Katie McGrath is usually a behind the scenes player in one of Australia’s most well-known media companies, but for now she’s swapped out roles on the brink of launching her first book.
Chief People & Culture Officer at Seven West Media, McGrath’s book ‘Deadly Earth’ is the true story of her parents’ deaths (in their thirties) as a result of exposure to radioactive waste as well as what happened to her and her siblings after becoming an orphan at age four.
Seven’s Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer James Warburton described the book as “a harrowing read, but more than ever shows us the importance of being vulnerable, supporting our friends and colleagues, listening when they share their troubles and urging them to seek help.”
McGrath’s first three years of life were idyllic (pictured above, she’s the baby), surrounded by love and family in the affluent Sydney Harbourside suburb of Hunters Hill. Her parents worked hard to create a beautiful home for their young children, unaware that deadly radioactive waste was buried beneath the garden and foundations — a seeping malice which would destroy many lives.
Both her parents died mysteriously from cancer in quick succession, leaving behind four young orphans. The grieving children were forced into a hostile foster home where they had to learn to survive. Katie’s only escape became an imaginary white brick house with no doors or windows where she cocooned herself to escape the horrors of her young life.
Years later, after she has forged a successful life for herself with two daughters and a high-flying corporate career, McGrath’s world was once again turned upside down. She discovered suspicious details surrounding her parents’ deaths – and the deaths of others who lived on the very same idyllic street – and she vowed to uncover the truth at all costs. McGrath embarked on a deeply personal investigation that exposed the devastating impacts of systematic government failures at every level, on a young family just beginning their life together.
McGrath told B&T “having to go back and dig all the details up and get the dates and the people and all that kind of stuff” was traumatic. To cope with the process, she had six months of psychotherapy while she was writing the book.
Her psychotherapist she taught her techniques to handle re-living the trauma. “I started having flashbacks at night . . . it was really dangerous. But, you know, look, in the end it was all worth it. My brother says I did it to try and create the story of my life because I just never had the story of my parents or anything about them. He says I wrote this book to try and fill in all the missing bits of our life.
“I thought I was doing it to give my parents a voice because theirs were taken away from them when they’re in their mid 30s … this was my small way about trying to give some justice to them and give them a voice. Their names never got mentioned again after they died. We never talked about them. We went to a foster house where they said don’t talk about your parents. There’s no point talking about them. They never got talked about again. Never.”
Having dealt with personal tragedy on such a scale, you get to understand why McGrath has been able to carve out a career for herself in turning around businesses in crisis. Seven’s recent woes are well documented, and prior to that McGrath was instrumental in turning around publicly listed agency group Enero from the ruins of The Photon Group.
On Seven, she says the business under the leadership of Warburton is “definitely becoming a better place to work”.
“I think what we’ve been through, we’ve absolutely been through trauma for the past few years as the company faced up to the reality of its debt position. COVID, to be honest, didn’t destroy us. COVID was an opportunity for us to deal with all that stuff in a way that other businesses were just having to face up to.
“COVID was actually almost a cover for us because we had to do all our debt refinancing, we had to do more cost and cost out and restructuring. So I think we’ve got we got to the absolute bottom and now because we’ve got real clarity in the strategy around our content, that growth and the fact that out first, new content plays like Big Brother and Farmer Wants A Wife have absolutely nailed it.
“So, there’s a real confidence in the business and people who had forgotten what winning was like are now winning, but they’re also in a in a place where they can actually where the future lies ahead.”
McGrath says the bigger strategic picture for the company is it needs to be a bigger business.
“We need to be a business with greater scale. We need other assets, we need to diversify our revenue stream, and that’s what all of our debt reduction is going to allow us to do.”
Having worked in agency land and now Seven, B&T asked McGrath what were the biggest differences.
“I think the difference is that agencies better than any other businesses understand the importance of pitching to win. And the importance of team culture at a broad company level. A big media player like Seven is a big business. There’s 10,000 people on the payroll, there’s productions that happen, it’s a massive ship to turn around.
“Agencies are much more agile, they kind of get being the underdog. They’re not always the winners, right? Whereas Seven had been a winner for a really long time, and then when they don’t win, they’re not great at knowing how to not win.
“Whereas agencies have to pivot and manoeuvre really quickly and then change their focus and play the underdog. I think that actually, big media companies have a lot to learn from those smaller businesses, which is why we do a lot of agile development. The digital part of our businesses should be the leader, they should be setting the tone for every other part instead of the other way around.”
Deadly Earth’s launch will be this Wednesday in Sydney.