Bek Agius is a mother, creative and brand-focused marketer with over ten years’ experience working across a range of industries including agency, tech, property, education and publishing in Brisbane and abroad. Her work has been praised by Forbes Australia and she’s given back to the industry as a Mental Health First Aid Officer, mentor and most recently Strategic Projects Consultant for Assisterhood.
Bek is often the one behind the scenes, writing award entries or designing programs to improve the industry – at Alpha Digital she partnered with Heaps Normal to educate uni students about adland’s excessive drinking culture and how to combat it. She’s also working through the self-discovery of a late ADHD diagnosis, which she speaks about candidly to help others who may identify as neurodivergent. Mavens interviewed Bek to learn how her work and identity have changed over the years, and what advice she’d give to others treading the same paths.
What inspired you to pursue a career in communications and how did you get started in the industry?
I remember being in the 11th grade and I was both not the most committed academic in high school and my Dad was also sick at the time. There was this constant perpetual messaging from our teachers that we should know what we want to do and start moving towards it – ‘don’t wait until next year.’ This petrified me. But the thing that added an additional layer of pressure was that there were so many of my friends who knew exactly what they were going to do – and many of them stuck with those ideas.
So I did what every kid did in that position, I spoke to my parents and my guidance counsellor. At the time, the only field that really interested me was architecture. My parents were a little traditional in their ideas of the jobs that fit men versus women and were pretty dismissive. Looking back, I think they were also very motivated by the concept of me earning enough money to be comfortable as they and we had lived with very little and they didn’t want that for me.
My guidance counsellor was, bless her heart, burnt out and not super enthusiastic about her job. The only question she asked me that gave me a little direction was ‘what parts do you find easy?’ My parents had always worked in sales and I was a natural writer so I thought I’d look down that road. She helped me take on a Certificate III in Business at TAFE while I was still at school so that if Marketing was the answer, it’d be easier to secure a place at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
In the end, I entered on the Dual Degree of Creative Industries (because part of me wanted to be a journo), and Business (the easy bit to fall back on).
The introduction to Journalism taught me a lot of things, both about the industry and about myself – namely that I, in fact, did not want to be a Journalist.
I finished with the straight Bachelor of Business with a Major in Marketing and I entered the market realising there were still very exciting ways I could use my natural gearing towards communications for brands.
I landed a few internships that got me used to the corporate way of working but I think getting a contract with a local agency was what started to make me excited about the pace, risk and opportunity available to those who were willing to do the work.
Later on in my career, after the leap to martech, I also completed a Cert IV from Shillington which rounded out my skill set as a creative marketer.
Can you tell us about your experience learning about having ADHD at 29 and how it has impacted your life and work?
I’m still at the very early stages of this discovery process that comes with realising so much of who you are is associated with a condition and a label. I certainly don’t have all, or even very many of the answers yet.
The road to learning about ADHD in myself was very unexpected for me. I actually had a session with my phenomenal therapist who I’d been seeing for about two years at the time.
I went in with the goal to speak with her about a recent 1-to1 I’d had with my manager for a performance review.
In the 1-to-1 scenario I spoke about, the process was well structured, I’d prepared and I loved my manager, Zarah Prior. During my 1-to-1 I’d been receiving a glowing review of my performance and helpful feedback on how to do better and yet I’d found myself drifting off and thinking about a thousand other things. My manager actually stopped me and said “are you here with me?”
I broke down with my therapist telling her about how in this moment it had dawned on me that so many of these environments, structures and processes felt so impossible to me and so effortless for others. She started to ask me a series of questions, with my permission, which I now know to have been from an adult ADHD symptoms screen. The thing I remember the most vividly was that the questions themselves both made me cry and released this extreme tension I didn’t realise I’d been holding. I was thinking ‘I didn’t know these were questions I was allowed to ask.’
It turned out she’d had suspicions for quite some time that I might have had ADHD but she had been waiting for me to connect a few more of the dots myself. Since she opened the door for me, I sought out a more formal diagnosis and that has given me loads more information about myself and what ADHD means for me. Hilariously, and I can’t imagine this experience is unique to me, when I started sharing this with people close to me, not a single person I told was surprised.
The ways it shows up for me are super varying depending on how tired I am, how much I have been investing in self-care and mindfulness and a dozen other factors like whether I’m eating well, stressed or moving my body enough.
I really struggle with long meetings, especially in person. I struggle to sit still and focus for prolonged periods of time so I try really hard now to be conscious about meetings. I can do things like plan them for the beginning of the day when my cup is more full, ask if I’m needed for the full meeting or plan for 15-30 minute blocks between meetings to recharge.
There are a thousand little things like that but it’s also been one of the greatest connecting pieces in my professional life. The amount of people who I’ve had beautiful conversations with about the struggles of keeping it together and thriving in a professional space that feels custom-made for neuro-typical people has been more than I could have hoped for.
How did you navigate your highly competitive line of work pre and post-baby? Can you share some specific challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
With great difficulty.
I was literally working in a male-dominated tech start-up when I fell pregnant with my first child. I was equal parts elated and absolutely terrified.
I actually had a moment towards the end of my pregnancy where I’d been working 45-50 hour weeks and I got to work, opened my emails and saw words but couldn’t read them. I started to get really dizzy and after seeing my OBGYN I was told to stop work then and there. I negotiated him down to a week of bedrest (which I didn’t really do either) – but this experience speaks of my unhealthy obsession with work before I had Isla.
Afterwards, my immediate feeling was one of terror that the industry and the platform itself would have moved on so much in the 6-7 months I’d been gone that I’d have nothing to offer. At the same time, I’d planned to take 12 months leave but was going stir crazy at home after just 6 months.
I was grateful that my then-CEO Bruce Stronge had a heart-to-heart with me to figure out what was next. I ended up starting at two days a week, spread between a couple of departments. The work was great for my brain but it also stirred up mixed feelings in me. One was extreme guilt that I wasn’t enjoying the full twelve months solely with my child and giving her the attention she deserved. At the same time, when you’ve been a workaholic for over ten years, two days/week productivity is gut-wrenching.
I was also in a male-dominated tech startup environment. There weren’t really any women around me at that time talking about what I was feeling or who were available to mentor me or to provide any assurance or tips for managing these feelings. I was literally the first person to ever go on maternity or paternity leave in the history of the company, so it could be super isolating at times. I was also breastfeeding until my daughter was twelve months, so coming into the office was tricky too.
There were times when I just brought her into the office with me and breastfed in cafes around the corner from the office. And over time I bolstered myself enough to ask for sick leave when she was sick or ask ‘dumb questions’ when I was sleep deprived.
I think if you can dig deep and remind yourself that you are worthwhile and trying to do it all, people can be pretty understanding.
Moderating a panel at Something Fest 2022, a Something Digital event at the Tivoli, Brisbane.
How has your identity changed over the years, and how have your experiences shaped your understanding of gender norms and expectations?
In my early twenties, I always had this experience of feeling very pressured to look a certain way which was 'acceptable' within the marketing and advertising space. In my case, it was like a constant social experiment where being a size 8 blonde with a face full of makeup was what people around me seemed to welcome.
After having a child is when things started to shift for me. I started to experiment with being more comfortable in the way I showed up in the world. That meant clothes that felt more comfortable, less makeup and less time spent on wrangling my hair into a state of constant perfection. Then in 2021, I decided to do Shave for a Cure.
It was my 29th birthday, and I really just wanted to do something selfless for others. I raised $2,500 for the Leukaemia Foundation.
Not only did I feel refreshed, but the experience also pushed me to start peeling back the layers of what it means to be a woman.
I found that the former identity (the one that felt like a costume) got me into the room but when I was there, no-one listened to what I had to say.
Socially, I felt more pushback once I stopped wearing all the makeup and dressing so 'pretty' (and had a bald head) but I also noticed that when I made it into the room, I was starting to be taken seriously.
It’s like people had lower expectations of me when I presented as a pretty young woman. I was there to be a piece of furniture. I definitely feel like now I’m seeing more representation of women who are truly themselves and aren’t afraid to take up space and challenge ideas and I’d say I’m fortunate to be growing that way myself.
You mentioned that you started therapy in your late twenties to address childhood trauma. How has this experience impacted your life? What advice would you give to someone who may be hesitant to seek therapy for similar reasons?
I went through some pretty heavy childhood trauma for a prolonged period of time when I was about 9 years old and never really had any counselling for it – apart from the school counsellor who was very under-equipped to deal with talking to a child about significant trauma.
I think anyone who’s experienced trauma and hasn’t immediately gotten the support they need knows that compartmentalisation can be a powerful tool for getting you through life – up to a point. I spent ten years from when I was seventeen years old, either studying and working multiple jobs or pouring every part of myself into my career.
Eventually you have to take a break or your body will break for you. For me that was when I couldn’t ignore the work that I needed to do.
What expedited the process for me was knowing that I had a child on the way. I figured if I didn’t want to completely traumatise another generation of our family, I should probably start working on myself. I got myself into therapy but only at the age of about twenty-six or twenty-seven. I know a lot of women in the same boat who are doing the work to unlearn unhealthy habits and it is such essential work for functioning in the world.
It’s initially hard. Especially if you take the leap and end up with a therapist that doesn't quite get you. You’ve got to try and say no to the person and not the whole idea of therapy. It’s also hard initially when you DO find the right person. For me it was undoing the armour of an identity I’d built for myself that was very cold and unemotional and trying to ease into vulnerability and that’s bloody hard work.
My advice would be, keep showing up and when you do, say the stupid real things you actually think even if those thoughts make you sound ridiculous. Don’t say the things you think you should say. Trust me on this one – it’s way more expensive to be fake.
Now though, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without the work that I continue to do. The friendships I have now are deeper and more meaningful than I’d thought possible. I’m getting pretty good at setting boundaries and saying no to things I don’t want. The best part for me has been that I have become more in touch with myself than ever. I don’t think there’s a better reason to go to therapy than to be faced with a huge decision, stop and take a breath and hear your intuition give you the answer. That’s huge for me.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting their career in marketing, media or communications?
Stepping into the marketing, media or comms industries is all about who you know. And I know every industry says that but it is especially true for this space. Everything we do is about people and relationships.
You could have the best academic record and a master’s degree but if no-one can vouch for you, you’ll end up making coffees in the lobby.
The best thing you can do is plug into your local networks. For Brisbane, there’s Assisterhood, Something Digital, Young Bloods, Business Chicks, Creative Mornings, Ladies Wine Design, The Design Conference and so many more groups coming together regularly to share insight and connect. My sure-fire way to meet people at events like these? Go alone. It feels terrifying beforehand, but trust me. And whether you find your tribe inside your organisation or out of it, be looking for professional advocates and mentors.
As my dear friend, fellow creative powerhouse and confidante Yasmin Quemard says “You can’t always have a seat at every table but you can have a friend who does”.
I think the other best piece of advice would be to think about your trajectory as early as possible. If you can’t clearly see what you want, start to work through a list and mark off the things you don’t want as quickly as you can. Once you’ve got an idea of where you want to be, it’s not about getting there fast, it’s about investing in yourself in the areas that matter. It’ll make you so much more attractive to the big players if you can clearly articulate where you’re going and show them how you’ve sought to learn more about being there.
Finally, stay connected to industry. There’s a million great newsletters, blogs, podcasts and feeds to follow. Again, don’t try to be the master of everything. Find your area of interest and stay up to speed.