Melissa Fein’s best of 2019: Joy after tragedy, ocean swimming, and a focus on people

To end 2019 on a positive note, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks a number of media agency chief executives to share their best part of the year, both professionally and personally. Here, Initiative CEO Melissa Fein shares her highlights.

2018 was not an easy year for Melissa Fein’s tight-knit family. Her brother and his partner had identical twins, the first grandchildren in a family so excited to welcome them into the world.

“We had two beautiful girls,” Fein tells me. “And then, about four months into their life, we devastatingly lost one of the twins.”

Just like that, a joyous year became one marred by tragedy and grief. So when I ask Initiative’s local CEO to share the best part of this year, the answer comes easily. 

Her brother and his partner fell pregnant again quite quickly and – in what Fein says was a complete shock, but a blessing – another set of twin girls arrived.

“It’s been sort of a difficult road and to be able to spend time with the twins and see they’re beautiful and healthy after what my family went through last year … healthy twins has definitely been the absolute personal highlight of my year,” Fein says. 

Spending time with the baby girls, and her niece born last year who survived, has been at the top of Fein’s to-do list.

“I try and get down [to Melbourne] most weekends. It’s been definitely a focus for me for the last few months and trying to balance that between work and trying to spend time with the twins is difficult, but it’s definitely been my priority.”

There have been other moments of undiluted happiness, but they don’t come close to “the real highlight”, the twins. 

“I do ocean swimming and smashing my time this year and having an injury-free year after a couple of years of being injured [was a highlight],” Fein says. 

“My swimming times are the strongest in the ocean that they’ve been.”

Ocean swimming strikes me as a deeply anxiety-inducing, dangerous activity. I imagine it’s freezing, and salty, and unknown – will there be huge waves, or difficult weather, or sharks? But perhaps being someone who enjoys, and is good at, something like ocean swimming also makes you predisposed to enjoying and being good at leading a team.

There seems to be similar requirements for succeeding at both: understanding the conditions, training with discipline, and finding a sense of freedom (rather than entrapment) in working with, not against, currents beyond your control.

When we speak, Fein notes that it’s been three years to the week since she began as CEO. And her professional highlight is that this year has been her best, most proud, yet.

“I think this is the year that we’ve really come to life,” she says of Initiative, which has zoomed in on its award-winning people programs (but not to the expense of product – Fein thinks she has “the strongest strategy bench in Australia”).

“But it’s not around, for me, winning those awards, it’s around what that means to our people,” Fein explains.

“And we set out on that journey to focus on having people as a key differentiator point versus other agencies. Clients value the people that they work with and that human connection is so important in a very technology driven industry.”

One of those wins was the award for agency talent and culture at this year’s Media Federation of Australia (MFA) Awards, which returned after a year-long hiatus. Standing on that stage was recognition not just for Fein but for “every single individual that works at Initiative”.

“They were able to celebrate feeling really proud to come to work every day and be engaged in the programs that we’re running,” she says.

Her people’s wellbeing is what ultimately underpins the agency’s success, according to Fein. Without people who aren’t just good at what they do, but who feel good, there is no good work.

“There are a lot of highlights that happen through the year that sort of set you in different directions, like winning pitches and creating great work for our clients and that real transformation,” she adds.

“But for me, as a leader, really focusing on our people programs is going to be what drives longevity for the retention of our staff and for making sure that we really look after our people in an industry where [there are] very high levels of mental health problems and burn out problems.

“And that’s what we talk to our clients about. We can’t offer them great outcomes and great product if our people aren’t passionate and motivated to come to work every day.”

She cites Initiative’s employee engagement surveys, which report that 98.7% of people nationally are “proud of coming to work every day and enjoy our agency culture”.

“You know people are going to be motivated, you know they want to produce great work and be driven to produce great results for our clients. 

“So it all starts with making sure that we motivate those people and they feel like they’ve got a safe, creative environment to come to work in every day.”

But Melissa Fein’s 2019 highlight reel isn’t over just yet.

“My sister, who I’m very close to, who lives in New York, she’s pregnant, due around Christmas Day,” she says. 

“So I’m going to New York to spend Christmas with her and hopefully she has a smiling, healthy baby.”


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