For international companies going through phases of growth across different regions, balancing the immediate needs of clients with investing in culture, inclusion, and the growth of your people is something that many leaders are thinking deeply about — particularly in a difficult economic climate.
Co-host of The Interview Max Webber sat down with Elaine Bremner, Chief People Officer (UK) at EssenceMediacom, to hear about her journey to her current position, and discuss Elaine’s approach to driving the inclusion agenda whilst fostering a culture of learning and growth.
In January 2023, MediaCom merged with Essence, who were also part of GroupM and WPP to form EssenceMediacom. The promise of the new EssenceMediacom agency is to bring together the best digital media brains and technology together with the craft, skill & scale of the biggest media planning agency. We now have 1,910 diverse experts that reflect the diverse, sophisticated needs of our clients and the fast-moving environment that we operate in. Our strategy is to build innovative solutions to deliver competitive advantage for our client which we call breakthroughs. In terms of my role within the agency, when I first joined twelve years ago, as CPO for the APAC region, I was responsible for fourteen markets, and overseeing a lot of growth given a significant new client win at the time — ultimately spending six of these twelve years based in Singapore. When I decided it was the right time in my life to return to the UK, it just so happened that the UK Chief People Officer was leaving, so Helen Brown, Global CPO at the time, encouraged me to take this local role and lead the original HQ of the business. In my UK role, I’m focussed on ensuring EssenceMediacom is an employer of choice in our industry and creating an inclusive culture where people are able to grow their career, feel inspired about the work they do and where they feel a true sense of belonging. Prior to MediaCom, I held numerous senior HR roles, but always in the Media/Creative industries. I’ve always loved working in Media — it’s fast paced, but not very corporate, which aligns perfectly with my preferences and style.
Whilst Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) is on a lot of people’s radars now, it’s always been front and centre in our people strategy, both in the UK and globally as an agency. That was largely influenced by Karen Blackett’s leadership, whilst she was CEO of MediaCom up until 2015. We were the first agency to get rid of CVs when hiring, to lean into the Apprenticeship Levy, to bring in charities to work with and actively enhance access and diversity within our candidate pool. In 2016, under the leadership of Josh Krichefski we stated our award winning approach to mental health which has continued to be a focus for the agency and really helped us navigate the challenges of lockdown.
The initiatives we run all build around our inclusion strategy. We have four key pillars that are all underpinned by collective responsibility. The first is the environment where people can easily see inclusion is at the heart of our culture — things like gender-neutral toilets, awareness week events, diverse representation in internal and external comms. In a hybrid world, for example, like having an inclusion chair in meetings who ensures that everyone’s voices are heard. The second pillar is regarding equitable opportunities ensuring everyone can flourish. This involves specific programmes for various minority groups including menopause coaching, career development programme and sponsorship for our black and brown colleagues, social mobility apprenticeship programmes. Initiatives like this also help increase representation at senior levels, through more equitable promotion and progression. The third is around bravery — facing head-on things like anti-racism. One example: a few years ago, we interviewed about 60 people from minority backgrounds to understand their lived experiences. We then had different colleagues read out the lived experiences of others, highlighting microaggressions, in an impactful internal video we presented to the whole agency. We have allyship training for all and ran a programme on systems of oppression for 250 of our leaders. We are now on a continuous journey to help people feel like they can call things in, call things out, advocate for each other, and feel psychologically safe. The fourth pillar is about leadership accountability and action. This can’t just be listening to the employee resource groups, it’s got to be top-down as well; setting KPIs, targets around representation and holding teams accountable.
I never want it to be an HR initiative — it’s much better coming from the business, to help highlight its importance. Our CEO, Kate Rowlinson is very passionate about inclusion and is always pushing us to do more. There’s buy-in from the ExCo, and from those in marginalised groups, clearly, but how do you get buy-in from those in the middle? Beyond it being the right thing to do. For us, it’s about linking the work to why it matters commercially. Our clients are trying to reach a diverse range of people in their target audience, so you need a diverse team to come up with the most effective strategies and campaigns for our clients — to reach and engage the broadest audiences.
When we look at our engagement surveys, we cut them by demographics, which reveals that a high engagement score overall doesn’t mean high engagement for each demographic — you can often find a massive disparity. Ultimately, engaged, happy people, equals engaged, happy clients, so there’s a massive business imperative. When you show people that data, you can’t not get buy-in really, because it’s their teams and their people. Leadership are then role models, showing the importance of these initiatives — which helps with engagement across the wider business.
In September of this year, we launched a huge culture transformation programme here in the UK, part of which is how to embed a culture of learning. Again, there’s a business imperative to do it, as our new vision is to be the breakthrough agency. Our clients are all facing disruption in their industries, and so are looking to us to create breakthroughs for them to really stand out from their competitors — meaning doing things that are new, and different to help them outperform their competitors. So we’ve put in place a five-month programme, whereby we’re all experimenting with new techniques to drive a growth mindset and innovative thinking. On Monday mornings, we gather in our teams to watch a fresh piece of content provided by Upping Your Elvis, a company we're collaborating with. This content typically focuses on a new technique or approach we're exploring together, for example, how to ask for, receive, and give feedback. We’ll then experiment with it all week as a team, and come back together at the end of the week to debrief and plan for how we’ll use the learnings going forward. We are embedding the learnings by sharing stories of learning and we have identified 150 cultural champions who, over the course of this experimentation programme, will be sharing the learnings, failures, and successes. This only works if you’ve got a level of psychological safety, otherwise people won’t experiment and try new things.
We are excited about helping our people think and work in a different way which not only supercharges their opportunities to grow and learn but will also continue to deliver award winning work for our clients.