Feature

MediaCom's Karen Blackett is a new breed of leader

MediaCom chairwoman Karen Blackett, the most admired business chief in adland, is blazing a trail for creative leaders who place authenticity, approachability and empathy ahead of ego.

Karen Blackett
Karen Blackett

When Campaign asked the chief executives of the agencies included in this year’s School Reports to name the adland business leader they most admired, the result was emphatic. The agency leadership ecosystem may be dominated by men but it was Karen Blackett, chairwoman of MediaCom, who most impressed as a creative leader.

Sitting in her office at MediaCom’s mammoth London headquarters, Blackett lives up to the praise, explaining simply: "I am incredibly flattered that people admire me but I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not. Great leaders are people who bring their whole selves to work." 

Her office reflects this approach. Furnished with an eclectic mix of the professional and the personal, there is no evidence of the minimalism or bland beige spaces so typical of corporate office interiors. Photographs of family and friends jostle for space on the packed shelves and Campaign School Reports from years gone by adorn the walls. 

Blackett is at the top of her game. She received an OBE in 2014 for services to the media communications industry. This was a testament to her work at MediaCom, where she launched the first government-backed apprenticeship scheme for the creative industry. Her experiences as a single mother (she has a son, Isaac) have given Blackett a unique perspective as she has climbed to the very top of her industry. "My mum and dad didn’t even know about this industry when I started out," she says. 

Recalling the early days of her career, Blackett confirms that the media industry lived up to its "male and pale" reputation. She explains: "When I talk about leadership, I always start with this slide of a picture of the people who were leading media agencies in the 90s and, with the exception of Christine Walker, they are all white, middle-aged men. There is conscious and unconscious bias to get over." 

It is clear that being different was not something Blackett ever felt she should try to sidestep. "I celebrated my difference," she explains. "I used my difference to my advantage but you have to make sure you are remembered for the right reason." 

Diversity sells

There is no question that Blackett has helped to drive the industry’s diversity agenda. "There is a clear business case for diversity," she says. "In the UK, 83% of all purchase decisions are made by women and we need to do more in terms of marketing ourselves to a diverse range of talent to reflect this." 

"I have used my difference to my advantage but you have to make sure you remebered for the right reason"

Pointing to the fact that there are still only seven FTSE 100 companies with female chief executives, Blackett says we need to do much more than simply talk about diversity. "It isn’t just an issue of gender or race," she explains, "it is diversity of thought, it is about social mobility." 

The issue of social mobility is a difficult one for the media industry, where unpaid internships – with their empty promises and pay packets – are often the only way to get a foot in the door. A combination of legislation and diversity initiatives are working to tackle this problem but more needs to be done to increase the diversity of talent in its truest sense.

"I don’t believe in unpaid internships – they are the privilege of the few. They are morally wrong and the industry should be doing more to discover and support new talent," Blackett asserts. So what does this mean in practical terms? The starting salary for an apprentice at MediaCom is £17,000 (graduates get £20,500). Blackett emphasises that these figures increase within six months of employment. "We have worked to create starting salaries that attract talent," she says. 

She also believes there has been a fundamental shift in what motivates employees and this is something to which business leaders need to adapt. "Our younger employees look to work at agencies with a clear sense of purpose. At one point, our industry was all about the complicated job titles and the salary but now it is about having a purpose. They don’t want to work for a company that is just in the business of making money," she explains.

It is clear that, for Blackett at least, being a creative leader does not involve attempting to mould yourself into something you are not. "Authenticity" may be the most overused word in marketing but Blackett is its faithful advocate. She believes that being true to yourself and "bringing your whole self to work" is at the heart of being a good creative leader. Yet, surely it is easier to bring your "whole self" to work when you are the boss – does this leadership rhetoric really translate to the rank and file? "It is not just about the leadership team, it is about respecting each other and understanding the real person – and that principle applies to everyone," she says. 

With this in mind, Blackett has ensured that MediaCom’s approach to staff well-being is played out in its actions, not simply in the pages of industry magazines or on the stages of conferences. 

"I started a programme at the agency called Project Blend with the idea of blending KPIs around work objectives and functioning as a human being," she says. According to Blackett, this approach is not just about ensuring that parents see their children.

"It is about triathletes being able to find the time to train and, fundamentally, it is about respecting people as human beings." At the heart of the project is a move away from the rigidity of the nine to five and the focus on presenteeism and, instead, simply trusting employees to get their work done. "Performance working", where executives compete to show how hard they are working by simply putting in the hours, is showing signs of running out of steam. 

Trust and transparency

Blackett has reached the top of the media business at a uniquely challenging time when the emotional resilience of leaders is being tested on a daily basis. Growing concerns over ad fraud, the crisis of trust facing media agencies, ever-eroding margins and the increasing dominance of Facebook and Google have combined to create a perfect storm of challenges. 

Blackett believes that agencies need to take a "lead role" on issues such as ad fraud, which is the "responsibility of every single agency to tackle", she says. "Publishers have ensured maximum viewability with a multitude of different ad formats. I have always said that content has to be feed ready and format ready. Consumers will click on or view content that is relevant to them. We need to think hard about the ad formats we are using to devise more targeted and more personalised formats." 

The complex issues surrounding fake news and advertising appearing beside undesirable content are taking media agencies into uncharted territory. The Times’ recent headline declaring "Big brands fund terrorism" is the stuff of marketing nightmares.

Yet Blackett is taking these challenges in her stride and is keen to emphasise that while the media channels have changed, the issues are not new. On the problem of fake news and ads appearing beside controversial content, she says: "It is about talking to media agencies and trying to minimise it. It isn’t new – it used to happen with travel ads. It does happen and it happens more often with programmatic." 

There is no question media agencies are under significant scrutiny and the US Association of National Advertisers’ investigation into media buying found evidence of non-transparent business practices being endemic. 

However, Blackett bristles when asked what she thinks of commentators who have argued that ad fraud is to media agencies what the subprime mortgage market was to the finance industry. "That is hyperbole,"she declares. 

The Brexit challenge

Blackett is realistic about the challenges facing brands as the full impact of Brexit begins to be felt. She explains: "We have already seen the impact of Brexit on brands such as Walkers and Marmite and there is no question it will bring new challenges to clients." Marketing, the largest area of discretionary spend for many businesses, is usually the first activity to be cut in difficult times. "Marketing is not a cost and the challenge is to ensure it stays at the top of the priority list. We haven’t left Europe yet but this challenge is already here," she says. 

Yet, as the longevity of her career suggests, Blackett is not one to shy away from a challenge. Equally upbeat and down to earth, it is easy to see why she has become the industry’s most admired leader. 

If it is true that there are two types of people in the world – those who are bewildered and blindsided by change and those who embrace it – Blackett is firmly in the latter category. 

"This is such a dynamic industry. It is so vibrant it is like a fitness programme – you have to stay with it. The digital and data systems we have interact directly with the consumer and we are seeing a closer relationship than ever before. It is our job to navigate and understand these changes," she says. 

Change is perhaps the one thing that is not in short supply at media agencies. "I love the fact there is so much change. I love the fact it is so dynamic. Nobody is an island, you have to build the strongest team possible," she says. It is clear to Blackett that building her team means more to her than the sometimes empty rhetoric beloved by many business leaders. 

"I love the fact this is such a dynamic industry. It is so vibrant it is like a fitness programme - you have to stay with it"

Wrapping up her interview, Blackett prepares to leave for a Facebook event for executive assistants. She is taking own assistant, Darren, with whom she shares an obvious rapport. At a time when leaders have been accused of being divorced from the reality of their employees’ or consumers’ lives, this accusation cannot be levied at Blackett. A role model in the truest sense, she is true to herself, committed to the industry and generous in the time she gives others. 

Blackett, the self-described "exhausted mum" who is paving the way for a new type of business leader, is a living embodiment of the business benefits of diversity.