Dawn Rowlands recently won the honour of being voted South Africa’s businesswoman of the year (corporate) by the Business Women’s Association of South Africa. The CEO of Aegis Media: Sub-Saharan Africa was up against tough competition; all women who manage massive budgets, show great leadership and contribute to the health of the South African economy.
For Rowlands, it was “part of a journey”, one, she says, that is not easy either in South Africa or on the continent, where she spends much of her working life. “The stumbling blocks for women in business are enormous,” she says. “ I started to give thought on how I could use it to help women become more effective in business, perhaps looking at mentoring in my personal capacity. I was surprised I won, considering the other finalists. One of the women was the manager of the port of East London. Now that’s a man’s world!”
While media agencies might not necessarily be a man’s world, it’s a competitive business with millions at stake. Media – commercially and in the editorial space – is constantly changing, not least due to the technological revolution.
“A birds’ eye view of where we’re at? There are so many specialities and there’s a struggle to integrate, and be effective. Traditional agencies lack a view of the bigger picture. And the level of investment and insight is low. Everyone relies on the same old, same old. Everyone pays lip service to digital but they’re not sure how to integrate it. They’re not even sure of the difference of bought, earned and owned media,” she says.
What, then, is the long-view? Aegis Media, by its strategic acquisitions, has seen the future and prepared for it. It bought digital agency Trigger Isobar seven years ago. The way it combined creativity and technology challenged conventional thinking on brands. Then there’s strategic agencies Vizeum and Carat, recently ranked the number one network by Recma, the Research Company Evaluating the Media Agency Industry. It has Posterscope South Africa, an out of home agency. And lastly, iProspect (which recently bought Clickthinking), a search-marketing firm.
“We’re really well positioned to integrate,” says Rowlands. “While these agencies all offer different propositions, we all use CCS so speak the same language. We’ve achieved amazing growth and some major successes.”
Rowlands believes media agencies are moving to the forefront of the media business as they use insight and strategic tools to execute the creative side of the business. “It’s an odd combination of numeracy and creativity that really works. I think that’s why media agencies are able to reassure clients, so they feel confident in us.”
Aegis Media, a global group listed on the London Stock Exchange, has been on an acquisition drive. But it too has been acquired. Japanese company Dentsu bought it in July for a reported $5-billion. The move has created Asia’s largest media group, but also allowed the company to expand beyond Japan, where ad revenues are dropping.
The Financial Times says Dentsu’s move is part of a global drive by ad agencies to “invest in technology and to beef up their expertise in digital marketing, the fastest growing area in advertising”.
“Acquisitions are tricky,” says Rowlands. “You need a meeting of minds. You know, the ‘soft’ things. A cultural understanding. People don’t give enough credit to how important those aspects are. People are important and how you integrate staff is key. EQ is incredibly important. You’re dealing with ambitious, clever people. Add that with creative, and it can be a recipe for disaster!”
Aegis Media South Africa itself was a victim of rumour when the Dentsu acquisition took place. The London-based headoffice is listed on the London Stock Exchange. She was said to have been suspended, and the local operation in financial trouble.
“As you can, I‘m here. I was on annual leave. We’re not in any financial trouble. We are wholly owned by Aegis Media PLC, with no local shareholders. The Media Creditors’ Co-ordinators (MCC) wanted a cash guarantee of R35-million. Aegis in the UK refused, as they said nowhere else in the world were such guarantees in force and refused to accede to the demand. As a result, the MCC sent an email that said they couldn’t be sure Aegis would honour its financial commitments. All this happened while I was on leave and this may have caused unnecessary concern,” Rowlands says.
The MCC “provides a centralised credit facility to advertising practitioners and centralised securities to media owners”.
As Rowlands points out, for her to be awarded the title of Businesswoman of the Year she had to open Aegis Media’s books to scrutiny. “We’ve grown 275% in two years. All our financial dealings – including my own – are scrutinised. When Carat was named Ad Review’s 2010 media agency of the year, after winning over R900 million worth of business, a competitor went to the MCC to report it was impossible for a new agency to do that amount of business. We printed everything off our system and gave it Tony Koenderman who called everyone back to re-adjudicate the process, and everyone voted the same way. I guess it’s a bit of industry envy, but it proves we must be doing something right.”
On top of the MCC issue, Rowlands has had to deal with staff movement too. Full Circle Media’s Karen Phelan has left as has the chief operations officer Simon Wood. “We’ve made that position redundant and have a new CFO starting on 1 November. Her name is Gillian O’Maloney and she’s an ex-South African coming back from London,” Rowlands says.
Rowlands says with the speed at which the media business is changing, people can’t expect things to “stay the same”.
“We’re not just a media company. We have a very different revenue model and we operate in an environment that is changing constantly. We’re in an era of global procurement, data and trading desks. We have to stay on top of that to stay relevant.”