At age 57, after retiring for the second time, I got a call to start-up and lead Mediabrands in the Philippines.
The first time I retired, I thought I had done it all. I had spent a lifetime building brands, helping companies, using my expertise, my knowledge to help businesses, and the industry I belong to, grow. I have always thought that I also helped people grow. I retired happily with that knowledge, blessed to be given an opportunity to make a difference.
Starting start-ups is a young person’s game, and it gave me pause, but I took the challenge. I was not afraid because I have always told myself that everything can be learned, and I have always been a student of learning. More than a student of knowledge, I love learning. It calmed me to always tell myself a basic lesson. I will learn, unlearn and relearn. So, my life lesson 1 is also my start-up rule number 1.
A rolling stone gathers no moss. While this is a saying about how important roots are, I also thought of the positive aspect of moving—you gather no moss, no heavy baggage, no negative vibes. I have always made myself better by making unconventional choices, walking the road less traveled, or even paving new paths to travel on. As a student, I enjoyed learning about life on the streets of Baguio as much as in a classroom. As a professional, I gave up a US immigrant’s life to come back to the Philippines away from my immediate relatives. I uprooted myself, against ‘practical’ advice, from a company after almost 20 successful years of service. Made a lot of painful life decisions. From these, I learned that when put in a challenging, unexpected situation, I am able to rise and be better.
As employee number 1, I learned how to work from coffee shops, hotel lobbies, from anywhere I was literally on the run on a daily basis. I discovered the freedom and fluidity of borrowed and non-permanent spaces. It felt right. That freedom was a lesson applied when Mediabrands was established years ago but unknowingly it prepared us for the 100% work from home situation that this pandemic has imposed on the world.
Another serendipitous lesson was realizing that my solid experience with establishment agencies may open doors but will not get us their business. The very nature of start-ups is to respond to unmet market demand, so together with a few brave souls (who were half my age), we tried to imagine a different future. Even if back then, the future was the next day.
Our single greatest advantage was that we were fueled by hope and the undying notion that we would succeed. We never thought of failing. We would literally knock on offices and closed doors to offer our services. It opened a new world for me and all of us, to other start-ups, of long-tail clients who are also the actual owners of their businesses. Those like us, who were multi-tasking, doing multiple roles, learning as they moved along, creating new paths, building new bridges. Their limited budgets but unlimited passion were perfect mates to our arsenal of global tools on modern marketing communications.
Like most leaders my age, my technical knowledge of our business was mainly from the analog era, so I eagerly asked questions from my new mentors—the 20-30-year-old digital natives in my team and from young potential partners who were probably amused by my ignorance. I was both an intern and the CEO.
Working directly with young talents allowed me to get to know them on a deeper level. I marveled at the audacity of their dreams to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or to establish the first unicorn company from the Philippines. I am surprised but not disappointed that they would not want to follow in our generation’s footsteps as corporate citizens. Our trophies of success are not theirs. They will pursue their passion and make it their life’s work. We have anticipated and accepted the fact that they will be with our company to learn as best as they could and then move on. Perhaps to be entrepreneurs, perhaps to find their true selves and calling. Early on, we accepted that part of our role is to equip them, make them grow, and wish them success in their next adventure, wherever that may be.
Five years later, the company we put together continues to evolve. Sometimes by our own design, sometimes pulled or pushed by everything that is happening around us. Physically, digitally. The world is moving in new directions. Digital acceleration, automation, artificial intelligence, the power of data. Complexities in talent management and company culture and other matters that were low in any business agenda years ago are now front and center, staring everyone unblinkingly. Diversity and inclusion, agility and dynamism, innovation, grit and purpose, total wellness and mental health. Opinions and positions may differ, but standing up and having a clear voice on these issues help us move forward and progress.
From 1 employee five years ago, Mediabrands today has grown to more than 150 talents (mostly Millennials and Gen Zs). We have won many clients and many awards—here and abroad. We have become a global center of excellence for IPG for advanced data analytics. More than these, all of us have grown stronger as human beings, especially during this pandemic. Listening and responding with sensitivity to our team’s health and economic challenges.
We have discovered new talents that we did not know we possessed, pursued new interests, invested in self-care and family care, improved our thinking process, sharpened our ideas.
All are winning together.
Founding and leading Mediabrands is unlike any of my previous work experiences. My life has dramatically expanded beyond my work in media communications. Learning from my multi-hyphenate teams, I have joined the sharing economy.
Today I continue to learn, unlearn, and re-learn. I have embraced with passion new circles that now include people working on rice sufficiency, government, the academe, chefs, and restaurateurs. I continue to learn from artists and artisans, people into gardens, nature, the environment, and yes, including beauty pageants.
I have deepened my involvement with community and country, my dreams for our people’s progress stronger and more urgent. My life has become richer with more nuances and colors.
I never planned this. I am glad that I accepted the challenge of starting this start-up. I am grateful for in doing so, I myself have become a start-up. Twice retired but open to new challenges.
IPG Mediabrands CEO Venus Navalta is a highly respected media practitioner and a role model for aspiring women leaders in the corporate world.
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