She left the low-decile McAuley School at the age of 16, married at 19, became a mother at 21 and started her career in media when she called the editor of The South Auckland Gazette in 1974 and asked if she could write a freelance column. Always the early adopter, she then embraced content marketing and started selling – and writing – advertising features.
At the age of 36, conscious that she still had no tertiary qualifications, she completed an MBA at the University of Auckland while still working full-time. As she says in her book A Woman’s Place: “My approach to life and business boils down to this. There are no shortcuts. No silver bullets.”
Her first CEO role was at Radio i/i98FM, where she managed a team of 35 and helped take the station to number one in the ratings – and ensure some very healthy returns.
At Radio New Zealand, she was an integral part of establishing the Radio Bureau, a sales and research solution aimed at agencies that helped grow the radio industry’s advertising share and ensured clients got their messages to the right audiences, and she was named CEO of the newly merged Radio Network at the age of 42 after the government sold its commercial stations during deregulation.
She moved into corporate governance in 1997, and has helped guide the strategy of a huge range of top-tier companies since then, including TVNZ, The Warehouse, ANZ, Auckland International Airport, The Tindall Foundation and Mercury Energy.
She returned to the corporate world in 2005 when she was appointed CEO of Fairfax New Zealand, where she stayed for around four years and helped prepare the company for the changes she could see coming.
“I look at my life now in corporate governance and I still see every day virtually how important marketing is to the business dynamic. And I feel incredibly fortunate that to some extent I’ve always been involved in sales and marketing right through my career … I also see on a regular basis the importance of marketing to the success of organisations. I’m fortunate enough to work with three of the biggest advertisers in New Zealand – The Warehouse group, Mercury and ANZ – so marketing really does work, but we have to be even more customer-centric to survive and thrive.”
As one of only a few female CEOs and directors, she has also campaigned loudly for more female representation in the boardroom and a shrinking of the gender pay gap.
Withers is a self-made woman, a self-assured leader and a self-confessed media junkie whose intimate knowledge of the marketing and communications sector – and of managing talent – has stood her in good stead for her future business endeavours. She is wise, charitable and hugely respected in the business community and she is a deserving addition to the TVNZ Marketing Hall of Fame.
Here’s what her peers had to say about her:
Theresa Gattung, My Food Bag co-founder and past Marketing Hall of Famer: “So well-deserved. Many years ago we both started our work life in media. I was at TVNZ and at that time you were in radio and you were well on your way to being a rockstar in sales and marketing. All the way through you’ve been a tremendous role model, especially to young women.”
Andrew Boyle, Fairfax: “I first met Joan when she was CEO at Fairfax and what struck me most about her was how much she wanted to understand what was going on with customers, our markets, our sales and marketing team and all about our readers … I do recall every Friday morning she would gather her general managers for a trading and forecasting update and I used to call it the Friday morning prayers, because if you weren’t across your numbers and your customers, let’s just say you might want to go say a few Hail Marys.”
Roger MacDonnell, Colenso co-founder and ICG director: “Joan is absolutely in the top echelon of directors in the country at the moment and one of the things that I think does give her an edge is that marketing background, because she always brings to the table a strong consumer centricity, which is so important these days.”
Derek Lindsay, OMANZ general manager: “Joan is an absolute legend and a person I really looked up to and respected for a long time. She and I worked for many years on opposite sides in the competitive media owner and agency environment. In the chaos and madness that seemed to surround us, Joan was always the voice of calm and reason. Her wise words and opinions on all matters were always honest, insightful and most importantly constructive. What more can I say? She thoroughly deserves this recognition.”