Reel Women: author, leadership expert, Melissa Thornley

Melissa Thornley
Melissa Thornley

Editor’s Note: Five years ago we had an idea. Being a woman-owned publication, it made sense to celebrate women who were making a difference in the industries we cover. So, we started a feature for Women’s History Month called “Reel Women.” Over the last four years, we have gotten to know leaders, mentors and visionaries from a variety of creative industries. This is our 5th Annual REEL WOMEN. For the month of March, let us introduce you to some very special women like author, leadership expert, Melissa Thornley.

Melissa Thornley is an author and leadership expert who focuses on emotional intelligence. She’s also Board President for the non profit Free Spirit Media and Director of Marketing for Pravda Records. She spent the first two decades of her career in advertising and post production at Story, Daily Planet, Beast/Company 3/Method Studios, and the Whitehouse Post. She’s also a really good storyteller. Her recent heartfelt story in Reel Chicago in remembrance of a day spent with Raquel Welch was appreciated by all.

Let’s meet Melissa.

What’s your origin story?

I started off as a copywriter for a tech startup, but left after a few years to study film at Columbia College. While waiting tables at Club Lucky in Bucktown, I got to know Cara Meiselman, a film editor at The Whitehouse (The Lookinglass Company at the time) and Lee Goldberg, a producer at Leo Burnett. They convinced me to ditch film school and get experience working in the industry.

How did you get into post production?

Editorial and post production spoke to me because I loved pulling audio and visual elements together to tell a story. I was the queen of mixed tapes and playlists. Crafting an emotional journey for an audience still brings me joy. What I soon learned, however, was that my personality and innate strengths were not suited to long hours in a dark room pouring over dailies. I quickly pivoted to a production role collaborating with the agency, visual effects artists, color, music and sound designers. 

Now my film and ad colleagues ask me how I shifted into leadership consulting. On the one hand, it was easy. I’d been collaborating with and leading talent for my entire career. On the other hand, it felt much more difficult to shift careers and start my own company from scratch. I just had to keep reminding myself I was building it on a solid creative and business foundation.

Who were your mentors?

One of my favorite things about the filmmaking process is that it’s always a team effort. Everyone gets to learn from each other. In that sense I had an entire network and industry of mentors in all aspects of the creative process. Some mentors stand out. They not only shared their experience and knowledge, they advocated for me as I grew in my career. Chris Tardio and Charles Day who founded The Lookinglass Company (The Whitehouse) were guiding forces in entrepreneurship. Valerie Anderson (formerly at Beast and now at AT&T) and Mark Androw (Story) both leveled up my strategy game. Then there’s Scott Marvel who to this day reminds me that my work and creativity can serve the community and a deeper purpose.

While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

When your mobile phone rings while you’re floating down the Nile river, it must be a sign, right? I was Executive Producer at The Whitehouse’s London office when I got the call that brought me home. It kicked off the leadership adventure that I’m still on today. A few months later I was back in Chicago as Managing Director for all four of our offices. The achievement was not about earning the promotion or the title. It was about showing up day after day to serve the team, our clients, and the work. In the process I fell down, picked myself up, leaned on colleagues and learned lessons I still use with my clients today.

What drives you to create?

Inspiration is everywhere. What drives me to actually create is an urge to express something that needs to be said. I create mainly through writing these days. I process ideas and emotions physically so dance is another form of expression for me. At some point I do hope to finish a doc I started in 2018, but it’s been on the back burner for the last few years.

Award you crave, but haven’t won?

I’d take an interview by one of my favorite podcasters over any award. To sit and talk with Brene Brown, Dan Harris or Marc Maron would be the ultimate honor.

What shows/movies/songs are doing the best job of portraying strong women on TV?

How long do we want this article to be? 😉 I’m going to focus on music as that’s where I pull most of my inspiration. My most recent obsession is the duo Gracie and Rachel. They’re on Ani DiFranco’s label Righteous Babe Records. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their album Cool it Down was my favorite release last year. We also have our hometown heroines like Dinah Washington, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Patti Smith and Liz Phair. Then you’ve got more recent powerhouses Nora O’Connor, Kelly Hogan, Jamila Woods, and Chloe Orwell of The Handcuffs. I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the women that inspired me in my younger years (and still do): Kate Bush, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks, Pat Benatar, and Martha Davis from The Motels.

Is there still a boys club in your industry?

My focus on emotionally intelligent leadership cuts across all industries from advertising to health care to law enforcement, so I’ll take this in a slightly different direction.  Both the idea and the reality of the ‘boys club’ stems from societal conditioning that impacts all of us both consciously and unconsciously. Although gender norms are changing with our expanding definition of gender, those norms are still there. I’m less focused on the boys club out in the world as I am in the nonsense living in our head that limits what’s possible for any and all genders.

Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman (living or dead) you would like to attend each function with:

Coffee: Jacinda Ardern

Lunch: Aretha Franklin

Happy Hour: Susan Sarandon

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled against Roe v Wade. If you oppose the decision, what can women in your industry do to defend a woman’s rights?

Hell, yes I oppose the decision to overturn Roe v Wade. What can we do? At the most basic level, pay attention and vote: especially in local elections. This is where we have the most power and responsibility. Beyond that, it’s about listening, communicating with care, and uplifting women’s stories. If you want to deeply understand this issue, I highly recommend reading The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Praeger. It’s almost 700 pages so you may want to get it on audio. Your mind will be blown on the many layers and players involved in the history of Roe v Wade. This is not just about a woman’s right to choose, it’s about women’s health in general. There is so much we don’t talk about: menstruation, miscarriage, menopause…the list goes on and on. We need to hear and share information and stories.

What keeps you up at night?

As our good friend Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I don’t want to miss it. So here’s what helps me sleep: I pause and focus on being present. I live in alignment with my purpose and do my best to let go of what’s out of my control. I take action on the issues I can and turn down the volume on the outrage contest that seems to be everywhere.

What’s up with Beyoncé being nominated for 4 Best Albums of the year but never winning?

This question makes me smile. Beyonce is the most awarded and most nominated artist in Grammy history. She’s doing just fine.

More about Melissa Thornley on her website



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