Women in Business: Q&A with Megan Cunningham, Founder and CEO of Magnet Media

Women in Business: Q&A with Megan Cunningham, Founder and CEO of Magnet Media
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Megan Cunningham is the Founder and CEO of Magnet Media, an award-winning content marketing solutions provider and next-generation digital video studio. Magnet produces award-winning web video and social media campaigns for many of the largest brands in media, entertainment and technology. Their clients include Apple, Microsoft, Google, ABC, Showtime, The Associated Press, Dreamworks Animation, NBC and more.

Prior to founding Magnet, Megan had a career in production at PBS, HBO, Nickelodean and HBO as well as a stint as Director of Biz Dev at Virtual Media. Recently Megan launched a new division of Magnet Media, Magnet Media Originals, designed to create original content digital programming in the vein of Netflix and Amazon.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'd be lying if I said I've struggled through tremendous adversity. I've been incredibly fortunate to grow up in an incredible loving family with self-made, ambitious, hard-working parents...and to be surrounded by a network of friends who were genuine in their support (and even championing) of all my wild ideas. But I do think being raised to believe you're capable of anything is a double edged sword in that it's difficult for me to set limits and enforce them in others. That's part of what makes me a successful entrepreneur, but it can also be tiring as a lifestyle. A few years ago one of my mentors in business introduced to the concept of "continuous improvement" - and with that in mind I believe my leadership style has improved continuously over time. I'm now focused on harnessing the amazing energy at my company and insuring it's all pointed in the same direction.

How did your previous employment experience aid with establishing your own marketing company?
I began my career in television --working in independent film and TV (PBS, HBO), producing documentaries. After a few years, I left production temporarily to join a fast-growing tech startup that was servicing the entertainment industry. I was employee #2 at age 25 and I enjoyed a front-seat ride to bootstrapping the company. In 2000, when I founded Magnet Media, it was to combine my two loves: storytelling and technology. Today we've evolved to become a content solutions provider. With the rise of television becoming an omnipresent platform --on your laptop, in bed in your pocket-- produce award-winning video and social media content.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think it starts by recognizing life is full of trade-offs, and you can make different choices at various stages of your career and life. In the end, you do have to make some tough choices along the way. When I adopted my son last year it came at an incredibly inconvenient time where we had just began construction on our NYC studios and screening-rooms...and opened up west coast offices as well. My husband was launching a new company and neither of us had a moment to sit back and reflect. In that first 6 months there were many moments that felt overwhelming; but over time, you adjust. Today, I feel fulfilled by my choices and focus on never feeling as if I'm "missing out." When you don't start with an expectation of tradeoffs, it's easy to feel guilty that you're shortchanging your career or disappointing friends and family-- but in the end, being self-aware means setting priorities that ultimately lead to a fulfilling life.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Magnet Media?
Well, it's been a very dynamic decade. When we started, broadband wasn't even ubiquitous; since then we've witnessed the global rise of mobile, the explosion of social networks, the rise of Netflix and collapse of Blockbuster. For us, it's been incredibly exhilarating to navigate any company at the intersection of tech and media. Highlights included working some of our most innovative clients: Apple, Google, Xbox, PBS, Dreamworks Animation, Turner.

What advice can you offer women hoping to start their own business?
Be prepared to have to work harder than your male entrepreneurial colleague...and understand that your best competitive advantage is that everyone (clients, partners, prospective employees) may have a moment where they underestimate you.

Be resilient. Try to remember it's not personal.

Never think that your empathy is synonymous with weakness or inferiority; view it as an advantage to connect with colleagues on a deeper level. Ultimately, it's undeniably a strength.

Network with other successful women, and be clear on how success is defined --personally-- by you. And never waiver from that or let others redefine it for you.

How can a new business successfully utilize new technology to be successful?
I think the new era of content marketing provides more accountability than ever - but it's hard to track and most marketers don't fully appreciate the potential in before them. The best way to think of it is this: imagine if --10 years ago-- someone told you you could tell any story about your company and brand that you wanted to, and that it would be trusted and high-impact as fact as long as you communicated it in a compelling way and distributed it using the latest technology. Wouldn't that be almost unbelievable - how incredibly powerful, right? Well, in the time of corporate-owned blogs, social networks and YouTube channels, that's the era we're in. But most brands are viewing this moment as an opportunity to spread coupons more efficiently...instead you should ask: What story could you be telling your customers? What web and mobile technologies could you be using? Those are the questions my company Magnet Media is helping CMO's answer.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The opportunities for women today are greater than ever, but (believe it or not) there's still a massive gap in the credibility and trust factors --which is what leads to being on the "inner circle" and being trusted to take the reigns with big, important company-wide initiatives. It's communicated in subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways, depending on who you're dealing with. When I was refinancing some of our agreements with our bank last year a senior banker came to meet with me to pitch me on working with them over a competitor. I liked his pitch and we were concluding the meeting --and at the end i said how ironic it was that when we needed access to capital (back during our startup days) no one wants to give it to you, but now that my company was profitable and growing we have a lot of prospective sources for capital. He laughed and said "So what did you do: marry rich?"

It's those kind of assumptions about power and resources that I don't think men are ever questioned about: it's assumed they have access to power to get the job done, whereas with a female executive there's a common underestimation of "Do you really have what it takes to build a seriously sizable business? Or are you going to get emotional and distracted and be small-minded about what this company can become?" I never stop resenting that assumption that women lack the ability to achieve big ambitions. But ultimately, when I'm most strategic, I use the fact that we're underestimated to my advantage.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I think the fact that a single publication plus a well-run book/speaking tour has instantly re-established feminism as mainstream is pretty fabulous. On a personal level, it's inspired a lot of women who I work with or have worked with for years to reach out and start developing the "girls club" that I know men have done for years: purposeful networking with like-minded women within an industry...sharing insights, strategies, connections, experiences, It's almost salon-like. I've been invited to more power-women dinner parties in the year since Lean In was published than I've been in the past 10 years. It's amazing, and inspiring.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I had a lot of people who provided advice to me early on, but I never had a real mentor --so that was something that I aimed to provide to my own employees and colleagues wherever the opportunity presented itself. Over the past ten years, I've taken a handful of people and startup founders under my wing and found it to be very rewarding. I count a few "proteges" in my career history, and we remain very close --and while their accomplishments are all their own, they also remain a source of pride and joy for me.

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