Melissa Fein is a leader who is committed to commercial growth as well as championing recognition for her people and their work.
Since taking the reins as CEO of Initiative Australia in 2017, Fein has had a singular vision – to create the most respected media agency in the country that would magnetize rather than pursue talent and clients.
Fein credits Initiative’s Managing Director Sam Geer and Chief Strategy & Product Officer Chris Colter as the two individuals responsible for helping her build a world-class team. “Once we formed that trio, they say talent attracts talent and we were able to bring other people in, but really it was about just believing in growing brands,” she tells The CEO Magazine.
Of course, the proof is always in the pudding. With a number of prestigious accolades to her name, Fein has solidified her reputation as an industry change agent alongside driving record growth and securing new clients such as Amazon, LEGO and Pernod Ricard, to name a few.
“To be recognized across a breadth of peers from different industries is what makes this award more personally special to me than other awards have been.”
Her unwavering commitment to each of these facets has helped her to take home The CEO Magazine’s 2023 Executive of the Year Awards CEO of the Year A$20m–$100m accolade.
Fein was certainly not expecting to strike gold by being named CEO of the Year for 2023. She explains that the prestigious award carries with it a different kind of significance compared to other accolades she’s amassed over the years.
“I’ve had the privilege of being recognized within my own advertising and marketing industry, but I think this one is especially special,” she says with a smile. “To be recognized across a breadth of peers from different industries is what makes this award more personally special to me than other awards have been.”
In an industry where ideas are the lifeblood of a business, Fein explains that attending the Awards ceremony was a welcome opportunity to learn from other leaders, including entrepreneurs and not-for-profit executives who are rarely brought together under one roof.
“Just listening to people’s speeches has given me different perspectives and different points of inspiration, which I’ll take into my own business as well,” she says.
The Power of Choice
Over the course of her more than two decades-long career, Fein’s focus has been on building brands and a thriving work culture that is reflective of her ‘people first’ approach. Proud of the programs she’s introduced, Fein says she drew on her own experiences and challenges – most notably with infertility – to be the pioneer of much-needed change in the world of media.
“I used a lot of personal experiences to develop some incredible industry-leading initiatives, which no-one had really led or come up with in our own industry,” she admits.
Her advice for leaders looking to make progress in their industry is simple: “Really trust yourself and make sure that your initiatives are born out of your own experiences – and never try to be anybody else.”
While it can be difficult to stand out in the competitive media landscape, Fein says the combination of the people, the product and the brand are the key factors that define the agency’s point of difference.
“I used a lot of personal experiences to develop some incredible industry-leading initiatives.”
Her three objectives – Reset, Reimagine and Revitalise – are responsible for accelerating Initiative Australia’s success and overcoming career detractors.
In fact, Fein has quite the knack for forging pathways in order to move in sync with the times. While she’s well aware that policies alone aren’t enough, the CEO has ensured that the commitment is there.
To date, she’s introduced a formal bill of rights designed to widen the scope of choices available to staff, which includes support for starting a family. Whether it’s helping employees grow their careers, initiating leadership opportunities or introducing automation, Fein has demonstrated herself to be a true advocate for industry progression across the board.
This extends to broader industry concerns, in which Fein has played an active role in effecting change by helping launch the Media Responsibility Index, signing off on the Climate Pledge and even renegotiating client fees in the toughest of economic conditions.
Always striving to ensure that words are met with action, Fein has also put the spotlight on Initiative Australia as a forward-thinking media agency to do business with.
These achievements have led to her being named last year as both Industry Leader at the Mumbrella Awards and B&T Woman of the Year.
Last year, the media agency emerged as the winner of the Employer of the Year (Headcount over 75) Award at the AdNews Agency of The Year Awards, and as a Gold winner in the Media Agency category at the Campaign UK Global Awards 2023.
In December 2022, Initiative Australia was also officially recognized by RECMA as the country’s ‘Dominant Agency’.
Fein and her team are at the leading edge of cultural thought leadership, thanks to a mentality of rethinking outdated marketing beliefs and delving beneath the surface of consumption trends.
Outside of her work at Initiative Australia, Fein is Director at Swimming Australia and a board member for the Media Federation of Australia, Cancer Chicks and MOOD. Additionally, the pro bono media support Initiative Australia has granted charity HeartKids has helped this organization in fulfilling its important mission.
It’s an impressive contribution that has helped to raise Fein’s profile and ultimately reaffirm her personal brand, which can be encapsulated in two words: confident and vulnerable.
While some high-profile leaders prefer to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to their private lives, Fein doesn’t shy away from sharing her personal battles with miscarriage in a bid to create and model psychological safety.
In this way, Fein has proven to the world of media how to effectively move the needle on progress while hitting financial targets and winning new clients, often by putting the right measures in place.