Lydia Tay: “Starting over in Vancouver”
“I graduated with a degree in Modern Languages from a good university in England. I took modern languages because I felt that communication was important to me. It didn’t seem like a career-limiting move. When I graduated, I was snapped up quite quickly by this corporate communications agency in London. They did not care two jots that I didn’t have a degree in English, They had a couple of clients in France and liked that I spoke other languages. So I thought ‘Woo hoo, my career’s off to a great start.’
We worked with large clients like Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Aberdeen Asset Management, some of the biggest institutional investment and financial services businesses in London. The goal for all our clients was to sell more institutional products or improve the share price. I was an account junior, so I was doing a bit of everything, from media monitoring, to scheduling interviews, pitching stories to journalists, attending lots of institutional events to network. It might be people we wanted to do business with, it might be media. I’d take journalists to the theatre. It was very fast-paced, very glamorous.
When I decided to move to Vancouver, I presumed that there would be financial PR, corporate comms PR, here in Vancouver. So when I landed in Vancouver in mid-September and looked up communications firms, they looked like the PR agencies where I’d come from. Coming from London where my skills and experience were valued, even as an account junior, I had built what seemed to be quite good experience. I was sure I could find something, even something junior in comms, or ideally, media relations, and I didn’t mind coming in at the bottom. But I thought I could find something!
So I started applying for jobs and from a lack of knowledge just emailing my resume to people. Of course, I heard nothing. So I tried a different route and managed to finagle informational interviews with two agency people. I thought, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just about tapping in to the hidden job market.’ But when I went on these informationals, my corporate experience was just seen to be so different from the kind of experience people wanted here. People would say, ‘Who do you know at the Van Sun?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know anyone there.’ So they’d say, ‘Who are your top 5 Vancouver bloggers that you’d pitch to?’ and I’d say, ‘I just don’t know.’ And I’m listing my clients from London, who were power house clients, but those names meant nothing. The people that I met with here just felt that my experience was of no value.
It was tough because, like any new person to the city, you manage to swing an informational with a company that you think you might want to work for, and you’re incredibly excited and hopeful, and you go to that meeting. And someone looks at your resume, and there’s nothing there that interests them. You can see it in their eyes. And you know you’re not going to leave that meeting with ‘I have a buddy who might be able to find you a job,’ or ‘Try this company.’ You’re going to leave that meeting with nothing.
To be fair, generating a PR campaign for a product, or an event is inherently different to working with an institutional client to boost their share price through positive news around an announcement. But I think I could have drawn draw more parallels, I think there were many ways I could have leveraged my experience, but I was early in my career and I just didn’t know. I just felt like the doors were opening and closing in my face.
Education was a huge barrier. I was asked about it so many times, and was recommended that I go back to school and get my degree in communications or get some sort of certificate. But I thought, ‘I don’t have the time for this, I don’t have the money for this.’ I came to Canada to work. Another problem was that my knowledge of the digital landscape was not so strong. I didn’t know that was a key skill I needed. And that’s also been an interesting learning. For new people coming to this city, I would say digital content strategy and management are skills that a lot of key people in this city are looking for.
I couldn’t find anything in my field and took this media sales job. It was a little bit soul-sucking and it was not what I wanted to do, but it had media in the title, I was working with journalists, and still in the industry, but I was not super successful. Selling ad space is not my dream. I was also, at the same time, looking for volunteer opportunities in communications. I needed to try and get some local experience.
I came across IABC online. They were hosting a volunteer fair for the Bronze Quill awards. So I went along, knowing no one, knowing nothing about it, met a whole pack of friendly, welcoming IABC existing volunteers and senior members, and just felt like ‘I could fit in here, the language these people are speaking here is my language.’ The opportunity was one where I felt I valued. It was very refreshing after landing in Canada and having been here three or four months, and I hadn’t been anywhere where I felt like I was adding real value and contributing.
So I started volunteering. I asked out a lot of the people I met that day for informationals. I also would take the opportunity at every networking event I attended to meet everyone I could, and hear what they did. Because part of it was I just functionally didn’t understand the buckets that exist here. I didn’t understand the market. I hadn’t been exposed to the whole range and didn’t really even know what jobs were out there. But I had two options. Basically completely give up and say communications doesn’t want me so I’ll have to find some other career. Or I could build this experience another way, try to change my story, if it was truly important to me, and it truly was.
I eventually landed in recruitment. I’ve always loved people and connecting people and I was going to start working in recruitment and see if, in the future, I could marry these things together. And in the meantime, I just volunteered with IABC at every possible opportunity. I did a couple of terms on the Board, did a couple of portfolios, and used that as my way to stay connected to an industry I’m really passionate about. And now my role includes recruitment and a bit of employee engagement, so I feel like I’m starting to marry those things together a bit. And to change my story. I’m still trying. I’m taking my MBA at Sauder. My formal education did not equip me for the roles I want to do in the future and so it’s been a slow road to just come to terms with that and just decide to change it.
The great thing about working in recruitment and human resources is the whole theme of human capital management and change management. My goal in my career is to move towards change management, organizational behavior, kind of marry the two elements that I’ve been developing up until now, which is understanding the importance of communicating with employees and communicating change, but setting that in the wider context of building an organizational function. So I think that’s where I’m going with this and I’m very excited about it.”
Some facts about Lydia
Current position: Manager, Talent Acquisition and Employee Engagement, Paper Excellence
IABC member since: 2012
Biggest help in getting established: Biggest help in getting established: Networking, asking seasoned communicators for a little face time to understand the industry, and being pleasantly surprised when they agreed!