Initiative’s Melissa Fein and Sam Geer on combating COVID’s talent drain

Initiative has been one of the stars of IPG Mediabrands in Australia over the past few years, with the media agency expanding its offering with new clients and staff, and eventually being named Mumbrella’s Media Agency of the Year for 2021.

Keeping up the momentum of client wins, Initiative Melbourne has just been appointed to national media accounts for natural beauty and wellness marketer BWX, as well as Quest Apartment Hotels.

Chatting on the Mumbrellacast, Initiative CEO Melissa Fein said there’s no getting away from the fact that the agency has undergone a significant transformation.

On receiving recognition from the industry Fein said:  “It means a lot after the year that we’ve had, but it means even more for us and for my leadership team that have been a part of this journey for the last three years.

“We were an agency that was vanilla and bland and all of those things,” Fein admitted. “It’s a true story of transition. We’ve certainly given it a crack in the past couple of years but we knew we weren’t quite there until this year.

“​​It’s [been] an absolute product transformation, and Mat Baxter, even from New York has helped lead that. It’s also a full commercial transformation going from an unprofitable business to profitability across the board.”

Initiative Australia CEO Mel Fein and MD Sam Geer

Fein sang the praises of Mediabrands CEO Mark Coad, who joined the holding company in late 2019, and also attributed the success of Initiative to the structure of Mediabrands both in Australia and globally.

“He’s been an amazing supportive leader and very empowering as well. It was music to our ears where he came in and in his very humble way, sort of said, ‘you know, I’ll support you, but I’ll get out of the way and make sure the brands have the shining light’.

“We’re proud of that, that our brands stand for something as brands. I know there’s a lot of holding groups going into kind of bigger open architecture type models, but we still very much have a focus on the brands, which has been even more important over the past 18 months,” she added.

“They need purpose and vision, and a mission that can strive towards together. That for me has been the power of the Initiative brand both locally and globally. We get support from our global team but we also then get empowered on a local level to create some amazing people initiatives that we’ve done along the way.”

Fein said the appointment of Geer as national managing director last year was a “game-changer” for Initiative. “Sam’s been in the business for just over three years has been an amazing cultural inclusion into the business.”

For his part, Geer reflected on the fact that he’s had a couple of stints in lockdown since moving into his role but said he wouldn’t change how the last 18 months has gone, even for someone with such an infectious personality.

“It’s been tumultuous. I don’t think there’s any getting around that. It’s certainly been a different experience, but one I wouldn’t change,” he said. “Personally it’s been hard, I’m better in person.

“It’s not impossible, there are ways around it. Above and beyond anything, we’ve been able to communicate our way through this period. I’m pumped to be sitting here talking to you as agency of the year.”

During the interview, both Fein and Geer are at pains to point out that it has been far from smooth sailing, during the uplift for the agency, and that several challenges still remain during the current lockdowns.

“I think the biggest difference for this one is the confidence in the retention of staff. At the start of the pandemic, there were certain moments that most organisations had to review structures and people.

“There hasn’t been that this time. If anything [the narrative] has been very much focused around resilience, from a perspective of the wider industry. But the difference has been that our borders are [still] definitively closed and there’s a big talent drought in this market.”

Geer revealed that one of the keys to retention is to remember that employees each have their own individual goals and reasons to be at your agency.

“Having a really clear idea of who we are as an agency, what we stand for [is what] attracts talent. At the end of the day, humans are the best recruitment tool… and new talent brings referrals and recommendations and gives you a new perspective of what the talent is like out there in the market.

“Certainly having success in an agency is what people are attracted to [but] people want individual opportunities for their own career to grow, and we’ve got to remember that. I think agencies can get swept up in their own success and forget about what that actually means to the individual working during the day-to-day.

“People want learning and development opportunities. They want to grow their career fast and have opportunities to do great work with great clients.

“So if you’re at an agency that is attracting good clients and you’re attracting them in a right way, then the talent is going to follow that because they’re going to want to be doing that type of work as well.”

For the full chat with Initiative’s Melissa Fein and Sam Geer, subscribe and tune in to the Mumbrellacast, out later today.


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