The Great Women in my Digital World

The digital marketing industry is, in my view, one of the least transformed and most chauvinistic I have encountered. It’s ironic because we are supposedly the most progressive, groundbreaking and mould-shattering of all industries. And yet there is not a single large digital agency with a female CEO, and precious few women in senior roles in any part of our industry.

I take as much responsibility and blame for this as anyone. The Native VML Exco has one woman on it; the DMMA Board has zero, not counting our non-executives. It’s a tragic indictment of a white, male culture that has to change.

So in the spirit of this I would like to celebrate a few people in our business that rarely see the limelight but are every bit as critical to our success as the men, like me, whose names are constantly up in lights.

Diane Wilson – Native VML CFO

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It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the profound importance that Di has made to the three businesses she and I have been a part of. Starting with humble roots in interior design and a stint at a network cabling business, she joined VWV Interactive as the first kind of project manager working anywhere in digital in SA. She has gone on to write the textbook on how to manage digital projects, operationally run a web development and digital agency business and structure its finances. She has not only learned everything by experience but has taught hundreds of people over the past two decades how its done.

Di hates public attention more than just about anything – and as a result has remained one of our best kept secrets over all these years. You will never see her at the Loeries or The Bookmarks, and she leaves agency parties early. But she has a remarkable ability to bond with people in their language and at their own level. She has never felt comfortable with a C-suite title, and would choose to sit around talking about physics with some of our back-end geeks over presenting at a Board meeting any day. But there is no-one I know who has a sharper, more insightful, more courageous view of the world. She has 20-20 blindspot vision and has never been daunted by a single problem, no matter how hopeless, in all the years I’ve known her.

For me personally she has been my partner and comrade-in-arms for 17 years – she has enabled me to do whatever useful things I have done professionally and I honestly believe I would be nothing without her. I wish she had more ambition and desire for public recognition because she could give pretty much every man I know a run for their money.

Jacqui Maroun – Native VML Head of UX

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Another long-time shareholder and seminal part of all three of my businesses, Jax has risen from a great content writer to one of SA’s foremost experts in the burgeoning field of UX. Having built what I suspect is the largest UX team in any local agency, with some of the best people, she continually amazes all of us with her patience, insights and exceptional work. Even more gratifying is the fact she has brought a number of new women into this industry, and given them the kind of clear, purposeful mentoring that has begun – I have no doubt – any number of incredible new careers.

Jacqui has repeatedly re-invented how we work and how we think – and in the process produced some iconic pieces of the South African web. She also happens to be one of the nicest, kindest and most supportive people I know – even in an industry which can turn anyone’s heart to stone. Loved by clients, admired by colleagues and an inspiration to her team, I feel exceptionally lucky to have had her in my life and business all these years.

Danelle Stiles – Native VML Head of Project Management

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It is rare to meet someone in the midst of their carefree youth, hire them into the most junior role in the business, and be able to honestly say they have risen to the top. Dan is the person I am perhaps proudest of from my working career. I like to think I have been a part of her success but the truth is she has earned and owned every step herself. Unlike many young people today who expect success to fall into their laps, Dan has worked her butt off for over a decade, from receptionist to HTML developer to project manager to shareholder. She now manages a 15-strong team of project managers across two cities. Moreover she is the person who is increasingly responsible for Native’s services billings – a huge task in one of SA’s largest digital agencies.

I truly believe that Dan is someone the industry will get to know in years to come. She will be one of the women who rise to be a role-model to others. She is self-made, self-motivated and brilliant at what she does.

Tracy Cabrita – Native VML Head of Traffic

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If there is part of an agency that is invisible when the awards roll around it’s the traffic department. Digital traffic is not the same as traditional agencies. With the heavy production focus we have, traffic people have the unenviable task of dealing with account managers, project managers, creatives, programmers, social media people, content producers, UX designers – the list goes on. The mix of knowledge and skills these people need, with the resilience, patience and fortitude to deal with a thousand curveballs a minute makes them as rare as a creature as its possible to imagine.

When the Native merger happened Tracy was running operations for Brandsh. She also had a small child and another on the way. Unlike the others on the list above – none of whom have children yet – Tracy has managed to take on the traffic function of a busy, growing, demanding agency while having two small kids. More than that she has been able and willing to collaborate with people like me who are constantly trying to re-invent the way agencies work. This is interesting work but it’s also disruptive and adds tremendous stress. I don’t know another traffic person who would spend 5% of the time Tracy does in trying to innovate and improve. She is uniquely dedicated, loyal and a really good person. And leaves every other traffic manager back in the dark ages.

Vanessa Gibb, Native VML Head of HR

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Once in a decade or so you meet someone in your professional life who so exceeds your expectations that you consider retracting your endless pronouncements about being an atheist just so you have someone to thank for your luck. Vanessa is one of those rare finds – an HR and OD person who is not about leave policies and petrol claims but is about finding great people and making them happy. She is also open to the denizens of insane experiments I constantly inflict on her in an attempt to build Native’s unique culture.

If she doesn’t end up writing a book about building organisational culture and managing so-called Millennials she will be robbing the world of her insights and accumulated wisdom. I will also be really disappointed. I expect at least a footnote somewhere in that.

Digital skills, in SA, is almost an oxymoron. Vanessa is re-defining the role of talent and culture in the industry, and in so-doing is helping to reshape the future for hundreds of young people.

Leanne Godden, Liz Janse van Rensberg, Chantal Brunette (respectively below)

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With a little more public profile to their names, our three Group Account Directors, that head up several of our largest accounts, are the best of their kind in the country. I know this because two of them have already won Best Client Service person at The Bookmarks – an accolade no other agency can claim. But in one of the toughest and often thankless roles, these three women defy the stereotype of both women in digital and client service people. They’re completely clued up, technically proficient and passionate about their customers. Since an agency depends on its customers more than anything else they hold  key positions. Our clients couldn’t be in better hands.

Narrowing to a short list of shout-outs here is, thankfully, challenging. Native VML has a lot of great, strong women who shape our business and are challenging this male dominated industry. Some – like our Head of Social Media, Amanda Fairweather – need no introduction from me. Others – like our amazing Project Managers, Strategists, Finance team, Account Managers, Office Ops, Programmers, Creative Directors – are already on endless recruiters hitlists so I will spare them – and ourselves – that pain by not listing all of their names here. But we are determined to see all of them step up and change the face of digital in South Africa.

Whilst BEE is fundamentally important to redress the historical injustices in this country, the inequalities that women face risk being ignored or underplayed. This is both as a result of classic male chauvinism but also because many women shy away from taking what’s theirs. Thus all of us – men & women both – have a responsibility to shift the thinking away from this outmoded nonsense. Women are not better than men. They may not even bring something substantively different to the party. But they are every bit as good, as entitled to earn the same salaries and to be afforded the recognition for their part in the work.

I hope one day, at the end of my career, I honestly be able to say I have done my part to usher in this change.

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