In her first visit to the GCC since she was promoted to EMEA CEO of GroupM, Demet Ikiler discusses her (relatively) new role and being a woman in and of power.
What’s the purpose of your trip to Dubai?
I took the job on March 1, 2020, and on March 16, we went into lockdown; I was not able to travel at all. I first started to travel in September, and I went first to Germany and London; this second trip is to Dubai. We have more than 30 markets in our region, so it tells you something about priority.
My objective is to visit markets as much as I can because, without real physical contact, you can’t understand each market’s business. I’m fascinated by the diversity that I’m exposed to. The markets within my region, from South Africa to the Middle East to Russia to Denmark, cover an incredible spectrum for me to understand and to discover the synergies, the similarities, so that we built the business on a more regional basis.
I also believe this business is a local business. Being a global company makes us stronger, more sustainable, more competitive, and we’re able to provide better and more relevant services for our clients; but at the end of the day, the most important part of this structure is the people on the ground. The consumer insights, the media ownership structure, the habits, the ambitions in the market... There are a lot of things that we take into consideration and how you package and position yourself will be different because the needs will be different. One service will never fit all. Even if we have a common strategy, implementation will have to be tailored market by market.
In addition, there is a very interesting dynamism in this region. What is happening in Saudi Arabia, the really fast and deep changes, the momentum, the growth... We know that, as a group, we can contribute a lot. We have big markets in Western Europe, but the growth rates in this part of the world are really amazing and you see the recovery from COVID much more quickly. The positivity and the appetite for innovation, that’s all very exciting.
How did you manage the transition to this new role during a pandemic?
Because I’m from Turkey, doing a local job for many years in a smaller market, I was really aware of how big of a change it was for me to move to a regional role in our biggest and most diverse region. So I was, of course, super excited but also a little bit worried. But then again, when COVID happened, our priorities changed. The security of our people came first, and then the delivery for our clients. So, rather than me coming up with big changes or transformational actions, we focused on fixing the basics and being resilient. I then realized that this is what I had experienced throughout my almost three decades career in Turkey – being resilient. It had been like a big roller coaster, with natural disasters, coups, political instability, financial crisis... I felt like my ability to survive, to lead under ambiguity, uncertainty, and crisis, helped me to do the job, maybe in a better way.
What changes are you aiming to drive that come from your previous role?
We need to guide and inspire our markets, but we need to also let them run their own business. Rather than controlling, we move to a more empowering mindset.
Secondly, to be able to run a big, complex structure like GroupM, you need to get all the key stakeholders around one table and involve them in the decision-making process in a collaborative, open, transparent manner. This helps us to make decisions in a much faster way.
And thirdly, we launched new clusters so that we create synergies and opportunities based on common denominators. For example, we launched the CEE cluster, the sub-Sahara cluster, etc.
We found ways of running the complexity, first bringing all key decision-makers together, empowering the local markets, and then coming up with a new structure that will help us to coordinate and manage the region.
What do you think comes from you being a woman as well?
I believe we need to fight discrimination because women, especially, start the race from much behind and it’s not fair. In markets like Turkey or here, due to hundreds of years of conditioning, women are expected to be in a certain type of role and to deliver a certain way, and they act accordingly. That needs to change. We need to create role models, to actively promote and endorse women, and also to create circumstances for them to thrive and shine. And we need to do it in a more structured way, in terms of recruitment, of people development training, of promotion decision-making. We have to be corporately committed to making this happen, and this is what we do at GroupM. All the policies that we put in place as a group are a good demonstration of how we have endorsed diversity.
Also, as a woman, I really like to enjoy what I do, to work with big teams, and to make people feel that they belong. For example, as soon as we had to lock down, I invited all the country leads to a ‘purpose call,’ asking what we could do to help with Coronavirus relief within individual markets. Almost two years later, the purpose calls continue.
Where do you find the fuel for all of this?
It feels like I need to give back because I’ve been so lucky. I’m an ambassador, an activist, a mentor, and now I also have the power. So, I need to do more, to do better, to contribute more. I can use the power of the work, of our relationships, of our ecosystem to do better. And also, because I’ve been through this incredible journey, I want more people to experience the same.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d like to do this job for another five years, for sure. But I’m 51 years old - I’m not hiding my age. I feel like at the age of 55 or 56, I would be ready for a global role. I’d like to take another step to do a wider job and contribute to our purpose on a much wider scale.
I love that you are not afraid of showing that you’re ambitious, which is something that is often criticized in women.
Ambition has always been associated in a positive way with a man, but a woman... ugh. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of! Ambition is a great asset because it helps you to do better, to do more, and it also helps your ecosystem to go with you. I’m ambitious about sustainability, about diversity, about the world. Of course, as women, we are nurturing, embracing, and I’m not talking about letting those qualities go. But the synthesis of both makes us who we are, and that’s why we are precious the way we are.