UM’s CEO Anathea Ruys on great leaders and what her focus is for the agency going forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many an Australian expat return to our shores, including Universal McCann Australia’s new CEO Anathea Ruys. The seasoned agency leader talks to Mumbrella’s Olivia Kruimel about her learnings from time in Asia and the US, what she’s looking to achieve in her new role, and why she’s excited to be back on Australian soil.

“I was never for a minute not 100% Australian and not invested in this market and industry,” Universal McCann (UM) Australia CEO Anathea Ruys, states.

The former LA executive returned to Australia earlier this year after nearly five years in the US where she was leading Carat and Dentsu agencies, following three years in Asia with Omnicom’s Fuse.

Her role at Dentsu US saw her managing the West Coast, Atlanta and Chicago Carat offices, along with all Dentsu agencies on the West Coast.

“My task was to collaborate and bring everyone together to ensure everyone was working as a singular team. We had a great deal of success building out that model, and it was often held-up internally as an example of how positive collaboration can be for an organisation,” she tells.

A former editor, publisher and entrepreneur, Ruys has seen her fair share of changes in the past 20 plus years, but says 2020 was truly defining.

“This last year has changed us all,” she says. “I was really excited about the idea of coming home, and being back in Australia.”

She says she has been immediately struck by the strength of the market and the industry.

“Back in March, April 2020 I was concerned about the Australian market because it was coming off the back of bushfires, and floods, and then COVID. I seriously underestimated the strength and resilience of the market here,” she explains.

Her return to Australia and the role at UM, replacing outgoing CEO Fiona Johnston who returned to the UK for a new international role with Mediabrands, could not have been better timed, according to Ruys.

“As an outsider, I thought the clients were great and the work was interesting. When he [IPG Mediabrands Australia CEO Mark Coad] gave me a call, it was not a hard decision to make.”

Coad and Ruys have previously worked together during their respective Clemenger days.

“The opportunity to work with him again was really compelling,” she says. “He is one of the great leaders in the industry.”

Mark Coad

It would appear the feeling is mutual, with Coad describing Ruys as “the real deal”.

“When this opportunity came up, she was the first I turned to, and she’s certainly up for future challenges,” Coad says.

“She has a very strong focus on people – takes a lot of pride in their happiness, their well-being, their development and their progress. She is one of the best at that, and we are certainly aligned on the effort and values she puts into that.”

How a New Idea editor ended up a CEO

With a career spanning three continents, and a multitude of agencies, Ruys is not your typical media executive.

Her career includes a ten-year spell running New Zealand activation agency Spark Activate, and time as editor and publisher New Idea in New Zealand and Australia. She also set up brand content company Fuse New Zealand for OMD.

Anathea Ruys

Prior to her Asia Omnicom role, Ruys was managing director of Mindshare, Melbourne, and prior to that the managing director at Clemenger Harvie Edge, where she first crossed paths with Coad.

“I feel like I learnt so much in so many different facets,” she says. “I had great leaders across my career, and what I learn from those is instrumental to who I am.”

During her time in the US, her initial focus was on the explosion of data-driven communications.

“Those first years were really learning about the balance between working in mass environments, and that one-to-many messaging, and then the power of supporting that with one-to-one messaging.”

However, it was not only about learning from her peers and clients, she was also bringing something to the market and US business, she says.

“There is a real celebration of Aussies in the US market. We have a really excellent reputation for being broad thinkers, no matter what part of the business we are working in.”

Ruys says she has a “can do” attitude that stems from her time running a content agency in New Zealand.

“I called it the number eight wire (standard fencing wire) approach. If you have it you can solve all sorts of problems. I like taking that approach in business. If there is a challenge, how can we fix it, rather than saying that belongs with that team or over there.

“My role is to create an environment where people can fix things and solve problems.”

She says that her time in the US, and recent events such as the murder of George Floyd, an African American, has made her more aware of being an even more inclusive leader.

“That [event] opened up for us as an industry, the opportunity and responsibility to take a good look at ourselves and the way our industry was structured and built; it was a confronting and good learning experience for me,” she explains.

“I don’t think I had ever really considered that I was part of a structure that was set up in a way that was not welcoming to everyone.”

So, what next for UM under Ruys

One of the agency’s largest and most notable clients, The Australian Government announced a three year extension of its master media agency contract with UM shortly after Ruys took the helm, which means UM continue to oversee one of the biggest media accounts in the country for the government until June 2024.

While having a client such as The Australian Government, David Jones, HBF and Tourism Australia (which is currently under review) might be considered a ticket to success, Ruys says what makes a good agency in her mind is a blend of clients, “that are in different stages of maturity as brands themselves”.

“Sometimes the really big brands and budgets can stymie that sense of give-it-a-go. Sometimes it is a handcuff,” she says.

Large clients in the US taught her that big is not always better, as what comes with that is creative and media teams sitting in different departments.

“There is a lot of power from having a client that is looking at those holistically. Advantage here is that teams don’t tend to be siloed, and so large that they are divided up.”

She says ultimately the goal is to have an agency working with clients looking to do thing differently, at a global and local level, and looking for a partner to assist them in continuing to grow.

“They [clients] want to keep growing and they need their agency partners to do that alongside them,” she explains.

According to Ruys, the best way for the agency to succeed is for her to continue to focus on its talent.

“The data, the technology, all the different tools we have are nothing without the people to bring them to life,” she says. “If you believe in people, then you have got to focus on the things that support people, you need good processes… good structures in place.”

Part of that she adds is making sure that the work being done by the team at UM is being presented in the next possible way.

“I love the craft of what we do. I did not grow up in planning or strategy, but I admire the craft so much. I like to hone and celebrate that… I want to make sure that they are showing it in a way that is beautiful and compelling and allows them [staff] to take huge pride in it.”

During her first few months in the job Ruys has been focused on meeting her team, listening to them and learning about them.

“Every single achievement that we make across the business is because there has been a team of people who want to make it so,” she says.

“I want to be known as being part of a team that is delighting our clients, because we are helping them to achieve their business goals, but also their personal growth goals.

“I want to be part of a team that is growing in its diversity and openness.”


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