sue unerman 2

The Woman Who Made Media Make A Difference

As she steps down from the media company she's been with for over 30 years, Sue Unerman tells us about the changes she's seen and why she's still excited for more

By Claire Beale

When it comes to writing about change, most journalists will have resorted to the cliché “end of an era” more times in their career than professional pride would care to admit. And it’s rarely apposite.

But let’s deploy the platitude once more, because this time it really suits.

Sue Unerman is calling time on an esteemed 34 year-long chapter in her career, quitting the company she joined in 1990 back when it was still called The Media Business. It is, indeed, the end of an era.

Over that era Unerman has played a pivotal role in growing MediaCom to be the UK market-leader, and helped it twice scoop Campaign’s Agency of the Decade award, before taking on the chief transformation officer brief at EssenceMediacomX (EMX) and the global head of relevance role for the EssenceMediacom network.

As media becomes ever more complex and the tools of the job both more sophisticated and yet homogenised, marketers value brilliant media thinking as the real differentiator. Unerman delivers in buckets.

Let’s be clear: you don’t thrive into your seventh decade in this industry, particularly as a woman, unless you’re truly brilliant at what you do. But while neither age nor gender are why Unerman is one of the most respected strategists in the world, both attributes burnish her talents in wholly inspirational ways. She’s been the go-to media thinker for my entire career: always wise, surprising, challenging, endlessly interesting, and unfailingly supportive. She' also happens to be a rare industry style icon and someone I respect and love enormously.

So to mark this moment, we sat down with Sue to look back a little and discuss some of the changes she’s seen in the business and to seek her advice for those following in her footsteps. And of course, we had to ask about her next era.

Sue On Sue

Creative Salon: What still excites you about the media landscape?

Sue Unerman: Gosh, that's such a big question to answer. Essentially, I believe the job remains fundamentally unchanged, which is to effectively reach people to help grow our clients' brands. It's a role I've been fulfilling since 1983-1984, even if I didn't realise it back then. What's both exciting and interesting about it is that it's not a straightforward task anymore. It's grown more complex over time, but we're continuously discovering new strategies. I’ve just had a really exciting meeting about using TV and mobile platforms in ways previously unexplored.

Initially, when I entered the industry, it was primarily about advertising and the quality of creative content. However, the landscape has evolved significantly. Nowadays, there's a whole new communications economy where we can engage people through content they love, rather than merely interrupting it with brands. We can now measure effectiveness in real-time, rather than waiting for lengthy reviews. It's a paradigm shift in how we influence people. The pace is rapid, which suits my low attention span perfectly. This is the stuff that keeps me engaged and motivated every day. I find myself loving it more now than when I started - which doesn’t always happen.

Over the years that you have worked in this industry, lots of other people have come and gone and the ones that are still here have a certain level of cynicism. How come you’re still excited by it all?

I think it's partly the people I've had the chance to work with. When I first joined The Media Business [which became Mediacom, then EssenceMediacom] and now at EMX I found myself among a group of misfits who thrived on challenging the status quo. They refused to accept the cynicism often pervasive in other parts of the advertising and media ecosystem. It's all about the people. Always has been.

The people at our clients' end, too, play a significant role. I recently participated in an event with the World Federation of Advertisers, where I encountered a bunch of really powerful client representatives—marketers, procurement professionals, managers—all united in their desire to make the work better. They shared a common agenda: media for good, sustainability, optimising matrix management, driving relevance, and adapting commerce strategies. That enthusiasm is truly infectious. So, my advice? Surround yourself with the passionate ones. Avoid the cynics. There are plenty of brilliant, enthusiastic people across all ages worth spending time with.

What have been the really positive shifts you’ve seen in the industry over the years? And is there anything that's actually changed for the worse in that time?

There have absolutely been positive shifts and changes in accountability. Not just in terms of expenditure, but also in diagnosing what's effective and what isn't. We've been deeply involved in this at EssenceMediacom and EMX. We pioneered an econometrics team at a media agency, which has now expanded into a significant team at EMX. It's been truly transformative. What has got worse is audience reporting, it’s tougher to get a clear answer. If you had asked me 20 years ago about the accountability of audience reporting reaching its current state, I wouldn't have believed it. Whether it's the abundance of data, though often disparate, or the challenges in data synchronisation.

I recently attended an event which reminded me of one of my old rants. They mentioned the National Readership Survey, where the question for determining readership of a newspaper or magazine was simply whether you had seen a headline, paper or magazine in the past six weeks, even if you hadn't opened it. If so, you were a reader and the client was paying for you, even if you merely glanced at it in a doctor’s waiting room. It's terrible. Thankfully, we now have more data, more accuracy, and quicker access. However, the data still doesn't always align, making it a process of navigating through to find truth. We're still refining the process to ensure investment accountability. There are promising strides like Project Origin, but there's room for improvement.

How has the nature of the agency world changed itself and how has the media agency evolved?

My first three agencies were full-service agencies. Then I joined an independent. I'm not nostalgic for the full-service agency. In my experience, as a young woman in a media department, you were mostly expected to stick to presenting the TV plan and not voice opinions on anything else. Occasionally, I'd get to interact with creatives, which was great, especially with one particular account where I felt valued and could make a difference. But overall, it often felt like we were boxed in, just providing input on ads they had heavily invested in. That kind of experience breeds cynicism—you're told what to do for a business model that serves the agency's interests.

Joining an independent agency was a game-changer. We continually adapted and reshaped our business model to drive client growth, not just uphold legacy structures. Adaptability is why major agencies and independents thrive. Personally, I don't look back and see any golden age, but maybe others do. However, with media agencies now offering a variety of creative services and experiences, perhaps the golden age is on its way.

Until recently, there's been intense focus on optimising media plans, but not the same scrutiny on creative effectiveness. I'm not undermining the incredible work of creative agencies, but there are times we need to be forensic, even in copywriting. I've witnessed significant improvements in effectiveness through detailed analysis of performance copy. It's akin to what forensic science did for solving crimes—a step change in outcomes. Just as forensic science revolutionised crime-solving, applying forensic techniques to communication strategies promises similar leaps in effectiveness. It's about broadening our approach beyond just media to the entire communications landscape.

Have gender changes taken place in the industry?

We're all on a journey. Some aspects have improved, but culturally, I have concerns. A recent conversation stayed with me, especially how some women discussed their experiences of sexism, ingrained in the culture of certain businesses. It's troubling, especially considering it's been eight years since we published "The Glass Wall, Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business". Yet, it still seems like gospel. The notion that young men enter the business world with a grasp of how to succeed in the patriarchal business world, while young women often lack that understanding, persists. It's a recurring theme in discussions with all women. Many women believe that hard work alone will lead to promotion, while men recognise it's only part of the equation. Why aren't we addressing this disparity in understanding.

Just this morning, I read an article in The Economist over breakfast discussing how the gender gap is widening in terms of hostility between young men and women. Older men are more likely to believe women still need support, while younger men feel things aren't that bad for them. Yet, the pay gap data contradicts this perception. These recent conversations and readings have highlighted these ongoing issues.

Why is the cultural shift not quickening?

The question of what's going on in culture in terms of gender is a really complicated one as it seems to be a binary thing, which it isn’t, for young people.

Overall, is walking into an agency now a better environment to walk into than it was 40 years ago? Yes, in terms of being a young woman. Is it the same for men and for women? No. Is it getting more complicated? Yes. And is the patriarchy strong? Yes, the patriarchy is strong in society, no matter what.

How important is it to work with clients and brands that have a purpose or belief?

I believe in capitalism. Our role is to assist clients and brands in growing—that's our purpose. What intrigues me is examining the brand's architecture and its underlying purpose. Many enduring brands, such as Lloyds Bank, Cadbury, Quaker Oats, were founded with a clear sense of purpose.

We once took over an account from an agency lacking in accountability and performance standards. The discoveries we made were shocking and unfortunately, such practices persist. After we took over, the business underwent layoffs but then experienced growth. For me, doing good work is purposeful in itself. Everyone likes to support something that contributes positively—it's a basic human inclination. Purpose can be found in various aspects of business, extending beyond mere profit to encompass people, climate, and communities.

How important is it to you to have another creative outlet in your life like the successful books you’ve written?

It was Nick Lawson's idea that kickstarted my writing journey, beginning with a column in Media Week—a long time ago when Media Week was still around. Nick encouraged me, recognising my penchant for having opinions, and indeed, I've been blogging regularly since then, expressing my thoughts and ideas. Having people read, comment, and engage with my writing has become significant to me. Otherwise, what would I do with all these ideas?

The idea for my first book, "Tell the Truth, Honesty is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool" originated from my co-author Jonathan Salem Baskin, who emphasised the power of honesty in marketing. Writing that book was a collaborative effort, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. Since then, I've co-authored subsequent books with Kathryn Jacob. The idea for our second book stemmed from Nick Lawson, prompting us to explore how women succeed in the workplace. Part of the reason I did it was because I wanted to explore the time you share with your children outside of work. Our partnership brings a sense of safety and support, akin to having each other's backs, which is truly invaluable. My third book "Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work" was written again with Kathryn and also my husband Mark Edwards.

For the next book, "A Year Of Creativity", which delves into creativity in business, Kathryn and I are once again collaborating.

Overall, writing books has been a collaborative and fulfilling endeavour, allowing me to explore important topics and share insights with others.

What impact have you seen from the books?

For "The Glass Wall" in particular, we had women we didn't know reaching out to us, and sharing their stories. One woman came from a law firm that had recently merged with another. She had a rough experience and stormed out of the office. She found "The Glass Wall" at Waterstones in Holborn, read it and went back the next day to renegotiate based on its advice. When she reached out to us, we were overwhelmed. Helping even just one woman makes everything worthwhile, but we've seen from the feedback that it's impacted more than just one.

I have a strong belief in the power of small actions to make a big difference. It stems from my own experiences, particularly in school, where I felt excluded for not fitting the typical mould. That feeling of not being included stayed with me, fuelling my drive to ensure everyone feels valued and accepted. Similarly, my struggles academically before I discovered simple techniques, that my friend taught me, helped me discover the importance of sharing knowledge and resources to help others overcome obstacles.

Whether it's through "The Glass Wall" and the “Belonging” book, and our new creativity book, the underlying motivation is the same: to empower others with the tools and techniques they need to succeed, no matter the challenge they face.

The power of techniques solve everything and it helps you not feel like you have to pretend to be someone you are not.

And what impact do you hope the next book has?

We have two main perspectives on this. Firstly, there's the issue of the democratisation of creativity. When I entered the agency world, there was a clear creative elite, predominantly comprised of white men, and creativity wasn't considered necessary for everyone else. Despite this, I couldn't help but notice that the output wasn't always extraordinary. I've always challenged the status quo and firmly believe in empowering everyone to be creative.

At EssenceMediacom and EMX, we've conducted creativity workshops for the entire company, not just a select few. This approach significantly improved the quality of our work and boosted morale. It's essential to recognise that creativity isn't limited to a select few; it's a fundamental outlet for happiness and expression.

On the other hand, I've observed a trend where creativity is undervalued as data becomes increasingly important. I firmly believe in balancing creativity and accountability; they are not mutually exclusive but complementary. This book serves as a reminder to prioritise creativity alongside accountability in all organisations.

Do you think we place enough value on experience in this fast changing world?

It seems the pendulum is starting to shift, as people realise the irreplaceable nature of experience. No matter how hard you work or how clever you are, you can't replicate the wisdom gained from past failures and how to navigate them.

This shift might not be intentional but rather tied to business models and the cynicism you mentioned earlier. If someone with experience is cynical and resistant to change, they may be seen as costly. However, it ultimately boils down to an economic decision.

What advice would you give to the next gen - to young people who want to have a long and successful career in the industry?

Challenge everything in a positive way.

When you begin your career, there's often an expectation to follow instructions diligently. Personally, I've never been the best at blindly following instructions unless I see the merit in them. Instead, I advocate for using initiative.

I recall a review I conducted years ago where an employee had executed tasks as requested but failed to show initiative. When confronted, their response was simply, "You didn't ask me to." This incident highlighted the importance of encouraging initiative, even if it's not explicitly outlined in KPIs.

Initiative isn't typically quantified in performance metrics, but it's crucial for growth. So, my advice is to think beyond your assigned tasks and consider what more you can contribute. Don't confine yourself to a box; always be willing to step out and explore new possibilities.

I live with someone who has always supported me with the kinds of questions that I've been asking. It’s so important - how you work with your partner in life.

I work with Kathryn [Jacob] on the books and I really value that relationship, but it's not just about individuals—it's about the collective spirit. It's about finding your tribes.

So, my advice would be to seek out environments where you don't fit in too comfortably, where you're challenged to grow and evolve.

Surrounding yourself with people who add new tunes to your playlist, metaphorically speaking, keeps life interesting and evolving, rather than just repeating the same old songs from yesterday.

And finally, Sue, what’s next? for you

ADVENTURE! And the new book is out in September: A Year Of Creativity, 52 Smart Ideas For Boosting Creativity, Innovation And Inspiration At Work.

Friends And Colleagues On Sue

Stephen Allan, executive chairman of Brainlabs and former global CEO of Mediacom

Sue joined our media independent agency, The Media Business Group (TMBG) in 1990 as our Head of Strategic Solutions. It was an exciting era for media independents as we were coming of age and beginning to gain some meaningful market share - 10 years earlier, when I started, it was no more than 5 per cent for all media indies - and be seen as a real alternative to the more traditional media departments of the Full Service agencies.

Media Independents had (I always thought unfairly) a reputation of being ‘pile it high and cheap’ bucket shops. We knew that the best way to claw our way out of that was to add a more strategic element to our offer. This is where Sue comes in. She was so fundamental in building our strategic planning framework using her sharp mind and very significant intellect.

Shrewd clients like Sir Peter Wood, founder of Direct Line, very quickly came to appreciate the difference Sue would make in their business results and outcomes. She never took the easy route - a creative idea with lots of bells ‘n’ whistles - but instead always looked for strategies that were underpinned by strong data points and proofs, not fluff.

Eventually, this evolved into our product (architected by Sue), called Real World Planning. It did what it said on the tin and worked in the ‘real world’. The rest of our history at TMBG is well documented, eventually becoming MediaCom and the UK’s largest agency and Campaign’s Agency of The Decade twice over.

Although it is never about one person and was down to a whole team of multi-talented and hard-working people, it is fair to say that Sue was key along the whole journey. She never stood still and always evolved her thinking to remain current and ahead of the game.

I had the privilege and pleasure of working with Sue for 30 years. I always appreciated her talent, straight talking and friendship that endures until this day. In one of my earliest conversations with Sue when calling out her name Unerman (pronounced by me like in ‘under’) she immediately corrected me and said Steve, my name is Sue Unerman, pronounced like in ‘unique’. I didn’t know it then but I certainly do now: Sue is truly unique!!

Karen Blacket OBE, former UK President of WPP

What can I say about Sue. One word - Legend.

I had the very good fortune of meeting Sue when I bumped into her in the kitchen of The Media Business as I started my new role, and then an even better good fortune to work directly with her on a new business pitch. From that moment on, Sue has been the biggest mentor, cheerleader, confidante and friend.

She is unbelievably wise, funny and thoughtful. I have had so many laugh out loud moments with Sue, tears shed and milestones conquered. She showed the Industry how media strategy was smart and a game changer for clients. As she leaves EssenceMediacom X, I am grateful for everything she has done for the business, the industry and me personally. I am just glad she’s not leaving me!

Nick Lawson, global CEO of EssenceMediacom

Sue is truly one of the media industry’s pioneers and when I think of her, I always think of her in that light.

I was her first hire at what was then known as The Media Business in the early 1990s and she honestly changed my life.

From reinventing media strategy to pitching for the biggest brands, to merging with MediaCom, she always shone in everything she did. Thanks to her, we became the UK’s number-one media agency in just two years and have stayed there ever since. One of the reasons I moved from planning to new business was because I knew I could never be as good as her!

She’s always been one step ahead of everyone, changing the world and the workplace with her many best-selling books, like The Glass Wall, and inspiring countless people along the way.

She’s one-of-a-kind, a genuinely original thinker, and an amazing friend and colleague.

Harjot Singh, global CSO of McCann and McCann Worldgroup

There is so much that can be said and should be said to celebrate and admire the remarkable career and extraordinary impact of our dear friend Sue.

Her journey has been nothing short of legendary. As chief transformation officer of Mediacom, she didn’t just transform the company, Sue has transformed the industry. Her deep and exceptional understanding of media dynamics, effectiveness, and consumer behaviour sets her apart unquestionably, but it is her progressive vision and captivating approach that truly makes Sue a trailblazer.

Sue’s books, her inimitable sense of style, and her insatiable curiosity have inspired me, and countless others. Sue doesn’t just advocate for honesty, originality, and inclusion, she embodies them. On a deeply personal note, I love and admire Sue, and her friendship continues to be a gift. Her loyalty is unwavering, her advice is always timely, thoughtful, and precise; and her kindness is limitless.

Sue’s presence and track record in the industry, and her work in promoting a more inclusive and equitable industry, have set a standard that we will all strive to uphold.

Kathryn Jacob OBE, CEO of Pearl And Dean

Everyone should have a Sue in their lives. Her heart and her intelligence make you thrive. We’ve known each other a long time and she has always been a source of advice and support to a wide range of people ; to help you develop ideas or solve problems or to offer a sounding board for those things that you need to express ( and which she keeps to herself).

There are countless people who have been able to benefit from all of her talents and we owe her so much.


LinkedIn iconx

Your Privacy

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.