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Social commentator Alexandra Tselios talks success with Neos Kosmos

The founder and CEO of leading opinion site The Big Smoke explains why she treats her company as a capital city of the 21st century

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Alexandra Tselios.

We work fervently to tailor our power in a way that connects people with the energy, vibrancy, and thrills of culture.
15 September 2017

At 35 years of age, social commentator Alexandra Tselios runs opinion site The Big Smoke, and is interviewed most days of the week across Australia.

As CEO and one of the founders of the popular culture institution, she has also managed to make her platform one of the most successful op-ed go-to destination for readers, alongside working with not-for-profit think tank and online newspaper Plus61J which explores the political and social ties between Australia and Israel.

Did she ever imagine the success that would follow? "Yes," she replies, explaining that she had a clear vision from the early stages of the inception of the idea and whatever she enveavours she tries to be focused on the goal and the simple, direct steps that will lead to it. Together with editor Greg Gerding she runs a sister site in the US, The Big Smoke America. The Big Smoke (TBS) also runs Next Gen programme, publishing Australian students aged 8-18 mentored by TBS writers.

"We see The Big Smoke company as a capital city for the 21st century," Tselios asserts, and this statement is actually her business motto in creating a unique urban vehicle connecting writers, readers, and brands across Australia and overseas.

"We're all about cutting through the noises and mazes to have a distinctive cultural impact and connect people with things they'll love."

With an aim to provide a single platform that acts as a stage for the voicing of varied, topical and interesting opinions, Tselios and her team draw from a pool of writers that consist of generally not journalists, although some write for a living. Editorial-wise, they have chosen to sometimes publish content they may not agree with.

"We draw on some of the finest minds in the country – young and old, emerging and famous. Our contributors come from all walks of life – comedians, barristers, students, politicians, business owners, academics – the list is almost endless. We don't censor, we provide a platform for debate. We cater towards discerning readers who want to access ideas differently," she explains.

When did your journey into writing and journalism begin?
Well, when I was younger I worked an office job and started a little music magazine just for fun. I started reaching out to musicians I loved (mostly from the US and UK) and they actually replied to me and let me interview them! So I started to produce this free little magazine and got it distributed across music stores in Sydney and then eventually through friends in San Diego, London and a music store in Berlin. Then I started getting people writing in, so people were actually reading it. It was a great experience, and was less around the content and more that I realised – if you just ask you will be surprised at how people want to create with you. That has been how I have built everything. In fact, the music magazine is how I met Greg Gerding from San Diego who is now the editor-in-chief for TBS USA.

As a founder and as CEO of The Big Smoke, you oversee the leading opinion site in both Australia and the US. How do you manage?
I just make it work. Thinking about how much there is to do, what the market conditions are like, the obstacles I will inevitably face, would be overwhelming so I don't [go] there. I am fairly disciplined with how I view my days and how I value my time. So I just deal with things a bit at a time. And every day I deal with something amazing and something I have to fix – I just make it work. The Big Smoke is dedicated to promoting the arts, creatives, and entertainment because we know that if these things flourish, everyone else will too.

What is it like being a social commentator?
It is weird, because you don't think anyone would care but actually they do. There is a weird climate now where seemingly anyone can be a commentator, so we have people discussing issues they have no experience in or no true understanding of the complexities [of the issues]. I feel fortunate because when I discuss issues it is often based on the writers we publish, and I get to use their articles as reference points which facilitates my unique perspective. Also, I am inquisitive by nature, I want to figure things out and get my head around it – so discussing it, debating it and unpacking it helps.

When did you develop an interest in politics?
I have always loved politics, when I was a kid I was quite aware of the power of our political structure, and in particular [I was] interested in the complexities around how it both helps our society but also hinders our growth in other ways. Politics is a fascinating game, and I love watching how people respond to it – the public and also the individuals who find themselves gaining some level of power.

You have said "the biggest lesson I've learnt is to stop asking 'How do I monetise my site?' and to instead ask 'How can the ecosystem I have created become of value to brands?'- can you expand on this?
That is very wise, where did I say that? I think the media is scrambling to make things work and it's a tough climate, but that's where the opportunities are. We have created something that is far more nuanced than just publishing articles and hoping people press 'like'; and because of that I feel differently about the clients we work with – I want to see our platform help them reach their commercial goals and we have done that successfully and continue to adapt with the shifting trends and changes in how technology connects audiences with ideas, products or people. I think about this daily, it's what I think about when I go to sleep - how can we do better, how can we impact more, what will happen in market next.

Is it true that you hired an 81-year-old to head your marketing team? Would you say this is part of your method of treating your company as a modern 21st century society?
I don't care about age! The Big Smoke is actually a company full of young people, however, just like a healthy society it has its representation of all ages. I don't judge based on someone's age, or sex, or nationality but based on their capabilities. Roger Pugh is the head of native advertising for The Big Smoke Media Group, and has had a long established career in advertising across Australia, USA and the UK. He is best known for bringing to market the Toyota Oh! What a Feeling campaign and works with not only the Big Smoke's millennial copywriters, but with B2B and B2C brands to ensure that advertising still gets cut through despite the changing technologies around us.
I met him while working on a political project where we did a site on the US elections. Roger also does satire and the more I learnt about him the more I thought he had the most amazing brain for understanding how brands need cut-through approach. So, he heads up all these 20-something writers for multi-channel digital reach. It's quite a phenomenal vehicle actually; how it all works together.

Where do you attribute your success?
My parents are both amazing and I grew up very close to my grandparents on my dad's side; they are marvellous people and just made me believe I could do anything. I attribute a childhood growing up with people who had massive dreams, then sort of got to a point and went 'oh well, it's easier to just get a day job and not think about those dreams anymore'. Watching this drives me, and I am fascinated by the idea of comfort over a life you [have] created. But to be fair, I am just very internally motivated. It's not something I have had to force. I see things through, and I perhaps take on more than I can chew at times but somehow make it work. I want to know that I made a difference to the lives of the people in my company, the brands we work with and the readers we impact. It's never a one-off goal, it's evolving and never ends. It's exhausting, but it's entirely fulfilling. I am very fortunate to be building with some of the most remarkable humans.

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