Melanie Bien is an award-winning freelance PR, author, and former personal finance editor of the Independent on Sunday. She’s also one of the 25 most influential people in the British property industry, according to the Daily Telegraph. And Melanie has a regular column in House Beautiful. A very busy woman so I’m very glad I could pin her down for a moment or two.
Jane: Melanie, hello and thank you so much for taking time out to talk with our readers. It’s a real pleasure to talk with you today. I had a quick gander at your website in preparation for our interview and I hadn’t realised you’d won so many awards! Congratulations on your many successes; I’m hoping you’ll share some of your success secrets with us today.
First, tell us about young Melanie. What was your dream job when you were in your teens? What did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?
Melanie: I grew up on a farm and loved animals and horse riding, so I wanted to be a vet or represent Britain as a three-day eventer at the Olympics. However, not being very good at sciences put paid to the veterinary career and I didn’t have enough dedication to make it as a professional rider.
Do you remember what your very first job was and how much you were paid?
My first Saturday job was working for the family business, selling bread and pies on a market stall. I started when I was 11-years-old and earned £2 an hour. My first full-time job was as a reporter on the now-defunct European newspaper. I earned £15,600 a year, which felt like a fortune at the time.
How did you get into the world of property?
I worked as a financial reporter for ten years on newspapers such as the Times and the Independent on Sunday. But I found the property element of the role the most interesting. I was approached by John Wiley to write a number of books on investing in property while at the Independent on Sunday and then I was offered a job doing PR for mortgage broker Savills Private Finance (now SPF Private Clients).
I’ve talked with journalists before and in answer to my ‘was there much sexism’ the answer is usually yes, lots! Have you encountered that much in your career and how have you dealt with it?
On the patch I worked as a journalist – personal finance – there tend to be many more female journalists than male so sexism wasn’t really an issue. I was also editing the Money section on the Independent on Sunday for five years so usually find that if you are in charge, it is hard for people to be sexist towards you. I encountered more sexism when I left journalism and worked in more of a corporate environment, where there were few women, particularly in senior positions.
The media has come under attack of late, especially the BBC (and I confess I’ve been one of the attackers) for their very poor representation of women on serious news programmes. You have appeared on several, such as BBC’s Newsnight. What would be your advice to any woman wanting to appear more in the media?
Make yourself available whenever the call comes – and don’t be snobby about what programmes you appear on. Some clients say to me that they ‘only’ want to be on high-profile programmes but actually it makes sense to cut your teeth and get some experience on lower-profile shows because you can learn on the job and not make too much of a fool of yourself. You also get the producers on side.
Then when the call comes for News at Ten or Newsnight, it’s no big deal and nothing to be worried about. Also, the producers know you have some experience and are going to be good at it.
It’s also important to know what you are going to say, do your research beforehand and be prepared to be a bit controversial.
A common riposte from researchers for TV and radio is that women, when asked to appear, dither and say no, at least initially. What advice would you give the ‘worried woman expert’?
Bear in mind that you are being asked to do it for a reason, because you are an expert in your field. It drives me mad that so many people – men, usually– assume you’ve been asked to appear as an expert simply because you are a woman and programmes want a ‘pretty face’ or have to be seen to give airspace to a woman. That’s just sour grapes and is simply not true. If you are asked, you have earned it, so make the most of it and go for it!
You now run your own successful media company, BienMedia. How was it setting out on your own? What was the best thing you did in relation to being your own boss?
Very scary. My youngest son (I have two) was just three months old when I set the company up but that made me even more determined not to go back to an office job that meant I was working 9-6 five days a week in London for someone else. I wanted much more flexibility, more variety and basically wanted something on my terms that meant I could spend as much time with my sons as I wanted. It is hard work and it often means working evenings after the boys are in bed but I wouldn’t change anything about it.
The best thing about being your own boss is that you can work with the people you want to work with. If I meet a prospective client and can’t envisage us getting along, then I can walk away. I don’t have to work with people I don’t want to, which is extremely liberating.
My daughter managed to buy her two bedroomed flat in Edinburgh with the help of an excellent scheme instituted by the Scottish Parliament. My son and his wife who live in England have been less lucky and are saving like mad for a mortgage (and they are actors so it’s not easy). What advice would you give to anyone trying to buy their first home, and to parents of first home buyers?
Save, save, save as the deposit is still the most important aspect of any home purchase. I know it is hard though, particularly if you have to pay rent in the meantime. Increasingly, parents are being called upon to help, which can be tricky if they are worried about their own retirement.
I would always advise speaking to an independent mortgage broker as well. They will be straight as to what you can afford and know which lenders are likely to be more sympathetic to your particular circumstances.
Who has been the most influence on your life to date? Who do you aspire to be like?
My mum is a huge influence. She always worked when we were children (she was, and still is, a midwife) and although it annoyed me a bit at the time being picked up from school by a neighbour, I realise now what a great role model she was. She always earned her own money (in fact she was the main breadwinner on and off in the family for years) and she has had a long career that she has found fulfilling, although it can also be very stressful. Nowadays she works fewer hours but helps with my boys in her ‘spare’ time and is a wonderful grandmother, and huge support to me. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
What’s your best way to relax? Where are we likely to find ‘off duty you’?
Relax?! What’s that? Seriously, if I get five minutes, I like to read. I’ve just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I thought was brilliant.
Melanie, thank you. If you could leave our readers with one thought, or quote, or book that has inspired or helped you, what would it be?
Ian Brown of the Stone Roses put it well:
‘Aim for the stars and you’re gonna hit the ceiling. Never put up with second best’.
I always liked that sentiment.
Melanie, thank you. Good advice! Melanie’s web site is BienMedia.com and she’s a regular contributor to women’s publications. Look out for her!
Thinking of expanding your training business? Are you passionate about empowering women? I can help you! To find out how, click here.
Posted on April 30th, 2013 by Jane