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Free to Be

Posted May 16, 2016
By Megan Sexton, Reprinted with permission from The Carolinian

Growing up in a close-knit family, Vicky Free considered many options for college but ultimately chose to stay close to home. The University of South Carolina had a strong journalism program and a diverse campus, with more African-American students than some of the HBCUs she also considered.

Plus, the Free family is a Carolina family, one Vicky describes as "Gamecock, through and through." Three sisters had graduated from USC, along with many other relatives. Two nieces and a nephew are on campus now. "USC represented the door to success in my family," she says.

After graduating with a degree in broadcasting, Free landed a job as a beat reporter at WOLO-TV in Columbia, but personal pride combined with simple economics to change her trajectory. When the station's director of marketing asked if she had ever considered a career in marketing, she made a pragmatic decision. The air conditioner in her car had recently gone out, she was determined to show her parents she could support herself, and the marketing job simply paid more. What she perhaps didn't realize was just how suited for her new career she really was.

"The skills I developed as a journalism student with a minor in English were the absolute best for a career in marketing," Free says. "The ability to write, to be able to express ideas on paper, to express ideas in a way that motivates folks to get on board, to sell an idea — that's what you need to be a successful marketer."

Programmed to succeed

At BET Networks since 2011, Free directs the brand, marketing and creative strategy for the international media conglomerate. She also oversees on-air promotions, off-channel and digital marketing, market research and affiliate and trade marketing. "We are actively trying to understand our customers," she says. "Our industry is changing and changing and changing. TV is not a platform; it's an art form. You have content producers that are movie studios, broadcast studios and Millennials in their garage making a video through Snapchat or YouTube."

It's a big job and New York is a long way from home — "It's a tough city to live in for a Southern girl," she jokes — but she has the resume to make it all work.

After that first foray into broadcasting and marketing at WOLO, she spent eight years at McDonald's, becoming director of women's initiatives in the U.S. and heading the corporation's multicultural brand management. She also spent time at the Turner Entertainment Network, where she led the entertainment marketing team for TNT, TBS and TCM. Along the way she earned an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Now, as one of the more powerful people at the leading media outlet for consumers of black culture worldwide, Free gets ratings numbers every six minutes. She can see who watched what show, when they turned off a program, whether someone flowed from one show into the next and when they change the channel. "No two days are alike," she says — but every day is an opportunity to build on the day before.

"My job is to lead a team to help keep our network, our platform, top of the line. When a viewer is seeking entertainment content, we want them to consider BET first," she says. "Building brand value and consumer affinity is critical."

And the hard work is paying off for Free as well. In 2014, AdWeek conducted a straw poll of industry insiders to list nine women the NFL should consider as its next chief marketing officer and she made the list. Then, in 2015, she made another list, this one closer to home — when she received the journalism school's Distinguished Alumni Award, established to honor graduates who have demonstrated exemplary work in their professional careers.

Leave it better

Ask Free what her time at the University of South Carolina meant, and she offers a long list: she learned how to read literature for inspiration, she built friendships, she participated in student government and learned how to engage with others. "I learned how to be a leader and a follower," she says. "I learned how to think at the University of South Carolina."

She also learned the importance of giving back. Now fully established in her career, she's expanding her reach to focus on helping those who come after her.

"My mother always said, ‘Leave it better than you found it. When you go to someone's house, leave it better. When you take on a new role, leave it better,'" she says. "I believe that. I was raised to believe that unto whom much is given, much is required."

That was her impetus for investing in the new School of Journalism and Mass Communications building, and for establishing the Free family scholarship, which benefits an underrepresented minority in the journalism school.

"What she is doing is the classic pay it forward," said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Information and Communications. "She's available to students first and foremost. She's taking what she's experienced and she's transferring that now to the next generation of ‘Vicky Frees-to-be'."

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