We’re nearing the very end of 2020, a year that has challenged more so than any other. But where do we go from here? B&T turns to an industry sage, our Woman of the Year, to answer that.
Kath Blackham is the founder and chief executive of VERSA Agency and a board member of the Digital + Technology Collective (formerly known as AIMIA).
She’s also the recipient of three of the most coveted awards of the Women in Media Awards, including Woman of the Year and Executive Leader of the Year.
Shortly after Blackham took home the awards in November, we reached out to her to see what it all meant to her—in the context of the whirlwind of 2021, does an accolade take on a different meaning? Yes, she said, it does.
Furthermore, the VERSA founder and leader in ad-tech also revealed, among other things, what her hopes are for 2021 and what qualities of her industry she would change for the better.
It may have been a bit of a wait to hear from her, but we’re sure you’ll agree it was worth the time. So grab a ‘cuppa and settle in for a chat with Kath Blackham.
B&T: Kath, congratulations on winning Mentor, Executive Leader, and Woman of the Year at the 2020 Women in Media Awards. What do these acknowledgments mean to you?
KB: It means a huge amount, even more than it would have in previous years because this has been a really tough year—for every business owner—with uncertainty around Covid.
At VERSA we talk about how we can help people in their life’s work, not just in their day to day. My life’s work is using VERSA as a platform to move the needle on the things I’m most passionate about—mental health in the workplace, flexibility and gender diversity, and reaching the unreachable by using technology for good. My focus on that was challenged when I suddenly had to make sure I was still going to be in business at the end of the year.
I was just so proud to be standing there winning those awards not because I made the most profit or hit some other business target—but because I stuck by what I really believe in. I’m incredibly proud to be named Woman of the Year for something that is moving the needle on issues that are incredibly important to our industry.
These awards may be very focussed on me, but my people share in them because there’s a huge amount of ownership of what we do across the company. All these initiatives—the decision to go to a four-day week and a lot of our mental health initiatives—came from me, but I didn’t implement them, I didn’t make them a success on my own. It’s not a one person game.
Rolling out initiatives across a company like ours is a team effort. There really is a belief internally that we are doing the right thing, so it’s great to be recognised for it. We copped some criticism and nastiness when we first launched the four-day week—so it makes it all the sweeter when you are acknowledged for what you’ve achieved.
Do your achievements at this year’s Women in Media Awards take on a different meaning in the context of such a destabilising year as 2020?
When you are facing an economic downturn, the people around you—whether it’s your leadership team, advisors or mentors—tend to try and refocus you around profit, and rightly so. That meant I was under a lot pressure to make changes to what I believe in most—particularly around flexibility and being people-first rather than profit-first. Those kinds of beliefs and that belief structure are really tested when the finances of your business are tested.
What we have been going through with Covid since March definitely made you question yourself as a leader because you were constantly making decisions in what felt like quicksand every day—and you couldn’t be 100 per cent sure they were the right decisions.
For me, winning these awards was recognition for the decisions that I made—and continue to make. I’m proud to be recognised for sticking to my beliefs and staying really focused around people and all our initiatives around that, from the four-day week to gender diversity.
How will you leverage your recognition as a force for good?
That is the reason I do these awards. I really am on a mission to get my story out to the wider industry and the business community at large to show other leaders you can literally have it all. You can be people-first, you can look after people’s mental health, you can help people to work to live not live to work—and be successful.
Rightly or wrongly, I think the best way of drawing attention to that is to be recognised for doing it—as a leader other leaders can see winning these awards and ask: ‘What’s she doing to get them?’.
I’m in this business to use VERSA as a platform to make change across the industry. I love what we do, and we’re really good at it, but ultimately I want to walk away from this one day knowing I’ve actually changed things. I see VERSA as a platform and these awards strengthen that platform.
I certainly will be using these accolades to remind people time and time again of the success you can have with a people-first organisation. Poor mental health in the workplace is an epidemic in our industry.
Our industry can be better and we can work better and we can be kinder to our staff and still be really successful.
It will also help me shine a light on my purpose to use VERSA to show people there is a better way to use technology for good to reach the unreachable—to get through to people who are elderly, have low literacy, low dexterity, low education levels and many other issues that don’t allow them to use technology in the way other people do.
A lot of our work with government and not for profits is around getting to those people using conversational AI, so that will of course be a focus for us moving forward too.
What aspect of your industry, or your role, would you change for the better?
If I could just change one thing it would be how we tackle mental health in the workplace. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about the fact that in our industry in particular, we literally are killing people—maybe because of the kind of people we employ, maybe because of the demands we put on employees, probably a mix of both.
If I could change one thing it would be to destigmatise mental health in the workplace and allow employees to be able to have real conversations, freely and without prejudice or fear of consequences, with the leaders in their business about how they are feeling and coping with work.
And on the flip-side, what aspect or quality within your industry, or your role, will you keep hold of?
Creativity. What I love, love, love about our industry is we are not just creators in the work we do, but because of the people we are. We are able to think outside the box in everything we do. What I would hate for us to lose as an industry is that ability to think creatively, be creative and all the wonderful work that comes out because of that.
I see it every day in my team. I love the fact that creativity isn’t something that is owned by a designer or a creative—creativity comes out in every single person, whether they are a technologist or a project manager. It is something that as a wider industry we really own. We’re always challenging, thinking and rethinking and I love that.
What are your hopes and aspirations for 2021?
For me, 2021 is going to be all about our global footprint. We have had our US team up and running since March and we’ve just announced our JV in India. We will continue to seek out and strengthen those particular markets, while at the same time looking for opportunities in others.
My focus is to cement our position as the global leader in conversational AI and really shore up the company again after what was a tough 2020. I think it will be a two-speed approach—shoring up Australia while also strengthening our global markets and making sure we’re maintaining our position as the world’s leading conversational AI agency.
It’ll be all about building out that footprint through buying, building and joining our teams globally.
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