with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, you’ll hear from Nickie Scriven, CEO of Zenith Media Australia, on leaning into challenges, responding not reacting, and sonic branding.

Nickie has had a tremendous career in marketing, advertising and media. Before moving into agency leadership, she spent eight years on the client side, holding marketing and sales leadership roles for the likes of AustralianSuper, NAB and News Corp, as well as running her own consultancy.

She joined Zenith Media in Melbourne as Managing Director in October 2014, and within two years was promoted to Australia CEO.
She has been instrumental in helping Zenith achieve global account wins like Disney and TikTok, while guiding the agency through the pandemic, achieving consecutive year-on-year double-digit revenue growth.

Nickie is also an accomplished triathlete, having competed internationally for Australia.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Leaning into challenges and smashing goals;
  • Responding not reacting to career setbacks and learning to value yourself;
  • How to get the most out of the agency-client partnership model; and
  • Why sonic branding is often overlooked as a marketing weapon.

Connecting with Nickie Scriven

You can connect with Nickie via LinkedIn

Books and resources

“We've forgotten about all of our brand identity sounds; think about all those ads that you can recall from 20 years ago. It's that constant brand awareness to make sure that, when someone's in-market, your brand is top of mind and they know everything that they need to know to make a pretty rational decision.”


On not being a textbook marketer

  • You've got to have the data to support what you're trying to do and you've got to know what problem you're trying to solve. Then it just comes down to how strong your business case is and how you engage stakeholders and get them excited. With some stakeholders, help them think that it might have been their idea too.
  • The other really effective thing to do in marketing is to have your own customers tell your story in their words. At Australian Super we had one of our members say, “Superannuation, who cares? That's for when you're 65.” That was front and centre in our ad. It resonated because it was in the tone of voice of the target market and they believed her because they were actually her words.

On becoming a CEO

  • It's pretty lonely at the top. I think as you're moving through the ranks when you're younger you can vent, you can talk to different people and bounce things around but you've got to be really careful about the conversations that you have at that CEO level because anything you say could be repeated.
  • I think also moving from managing director in Melbourne to taking on the national role as CEO, our Sydney office is more than double the size. I was so close to my Melbourne team, but taking on Sydney and not living in that market, it just took longer to get to know people. When you're a people leader like me, that was probably the most challenging feeling. I had to spread myself thin.

On responding not reacting

  • When you're going hard and you've got fires going off everywhere, you just need to be able to sit back, process and think about how you respond but not necessarily react to a situation because that's when emotion can trip you up.
  • Probably the most frustrating part in my career was returning from maternity leave. I then got overlooked for a promotion that I was so ready for, twice. So that glass ceiling smacked me firmly on the head.
  • I think my advice to women is to value yourself and know what you want and don't accept anything less. There's a talent shortage at the moment and you can be much more bullish around what you want. I think there have been some positives out of COVID, particularly for working women. The flexibility that we are providing people, even allowing them to have side hustles and still work in the agency.

On showcasing your value to the organisation

  • You've got to know your strengths and you've got to play to your strengths. Women are great at self-deprecation and guys are great at blatant self-promotion. So women need to speak with purpose and not plead out of desperation. Say something like, “This is what I can add, this is what I've got for you.”
  • I recently promoted someone to my executive team, but she initially didn't fight for it. I made her fight for it because I wasn't going to just hand it to her on a platter. She had to tell me that she wanted it and tell me what she could deliver and show me that she had it.
  • Also, you are not going to nail it on day one. You've got to give yourself the time and space to learn. My advice is be a sponge, and absorb as much information as you can. That's what leadership is about. It's about connecting the dots and looking to the future around where you can pivot and where you're going to take this organisation. You don't have to be the best, you just have to surround yourself with the best.

On hiring great talent

  • I always go to behavioural based questions because they have a way of tripping up BS, right?
  • “Tell me the thing that you are most proud of in your career. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the outcome?”
    • You can see if they're going we, I, if they're a team player, if they're claiming it, whether they were driving it. There's just so much insight in that.
  • “What's something that's really gone wrong in your career?”
    • You can see their ability to problem solve.
  • “Where do you go for advice?”
    • In our industry we have a lot of young people. If you’re going to your circle of friends that bitch and moan with you and give you not such great advice then that's a big warning sign for me.
    • If that's your parents or a mentor or an uncle or whoever that is that you can confide in that gives you solid, sound, mature advice then that's a lot more appealing for me.
  • Then the other thing is their personal values. I like to know what they do in their personal life. How was their situation growing up? What did they learn? You've got to know the person to understand if they're the right cultural fit.

On the agency-client partnership model

  • The landscape just fundamentally changes so frequently that the people that work in this industry are at the cutting edge of everything new. Brands need to tap into that and keep up with that because you've got to follow where consumers are consuming media and consuming content and make sure that you are positioning your brand and your products and services in the right place at the right time
  • The most important thing is understanding what they want out of their relationship and setting the objectives upfront. Do you want a partner? Do you want a supplier? Do you want someone who's going to be an extension of your marketing team or do you want someone who's just going to book your ads for you?
  • The more data the client can share with us in partnership and in a privacy-compliant way, the more effective we can be in our media strategy.
  • ROI is not just return on investment, it's return on ideas, it's return on insights and it's return on innovation so we will put metrics for all of those things depending on what our client's objectives are.
  • What a lot of marketers do, they want to push your brand message. That doesn't work anymore. The environment that we're working in where consumers are absolutely in control and blocking what they don't want to hear, you have to put consumer behaviour at the heart of everything that you do.
  • You need to understand where the blockages are. Do you have a brand awareness problem? Do you have a consideration problem? Do you have a retention problem or an advocacy problem?

On her message to marketers

  • The most visible thing you do is your media buy. Yes, it's the creative that sits in there, but if your media buy isn't hitting the right people, no one's seeing those beautiful ads.
  • Don't underestimate the impact of your advertising on employer brand as well and the pride that can generate and the sense of actually this is a good place to work, it feels really established, it aligns to my values, etc.
  • There was a period of time where I think marketers felt like they didn't have a seat at the C-suite table. A CMO should report now to the CEO because the connection and engagement that you need to create with consumers and the organisation is what's going to move your brand forward, build your brand equity and allow you to create profit margin. If you're not doing that, you're just discounting to drive sales which basically erodes your profit and kills your business ultimately.

On sonic branding and unconscious processing

  • There is a lot of momentum around the attention economy at the moment and specifically on eye-tracking in digital media, and it totally and utterly misses the mark. Yes, it accounts for about 15%, but what so many people are missing is unconscious processing. It drives a huge amount of attention.
  • If you think about when you're looking at a car, all of a sudden the car's in your consideration set, you start seeing it everywhere as you've got heightened awareness. You develop all of those brand triggers that say, “Oh, that person looks good in that car, I think I'd like to look like that,” or, “I like that colour,” or, “I like that style,” or whatever it is that happens subconsciously. Then you're in-market and then you've got your shortlist of cars and then you go, “Yeah, that's the one I want.”

On the most challenging part of NED roles in sport

  • The federated model, but there's a lot of sports moving away from that. The way a lot of national sporting organisations were set up gives the smaller players the power – the power actually moves down. The national sporting organisation can't do anything unless the states and territories agree, and the states and territories are held to ransom by the associations. And no-one wants to give up the power and that is holding sport back in this country.
  • At a time where sports are struggling to survive, there's less and less rights fees being paid, second tier sports are on their knees and they rely on government funding to survive, so you actually need some business skills and commercial skills in senior management and on boards. Those that come through volunteering and running small clubs are possibly not in the best place to be driving the future of the sport or preventing the evolution of the sport.
  • So you've got to know what value you're going to bring and you need to understand the gaps in the current skills matrix on the board. A lot of people have so much passion for the sport and want to give back, but in a NED role it's not about giving back, it's about what value you can add and how your expertise can drive the organisation forward.
  • I think you need to have some suitable experience, do your Australian Institute of Company Directors course so that you actually understand the requirements and your fiduciary responsibilities too.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Get off the dance floor and up onto the balcony. If you're in the weeds, you can't see the future. As a CEO or as a leader, you've got to be able to see the future and pivot the organisation to go there.

Stay epic,