Australia’s “horrific” tall poppy syndrome is killing marketing; CMOs, agencies more “adversarial” than US, UK
There is a cultural cancer at the heart of Australian media and marketing that doesn't exist in other countries: An aggressive desire to cut people down to size that is slowly killing the industry, its people and innovation. Sherilyn Shackell, founder and CEO of The Marketing Academy, operating at the highest level in the UK and US markets, says Australia is loaded with talent but must accept there's a downside to the Australian way - and it needs fixing.
This week's Mi3 Audio Edition cuts quickly to how Australian CMOs, agencies and media compare to the US and UK markets - it's promising but not without harsh truth. Among the issues is the industry's enthusiasm to promote emerging talent with bigger titles but with little depth to their development. Listen to this one - it nails all that is well and troubling about the Australian market.
Heart of snarkiness
“I didn’t even know what tall poppy syndrome was when I first arrived in Australia – and it’s horrific.”
So says Sherilyn Shackell, CEO of The Marketing Academy, a not-for-profit that develops talent across media, marketing and advertising in Europe, the US and Australia in a bid to put marketing front and centre of the c-suite.
She says it’s time to fight the cultural big C.
"If you can’t focus on the things that people are absolutely brilliant at, and you’re just going to focus on what they’re crap at, that’s going to cause issues down the line. So, I was surprised by that when I arrived here."
Stop the rot
The Marketing Academy, whose Fellowship programme is developed in partnership with McKinsey, has been operating in Australia for five years, ten years in the UK and a year in the US. Peculiar to Australia, says Shackell, is the dog-eat-dog culture that creates fear, stress and anxiety and pushes rates of depression notably higher than other industries.
“I love Australia. The industry has phenomenal talent … both agency side and marketing side,” that compares well with the US and the UK, says Shackell. “But every country has its own cultural differences.”
Tall poppy syndrome, she says, infects other vital organs.
“If you look at what tall poppy syndrome is, it’s the desire to suppress the achievements of others, suppress their unique skills and capabilities. If you have an environment where those kinds of behaviours are going on, then you cannot be enabling your people to thrive,” says Shackell. “Because if you can’t focus on the things that people are absolutely brilliant at, and you’re just going to focus on what they’re crap at, that’s going to cause issues down the line. So, I was surprised by that when I arrived here.”
Negativity spreads throughout the industry corpus, she says, and is literally making people sick:
“First and foremost, it stops people from putting their head above the parapet, because they’re just too scared of being cut down at the knees - so that’s huge. That has an impact on how brave they are as people as well as marketers because if there’s any kind of fear, you cannot perform to the absolute best of your ability. It creates stress, it creates tension that is manifested not just around your business, but also into your partnerships, your suppliers and your agencies.
“So you’re inhibiting people from being brilliant and that tall poppy syndrome doesn’t exist in the UK. We love the underdog and therefore, we’re kind of hardwired to push people up. In the States, it’s applauded. So, you get completely different behaviours.”
Leaders: Show some leadership
Australia’s diminutive footprint may be to blame: CMOs are playing in a small market, with top marketing jobs fewer and further between than in the US and UK.
“That means if a CMO is holding any kind of fear that their CEO is going fire them, they may have less desire to push the boat out and stand behind something that is slightly risky,” says Shackell. “Being prepared to fight for the right thing is harder in a market where there’s not massive amounts of opportunity.”
The key to overcoming fear and creating a better culture therefore begins not just with the CMO’s relationship with the CEO, but with CEO themselves.
“It starts with the CEO,” says Shackell. “The CEO sets the tone and that is one of the reasons we invest so much in the CMO programme that we run for Fellows in Europe and the US.”
The aim is to put more marketers into boardrooms and change the culture from within.
“The Academy passionately believes that the marketing skill set – and all the skill set that sits around customers - should be bang centre of the boardroom,” says Shackell. “But CMOs, historically, have not often presented as credible candidates for a CEO role.”
However, she says a shift is underway.
“It really is beginning to change. Over 38 per cent of our Fellows have now moved into those broader business roles with more responsibility. They are bringing the marketing skill set into [those roles].”
Changing the dynamic is critical, says Shackell, because other than “being a bit more brave”, there is little a CMO can do without the CEO’s backing – and bravery in an increasingly risk averse culture increases the prospect of being sacked.
“If the CEO really doesn’t get it, if he really doesn’t understand the power of brand, really doesn’t understand the power of comms and innovation and product development and all of the things around marketing then they’re going to give that CMO a really hard time. That’s actually got to start to change.”
Falling foul of language
The disconnect between the “real” c-suite and the CMO “is mostly around language”, says Shackell. “So stop using marketing language in the boardroom”.
“Truly engage the CEO using hardcore commercial business metrics and [CMOs] will start to educate the CEO. This is being done – in Australia and everywhere – it just doesn’t happen as much as it should,” she suggests.
“It’s about the CMO putting themselves front and centre of the commercial realities of the business and talking the same language. That’s the kind of thing that we teach on the Fellowship.”
The four in ten Marketing Academy fellows that have become “CEOs, presidents, managing directors, chief commercial officers … have taken the marketing skill set into those roles, so their companies will fly,” says Shackell. “That is why so passionately believe that a CMO should be in those roles.”
But the Fellowship programme does not suit all marketers.
“Some CMOs, some global CMOs and really significant players, are so passionate about marketing they will never want to move out of it. That’s fine but that’s not what that program is for,” she says. “The program is designed all around board stewardship and getting the CMO front and centre.”
"Subconsciously, without really realising it, CMOs put an enormous amount of pressure onto their agencies, which then trickles down through agency employees. But agencies aren't doing themselves any favours. They want the business so they promise to over deliver, and that requires them to put pressure on their people."
Marketers hurting agencies
The tall poppy syndrome that threatens Australia’s marketers means that they can “subconsciously, without really realising it, put an enormous amount of pressure onto their agencies, which then trickles down through agency employees,” says Shackell.
But she suggests agencies could do more to help themselves.
“Agencies aren’t doing themselves any favours because they are not having enough honest conversations with CMOs - because they want the business. So they promise to over deliver, and that requires them to put pressure on their people. So it’s a two-way street here,” says Shackell.
"I witnessed relationships in the UK where you couldn’t tell the difference between who’s working for the agency and who’s working for the client. In Australia it is much more split. It is absolutely more adversarial."
Old devour their young
She believes the Australian client-agency relationship is “absolutely more adversarial” than overseas.
“There are some relationships I witnessed in the UK where you couldn’t tell the difference between who’s working for the agency and who’s working for the client. Even their language, let alone their behaviour, is: ‘We are one. We are in this together. We both need to thrive as a result of this relationship so let’s suffer the hardship together. Let’s share it and let’s build ourselves up,’” says Shackell.
“Here, it really is just more split. Then because you’ve got so much tension and anxiety and fear, it all gets percolated down,” she says. “It’s all of the younger emerging people in the industry that are suffering from that.”
"I do think it’s changing. Awareness is the first step and the MFA report was amazing. Awareness allows you the opportunity to choose whether or not you are going to change behaviour culturally as a business and personally from a leadership perspective. Because it all comes from culture and leadership. All of it.”
Diagnosis, then treatment
Shackell says the MFA’s 2018 study that confirmed disproportionate levels of stress and anxiety within Australia’s media, marketing and creative industries, underlines the impact of failing to address a negative culture, fractured client-agency relationships and a broken remuneration model. She believes there is “absolutely” a direct link.
“It’s cultural and it’s about leadership and relationships. Cleary, that is all driven by the economics - and the economics at the moment are just all flawed. Nobody has worked it out, so there is pressure everywhere. That is what is causing this overwhelming uncertainty, fear, stress and anxiety,” says Shackell. “It’s hideous and we can change it. We just need to improve our ability to lead.”
No market is immune to stress and mental health issues, but Shackell suggests it is “not as acute” in the UK and US. Those markets are “more collegiate, collaborative, there is more generosity of spirit. Literally, there’s just less fear, less tension, they are more in it together. I don’t think that has been the cultural norm here”.
However, she says the MFA should be applauded for taking the initiative and attempting to change the narrative.
“I do think it’s changing. Awareness is the first step and that report was amazing. Just becoming aware that [the problem] exists allows you the opportunity to choose whether or not you are going to change behaviour culturally as a business, personally from a leadership perspective,” says Shackell.
“Because it all comes from culture and leadership. All of it.”
"It’s the responsibility of a CEO of an agency to protect his or her people first. Their mindset will tell them that the client is first. Well, without their people, they haven’t got anything to give their client."
While leaders must drive cultural change, “every single person within an organisation has a responsibility to others, not just to themselves,” says Shackell.
But leaders, she reiterates, must lead by example.
“It’s the responsibility of a CEO of an agency to protect his or her people first. Their mindset will tell them that the client is first. Well, without their people, they haven’t got anything to give their client. So putting their own people first, I think, is important.”
That means being strong enough to take criticism.
“A youngster feeling safe enough to tell their next boss up that they’re feeling overwhelmed without fear of being fired is a start point. The same thing at the very top is the CEO having a conversation with their board to say, “We are putting such economic pressure on this business that something is going to crack if things don’t change”,” says Shackell. “Or the CMO saying to their CEO, “You need to stand behind me. You need to empower me. I have a solution. I believe we’ll grow the business forward. It may be a risk but I’m prepared for you to fire me if it goes wrong”.
"Leadership isn’t about the big I am. It’s the flip opposite. It’s how can I support my people, not how can I get more from my people. If we just develop the leadership capability holistically across the industry, we could transform it."
Fate amenable to change
Naysayers will undoubtedly argue it is easy for an academy boss to dispense advice, free from fear of being sacked, or losing client business.
But Shackell insists that without change, the industry will, eventually, wither away.
“You can’t ignore the stats. People are leaving the industry. People are getting overwhelmed, burnt out. We can’t do that to anybody. We shouldn’t be doing that to anybody in our lives, let alone the talent who work for us.”
But she believes that the tide has started to turn.
“The conversation has definitely started. In the last year or two years, I’ve seen some shift around this.”
Moreover, she believes Marketing Academy Fellows are starting to accelerate the shift.
“There are 150 of them now. They are in significant roles. They’re having a massive impact on the people around them already and it doesn’t take many in the market the size of Australia. It’s not going to take many to start to make a difference and then you’ll see the ripple effect.”
Shackell issues a rallying cry to CMOs and agency leaders to use their time at the top to improve industry’s collective health instead of transmitting the disease.
“If we develop the leadership capability and nothing else, things would transform because leadership is all about focusing on the others,” says Shackell.
“It isn’t about the big I am. It’s the flip opposite of that. It’s how can I support my people, not how can I get more from my people. If we just did that, holistically across the industry, we could transform it.”
Listen to Sherilyn Shackell’s views on the next generation of agency talent, how management can avoid making the same mistakes as their predecessors, and why social media requires much more careful handling via the Mi3 podcast. Conquer the dark side here.