Initiative Australia CEO Melissa Fein shares her leadership values after making Mediaweek’s Hot List

Melissa Fein - Initiative Australia CEO

• Fein also spoke about the agency thriving through the pandemic and outlook for the year ahead

Mediaweek introduced its inaugural Hot List for Agencies, penned by contributing editor Greg Graham, last week.


Initiative Australia was listed on the ‘Sizzling HOT’ agencies making waves in the industry with CEO Melissa Fein at the helm.


Fein spoke to Mediaweek about leading her agency by example, thriving through the pandemic, and making the Hot List.


Fein joined Initiative Australia in 2017. The agency is part of IPG Mediabrands and has a global footprint in over 90 markets, three of which are in Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth – and employ approximately 185 local employees.


Initiative Australia has evolved their product and positioning with great success. The CEO noted that they were named by the Research Company Evaluating the Media Agencies (RECMA) as the fastest-growing agency globally over the past three years.


In her role, Fein oversees the entire business, from commercials and media partner relationships to senior client stakeholder relationships and staff happiness.


Fein on her leadership style, her team, and the Initiative Australia culture


As a leader, she shares an exceptionally close relationship with her senior leadership team, built on 100% transparency and candour in their communication. She noted that they, as a team, are not shy when it comes to having tough conversations.


“We aren’t afraid to have tough conversations with each other and understand that is a key component of holding each other accountable and driving the agency into the success that we have had.


“You can’t transform an agency alone and building the best team of leaders in the market has been the thing I’m most proud of in my experience at Initiative,” she added.


Fein noted that she is a big believer in seeking out unique and dynamic talent at all levels of the agency and in unconventional ways.


She explained: “We don’t find people that fit the job description, rather people that fit the agency culture, and the rest can be taught. This allows me to bring an ‘Avengers-like’ skill set across the agency.


“The ‘Initiative citizen’ has spirit, passion, and competitive energy. That’s how I like to show up every day, ensuring I lead by example. 


“Every internal ‘initiative’ we announce is inspired by our people. They are my biggest teachers and inspiration, and it’s how my decisions are made,” noting that it is made on their needs rather than seeking external inspiration.


Initiative Australia has been recognised with accolades for its people, talent, and culture. Fein explained that for the agency, it comes down to the people.


“Our people programs aren’t created in a vacuous boardroom somewhere; they’re built by the people, for the people, around the things that they genuinely care about. From there, the business supports and empowers through investment and resources to bring them to life. We hand over the keys and watch the magic happen.”

Initiative Australia 

The importance of getting attention, new clients and thriving amid the pandemic


Graham noted in his Hot List that Initiative Australia has been successful at driving innovative media solutions that embrace culture and get people’s attention.


Fein said that making every single connection command attention in ad-funded media is critical.


“Gone are the days where investment clout equals growth. You now have to be ruthlessly relevant to create cultural clout. This philosophy is the backbone of our agency and has contributed to significant growth for our clients,” she added.


Initiative Australia’s recent client wins Kleenheat and Australian Unity. However, Fein kept mum on their most recent wins and noted: “I can share that we have maintained our fast-paced momentum from the past few years in 2022 and will be announcing several new wins in the near future.”


The agency, fortunately, thrived during the pandemic. Fein noted that many of their existing clients – Amazon, LEGO, Officeworks, Bunnings, Pernod – had even grown their business. They even added brands such as IAG, Afterpay, and Amazon Flex to the roster.


In terms of a new working dynamic resulting from the pandemic, the CEO shared that they introduced initiatives to support employees as they navigated the different working landscape, such as FLEX100, which allows every Initiative employee a personalised flexibility program.


“We also launched the Iso-Internship, which used the pandemic as an opportunity to broaden our recruitment of interns nationally and focus on giving people in rural areas the opportunity to get involved,” she added.


Making the Hot List, the future of the industry and the year ahead for Initiative Australia


Fein proudly called Initiative making Sizzling Hot List “something special”.


“We’ve worked extremely hard and are extremely proud of our momentum and excited to defend this newly adorned crown. Also, I love seeing our name alongside the other shops on this list.


“These are agencies we not only deeply respect but have exceptionally close working relationships with, so it’s great to see them get the recognition they also deserve,” she added, referring to fellow Sizzling Hot List agency The Monkeys.


The CEO noted that they are doing many things at the agency that makes them Sizzling Hot but noted that: “Naturally, it all starts with people. We’ve unapologetically accumulated the country’s deepest bench of brilliant thinkers across all levels and disciplines.”


Fein explained that they work to empower their people with the proper support and autonomy to not only repeat by reimagining great media thinking.


“We believe our industry can be guilty of being vanilla, too data-centric and unimaginative, and our philosophy has always been to bring creativity and swagger back to media,” she added.


Looking toward the industry’s future, particularly those interested in pursuing a career in media agencies, Fein said: “This industry is a vibrant, creative, and diverse place where you can do so much more than simply earn a living.


“You can genuinely impact the world in a positive way, help to shape culture and build relationships with like-minded people that last a lifetime.


“This is what we instil in the people at Initiative every day and is a big part of why we have been so successful in recent years. In fact, if you’d like to join the industry, we would love you to start your journey with us, so feel free to slide into my DM’s on LinkedIn,” she added.


In the year ahead, Fein said their vision is to solidify Initiative Australia as the best media agency globally, “the place where people come to create the best work of the careers and progress faster than ever before,” she added.


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