Michelle Meyjes, CEO of media agency GroupM, spoke to Britta Reid about running four leading media brands and her pleasure in mentoring protégés.
Although South African media agencies are overwhelmingly staffed by women, there are very few women who make it into senior management. Yet, one international media agency group has been run by a woman since 2002. The company is GroupM, WPP’s media arm, which comprises Mindshare, MEC, MediaCom and Maxus. And, the woman in charge is Michelle Meyjes.
Meyjes moved into the media agency world, after a successful career at Panasonic Electronics, where she was not only director of marketing communication but also the first female board member. According to her, the motivation behind this switch was the lure of getting into “an own business”. She considers this to have been the best business decision she ever made.
She acknowledges that the founder of the Media By Storm, Erna Storm, taught her entrepreneurship. Meyjes recalls “I handled all disciplines including servicing clients, new business, legal, financial, operations and cash flow. This was a great learning; controlling my own P&L and making my own decisions.” Whilst Meyjes was learning the ropes of running the business, she was also in a pioneering space. In 1997, the concept of specialist media agencies was relatively new to the South African market. They were, in effect, defining the role of the media agency. Clearly it was a great asset for one of the managing partners of Media By Storm to have a marketing background, which gave her a fundamental understanding of brands and communication.
Storm and Meyjes built up the business into one that caught the eye of that rapacious empire builder Sir Martin Sorrell. WPP acquired the business and rebranded it as MEC. Ironically, Meyjes recalls the decision to “Sell all our shares and retain none” as the worst business decision of her life. Her advice to entrepreneurs in similar situations is “Always retain the majority of shares”.
Masterful and mindful
Back in the corporate world, Meyjes continued to rise through the ranks from MD of the MEC Group to CEO of GroupM. In this role, Meyjes faces some particular challenges. Maria Philips, ex CEO of Mindshare, pointed out that Meyjes’ role is one of “Balancing stakeholders (the agencies and their regional hierarchies, WPP global and regional management, clients, media owners, employees).
She must ensure everyone is on the same page with overall objectives. This is tough, considering that all parties come with their own agenda.” Philips, however, is swift to point out that Meyjes “Is masterful at attending to the various needs and largely keeps everyone happy by listening and then actioning that what needs to be done”.
Comfortable with this delicate balancing act, Meyjes describes her challenges in a forthright way saying, “As the holding company for four leading media brands, GroupM must ensure that we grow and retain talent, increase capabilities of the systems and operations for the new landscape and build a support structure for our agencies to deliver great work.”
She enumerates further aspirations such as integrating the solutions both online and offline and the need to embrace the world of data. Investment in systems, support from the global network and resources assist GroupM in this journey. She says of working in media, “Roll up your sleeves and get ready for the biggest, hardest and most satisfying ride of your life. It’s a career filled with variety and constant change. No two days are ever the same.”
What annoys her most is poor quality output and lack of responsibility. She also laments the dearth of mentors and leadership in the industry and highlights the need to attract future media professionals into the industry and keep them there.
With the issue of attracting and retaining talent so high on her agenda, it’s not surprising that, of all her achievements, Meyjes is most proud of the number of talented individuals she’s mentored over the years saying, “This has given me the greatest pleasure. My many protégés possess qualities that determine success: integrity, honesty, leadership, hard work and above all humour.”
Derek Sim, GroupM’s CFO, is proud to state that he’s “Learnt a hell of a lot from her”, including that “The most important contribution you can make is helping and developing other people and that one must always take responsibility for yourself and your team”. He also learnt that it’s important to keep a sense of humour and laugh a lot (even at yourself). Finally, he says that Meyjes has demonstrated to him the importance of “Always being honest and acting with integrity and humility”.
Meyjes’ humility, according to Sim, is demonstrated by her “Willingness to always get stuck in. In other words, she doesn’t expect others to do things she can do herself (even as CEO)”. He recounts her recently flying to London for a client pitch and arriving in the allocated boardroom, which seemed dirty.
With 20 minutes to go before the presentation started, she vacuumed the room, polished the chairs and got down on her hands and knees to pick up crumbs off the floor. Her warmth and sense of fun is well known within the industry.
Chris Hitchings, CEO of DStv Media Sales confides, “When she was in India at the Cricket World Cup final with some of my colleagues, she managed to fall fast asleep among the chaos! I suspect there had been some partying the night before…”
Work life balance
There is some consensus in the industry as to Meyje’s weakness – one that seems to be common to many successful media professionals – the inability to find a genuine work-life balance. Mike Nussey (former director at Optimedia) illustrates this failing with a telling anecdote, recalling that when he joined MEC to take over as MD from her, she moved out of her office and had promised herself a sabbatical to get away from all the stress. “But she couldn’t tear herself away from the day-to-day challenges of the business. Six months later she was still going on her sabbatical – something she never did,” he says.
Meyjes recognises that her drive and commitment to her work means that she doesn’t have much time for personal reflection. She admits, “I have little patience and I’ve never identified with the Cancerian (she’s on the cusp with Gemini) traits of the homebody who enjoys domesticated bliss.”
Nevertheless, she affirms, “The happiest day in my life was the birth of my daughter and the single thing I am most proud of is raising a beautiful daughter.” Indeed, she recognises her mother, who struggled as a single parent to give her every opportunity, as greatest childhood influence in her life. She clearly also taught her the importance of loyalty, commitment and the rewards of family. Meyjes enjoys hiking – The Otter Trail and time in an ashram with her daughter is on her bucket list.
Media owners and colleagues who have worked with Meyjes can see her either teaching young entrepreneurs, selling their media or real estate or even leading a platoon! The media agency world is extremely lucky she chose to join it, and not to apply her vast talents elsewhere. Meyjes concludes, “I’m so fortunate to have had so many experiences in my life but I know there is still lots to discover.”
This story was first published in the September 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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