becoming an Oracle.
Q: What would you like people to “gain” from Digital Disruption Sessions? When do you feel that a public speech or contribution of yours has fulfilled its purpose?
A: I want people to be exposed to new perspectives and gain insight into how collectively, as creators and as leaders, we can do better. I am never satisfied with the impact of my public speaking, but try to understand how I can continue to inspire people and create space for minority voices to be heard. It is our responsibility to do that. And it’s hard, but always worth it. I am constantly asking myself: how do we embrace, evaluate, and acknowledge the things we are not doing well enough? How do we improve? It is an ever-evolving conversation, and I for one, am happy not feeling like I have fully fulfilled my purpose. It keeps me engaged and excited.
Thalia will take part in the Saturday 2/3 Digital Disruption Session titled “Content Frontiers” powered by Valuecom in the context of this year’s Delphi Economic Forum. You can reserve your seat for all sessions here.