Sarah Thompson on Dentsu, winning talent, and media’s big responsibility

This week Dentsu Canada announced the appointment of former Mindshare Canada CSO Sarah Thompson as president of Dentsu Media Canada. Regarded as one of Canada’s leading media strategists, Thompson is tasked with driving growth through innovation, and fuelling collaboration with other Dentsu agencies and offices.

She spoke with The Message about her new role and what she hopes to accomplish, and why it’s incumbent on the media industry as a whole to ensure investment that supports diversity and local media. “Our dollars are wrapped around culture, and it’s something we need to pay more attention to as an industry,” she said.

How the role came about, and what attracted her to Dentsu 

Dentsu presents what I would say is the most unique opportunity of any agency network for the integration of media and creativity for clients. First and foremost, that’s what attracted me. Coming off the experience I just had [as CSO with the bespoke Rogers agency Theo and Mindshare Canada] that’s what I was clamouring for—how to bring creative and media back together, and really deliver something spectacular for clients. Dentsu has all of the ingredients to make that happen.

Thompson has identified three critical areas of focus in her new role

•Talent: The great resignation is a call to action for our industry to start really supporting our people and talent, with a core focus on those who are just entering the workforce. How do we support and nurture them in their career, so that they feel like there’s a lot of reverence for this profession?

•Quality: Clients want quality in the media industry: Is an ad delivered, and actually seen by a human being? Am I over- or under-invested? It also extends to the commitment our industry needs to have to local news and supporting Canadian media, so that we have quality environments. I don’t use it as just a catch-all word without substance, because clients are asking for more accountability from their media investment on both business and brand results.

•Accountability: There’s an accountability to what we do, and an opportunity to really differentiate ourselves against what the media industry currently has in place. It’s felt very transactional for a very long time. Yes there is data, yes there is IT, and yes there is ad-tech available to us to make that happen, but there’s an understanding that needs to happen in that process.

On media and creative coming back together after decades apart

Our creative partners want more information about how [many assets] do I need to make? Here’s the budget, here are the goals, what’s the rotation, how much creative, how much production?

I’m super-excited about unleashing more collaboration, more thought leadership and more education for our creative team about where media’s going, and what is a good media strategy.

The reason why is that clients want to pivot on a dime more than they ever had before. Covid taught us that the closer you have [media and creative] together, you don’t need to have 15 different account people from five different agencies all in a meeting to get a single go-to-market strategy. That’s not the future of our industry.

Where you’re spending your time and energy should be on the outcome, not on the constant process and [worrying] ‘Are we aligned?’ There is nothing better to me than having the comms team, the creative team, strategists and even analytics and media planners all at the same table jamming about what the strategy should be and how we move forward.

On short-term (and longer-term) priorities

There’s always a business roadmap you want to look at, but the thing that is crucial…is the talent. It’s making sure that people have a great place to work and thrive, and if you’re entering into this industry, that Dentsu is the place you want to enter because we’re going to take care of you.

I want to work and collaborate with the leadership team and really build that here. I want to signal that this is a great place to work, not because somebody says so, but because someone you know in the industry says it’s a great place to work.

In that dynamic is training and development, talent mapping, where can your career go next. In the history of my career I’ve always taken one thing very seriously, and that’s how are people treated, the opportunities they get, and core expectations. Despite the fact there’s so much automation, AI, machine learning, etc. we still need great people coming into our industry and feeling they can thrive and be successful. I want Dentsu to be a lighthouse for them.

On her leadership style

I believe you have to pay very close attention to who are the future leaders in our industry. My leadership style has always been what [Moneyball and The Big Short author] Michael Lewis says, [which is that] six levels down in any organization are the people who actually know how to solve the problems or will tell you the truth about what’s going on.

I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating careers, really spending time inspiring new talent, working with them, stretching them and helping them understand foundational elements, but also feeling a sense of reverence for what they’re doing every day. I really try my damnedest to keep people inspired.

On the importance of diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion as an agenda item within agencies should absolutely be first and foremost, but diversity and inclusion of what our dollars do for culture and community in Canada also needs to be carefully considered. I look at three core tenets:

Clients: How are we offsetting the carbon emissions we’re creating with media and making sure we’re getting to net zero.

Community: How are we connecting with communities in the smallest towns in Canada, where media measurement has eroded. They need to have the community newspapers and cultures.

Culture: I represent the “L” of the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s really sad to see the struggles that have happened with 20 publications [dedicated] to the LGBTQ+ community closing over time.

Where our dollars go, and the intention around [those allocations], is crucial. You can have a great diversity and inclusion agenda, but you need to have the mentality that our ad dollars manifest content, they fund newsrooms and what we see on broadcast.

We have an accountability to make sure that people see themselves in the media that we are supporting, and that is really helping our clients take a hard look at their media supply chain, how much money is staying in Canada, how effective is the investment, and how are we ensuring that communities and culture stay vibrant.

There’s a lot in that, and the future of country is at stake because you want to have local reporting of climate change, you want to hold public officials to account. If you’re committed to local communities, are you supporting local news with intention, not just thinking [ad dollars] are going there because of a programmatic buy? Our dollars are wrapped around culture, and it’s something we need to pay more attention to as an industry. It can’t be a side project for media leaders, and it’s not a side project for me.

Chris Powell