Profile - Anathea Ruys’ return to Australia

By Jenni Gilbert | 6 October 2022
Anathea Ruys. Image: Supplied

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After eight years, first in Asia and then the US, in powerhouse media business leadership roles, Anathea Ruys’ triumphant return as CEO of UM Australia transpired to be less than auspicious.

At the height of the strictest COVID lockdown period in NSW, in early April last year, Anathea Ruys was taken from Sydney Airport by police with the aid of military personnel to her hotel room to ensure she didn’t “abscond”.

She then spent two weeks locked in the pokey hotel room, with meals left on a tray at the door. Welcome back.

Of course, it was a quarantine scenario familiar to hundreds of travellers arriving in Australia at the time, but a shock to the system, nonetheless.

Despite the less-than-salubrious homecoming (and being separated from her husband and teenage sons, who were still finishing up business and schooling in LA, for longer than expected - more of that later), upon her “release” Anathea says she was immediately struck by the strength of the industry.

“In the year before I came back I was concerned about the Australian market because it was coming off the back of devastating bushfires, floods, and then Covid,” she recalls.

“But I seriously underestimated the strength of the market here. There seems to be a real resilience around our industry. I know that that’s not consistent across all sectors and groups, but I was and am still really impressed.

“It’s always been a market that really punches above its way in terms of creativity and the kind of thinking that goes on.

“And I can tell you there is a real celebration of Aussies in the US market. We have a really excellent reputation for being broad thinkers, no matter what part of the business we are working in.”

The adrenaline bubble burst

Despite the strength and resilience she experienced in the Australian market on her return, Anathea found “a real fragility around how people were experiencing the world in general: about what work means, how work into interacts with non-work or your home life.

“There were these real blurring of lines. By April, 2021, when I returned, people were coming out of the adrenaline of the period of the first … shock, if you like.

“At the start, we all went into that high intensity, fuelled by adrenaline, period where no-one knew what was happening. Clients didn’t know, we didn’t know.

“And so we see people started working incredibly hard, turning things around that you wouldn’t ordinarily do or need to do in short periods of time.

Then a year or so later, people were exhausted and fragile because we hadn’t worked our way out of that high adrenaline. You can’t live in that … phase for that long.

“At the same time we were starting to see some green shoots. I remember having these wonderful conversations with people about coming back to the office and what might that look like, that respected that we were in a changed world and all of those sorts of things.

“Then, bang! The second lockdowns happened. So my first few months were certainly all about listening, but also very much about just helping people to keep functioning, keep doing what they needed to do in these really traumatic, difficult times.”

Birth of a media agency career

A warm, down to earth, engaging personality, Anathea’s career experience over the past 30 years has been diverse.

She has held senior level roles (see breakout Career Highlights Prior To Current Role) across the communications spectrum, including content, publishing, activation, PR, advertising and media. Her industry experience spans FMCG, beauty, retail, auto, gaming, technology, telco, alcohol, finance, confectionery, oil and government.

But at the beginning of her media agency career, coming from magazine publishing, “I had no real idea what media agencies were all about,” Anathea laughs. “I hadn’t grown up in that space. I went to run what I thought was going to be a PR agency inside a media agency that was working a lot for Unilever at the time.

“But really my job was to look at the challenge that the brand - whatever the brand was - had and say: `Well, how can we work with the media teams to do some different things, to connect with people? I mean, it was really that simple.

“We did a lot of what we now call experiential and activation work. This is where we started really doing integrated sponsorships. So for me, that was the start of the career I have now in this industry - based around collaborating through the agency.

“It suited by my personality. I like to work with a lot of different people, so I’ve never left that.

“When I came into the role at UM, it was very much a part of the organisation already. So I don’t think there’s been any major pivot in that sense.

“We all work really closely together. Most of us have known each other for quite some time. So we’ve, we’ve got an understanding of the way we each operate but it’s something you have to be work at on an everyday basis. You have to have a real focus on it because it’s the easiest thing to dissipate.”

Keys to Success

Throughout her career, the hallmark of Anathea’s business and leadership style and success has been her focus on people and workplace culture.

“My career has been based around building and leading strong businesses and creating powerful cultures across all facets of the marketing spectrum including Creative, PR, Content, Experiential and Media,” she says.

“Strong cultures are directly linked to successful businesses and
I have invested heavily in creating work environments that enable teams to grow, learn and succeed behind a single-minded vision.

“I have a deeply held belief that the best work is delivered by integrated and collaborative groups and I am proud that in every role I have held I have built a single team from multiple specialisms and groups.

“[I see] my role is to create an environment where people can fix things and solve problems: if there is a challenge, how can we fix it, rather than saying that belongs with that team or over there.”

Indeed, Anathea regards as one of the most satisfying achievements in the role so far is that this year UM became the first agency in the media or advertising industry to become Family Friendly Certified.

“Being family friendly goes well beyond parental leave and parents’ rooms,” she says. “It is about understanding that every person who works with us has different family needs, obligations, wants and commitments and creating policies and practices to enable these.

“And then monitoring, evaluating, changing and constantly adapting the way we work with our people.

“Otherwise, we will continue to lose people who believe that this is not the right industry for them. And I just don’t accept that as accurate.

“We held our national conference at the end of June with 250 people coming together from across the country. We met in Canberra, which is fitting given our long relationship with the Federal Government, and spent two days connecting, listening to each other and sharing the kind of strategic dividends we all want to deliver to our people, our clients and our industry.

“The reason I work in this business is to work with incredible people and so it was a real privilege to get to spend that time together.”

The future

Anathea says she is surprised how quickly time has flown by since her return and has loved reconnecting with so many people from across the industry.

“But I’m also so aware that our industry needs to do much more to bring different voices to the table,” she says. “Even more critically, we need to ensure that our ways of working and work environments are sustainable for all, and the only way we can achieve that is by listening to what is important to people and creating a workplace that reflects that.”

She says that her goals for the next 12 months and beyond “remain focused on our people. I am so proud of the work we have done in the automation space.

“This is genuinely making a difference to the workloads and work focuses of our people. As an industry we want to attract the best and brightest - and we do. We just then make them do repetitive, lower value work that is not satisfying and not making a difference to client outcomes.

“By automating that we can ensure our people are focused on work that is closer to the reason we all got into this business.

“I am also really committed to ensuring that we know what each person that works with us wants to get out of the investment they make in UM. It is different for every person, and it changes over time, so it is only by encouraging open conversation that we can really understand.

“We have created a quarterly space for our people to focus on thinking about what that means for them, and to have a conversation with their manager to ensure they are planning for it. I am excited for more conversations like that.”

A family affair

Anathea, her husband Matt, and sons Isaac, 19, and Oliver, 16, are now ensconced in their old family home in Melbourne. But it has been far from smooth sailing to get there.

The family was unexpectedly separated for the best part of six months due to changing COVID lockdowns and restrictions.

When eventually her husband and sons arrived in Melbourne last September, they were placed in a “family” quarantine facility for two weeks. Three tall men in a small space.

“Moving back home - literally back to the home we left years ago - has been a really unusual experience,” says Anathea.

“To go back to your old house, your old neighbourhood is surreal. We left with a 10 and a seven-year-old and came back with an 18 and a 15-year-old. As my older son said to me: `It’s strange. I wake up in the same bedroom that I left when I was 10 and now I’m, like, a completely different human being’.

“I always thought that, oh, my children are remarkably good at adapting. I’ve moved them around a lot in their lives but it turns out [that adapting] has been that they were just young. It’s easier then.

“While moving a lot and living overseas has led to some wonderful experiences for my sons, I think this last move from LA back to Melbourne has really tough for them, particularly on Oliver.

“He’d been in LA for four and a half years. His whole independent life, from 10-15, was in the US and he really struggled to say goodbye to his friends and life there.

“So much is the same, and yet so many changes have happened to us as a family. We have all found that challenging in different ways. The trauma of the last couple of years I think will play out in people’s lives for years to come.”

“We all went into that high intensity, fuelled by adrenaline, period where no-one knew what was happening.”

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