The Comms Spotlight – Marisa Viljoen, Communications Manager, Africa

Starting off her career as a reporter for a sports magazine, our Comms Spotlight, Marisa Viljoen, continues to carve a niche in an industry she is passionate about. From being deliberate about her career and also willing to take chances, Marisa is proof of what we can achieve with vision and passion. In our interview with her, she shares her career journey so far and tips for upcoming communications professionals.


How did you begin your journey and career in Communications?

My route to corporate communications wasn’t the most typical one. I’ve always loved the art of writing, so after high school, I went to the Tshwane University of Technology to study Journalism.

Growing up in a sport-fanatic family, I landed a part-time job as a reporter for a South African rugby magazine. I dabbled in sport reporting for a few years before I decided that it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me for a long-term career, but I knew that I still wanted to be close to writing in whatever work I transitioned into. I enjoyed writing the odd business story, and with that I took the plunge straight from the rugby field into my first corporate writing role at a leading medical insurance company. Working across a variety of sectors gave me a huge amount of personal and professional experience. But I also realized that it was important for me to get a wider perspective and to get the foundations of understanding exactly how the entire marketing and communication world worked.

Walking away from financial services, I explored the agency environment for a while, working mostly in stakeholder communications. The agencies taught me what hard work really was – and how to work hard and smart at the same time. They also taught me how to juggle, how to prioritize and how to influence others to move things ahead.

It’s also here that my interest in professional services got ignited as I worked closely with various auditing professionals. When the opportunity presented itself, I joined one of the Big Four auditing firms as a communications specialist (later manager) before moving to another leading auditing firm a few years later. Many of the positions that I’ve held have either been new positions that were not well defined or have been existing positions that were going through an evolution. This has allowed me to adapt the role to meet the needs of the business at the time. It has also allowed me to establish very strong relationships with leadership and other cross-functional teams.

Fast forward to where I am today – I count myself very blessed to be doing exactly what I love at a Firm I truly admire. I work with the greatest minds to help create positive, enduring change in Africa and the world.


Can you take us through what you do within your role as a Communications Manager?

As a communication manager, I wear many hats. I’m responsible for setting communication strategies for our sectors and growth platforms and then executing them accordingly. I also work closely with our leadership teams to create distinctive content for our key stakeholders, including clients, key influencers, and the media. In addition, I play a role in maintaining and enhancing our reputation as a leading management consulting firm.


What are some of the deliberate steps you took to develop yourself in your career?

I’m a people person. I build strong relationships with the people I work with and I cherish them greatly. A great deal of what I do is relationship-based – it’s about being connected and understanding where to go and who to go to. Having those relationships help me to connect the dots for our Firm – ensuring the right conversations are happening at the right times with the right people.

Joining the Firm in the middle of a pandemic made this a little more challenging. I haven’t actually met most of my colleagues (except my core team) face-to-face. Virtual platforms have become a great ally in building relationships with colleagues and leadership around the world, and I must admit, I now actually enjoy the flexibility of working from home.

I’m also not afraid of taking chances. I’m a firm believer that you have to embrace every opportunity, even if you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. I had no clue how to write stakeholder reports, but I raised my hand and did it anyway. By the third one, I was seen as an expert in my field.


Can you share one major challenge you have faced in your career so far and how you overcame it?

Finding the perfect balance between work and family is an every-day challenge. As a mother and wife, this challenge isn’t unique to me. We tend to feel guilty all the time.

I’m, however, very blessed to have a husband who understands that finding my balance is still very much a work in progress. I treasure having my weekends free to focus on my family. It’s allowed for concentrated and dedicated time with my husband and two girls in which I’m fully present and in the moment.


What are some of the key lessons you have learned from your professional journey so far?

Firstly, never stop learning! Be curious, learn new things. Keep learning from everyone around you, whether colleagues, bosses, partners, or clients. Read industry blogs, connect with your peers, and attend classes or conferences around the globe. Our new virtual way of working has many benefits. Use it to your advantage.

Secondly, as communication professionals, sometimes we believe we’re supposed to have all the answers, but the truth is, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. Knowing your strengths and bringing in people to help you with your weaknesses are vital to improve your skills and build a great career.

Thirdly, listen – really listen. It’s so easy to hear only the noise. If you really make yourself listen, there’s something to be heard in every conversation. No matter how difficult it may be to hear sometimes, you can always learn from what you hear and work on that to better yourself.

But probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is to take care of the people around you. I’m blessed to have a strong female director who constantly demonstrates how much people matter – about how leading a team and caring for the people around you are vital to everyone’s success, as well as your own. She pushes me hard; she lets me stumble and lets me win.


What advice will you give to communications professionals who would like to follow your path?

Choosing a career in communications, or any other field for that matter, should be because you can’t live a day without doing what you love. Not because it’s trendy, not because your parents told you so, not even because you are good at it. It should be because it’s what you see yourself doing every single day.

I live by my own PBB rule:

Be proud: We are often too hard on ourselves. Take pride in what you have done to be where you are today.

Be brave: One of my favorite quotes is from Reese Witherspoon who said, “I encourage women to step up. Don’t wait for somebody to ask you.”

Be better: Push forward, learn more, listen more, build strong networks, and surround yourself with colleagues who inspire you.

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The Comms Avenue

A capacity-building and networking platform for communications professionals across Africa and beyond.


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