A Social Media Mogul in the Making
by jared shapiro
Media executive and Miami native Antoinette Zel is switching gears from corporate giant to social media start-up.
Antoinette Zel, at the Rubell Family Collection Library. “I’m excited to tell the stories of today,” she says.
There are only a handful of major TV networks operating from offices in South Florida—Univision, Telemundo, MTV Networks Latin America, and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s new El Rey Network, to name a few. And over the past 20 years, Antoinette Zel has been at the helm of most of them. But after resigning as COO of El Rey in March when the company relocated to New York, Zel knew it was time to chart a different path.
With a unique and impressive pedigree in both corporate media at Viacom and NBC, and ad agency experience as the CEO of award-winning La Comunidad, Zel is now going out on her own with a start-up venture focusing on social media. Here she talks with Ocean Drive about today’s media landscape, the power of our own social networks, and life in Miami.
Tell us a little about your career trajectory towards becoming a media mogul.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English [from Tufts University] and an entertainment law degree [from Columbia University], I knew there had to be a way to merge my love of the arts and my love of business. It was natural that I ended up at Viacom when the MTV and Nickelodeon brands were considered highly innovative and influential during the ’90s. These brands were the social influencers of that era. Then, the years when I ran the MTV Networks Latin America operations from 1111 Lincoln Road (before Lincoln Road was cool) were very special because we had assembled a dream team of executives who were committed to building youth brands with highly relevant content and storytelling in ways that hadn’t been done. After that, my next career moves were built on the shoulders of that experience—running a creative ad agency, launching El Rey. Innovative storytelling is a natural for me.
Zel says “there’s no happiness” without her husband of 20 years, Cary, and their three sons, Alexander, Sebastian, and Oliver.
How would you say audiences and networks have changed?
There’s no difference other than the platforms we use today to tell our stories. It’s always been and will always be about the emotional connection content makes with its audiences.
Until this month, you were the COO of El Rey Network, the new cable network started by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez that’s poised to be the next big network for TV....
Robert and I worked to create a new brand that would speak to second and third-generation Latinos with relevant English language content that wasn’t being shown anywhere else. No Spanish, no Spanish advertising—it was 100 percent English—but really focused on the interests we knew unified young male Hispanics. We launched the channel to about 40 million households, and in the next year they’re looking to hit 60 million. El Rey is in a really strong position to be the next FX; it’s on its way.
But the network is now based out of New York?
Yes. When they first came to me two years ago to join, I said, “I will not leave Miami,” and after almost two years of commuting back and forth between NYC and Miami, I decided to make true what I’d said. Miami is my home.
As president of MTV Latin America, Zel worked with performers such as Nick Carter.
What’s the next chapter for you?
I’m focusing on the things that define and inspire me: First, there’s no happiness without my family close by—my husband of 20 years, our three sons, our happily chaotic home; second, the lifestyle in Miami; and finally, those ideas that have been circling in my head for years. I’m committed to staying in Miami to build a new venture that inspires me every day. I’m excited to write the next chapter of my book and tell the stories of today. I have a lot to learn, so I’m still in the research phase.
How are stories being told today?
The best stories are being told on people’s “TV networks” of today; everyone has their own “network,” and they are called social media channels. It’s digital—from Facebook to Vine to Snapchat to Kik to Pinterest to Tumblr. That’s fertile terrain for storytelling. Social media is to cable TV today what cable TV was to broadcast 20 years ago.
And your new company will do what exactly?
My partner in the start-up, Cristian Jofre (the former worldwide creative director for MTV Networks), and I are still defining its scope, but we do know we want to build a place where stories are being told authentically, with great creativity.
Was it ever a struggle being a woman working as a high-powered attorney or as a media executive?
No one will say it, but yes, of course! The struggle is a subtle one. Sometimes you’re not sure if it’s you or the system, but as a woman, you are definitely tested. I do believe your character and your determination can equalize the playing field.
What advice would you give to a young woman who’s just begun to climb the ladder?
Life is not a dress rehearsal. Make sure you love what you pursue, and it will take you far. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.