Diana Degraa knows the ins and outs of communication agencies. She dived into the advertising world after a brief stint on the marketing side, where she discovered her love for the multi-faceted nature of the agency life, diversity of creative tasks, and the need to always think on one’s feet. Now the CEO of Initiative Media Germany, which she joined in September of 2020, Diana is shepherding the global communications agency in Germany through tremendous growth. She is also ensuring that her agency makes a significant contribution to the growth stories of their clients.
In this exclusive interview with CIO Views, Diana talks about Initiative, its core values, and how they are tapping into technology to reach the target audience and impact their behavior. She also discusses what attracted her to the agency life, personal goals, and future plans for Initiative. Diana also shares her views on success, challenges, and competition.
Every leader has a unique definition of success. Tell us about your thoughts about success and why do you feel that?
Main success factor for me personally is to evolve a company and to be trusted as THE leader of a serious and competitive partner in the industry and drive growth on both levels, the agency itself as well as our client´s growth to build success stories.
Successfully building an agency like Initiative is not just about being innovative or the first mover – it’s about being future-ready, and to help our clients be future-ready too. Success means being the most attractive media consultant in the market. And to get there we always go the extra mile and, importantly, put people – our clients, our teams, and the consumer – at the heart of everything we do, especially when media precision as well as data and technology is concerned.
It also really matters to set an example for a diverse agency and to ‘normalise’ female leadership. In fact, already more than half of our leadership is female so it’s become a bit of a moot point. However, it’s important to represent, and I’m a proud member of Mission Female (https://www.missionfemale.com/#mission) to support women in the industry.
Leading a company to success is not an easy road to take. What inspired you to take the step of faith? What led you to the media and advertising industry?
Stepped into comms agencies early on in career, so it’s a place I was able to get to know inside out. Always been interested in creating strategies for advertising, to make an impact on target audience behavior. When generating my first experiences in creative and digital agencies, I always was looking for proprietary insights to base communications strategies on. Been lucky to have been inspired by working across many clients and industries, and of course, by many people I have worked with. Media Agencies do generate these insights from numerous sources and fuse them to build the proper strategic basis. One key inspiration was Flo Adamski (now Omnicom´s Global CEO) who was a huge influence when he was the MD at OMD in Germany and really pushed insights and data-driven thinking.
Challenges make you stronger. What is your take on this? What were the roadblocks that taught you valuable lessons in your professional journey?
I did a stint on the client side in a marketing role – it taught me a lot about our craft but I also learnt that I just love the multi-faceted nature of agency life with its diversity of tasks and need to constantly think on your feet.
By having so many encounters with marketeers who desperately need solutions within given budgets, existing restrictions, it has always been a challenge to make the most out of it with media, creativity, and data. Always thinking new, finding ways of how to drive evolution and delivering smartness is my drive.
Tell us more about Initiative and its services.
Initiative as an agency, our teams, are perceived as one of the most positive media consulting partners in the market!
In fact, we are about to deliver more than just being innovative or the first mover or the cheapest provider of media performance. Our exceptional teams develop (culture-) data-based media strategies that lead us and our clients to unique and innovative solutions again and again.
In everything we do, we go the extra mile. In doing so, we always put people – our clients and their target groups – at the center of everything we do. Many agencies talk about transformation and technology, but this is not our end of the story. We are intensively working on the fact that when the last cookie is deleted, it’s no longer just about technology and data, but about real people. We are, for example, prepared for a cookie-less future, we early invested into our proprietary non-cookie data stack: Using our unique Acxiom database, which helps us to create a holistic ID for each person, we are able to deliver accurately onto all levels of insight generation and activation.
That said: our campaigns and ads reach out to consumers who we will be able to get converted.
Tell us about your contribution in redefining global media. How do you ensure a culture of integrity in the company?
Germany is Initiative’s second largest market, and as such we are central to contributing to our global agenda. Many tools and approaches that are developed globally are always stress-tested at the least, and often initiated by us as a market. And the same applies to all our markets. Our culture is as much about local excellence becoming global as the other way around. There is a clear global philosophy and data framework around media which is imbued in our Cultural Velocity approach to planning; however, there is room for local flavor and market needs within this. But at the end of the day what really matters is the trusted human relationships we have with our global colleagues who are there to help us succeed.
As a leading full-service global media agency, how do you stay abreast with the growing competition in the industry?
It is true that the market is getting ever faster and tighter, and we believe that our size gives us a key advantage: unlike the big networks, as a medium-sized network we are a lot nimbler and more independent to adapt. It’s a sweet spot between having the critical size of a network and the flexible structures of an independent. We call it the Goldilocks Zone.
We have also used the pandemic to pause and reflect and to build out some of our key strengths around people and technology, including bringing new talents into our leadership team. And it’s showing: in 2021, we managed to win 21 new clients and not lose a single one. But the real win lies with our people: our teams and clients.
This is down to having the most amazing teams and it is of course crucial to keep motivating them. Our retention rate of 93% (vs. 72% market average) and an internal NPS of 46.4 (vs. 30.3 market average) indicates that we are doing well, and we are confident that our mix of our trusted long-termers and new thinkers, especially our Youngsters, gives us the special sauce to succeed.
And by the way, our clients trust in us more than in any other agency: we generate the highest TRR (https://www.clientrelationship.com/) score of 8.4 against a market average of 7.3!
What is the significance of technology and innovation at Initiative?
Automation is the key to successfully deliver services real-time and make our business more efficient. We extraordinarily invest in automation and evolve our back-end processes as well as our reporting dashboards for our clients to state-of-the-art tools. Additionally, as already described above:
Many agencies talk about Transformation and Technology, but more often, it’s not really future proof: When the last cookie has vanished, it’s no longer just about tech and data, it’s about real people. In order to be ready for a cookie-less world, we invested in cookie-less data early on to better understand our clients with our unique Acxiom data set. This enables us to generate a through-the-line target ID that delivers precision targeting and insights by using a dataset based on actual people and households. With this we can reach potentials with relevant messages by adding second party Acxiom data to first party client data and enriching this with a variety of third-party sources such as B4P and Yougov. No cookies needed!
You have a demonstrated experience in leadership, tell us what is your vision for the company and how do you wish to influence a change?
Our aim is to become the most desirable media consulting partner in Germany and the place to work in the industry. Our employees are and our future talents should be proud to be part of our family. We want CMOs to think of Initiative as their go-to-agency. “Media Consulting” is to be the most vital and important part of our offer to the market and embraces our entire excellence.
We formulate the basis and prerequisite for this in our mission. We will radically drive the most disruptive innovative solutions in the media business that will create new market opportunities and value through our culture-based product consulted by exceptionally experienced and highly motivated teams that will sustainably lead to the highest levels of client satisfaction.
Our core values are derived from this and are as follows: Bravery, Relentlessness and Boldness.
- Brave to consult in a surprising and forward way and always thinking many steps ahead.
- Relentlessly aiming for the best-in-class solution and the most radical growth scenario.
- Bold – being rich of fresh ideas and deliver outstanding, unexpected performance.
Our new sustainable and innovative working model is a modern, progressive concept with many different building blocks. They don’t just relate to working in the office or mobile office in the future – they take into account multi-layered aspects of how we will work together in the future. The focus is on flexibility and a hybrid working environment – with the right balance for all of us, the teams, and our customers. Core working hours and compulsory presence no longer exist. Instead, overtime is compensated. In this way, we offer our employees maximum flexibility for individual work models. Always with the aim of achieving a positive balance between job, family, and physical and mental health. Our Nju (New) Work concept is rounded off by an innovative spatial concept for an office as a place of encounter and togetherness.
Tell us about the growth of Initiative during the ongoing pandemic. How has it impacted daily business operations?
We had a really strong performance during the pandemic and have used any temporary lulls to put focus on the things we wanted to develop. Fortunately, business bounced back relatively quickly, and we are stronger than before the pandemic – with new talents and a healthy and growing client base.
What are your responsibilities as the CEO of Initiative? Walk us through your regular day at work. Also, define yourself in one word.
A typical day mainly involves speaking with a lot of people. It’s important to be at the heart of the business to roll up my sleeves and work with everyone. Only this way I can really listen to what’s going on and act on it.
I am always longing for optimization, efficiency, and effectiveness. Supported by people who are success hungry and make things happen – always with the right dose of fun and happiness.
I see myself leading the entire team purposefully and by challenging and encouraging, combined with a decent portion of humanity and empathy. I´m here to help so that talents can grow and develop as well as our clients should with our contribution.
What has been the best recognition that Initiative received that made you proud as a leader?
As already mentioned, we are the customers’ favorite. This is shown by the bare figures: With a TRR (The Referral Rating) value of 8.4 for 2021, we are at the top of the industry in terms of customer satisfaction (vs. reference value 7.3). Customers stay with us for an average of 6.4 years. Without the numerous new customers of the last 2 years, this would achieve 7.7 years.
And internally, we have a very low staff fluctuation rate. This makes me proud and satisfied because it shows that we are doing well with our team. We take care of our most important asset our employees, we encourage them, point out developments and give them creative freedom. This is reflected in the pronounced loyalty of our employees.
Furthermore, we as an agency group do not make any distinction between genders, skin colors or orientations. For us, DE&I is not an imposed goal, but a strength and attitude that we live sustainably both internally and externally. Our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan has been in place since years, with regular training sessions, workshops and real actions.
How do you maintain a balance in your personal and professional life? How do you keep your employees and yourself, motivated?
The key to it all is really finding joy and satisfaction in what I do. Togetherness with the teams and clients also play an important role. And, never stand still, always look at something to evolve!
What are your plans for the future of Initiative? Also tell us about your personal goals as a business leader. What is your message to aspiring business leaders?
My plan is to further grow and make the agency even more successful than before. Climbing the RECMA rank is one measurable goal.
When I look back later, I would like to recognize that I pretty much wrote a noticeable success story that contains additional recognition for the Initiative brand in the market as well as great business cases that won awards locally and globally.
After we setup the ultimate competitive structure and brought our product offer to life last year, we will concentrate on winning business with full product availability and consulting capabilities, thus creating outstanding business cases in 2022 and the following years.
For me personally, all of the above is satisfying. But I also would like to suffer from the flexibility of our working model and unfold my power for the business when I can do best. I also would like to find and spend enough time to see my little one grow up and experience our great world without the current pandemic.
Successfully leading an agency that demands constant churning of great ideas is no mean feat, but Diana does that without missing a beat. It is because she knows what is best for her agency, team, and clients. And all three immensely benefit from her clear and well-planned creative strategies.