Ad Spotlight: Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer, EssenceMediacomX

  • 6 minutes read
  • Global
  • 29/03/2023

Welcome to the Ad Spotlight series where we hear from a different guest from the industry each month to get an insight into the landscape of advertising as well as their own personal experiences.

Our guest this month is Sue Unerman. Throughout her career, Sue has been involved in media buying, driving strategic planning, and leading transformation across multiple agencies and clients. She has also co-authored two best-selling books with a focus on diversity; ‘Belonging’, ‘The Glass Wall’, and ‘Tell the Truth’ which is about authenticity in marketing.

Sue is a leading voice on transformation, equality, and diversity in the workplace so who better to ask about exactly that.


Q: Why did you choose a career in media?

A: I didn’t actively choose a career in media.  I was working in a cake shop (baking Victoria sponges, my signature dish) when I applied for a short-term role until my law conversion course was due to start. The role meant that I could afford to leave home, and so I stayed in media buying. It was only when I moved from TV buying into planning that things clicked for me as I am fascinated by audience motivations and how to connect people and brands. This continues to change at a radical speed and I enjoy those challenges.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry right now?

Heritage practices. Times have changed, and people in the industry have already made those changes in their own lives. They're not watching linear TV in the same way. We can't just carry on with the old systems. That means planning, business models, and even an award system skewed to heritage ways of doing things.

The industry needs to build the intersection of media, tech, creative, and data to put the audience first.

Sum up the future of advertising in three words…

A: People first communications.

Every business must put their people first, rather than the bottom line – creating a place where everybody can belong and contribute.

And we need a people-first approach to communications. Plans that are a 10% tweak on last year’s won’t fly. Write from a zero-sum basis. Go out and listen to people in the “real world” to find answers to brand questions that start with people.

What is your biggest career highlight?

A: Building MediaCom from a small buying shop to the biggest UK agency and then most recently the day I started my new job. It was the day Essence and Mediacom came together, and we created the new UK agency EMX, and it was founders' day on January 31st. Being there on the ground floor as the companies came together as a new start up was a huge high.

It’s been a long time since I stopped making cakes and started out in the industry. It’s exciting to continue to learn so much from new people.

Q: Your favourite (TV) advert?

A: I'm not going to pick a TV advert, but instead picking two examples of broader comms. The Sheba Hope Reef campaign planted a new reef in Australia to spell ‘Hope’. The brand is all about great fish. And you can’t have great fish without great oceans.

And Dulux brought back Changing Rooms (and Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen’s leather trousers), driving a painting and redecorating moment through people-first insight.


Shifting from fish and Lawrence, let’s dive into the world of diversity and equality...

Q: The lack of diversity and equality in business has been clear for a while now. Why is it taking so long to see real change?

A: Over £6 billion a year is spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion. But 1 in 3 workers in the UK don’t feel like they belong and I’m invited to speak at events where the same issues come up as in 2016.

Diversity fatigue is one issue. The people DEI initiatives are meant to help are tired of yet another away day or pride month where lots gets said but they don’t see change in the culture. Meanwhile, men in a position of seniority are tired of getting the finger pointed at them and frightened of doing or saying the wrong thing.

Plus, post-lockdown ways of working may have made life more flexible for some. But, for a lot of women, it has meant taking on the burden of home and work life with no let up.

Everyone needs to take responsibility for change. We need to swap a culture of accusing each other of making a mistake, with one where we work together to stand up for each other and assume the best intentions. Equity and equality are good for everyone.

Q: How can men support women in achieving true equality in the workplace?

A: Don’t wait until you have a daughter to be an ally. When giving talks, I sometimes hear CIS men say gender equality is important to them now “because I’ve got a daughter”. Think of your sister. Your friend. Your mum. The women you know.

One person’s banter is another’s poisonous putdown. When you hear inappropriate banter, don’t just sit back. We won’t progress if people choose to walk away. Be more than an ally. As Adrienne C Smith said, be an accomplice. Be that person that can be relied upon to support others.

Q: What strategies can women deploy to overcome industry inequality?

A: Find your team. Aka, your personal board that support and advise you. It’s made up of...

  • An ally (as discussed above).
  • A sponsor: Someone more senior than you in the organisation who will put you forward for opportunities.
  • A wing person: They'll have your back and give you a push when you’re feeling nervous or negative.
  • A buddy: That person who, when it’s a bad day, you can go to and vent.
  • A (spiky) mentor: They shouldn’t make you feel comfortable. This is someone outside the organisation who will challenge you to come out of your comfort zone.

Use this foundation to be clear about how your manager or employee can help you and what you want from them.

Q: Finally, what role does media and advertising have in encouraging equality for women?

A: When I was growing up, you were a bad housewife or mother if you didn’t buy product X to create the “perfect family”. There are rules stopping that kind of advertisement nowadays. And more and more brands and businesses are using their own purpose to do good.

Look at Ariel’s Share the Load campaign we were involved with in India. It promoted the idea that men can do the washing too, going beyond ads to include instructions on calendars for who’s turn it was to help out and updating comic books to reflect gender equality.

Advertisements that try to do social good start with putting people first. Another brilliant example was Mibanco’s Emancipation Loan campaign in Peru. They broke national banking policy to bypass a law where women needed their husband’s signature to get a loan. Removing the need for a second signature and increasing financial liberty. That kind of stuff helps change the world.