Katie Rigg-Smith on trailblazing the CEO role for women

Mindshare CEO, Katie Rigg-Smith is approaching nine years in one of Australia’s top advertising roles, and while being a female CEO is not out of the ordinary now, in 2013 it was a different story.

On this week’s Mumbrellacast, Rigg-Smith speaks about stepping into the role at a time when there were no other women in media agency CEO roles across the Australian advertising landscape, and how that contributed to her initially wanting to turn it down.

“I remember I very publicly said that I turned the role down initially to Steedy (John Steedman, former GroupM CEO and chairman) who wouldn’t let me. They wouldn’t accept that.”

“A large part of why I turned that down was I was 34, I was engaged and I wanted to have children. I couldn’t see anyone else as a CEO that was female doing that. And I just thought, ‘I don’t think this is achievable.’ So I have had a few of the female CEOs now say to me, ‘that made a big difference, seeing you step in there, have babies and do those things’, and there are so many wonderful female CEOs in this industry now it’s just mind-blowing to see.”

Rigg-Smith said that at the moment she was offered the role, she didn’t feel confident she could do it all.

“In that moment he (Steedman) had a choice, he could have said, “you know what, no one knows I’ve offered it to you. You’re right Katie, have your kids come back when you’re ready, I’ve got some men that I can put other people in”. He said no, Katie, I don’t care, have babies and when you have babies, I’ll support you through it. You’re going to do this job.”

Fast forward to today, and a large portion of the biggest roles in Australian media agencies are occupied by women, with Aimee Buchanan, Anathea Ruys, Melissa Fein, Virginia Hyland, Nickie Scriven, Sue Squillace, Imogen Hewitt, Laura Nice and Sian Whitnall to name a few.

“To think I had any role in doing that, leading the agency, and having three babies throughout that time, not just for the other female CEOs, but for my own staff showing you how to integrate life and how to potentially have a balance,” said Rigg-Smith.

“So any of those things, if the performance metrics around delivering client growth and delivering our own growth and all of those things are one thing, but to do it in a way where you hopefully can help other people see their own path, if I’ve achieved that, then I feel like I have achieved.”

The Media Federation of Australia, last week produced a report with findings that c-suite roles are 45% occupied by women in Australia, a figure significantly above the rest of the Australian workplaces.

Rigg-Smith said this is potentially owed to media agency’s ability to drive flexibility in defining what the role is.

“When you talk about having females in leadership roles, we have to be able to craft a flexibility. Everyone, male, female, or whichever gender you identify has to be able to have that flexibility and your flexibility the way you want.”

“I think until we actually started to tackle that as an industry, there was no way you were going to bring females back. Like I said, I’ve got three children that are six years and under, and it’s incredibly hard if I was made to do the hours of nine to five in an office every day, et cetera, and I couldn’t tailor things the way I needed to.”

During the full interview, Rigg-Smith speaks about the ups and downs of the past 18 months at the GroupM agency, including client wins and losses, as well as a report card on her tenure in the role, what lays ahead for her career, the new GroupM layout and stepping down from the MFA board.

Listen to the full conversation with Katie Rigg-Smith on the Mumbrellacast, wherever you find your podcasts.


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