The evolution of the creator economy

A fireside chat with Felicity McVay formerly from TikTok - What's next for the Creator Economy?

Grace Wearne

June 6, 2023
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Over her 20-year career, Felicity McVay has been on the frontline of the ever-evolving creator economy from leading sponsorships at American Idol to one of the first hires at YouTube Australia, and then most recently, as Global Head of Entertainment at TikTok. As a lawyer by trade, Felicity’s passion for editorial content has steered her dynamic career to include a senior leadership role at Google and experience as an early-stage founder.

Recently, Felicity sat down with Antler Australia Partner, and high school classmate, Cath Rogers for a fireside chat exploring Felicity's career-to-date, insights on building diverse content strategies for early-stage founders, the explosion of the creator economy, and the future of creators with the emergence of generative AI content.

Equity Markets to American Idol 

Growing up Felicity was an aspiring newsreader. Without a clear pathway for her to do so, like many, she went to university to study a degree with a clearer direction. For her, this was law. At the end of her degree, she still explored the possibility of a career in media undertaking a variety of internships at television networks. Ultimately, Felicity pursued a career in law, however, she kept in contact with her media connections, and it would be these contacts that would provide the stepping stones to her career today.

After a few years as a lawyer, and following a secondment at JP Morgan in equity capital markets, Felicity picked up the phone to connect with her television contacts and tried once again to follow a career in media. She was in luck, FremantleMedia was rapidly growing following the acquisition of Grundy Television in 2006, and she was hired. 

“Relationships are important, cultivate them and water them like plants. You never know when you need that bit of advice or support and being able to pick up the phone to someone you know can be invaluable.”  

Reflecting on her time at FremantleMedia, Felicity saw the power of brands and the importance of cultivating a community that can lead to strong monetising opportunities. The sponsorship deals between Telstra and Australian Idol providing behind-the-scenes access to contestants for their fans showed Felicity the power of creator-generated content shared directly to engaged followings. This would follow her to her role at TikTok years later.

From Australian Idol, Felicity was transferred to the US to work on American Idol which was the top-rated television show at the time. As Director of Sponsorships, Felicity drove revenue streams of the show beyond its on-air experience most notably landing a US$80 million deal with Disney to create a theme park attraction at its Florida studio.

One of the biggest learnings from Felicity's experiences negotiating enterprise sponsorships was the power of storytelling and creating exceptional collaborative brand experiences, rather than the traditional approach of selling a bundle of IP rights to provide brands access.

“No matter what you are selling you have to capture people's imaginations first, then you can get into the nitty-gritty of the deal.”

Lessons as a Founder 

In 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global financial crisis set in, Felicity was between roles and found herself unemployed in the US, in a downturn. She found work in a start-up in San Francisco and soon caught the entrepreneurial bug. Knowing she would return to Australia, Felicity started a lifestyle website, Cherry Picked, curating the best of Sydney’s food, fashion, fun, trends and deals.

The platform amassed a strong following and soon Felicity was hiring freelance writers to develop content. She continued building the business even after joining Google but ultimately the juggle of both roles was unsustainable and she opted to leave Cherry Picked behind. The learnings Felicity takes away include the value of a big, strategic vision and the importance of timing - the business may have evolved very differently with platforms such as Instagram which were yet to fully emerge. Ultimately, the self-discovery aspect of being a founder is what she takes away the most from this experience. 

“I love the start, the hustle, and the messiness of it all. I thrive at bringing order to chaos.”  

Platforms For Creators

Felicity joined YouTube in 2010 as the first female hire, launching Google Play Movies & TV across APAC and heading up YouTube Content and Partnerships in ANZ. Online video was only just emerging at this time and only established publishers, advertisers and sales operators were typically involved in the industry. Creators have emerged since. 

YouTube’s revenue share with creators was unlike other offerings in the market at a 55:45 split, however, there were limited ways of accurately predicting how much was to be made. This ultimately led to an uphill battle in signing publishers to the platform in the early days.

“I would get laughed out of the room by publishers at big TV networks when telling them to publish their content on YouTube, some weren’t even aware of online video at the time. Others would march me out of the room as they saw the competitive potential YouTube would bring.”

When Netflix entered the market, this all changed according to Felicity. This happened to coincide with a flurry of activity within the broader technology industry with various IPOs, acquisitions, and enormous user growth of platforms such as Snapchat, Skype, LinkedIn, Tinder, Vine, Twitter, and the list goes on.

The rise of the creator economy in recent years has been exponential. The entire industry has witnessed an influx of investment, creators, and users. Felicity describes the past year as a consolidation phase within the creator economy as some funding has dried up and the impact of global macroeconomic turbulence has been felt. The 2023 Creator Economy Report highlights the impact of uncertainty across the industry and the rise of next-generation technologies such as generative AI.

“Market downturns often spur on growth in creators – with many seeking financial or creative independence – we’re likely to see continued growth in the creator economy during this time of uncertainty.” 

The growth of e-commerce within the creator economy possesses huge potential, according to Felicity. Already TikTok has seen tremendous user engagement with the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt and is rolling out TikTok Shop, direct-to-consumer products to purchase in-app within other markets, not Australia yet. 

Diversification Is Key

Cost-effective customer acquisition strategies are often challenging for early-stage founders on shoestring budgets. With Felicity’s experience across Google, Youtube, and TikTok, she advises founders to focus on an organic marketing strategy across multiple platforms to build an engaged community first. Once this activity starts yielding results, then it’s time to test advertising spending across platforms to drive results at scale.  

“Be scrappy. Figure out what works and what doesn’t in the voice that resonates with your customer base, then test investment in your marketing channels.”

On platforms such as TikTok, Felicity suggests founders tap into trending hashtags to hijack traction to these engagement-heavy topics, and ultimately build organic traction and engaged communities. Beyond TikTok, diversification of content across platforms is important in case certain changes impact one platform over another or if a platform suddenly folds, then creators and brands have a built-in insurance policy to protect their online followings. Critically, understanding the platforms you’re marketing on is not to be underestimated

“People will often tell me they’re not on TikTok, which is fine. But in the next sentence they’ll ask me how they should approach a TikTok strategy. The first step is to engage with the platform and understand how it works.”

As the conversation with Felicity drew to a close, she touched on the emergence of next-generation technologies, such as generative AI. Her words of advice to creators is to pivot to hyper-personalised content focused on the human experience as this is not currently able to be replicated by AI and will likely be rewarded by current algorithms. 

The next chapter for Felicity includes producing an Australian feature film, consulting to Forbes, specifically co-developing their educational Forums, which will launch in July in Sydney, and hosting their large scale business summits. 

Antler is thrilled to have had the pleasure of Felicity’s company and thank her for giving her time and valuable insights so generously.

Interested in the creator economy? Read Antler’s 2023 Creator Economy Report.

Applications to join Antler Australia this August are open. Apply today!

About the author

Grace Wearne

Grace is responsible for strengthening and bolstering Antler’s brand presence in Australia. With a passion for tech and innovation communications, Grace has over six years of experience in helping Aussie and global disruptors tell their stories. Prior to Antler, she worked at GoFundMe Australia and award-winning tech PR agency, Sling & Stone. She competed in SpaceX's Hyperloop Pod competition in 2016.

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