Shachar Orren: “Here are 5 things I wish someone told me before I became the Chief Storytelling Officer of Playbuzz”

An Interview with Phil La Duke

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One thing I wish someone told me earlier, is that at this point in your career, you have to have a very good idea of who you are, your self worth, what you’re good at. Once you have that strong “center”, it doesn’t matter what might happen or what someone might say, it will not change what you know or think of yourself. And thus, it cannot break you. It’s an important step in building resilience.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Playbuzz Chief Storytelling Officer, Shachar Orren. Shachar is the Chief Storytelling Officer at the Disney-backed content experiences platform, Playbuzz. In this role, she oversees the company’s global marketing and communications, as well as creative strategy for publisher and brand partners. Prior to joining Playbuzz as the sixth employee, Shachar spent a decade as a journalist at Israel’s largest daily newspapers. This enabled her to transition well to a digital disruptor focused on creating technologies to solve the media’s pain points — such as how to capture fleeting attention spans and boost audience engagement. Shachar has been covered and published in Forbes, Fox News and Adweek, and enjoys lecturing at journalism universities in her free time on the future of the newsroom and the importance of content that impacts humanity.

Thank you so much for joining us Shachar. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Content and storytelling have always been my biggest passions. I started my career as a journalist in Israel (where I’m originally from) and did that for almost 10 years. Writing professionally was a dream of mine and it was thrilling to make it come true, but after nearly a decade in journalism I felt the industry I’m in is not what it used to be — good people were leaving, budgets were shrinking on a daily basis — and I was too young and too ambitious to be working in what felt like a slowly-dying industry.

I started asking myself where else would my skills be a necessity — this was before storytelling was a trending need for many companies. I was lucky enough to find an early stage startup called Playbuzz, that had the vision to launch a platform for engaging content experiences, and was looking for a head of content to join as their 6th employee. I decided it was good timing to be adventurous and I took the leap, even though they told me they were likely to run out of money in a few months.

Spoiler alert: that did not happen. What did happen was that we grew to be over 130 people, raised $66 M in funding from investors (Disney being one of them), I relocated to our office in NYC, and we got to partner with some of the most exciting publishers, brands and businesses in the world to enable them to engage audiences and exceed business goals with Playbuzz content experiences like questions, videos, rankings and polls, just to name a few. Today I lead the company’s marketing, communications and content strategy globally from our headquarters in Manhattan.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When you’re at a startup, so much is happening every day that one year feels like five. My mind is packed with exciting moments, from feeling like a real-life Disney princess when Disney gave the biggest vote of confidence to the company’s mission by deciding to invest in us; to traveling the world for business and seeing how the challenge of creating content that truly grabs people’s attention is a global one.

The early days, when the entire company was six people sitting in one room just hustling to make success happen, were definitely very memorable. My goal then was to use content in order to get attention to our platform, and it meant applying every growth hacking tactic we could think of — but only ones that don’t cost anything, since we had zero budget. One day, one of the writers created a piece of content about a TV show, and we tweeted a link to the story to a few of the show’s leading actresses. One of them picked it up and tweeted it to her followers, and suddenly Playbuzz’s website went from no users (except for the six of us), to thousands, then millions of users within a few weeks. Seeing that growth was unforgettable, but obviously it was just the beginning.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure it qualifies as a funny mistake, but a mistake I often made when I just started, was taking every piece of criticism very very personally. As much as it may hurt, getting honest feedback is so important in order to get better, and it may mean you failed, but it in no way means you’re a failure. Took me time to really internalize that there’s a difference between the two. I think it’s a mistake many young people make on their first executive position — when their responsibilities increase and no one is shielding them from the truth — that could end up making life much harder for them.

A funnier mistake I made early on was being so busy with my own tasks that when people that reported to me would come and ask me questions, I would find myself saying that I can’t help them right now since I’m too busy working. Pretty quickly I realized that supporting my team and helping them succeed is usually the most important work I have, and a bigger priority than anything else.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I love making a real impact on something I care about, and I hate being bored. I many ways that’s the essence of being an executive — it means your ideas and opinions are very impactful, and it also keeps you on your toes by forcing you to step out of your comfort zone constantly. You must be a creative thinker and problem solver, take bold decisions even if they don’t work out, and then get right back out there no matter what happened. It gives you a lot of opportunities to be brave — which of course means being very afraid of everything but doing it anyway.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

An executive is like a hawk. They have a high level, bird’s-eye view of the company — not just their side of the business — but they must be able to zoom in at the right moment and jump right on to the smallest of details. Especially at a startup, it’s the art of balancing between the clouds and the weeds, being a strategic thinker but also quite hands on.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Two things I love most are being part of shaping what storytelling looks like around the world, through bringing our platform to many different publishers and businesses; and the opportunity to lead very talented people with vision and authenticity. I didn’t realize how much strength you can get from managing a powerful team. Seeing them succeed is even more exciting than doing it myself.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Stress and lack of sleep are definitely part of the day to day for most executives. To me it always seemed like part of being a person who’s very passionate about what they do, losing sleep over it almost comes with the territory, but it’s easy to completely lose balance. Another downside is never being able to let go of something and let it be someone else’s problem. It’s always your problem and you must deal.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?

There’s an old concept about executives — and leaders in general — that they must communicate as if they are above everyone else, keep a distance, be unattainable, be tough, put on a perfect mask and hide their mistakes. I think today people expect the opposite — executives and business leaders that are relatable, at eye-level, vulnerable at times, treat the people around them as equals, show that they mess up just like everyone else and share those moments so others can learn from their past experiences. Those are the role models I would like to have, and what I hope to be for others.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One of the biggest challenges for women is the fact that the higher up the ladder they rise, they see less and less women around them at their level. It’s lonely and and it means you have less role models to identify with and learn from. Thankfully that situation is changing, and there are a few companies that are helping connect women in senior positions (like Chief, who are building an amazing network of female leaders). Another challenge that I sometimes notice is that women (myself included) tend to be more comfortable showing emotion or vulnerability as a regular part of their leadership style, which can, at times, be perceived as a weakness. I don’t see it that way. Anyone want to join me in starting a movement to normalize crying at the office?

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think resilience is the most important trait. The executive life has lots of ups and downs, and if you’re in it for the long haul, you need to be able to not break down when things aren’t working out. You have to bounce back and not let it drain your energy. Also — if you hate making decisions or being in situations of uncertainty, this is probably not the best direction for you.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I recently read an interesting book by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, called “Brave, Not perfect”. It talks about how women are taught from an early age to play it safe and not take risks in order to stay “perfect”, and encourages readers to be aware of that, let go of the eagerness for perfection and not be afraid to fail more often. I think that’s great advice.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m grateful to so many friends and colleagues that make my everyday worthwhile. I’ll specifically mention Playbuzz’s founders Shaul Olmert and Tom Pachys who believed in me (even when I didn’t) and often gave me the freedom to do what I think will work (even when they didn’t), and to my husband who’s always there for me, no matter what crappy mood I’m in, and is very supportive and inspiring.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I find that connecting people tends to make this world a little better. Together with two friends I lead a community of Israeli women in New York, we have a very active Facebook group with close to 3000 members, and do a lot of offline meetups with the goal of empowering women who just moved to a new city, and making sure no one goes through it alone. I also love using my experience to guide people that are going through a job search, helping them prep and matching them with the right positions. Other than that I try to dedicate free time to speaking with students in different universities about how changes in content consumption habits are impacting our lives and empower them to tell great stories. I always learn a lot from students since they are the ones that ask the hardest questions.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

One thing I wish someone told me earlier, is that at this point in your career, you have to have a very good idea of who you are, your self worth, what you’re good at. Once you have that strong “center”, it doesn’t matter what might happen or what someone might say, it will not change what you know or think of yourself. And thus, it cannot break you. It’s an important step in building resilience.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m very passionate about getting more women to advance in the business world and eliminating any hurdles that are preventing that from happening. Also that movement to make crying in the office normal that I mentioned earlier — I was totally serious!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Being brave isn’t the absence of fear, it’s having that fear but finding a way through it. People sometimes tell me that I look very calm and collected and like nothing phases me even at times of crisis, and I find that hilarious because it could not be further from the truth. I panic over everything, but I know what I want to do and fear will not stop me from getting there. Not being afraid is stupid, they key is being afraid but doing it anyway.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Author

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog

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