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Marketing Society's new chief ready to disrupt

21 Feb 2017  |  Ellen Hammett 
Marketing Society's new chief ready to disrupt

Disruptive, provocative and uncomfortable: Gemma Greaves talks to Ellen Hammett about her plans to shake things up

In times of uncertainty, Gemma Greaves, the new chief executive of The Marketing Society (not CEO, because she "hates acronyms"), wants people to be brave, be bold and do things differently.

Six weeks into her new role and she has her sights set on making the organisation the "leading global hub of senior marketeers" with offices in 10 major cities by 2020.

Greaves tells me she's ready to disrupt the status quo.

"It feels very grown up and scary," she says.

"I am now leading a very well-respected organisation in quite a public way...but I'm so ready for it and the opportunity is huge to do things a little bit differently, change things up, be a bit more disruptive, a bit more provocative and uncomfortable, and that's really exciting."

Since Greaves first joined The Marketing Society as membership and marketing manager in 2006, she says the almost-60-year-old organisation has undergone "exponential change" that has seen it evolve from an "out-of-date body that wasn't moving with the times" to one that has become a diverse and relevant business with almost 3,000 members - including Sir Martin Sorrell, Lord David Puttnam, Amanda Mackenzie, Carolyn McCall and Gavin Patterson.

Back then, Greaves says, "the industry was quite male-dominated, quite ploddy and slow compared to now where the pace of change is so rapid.

"Our membership is completely diverse in terms of gender split; that wasn't the case a few years ago, so we've had exponential change in The Marketing Society as our industry has moved forward."

I have never thought about myself as a woman in a male-dominated environment"

Greaves became global managing director of the Society in 2012. Three years on, she was named the first female president of The Solus Club in its 90-year history.

Now, at the helm of The Marketing Society, she is its first female chief executive and in charge of a profitable business with a £3 million turnover. At a time when women hold just a sixth of senior roles at top UK companies, this feels like a positive move for an industry that has been blighted by cases of sexism over the last year.

But for Greaves, this isn't about gender - and she says she's never felt "held back as a woman" during her career.

"I have never thought about myself as a woman in a male-dominated environment; I've just thought of myself as 'I'm ambitious, I'm going to achieve, I'm going to go for it'."

"I'm proud of being a woman, it plays to my strengths. But this is bigger than just gender; we need to look at being more inclusive across the board because there's so much evidence that a diverse workforce is a much more successful one."

As well as looking to double its number of offices over the next three years - the Society currently has hubs in England, Scotland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai - Greaves, who leads a team of 20 (soon to be 24) is on a mission to attract talent into the marketing industry.

One of the biggest challenges, she says, is bringing in graduates and experts in niche disciplines such as data, code and hacking, to more traditional brands - away from the lure of the big tech giants and shiny start-ups.

"Because of the pace of change, the technology and the start-up community become very attractive to graduates coming out of university," she says.

"We need to work harder to demonstrate that marketing is an incredible destination for your career and show that it's not just about processes and structure...For me, marketing is the best career you can have because every day is different, you learn every day, and I'm not sure we're showcasing that enough."

Be nice, be humble, be curious and don't believe your own hype."

Greaves is old school in the sense that she likes a good old-fashioned lunch and doing things in person rather than relying on email and texts.

While studying for a business degree at Brunel University, Greaves did an internship at IBM - and it was there, as email was coming to the fore, that she first began to notice the impact it was having on the way people communicated with one another.

In her dissertation, 'Email: friend or foe?', she argued that while email is a powerful tool for efficiency, it can too often break down traditional forms of communication - which for Greaves, 16 years since she graduated, are still the most important.

That doesn't mean she's reluctant to move with the times, though. Greaves wants to be right at the forefront of change.

"One of the challenges I've always had at the Society is I like to move at a crazy pace and like to do things yesterday, but you have to be respectful and move at the pace that the members are ready for - and that society and technology are ready for.

"Every time we embrace a new innovation, a new technology, a new platform, the next one is there. We're living in this digital age where you have to view everything through a digital lens and if you don't then you'll become a dinosaur."

On the subject of change, Greaves says she isn't worried about the potential impact Brexit could have on the media and marketing industries. Instead, this is an opportunity to "rally together, collaborate and be brave".

"Whenever I see something that might be seen as a constraint, I look at the opportunity. Obviously it's not ideal, but it's happened and we can either dwell in that or ask how we can move on and be stronger together."

The ambitions for growth are certainly being realised, with The Marketing Society on track to open offices in New York and New Delhi this year and a further three planned by 2020.

In brief

Biggest career achievement: "Becoming chief executive of The Marketing Society."

Biggest failure: "Following the money" for a job she knew was wrong.

Pet hate: "Marketing jargon. Particularly acronyms."

Advice she'd give her younger self: "Be nice, be humble, be curious and don't believe your own hype."

Favourite things outside of work: "Good wine, good food, good people and my son."

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TahirChaudhry, CEO, myVillage, Inc on 28 Feb 2017
“Congratulation, look forward to great things to come.Gemma.”