Power Women: Nicole Sheffield

Power Women: Nicole Sheffield

The Australian media landscape was forged by dynastic patriarchies. The Packers, the Murdochs, the Stokes; legacies which continue to colour the culture of broadcast today.

The world of advertising, too, has long been dictated by powerful men. Women have always been part of their operations at mid-level, but the proportion of females in senior or executive positions is still alarmingly low.

According to the Communications Council, female leaders are still a novelty in this industry. Just over a quarter of management roles are held by women, and almost none of these roles are top-level directorial positions. How many female CEOs spring to mind? How many female ECDs, or even CDs for that matter?  Gender diversity at senior level is seriously lacking.

But the challenges in getting to the top are by no means insurmountable.

Over the next week we'll be bringing you the stories of nine celebrated female directors in their fields. Nicole Sheffield, Beverley McGarvey, Leigh Sales, Karen Stocks, Kieran Moore, Deborah Thomas, Katie Rigg-Smith, Julianne Schultz and Anouk Darling share fascinating and intimate insights into the hurdles, ‘ah-ha!’ moments, and lucky breaks which have defined their careers.

In writing this feature we were intrigued to find out whether it takes a particular sort of woman to transcend Adland’s glass ceiling. And while there are some disparate personalities, there are also strong commonalities.

Almost all these heads of industry showcase an eagerness to throw themselves into jobs they fear in order to master things they don’t understand.

Many of these women also noted that they had planned to study law – or would have done so had they not been seduced by media. Perhaps this shows they sport superior powers of negotiation, logical thinking, or fine attention to detail.

The majority of them also cite the importance of directness and authenticity in dealing with powerful men, and the advantages of finding mentors and advocates within their organisations willing to fight for them.

Almost every one of these power brokers lauds a supportive life partner who takes more than their fair share of home duties, thereby enabling them to work as hard as they need to.

For some of the following women, there is zero work/life balance. For others, making time for leisure and family is an integral part of being able to perform professionally.

We were particularly intrigued by a quote from Kieran Moore who said she’d learnt to “let go of exhaustion as a status symbol”. Being the best at what you do should never mean you need to kill yourself in the process, or be perceived to be killing yourself.

These nine women are by no means the only superstars, and we salute all those we haven’t had a chance to include in this feature, but this is a start. Their stories will surprise and inspire.


Nicole Sheffield’s journey to success is worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. As the woman who commands the direction of prestigious luxury brands like Vogue, GQ and The Sunday Magazine, you’d suspect her to be a Prada-wearing devil, but this mother-of-four is as far from pretence as Havaianas are Louboutins.

Sheffield is a salt-of-the-earth hard worker, the only daughter of Polish and Slovenian immigrants who arrived Down Under in the 1960s. Her mother and father met working in a small arms factory in Lithgow and instilled in their three children a strong work ethic and a conviction that “no opportunity was beyond our grasp”.

“They had very little and reminded us daily about the hardships they persevered to start a life in this great country. They had come from remote farmlands in communist countries and were now owning their own home and living in Australia. If they could do that, we could do anything.”

Sheffield spent her youth bossing her two brothers around and speaking on behalf of her parents who struggled with English. “I guess that made for a good background in being bossy and communicating all the time!” she says.

She started out practicing law. “I was rubbish at it. Couldn’t advise to save my life,” she remembers. So she took a major pay cut and went to Telstra where she worked in customer service. On her 24th birthday she burst into tears, wondering why, after five years of study, she was answering phones. “It turned out to be one of my career-defining moments. It taught me the only real thing that matters is your customer, how they feel, experience, use you, your product.”

Five years later she did a stint at Tias eCommerce, then joined PMP Communications as manager of Pacific Online – the online division of Pacific Magazines. Following the sale of Pac Mags to Seven, Sheffield was promoted to the role of group publisher of lifestyle and youth titles, launching the perpetually robust weekly, Famous, and Total Girl.

Then came the move to TV, as general manager of Foxtel’s The Lifestyle Channel and LifeStyle Food. “Another decision which defied logic,” she says. “The magazine business was substantially bigger than STV but I made the move because I knew I had to learn about video. That’s where the world was heading and it was the gap in media I didn’t understand.”

While magazines – or better magazine brands – are again her remit now, she holds a particular affinity for TV. “I still pine for it,” she explains. “TV is so overwhelming and vibrant and visual and understood. We created great channels, greater brands and fabulous productions. It also meant I met a fantastic mentor and leader by the name of Kim Williams.”

But TV’s macho culture was a big eye-opener. “It took a year before a production company CEO would return my call at Lifestyle and I had a cheque book,” she remembers. But she took the bull by the horns and didn’t give up until she was recognised and respected by her male counterparts.

Her secret for dealing with powerful men is the same for dealing with powerful women: “I’m direct and straight to the point,” she says. “I state my case without thinking about it, not sure why, maybe it’s because of my personality – being a Leo growing up in a house full of Eastern European men.”

"I'm direct and straight to the point. I state my case without thinking about it… maybe it's because of my personality – being a Leo growing up in a house full of Eastern European men"

As a mother-of-four, she’s battled many a roadblock working in the media, with its unrelenting demands on her time. Her “brilliant” husband, who cleans, irons and cooks far better than she, continues to alleviate the pressure by ensuring they share the home load.

But brilliant husbands are not the solution. According to Sheffield, reducing the cost of childcare is key to solving this problem for women Australia-wide: “I worked for five years when having my children to keep my career alive, with minimal financial gain,” she says. “If the cost of childcare was tax deductible, it would be the most effective way to stem the continuing and alarmingly high departure from the workforce of highly skilled women in their 30s and 40s.

“Women are creative and think broadly. They are also very in touch with what consumers want. They are passionate, creative, and organised. Australia is way behind the rest of the world but we make progress every day.”

Her motto is “embrace change and adapt quickly,” and, as CEO of a magazine business, she has the right attitude. “We have to stop thinking magazines equal paper and ink. They’re fantastic brands that connect with her and fuel her passions,” she insists.

As print circulation declines and online subscriptions rise, Sheffield is determined to mobilise the medium to resonate with connected consumers. “We need to be mobile optimised. Some of our sites now have 50% visitation via mobile and this will grow,” she says. “The relationship has moved from inspiring and informing to actually driving the purchase decision, sharing it with friends and enabling answers.

“We get the business model right, we have a strong and vibrant future.”

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