The Marketing Society's Gemma Greaves bridges divide between clients and agencies

Gemma Greaves, The Marketing Society's global managing director, is on a mission to help the industry overcome brand rivalries and the 'whole client/agency thing'.

It has been a whirlwind couple of years for The Marketing Society’s global managing director Gemma Greaves. Not only has she overseen the first stages of an ambitious global expansion programme of the organisation, she became the first female president in the 87 year history of dining group The Solus Club. And ten months ago, she had her first child.

A drive to find the right environment in which to thrive took Greaves through an interesting series of jobs in the early stages of her career. While studying for a business degree at Brunel University, she interned at IBM and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – and it was at the FCO that she came to a realisation.

"I supported the information department – we made documentaries that went overseas," she explains. "We were spending a lot of money on footage, on copyright. I thought: this is an amazing platform for the artists involved, we’re not making a profit –I don’t see why we’re paying for this. So they said: ‘Well, if you think you can do better, then go for it.’ So I did." 

Given control of the entire project, Greaves saved the FCO hundreds of thousands of pounds. "I realised it’s all about relationships," she says. "If you make big asks, you’re brave and are prepared to be a bit uncomfortable, great stuff can happen."

Finding love

Greaves then took a commercial role at trade magazine British Baker – where she met her husband, Andy. It gave her the opportunity to further develop her approach. Her remit included running the Baking Industry Awards, for which she came up with initiatives involving commercial partners that went beyond traditional awards sponsorship. "It was where I learned about rapport and building partnerships – it was a very traditional organisation and industry, and they hadn’t previously been open to that," she says.

After a spell at Creative Review, Greaves moved to the Design Business Association, where she says she "fell in love with membership". Then there was a brief stint in the agency world, at Brandhouse, before joining The Marketing Society in 2006 as its first membership and marketing manager. 

"It was a very different place back then," Greaves says of the network of 3,000 senior marketers and agency executives. "It was a brilliant place with a real legacy, but quite traditional - not as representative of the great diversity we have in our industry."

A change of pace 

Greaves, the first major hire by chief executive Hugh Burkitt, immediately set about putting membership at the heart of the body: "We had brilliant events but we would have, say, 200 people coming and only 20% would be members – so there was no real sense of community." 

To rectify this, they set about recruiting people below marketing director level, created a corporate member scheme and, more recently, made the decision to become a global organisation. The plan is to have ten hubs operating by 2020.

"A true partnership is when there’s a real win for both people"

"There’s so much talent in our network, so much knowledge and opportunity to share best practice and marketing excellence that if you can do that on a global basis, it becomes so powerful," Greaves says.

Bridging divides

Despite frictions that can sometimes exist, Greaves insists the "whole client/agency thing" doesn’t rear its head in the body. "I did an all-client event recently and they wanted insight  into how to create better relationships with their agencies," she says. "Because we know all sides, we can help with the challenges that emerge between the sectors."

In fact, it’s all about bridging divides – rivalries, even – for mutual gain. "You don’t sit there and tell people your business strategy, but you tell them what you’re going through as a marketer and there might be things you can glean from each other," Greaves explains. "I’ve had Procter & Gamble and Unilever in a room, Sony and Samsung in a room. We’re all friends and it works brilliantly."

The one issue over which she betrays a hint of anxiety is recruitment: "We do have a challenge to attract the best graduates and we need to think about ways to position marketing to be able to do that. It’s not just about advertising and it’s important we showcase all the brilliant things you can do in this career."

Her advice to fresh-faced marketers? "Build a support network. Surround yourself with people whose strengths complement yours. Know what your weaknesses are but don’t worry so much about them. The people around you make you who you are and create opportunities you didn’t know existed," she says.

"A true partnership is when there’s a real win for both people. That’s what I’ve pretty much based my whole career on."

The Marketing Society goes global

The Marketing Society has transformed into a global organisation. Greaves says the move was made after a growing number of non-UK-based members indicated that their cities lacked the kind of marketing leadership networks they wanted.

Its first foray overseas was to Hong Kong in 2014, followed by Singapore a year later and Dubai in May this year. 

As is the case with most Marketing Society activities, a number of senior marketers and agency executives are happy to give up their time to make the expansion a success. 

Tricia Weener, head of marketing, business and investment banking, at HSBC Asia, is chairing the body across Asia. The Hong Kong branch is chaired by Guy Parsonage, partner at PwC’s The ExperienceCenter. His committee includes Adam O’Conor, Ogilvy Group Hong Kong chief executive, and Andrew Harrison, Asia-Pacific chief operating officer at Brand Union. 

In Singapore, Erica Kerner, vice-president of marketing and communications for Asia-Pacific at Tiffany & Co, is chair. Her counterpart in Dubai is Asad Rehman, director of media for north Africa and Middle East at Unilever.

The expansion is set to continue – while dates have yet to be finalised, plans are in place to open branches in New York and New Delhi.

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