Very few of the people at the very top echelon of the large media agencies in South Africa are women – MEC CEO Michelle Meyjes and Aegis Media CEO Dawn Rowlands are two that come to mind.
However, just underneath is a stratum of hugely powerful and driven women, and a sector that has become predominantly female over the last decade. Are these likely to become the next generation of leadership in agencies, outstripping men in representation?
Women on this rung of the ladder include Kim Weissensee, who started Applied Media Logic and in just 10 years has become one of the leading media independents in the country. The 11-year-old business has challenged the norm and this is largely due to Weissensee’s daring, says media planning guru Gordon Muller. “Kim has been totally unintimidated in taking on the established media agency giants and her new business gains have been proof of the pudding,” he says. AML is among the top 10 agencies in terms of billing.
Weissensee’s clout has been recognised: in April she was elected chair of the board of directors of the Advertising Media Forum (AMF). This puts her at the helm of an industry body comprised of media agencies, strategists, planners and consultants through whom, according to the AMF website, 95% of all media expenditure in South Africa is bought.
Ebony and Ivory managing director Paul Middleton says women are moving up into the top tiers in many sectors of the media, not just in agencies. “The new South Africa has pushed women and helped to change mindsets. The times dictate that women have to work to ensure that their children have the same lifestyle they had.”
And Middleton is forthright in his claim that women just do it better. “Women in my opinion are better at the job – in almost, if not all, jobs in the agency – because they think better and more clearly and are more productive.” They are also more reliable and flexible, he adds, and therefore attract promotion. Many work their way up to management from positions as receptionists. Weissensee herself was a PA to OMD’s Josh Dovey, who became her mentor.
Middleton agrees that women will form the next generation of leaders, because “they are ready and waiting and have proven they are kick-ass great. Also, there are no men around, so there is no male feeder. The ladies will hire ladies. This seems logical and right and the flow will evolve like that.”
Middleton believes a compounding factor is that men aren’t aware of media agencies as a career. “Media agencies these days are not on men’s radars; much like being copywriters and art directors is not on many black people’s radar.”
But, he adds, “I also think that good men have moved into softer positions in large companies where they earn more and sit on male-dominated boards.”
Chris Botha agrees that women will rule one day. “It’s a given, considering that more than 65% of the people working in this sector are women,” he says. Botha is only 36 and likely to be one of those men who are still at the helm in the next generation of top leadership.
Botha says that ever since he started out in this industry, it has been dominated by women but run by men. “There were more women, but up until about 10 to 15 years ago the concept of a female manager was foreign. That has changed and it’s now commonplace.
“The best go to the top now because they are the best, not because they are male or female, and because the sector is disproportionately female, it makes sense that women will run it.”
He disagrees with Middleton that women are better at this type of work and says that it’s not a phenomenon unique to media.
Muller agrees that women dominate media, but says that asking about their representation at the top of media agencies is the wrong question. “I think this obsession with board representation in Mzansi is a sideshow. The vast majority of people in media are female and this plays out in management positions (depending on how you define management).”
For Muller, “The real issue is local ownership and transformation. Rather than focusing on female representation in media agency management, why don’t you look at female representation in ownership of agencies and ask why there aren’t more female entrepreneurs?”
But, he says, as the women mentioned attest, there are some impressive women at the top of media agencies – including one or two genuine entrepreneurs like Rowlands. If these women ever hit any glass ceilings, they smashed them long ago. Rowlands founded NotaBene and Posterscope. She is credited with steering Aegis Media from relative obscurity in sub-Saharan Africa to a large company with five network brand agencies – Carat, Posterscope, Isobar, iProspect and Carat. Aegis has grown 200% in the last three years in terms of both revenue and staff.
Carat MD Quinton Jones says Rowlands has “clear leadership and entrepreneurial skills, combined with valuable insights into the industry”.
Says Jones: “Her biggest strength is tenacity and the ability to keep pushing forward despite the odds.
“Dawn’s vision and strong direction have been the backbone to delivering Aegis Media’s growth and I am certain that she will continue to make valuable contributions to the industry. She has done an excellent job in transforming the local group into the fastest-growing operation within the Middle East-Africa region. Aegis Media now have a strong and lucrative footprint in one of the world’s most interesting emerging markets.”
Rowlands’s numerous awards include being named Business Woman of the Year 2012 by the Business Women’s Association of SA and an Innovation through Technology Award for the Aegis Media Thought Leadership Digibates in Africa. She has won a global STEVIE award for both her personal marketing performance and the Digibate concepts and has served as a judge at Cannes Lions and Cristal Media Festival Awards.
Muller also credits Weissensee. While AML is her main focus, Weissensee has also launched The Fourth Wall, a content generation agency, and is soon to launch a property development company that will start work on an office development in Sandton.
Other already powerful women to watch include Mindshare CEO Maria Phillips. With a background in marketing, particularly at FMCG companies like National Brands and SAB, and consulting, Phillips crossed over to the agency side in 2006. She “brought a strong, client-centred business perspective to the media agency business”, says Muller. “She has maintained Mindshare as a creative and competitive force in the industry.” Phillips turned the business around in three years, increasing market share and income by 65% and profit by 111%. Mindshare was named Agency of the Year in 2009.
Others on the up and up are: Anne Dearnaley, founder and group MD of PHD South Africa; Vizeum MD Tanya Schreuder; MEC MD Erica Gunning; Celia Collins, deputy MD of Starcom MediaVest Group; Lisa Leach, director of strategy for OMD South Africa; Noleen Cochrane, Vodacom unit director of OMD South Africa; Nelly Maclean GM of OMD Cape Town; and Nicole Kok GM of OMD Durban. With big shoes to fill, it is clear that a strong and talented generation of women is soon to fill them.
IMAGE: Dawn Rowlands