Virginia Hyland is a pioneer of the media agency business. A country girl at heart, she built a communications group at a time when the leadership ranks of the media were heavily dominated by men.
Hyland also realised the potential of digital media ahead of many other media agencies and, more recently, launched a consultancy that specialises in helping clients come to grips with programmatic trading.
She’s dealt with and overcome sexism throughout much of her career and is a champion of full transparency and fairness, characteristics that hark back to her rural upbringing.
Hyland is from Gilgai, a small farming village near Inverell in the Northern Tablelands region of NSW.
She has two siblings and is the daughter of a school principal and a homemaker.
With a population of about 500 people back then, opportunities for employment were limited for the academically inclined Hyland.
“So I decided at 17, the day after I finished my HSC, to catch the train to Sydney by myself and look at what I could potentially become,” she recalled.
Hyland’s ambitions lay in journalism. After arriving in the big smoke, she applied for one of two cadetships at The Sydney Morning Herald. After failing to secure a position, she went for a job at Herald Classifieds in the advertising section as a potential backdoor route into editorial.
“I started at Herald Classifieds just before my 18th birthday and they were really fantastic in training and supporting teams coming in," Hyland said.
Hyland and family
"My job was cold calling, so I had a timesheet and a cold call sheet which had 200 calls that I was supposed to make every day."
Her initial category was Herald Trader, selling listing spots for forklifts and timber yards.
Although from the country, Hyland has little interest in heavy farm machinery — it certainly wasn’t the glamorous gig she had coveted on that train journey to Sydney.
‘No’ is not a ‘no’
For four years she slogged it out on the phones and was incentivised by bringing sales to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I think it was a very scary and daunting time, but it taught me the resilience to keep going and going and learn the lesson that you don’t just down tools because someone's not interested in buying what you're trying to sell,” she explained.
“You learn that a ‘no’ is not a ‘no’, it's just one call closer to a ‘yes’.” Although she didn’t realise it at the time, this resilience would hold her in good stead throughout the rest of her career. The nature of the work was tough, but Hyland remembers Fairfax being a very supportive culture and offering above award pay.
“I started to learn that on the sales side of businesses there's good money, it's lucrative, it pays my rent and gives me a little bit of playing money at the end of every week to go out to the pub,” she said.
As for those journalism dreams?
“I came to learn after a while that I was earning more than journalists were earning, and I didn't really want to go back in salary because it barely paid the rent in Sydney,” she explained.
Hyland in the early days
You perform, or you are out
Hyland spent seven years at Fairfax before looking for a new job, landing at Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press magazines (now Bauer Media). She took on a group sales role before focusing on The Australian Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day advertising at a time when the magazine business was at the peak of its powers, with major titles earning millions and millions of dollars.
“Coming from Fairfax, which was very much about training, structure and support, I then fell into a place that was very much you performed or you were out, someone else was always after your job — it was a dog-eat-dog environment,” she said.
At the age of 26, Hyland became ACP’s youngest ever advertising manager of a magazine at Woman’s Day, helping the magazine to “unprecedented success”.
When asked how she felt about the current malaise newspapers and magazines find themselves in, with declining sales and circulations, Hyland said she has mixed feelings.
“I'm very sad about the fact that magazines like Cleo are gone, which not only did I work on when I started at ACP, but I also read enthusiastically as a teenager growing up,” Hyland said.
“And I think someone like Kerry Packer would probably turn in his grave to think that the Cleo title — that was his brainchild — has disappeared from the face of the earth.
“Equally though, I honestly believe that they weren't nimble or agile enough to take hold of the digital environment fast enough.”
Hyland worked at ACP for five years before joining a small media buying and planning agency called Media Tactics, which had one major client – Onetel.
“These guys that were running Media Tactics and the creative agency that sat around Onetel were driving Ferraris, living in $6 million dollar mansions on the waterfront and, even though it was a small agency, the people running it were highly successful business people in their own right,” Hyland recalled.
That is, of course, until Onetel went bust, only a year into Hyland’s tenure. “There wasn't enough revenue in the agency to support all the roles... the Ferrari guys were not going to give up their salaries before they gave up mine,” she said.
It is at this point Hyland decided to “strike out on her own”. In those days there were primarily two core mediums that clients spent big money on for advertising — TV and print.
Hyland brought a strong background in print and an understanding that smaller clients were often frustrated they were not able to get senior level service from larger media agencies. She also offered better rates and better editorial opportunities in print by leveraging her contacts at the major newspaper and magazine groups.
To overcome her lack of knowledge in TV, she set up her agency, Hyland Media, within a larger global agency, Total Advertising (which later reincarnated as PHD).
“Their team became my support team. When we would get a briefing from a client or a pitch, I would pitch and I would present what I knew," Hyland explained. "They were usually a print-skewed client, but any questions they had about TV or radio, I would bring in people from the larger agency so that we could present a complete solution for the client.”
This revenue share partnership helped Hyland develop a client book as well as her skills in new areas while she was building her business. She spent three years in partnership with Total Advertising before becoming fully independent.
Hyland hired media planners and buyers and other talent as the business slowly grew by two to three clients each year, which Hyland described as “stable growth, rather than a shooting star that burns out”. Today, the group employs 45 staff.
The Hyland Media team
Transparency talk breeds opportunity
A major turning point for the business was when the digital era hit marketing around 2006. That's when Hyland decided to focus on digital media channels.
“Women are naturally social beasts. We love talking a lot on the social channels so it became a natural area for us to start trialling and experimenting with our clients,” Hyland explained.
“So, we would put it to clients to take a risk on 10% of their spend and do something unique in the beginning of the digital phase. And we found that actually delivered greater dividends than keeping all the money tied up in traditional channels.”
In 2012, Hyland created a dedicated social content team, which is about a third of the business and 11 people strong.
“It was about looking at the frustration of clients placing media and not getting a result in digital channels, and explaining to clients the right way to talk to and engage audiences on digital channels instead of just buying paid media,” she said.
The other major evolution of Hyland Communications was launching Programmatic Media, a consulting business that helped train clients on the complex area of programmatic.
The opportunity came out of industry debate around transparency in the digital media buying ecosystem, particularly non–transparent programmatic trading desks.
“When we start to dig, you find there are 50% mark–ups and margins on some of the advertising that they're being charged,” Hyland revealed.
“It's a no–brainer that if they even just trade transparently, they'll be able to deliver a huge return on investment for the money they're spending once they take away those mark–ups and margins and really understand what they are."
Hyland at the Telstra Business Women's Awards
Distrust between marketers and agencies
Before launching Programmatic Media, Hyland and her team discovered “really concerning parts where we saw ad fraud”.
“We saw that ads weren't being served, that other agencies were making huge mark–ups on the rates they were buying,” she added.
“That combination led to a lot of distrust between marketers and agencies, which is a great shame.”
Programmatic Media has trained several blue chip clients, including Flight Centre, Sony, CommBank employees, Citibank and Volvo to help demystify programmatic.
There’s also been solid success in helping clients with their own internal programmatic trading.
“There's two ways we work with clients,” Hyland said. “We’ll either help them create their own team that they run and manage. Or we help them insert a team within their business that is employed by them, but managed and trained by our consultants here.
Hyland accepts that the problem isn’t just the fault of media agencies, it’s also client procurement teams placing fee pressure on traditional media buying.
“Even though clients have pushed us to the bottom of the barrel in terms of above the line media fees, what they haven't understood is the massive gouge that they're actually now allowing their businesses to pay on that kind of undertow digital world that's moving so fast,” she said.
“I think agency leaders have to become far more courageous in how they actually negotiate in the market, to be able to ensure that they are getting paid fairly for the work that they're doing.
“I've had to be very brave in putting that kind of flag in the sand, otherwise it would send me into administration. So, I'd be bankrupt if I had to trade transparently without being able to charge a fair fee for the service that I do.”
Resilient to the shut down
Virginia Hyland is one of the first women to launch a media agency in an industry that was dominated by men in the top ranks. She told AdNews that gender discrimination is still a problem, but media agency groups are now far more proactive at providing women with equal opportunities in senior ranks.
“Yes, I think I still receive discrimination today, to be honest," she revealed. "I think that the industry is changing in terms of being accepting of female leaders within a business, but at the same time, there are still pockets today where I'm shut down much faster, just because of those predisposed ways of thinking — that they [women] can't negotiate as well as a bloke, they can't lead as well, they can't think strategically to the same capacity.
“You know when you get feedback and someone's telling you that you didn't win the business because your pitch wasn't good enough and you weren’t as compelling, that's fair. But, when someone's telling you something just because of your gender, it's really hard to wrap your head around it. I think you just have to be resilient to the world at the end of the day.
“But, it also worked in my favour. Being a female meant that when I pitched on fragrance clients, when I pitched on cosmetic clients, cleaning aid clients, fashion clients, even retail clients, where a lot of their audiences are females, it gave us a natural edge because we had a great understanding of that female audience.”
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