Industry Influencers: Caroline Foster Kenny

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Caroline Foster Kenny is CEO of IPG Mediabrands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. With over 25 years of global client leadership and business experience, she now oversees all of the network's digital and media businesses across the region, including Initiative, UM, The Reprise Network, Rapport, MAGNA and Orion.

Prior to joining IPG, Kenny was global chief client officer at Wavemaker (formerly MEC), part of WPP's GroupM, where she built and grew global client relationships, overseeing the agency's top 30 global clients. Below, she expands on her experience and comments on the current state of the industry.

What makes your company unique?

IPG Mediabrands is in a fortunate position in that the network was ahead of the curve - it started moving the business model towards a single profit and loss over a decade ago. We’re now seeing many of our competitors struggling to disentangle their many competing divisions and we know it’s hard as we’ve been there.

This comes down to our lean(er) structure: rather than having to restructure and divest businesses we’ve been able to make strategic acquisitions, such as Acxiom last year.

How would you describe your current strategy and how it aligns with the wider current landscape?

A word I return to time and again is agile. We structure our teams around the needs of our clients and align our approach to their specific KPIs, rather than expecting them to mould themselves around how we work.

Being able to flex is so important in the current landscape, which has been defined by ‘uncertainty’ in recent years. The media sector itself is going through a period of technology-led upheaval, which brings with it a much more competitive landscape. The bigger geopolitical picture is equally ill-defined at present, so it really does make sense to be able to move quickly.

How has your client list changed over the past year?

As a global network our natural customer base consists of the big brands. We’re making great strides here – for instance, we were chosen as American Express’s global partner towards the end of last year. Equally, the ways by which people consume media is evolving and this changes the relationship we have with brands across multiple channels and touchpoints.

How important is company culture; explain your ideals and why you promote certain values?

We have an open culture. This means being open to change and we’ll take good ideas from wherever they come, whether it’s from the managing partners or our apprentices. After all, here’s no point investing in and nurturing talent if you aren’t going to listen and learn from them.

This ties into diversity of course, and I do appreciate this has become something of a buzzword in the industry of late. However, there’s a very clear business benefit – potential clients often have a vested interest in gender balance, staff churn rates and longevity of client relationships in assessing your compatibility as a business partner. 

How do you deal with things when they go wrong and keep morale high?

It’s inevitable that sometimes things don’t work as you’d hoped and it’s particularly hard when you miss out on a piece of business. After all, working on a pitch is a huge investment in time, finance and emotions. It’s an intense experience and by the day of the pitch you can be so wrapped up in the potential client’s business that it’s hard to see anything else. This makes letting go very hard. Making time to reflect helps the team to do better in the next one. 

What makes a company successful?

People are what makes a business successful and to some extent your personal success also comes down to surrounding yourself with the right talent. The trick is to spot where the gaps are and foster a culture that makes the best people want to work with you. It sounds a lot simpler on paper.

What’s the one thing that’s shaped your career?

By the mid-90s the media agency model was gaining traction in Europe and the time felt right to expand the business model to new territories. I don’t believe you can call yourself a leader if you aren’t prepared to do something different.

We launched CIA Hong Kong in 1996 and we were able to extend the network across 10 countries within two years. I’m immensely proud of all we achieved, not least because female leaders were few and far between at that point – especially in East Asia. 

How important is the right talent?

Companies will be left behind if they don’t adapt to attract, and most importantly retain, fresh and diverse talent. There has been a senior brain drain in recent years, but there are also more options than ever at all levels.

We’re up against GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), start-ups, the consultancies, etc. We can’t ignore the changing needs and attitudes of the younger generation, which doesn’t necessarily value the security of a job for life.

What advice would you give to someone with aims of becoming a creative leader?

Consider how you approach different personalities, cultures and situations, particularly if you’re working across a large network. The key to success lies in actively listening to what is being said – and sometimes, not being said. I’m always surprised when I encounter leaders who aren’t prepared to listen.

By suspending your own agenda, you will truly be in the best position to understand the issues, whether these are immediately evident or lurking under the surface. You then need to be able to act on this by learning to adapt the way you influence and lead. It requires a lot of thinking on your feet.

What do you see for the future of the industry and where does your company fit into that?

On a practical level, we need to recognise the changing needs of clients and gear up for a greater emphasis on project work. They will need us to be flexible and teams will need to scale up and down as required. This puts the onus on senior management to deliver true client centricity. 

Trust and transparency are key, so we need to implement frameworks to deliver against KPIs in whatever way works best for each client. Freelancers and permalancers will also likely come to play a greater role across the sector in the coming years.


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