Building Business at Buzzfeed

  • Photography by: Judy Pak
  • Copy by: Tiffany Chow

Let’s be honest: if we ever took beauty pageants as a serious endeavor, then Honey Boo Boo and Dance Moms completely ruined that. Ashley McCollum would beg to differ. “Pageants were a place where I truly understood what it meant to love myself and be confident.” Were it not for the confidence she gained from competing in beauty pageants, she might not have chased a different career path, left her small hometown to find said career path in New York City, or stood outside of the TODAY Show studios in hopes that she could land a job. 

Now, as Vice President of Business Development and Communications for BuzzFeed, 26-year-old Ashley calls on that confidence every single day. “I’m thinking big for 2014 and trying to help my incredible team of publicists push BuzzFeed to the next level.” With the launches of BuzzFeed Brasil, BuzzFeed France, and BuzzFeed Español already under her belt, she clearly has what it takes to lead her team to success. Ashley proves it’s not always about where you’re from or who you know; it’s about what’s in your heart. Read on to find out more about this Southern Belle.

Name: Ashley McCollum 
Age: 26
Location: New York
Current Title: BuzzFeed VP of Business Development & Communications
Educational Background: Bachelor of Science in Economics, Presbyterian College

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job, if you don’t count the summer after graduation when I was a nanny in Charleston, was as an NBC Page. I was a TODAY show intern (more on that later) and kept a notebook during my internship. I wrote down every name and took every card and wasn’t shy about keeping in touch. When I applied for the Page program, I hit up all my best contacts and some of them sent letters of recommendation, which undoubtedly helped get me into the program. Don’t lose touch with your contacts!

You studied Economics in college. That seems to be a bit of a 180 from where you are today. How did you transition from that to the career path you’re on today?
I went to a small liberal arts school and while I don’t specifically use supply & demand graphs all day at work, those critical thinking skills really helped improve my decision-making. In reality though, I have to thank one person for such a dramatic shift: my college mentor Anne Smith. The summer of my sophomore year, I was working for her in the events department of my school, Presbyterian College. I was standing in the doorway of her office in a near emotional breakdown, stressing about my future. She looked at me and calmly said, “You need to get out of here. You need  to study abroad, move to New York, and go work in media.” So I did.

You have a background in beauty pageants and even wrote in defense of them here. Tell us the impact that competing in beauty pageants has had on your life.
The piece lays out a pretty clear defense of what I consider one of the more important pillars of my life. Pageants were a place where I truly understood what it meant to love myself and be confident. I was a chubby girl from a small town in South Carolina and pageants helped give me a vision into everything else out there; they helped me realize I deserved it.

Internships are the first bricks laying the foundation of professional network. Don’t burn anyone, and keep your contacts list fresh!

Clearly, pageants gave you the confidence to boldly stand outside of the TODAY show studios with a sign in hopes of landing an internship there. Tell us that fun story. 
Coming from a small town where I didn’t know anyone in New York, my parents hadn’t gone to college and there were no media/communications courses at my school. I knew I had to get creative. I flew to New York (for the first time) to see a friend who was spending the semester there. It seems a little stalker-ish now but I knew I was so close to the TODAY show studios, I had to do something. So I made a cardboard sign in the shape of a girl, painted on a dress, glued on pearls, and wrote “This southern belle wants to be NBC’s next summer intern.” I convinced a security guard to move me up to the front of the crowd and held up my sign during commercial breaks. I wanted a producer to see it, not the TODAY audience. With the help of a TODAY show publicist flagging my sign to the control room, then-Executive Producer Jim Bell came out to meet me. I gave him my resume and cover letter and five months later, I was offered the intern job. It all came full circle for me when four years later, I was the publicist standing out in the crowd at concerts and in charge of the press. I definitely took a closer look at all those signs every Friday.

What do you think the role of your internships has played in the career you have today? What were some of the most important lessons you learned or experiences you had while being an intern?
Internships, and the relationships you make in them, are the most important part of your career. They are the first bricks laying the foundation of professional network. Don’t burn anyone, and keep your contacts list fresh!

Before Buzzfeed you worked in Marketing and Communications for NBC News. Tell us about your role there and the learning experience you took away from it.
I started as an assistant getting coffee, booking cars, and being the bottom man on the totem pole. I remember being overly ambitious at the beginning of that assistant role. I thought that NBC was so big that I had so much room to grow and so many things I could be doing. I’d really recommend putting your head down, learning how to do your job really well, and then moving up. Be really good at what you do before you take on the next thing. Being ambitious is one thing, but being curious is another. Always raise your hand for new projects, ask how things work, and think of how to make them better.

Always raise your hand for new projects, ask how things work, and think of how to make them better.

In your current position, Vice President of Business Development and Communications at Buzzfeed, you seem to have a lot of responsibility. How did you land the position and were you ever intimidated by the title? How did you know you were ready to take on more of an executive leadership role?
Taking on a role with a lot more responsibility definitely seemed scary at the time. I didn’t have enough experience to think what we needed to do would be impossible. And we’ve done a lot, and I’m excited about doing more. Never fake it til you make it. Don’t pretend to know more than you do. Don’t go to your bosses with a problem unless you have a solution.

What kinds of projects are you currently working on? 
We just finished launching BuzzFeed Brasil, BuzzFeed en Español, and BuzzFeed France, which required a lot of PR work and was a ton of fun. From the business side, I’m thinking about how to structure my business development team in a way that makes product integration ideas more interesting and better for the user. I’m thinking big for 2014 and trying to help my incredible team of publicists to push BuzzFeed to the next level. And I’m in the middle of building an awesome team on the business side so, please, send good resumes!

What is your typical day like at BuzzFeed?
My mornings are usually focused on dealing with news of the day, reading the trades, and talking with reporters and producers who are starting their day and want to get insight from someone at BuzzFeed. In the afternoon, I try to work on longer term projects, planning, and going to a lot of meetings. I usually hit a couple work drinks during the week to keep up my relationships in the industry, and then once I get home, a good handful of people at BuzzFeed sign back online from 10pm-12am: “Night Twitter” as we call it. The best night to be online is Sunday night: every big story drops, lots of embargoes break, and you can kind of feel the whole week ahead of you.

Digital media can be a 24-hour kind of gig since the Internet never “closes.” Do you ever truly shut down? What kinds of skills do you think are necessary for working in this kind of environment?
No, not really. Well, if I go to a foreign country with insane cell rates. But if you don’t want to work all the time, I wouldn’t suggest getting into this business. We all knew what we signed up for.

If you don’t want to work all the time, I wouldn’t suggest getting into this business.

Best moment of your career so far?
There was a moment at this year’s BuzzFeed’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner counter-programmed party that I’ll never forget. The party itself was a risk, but over 800 people showed up, C-SPAN sent cameras to cover it live, President Obama name-checked us in his speech, and to top it off, the entire cast of House of Cards showed up. I’ve never been so thrilled and proud. It was a real moment for us.

What advice would you give to your 23 year-old self? 
Pay off your credit card every month, travel more, buy clothes that will last more than one season, don’t stay at work so late.

Ashley McCollum is The Everygirl

Morning or Night?
Any time after midnight, please!

Life Motto?
What would Olivia Pope do?

Aiden or Big?
As much as I love Aiden’s country house, I’ve gotta go with Big.

Coffee order?
Large iced skim cappuccino

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I’d love to pick Lauren Zalaznick’s brain. She created a whole new genre of television and a TV network that was truly built around digital.