Rahat Kapur
Mar 12, 2024

‘Women’s careers are an investment, not a sacrifice’: IPG leader MJ Kim

To commemorate International Women’s Day, we speak with the Korea CEO of IPG Mediabrands on the evolving role of the ‘working housewife’, why higher education is key, and a priceless lesson attained from Tom Cruise.

‘Women’s careers are an investment, not a sacrifice’: IPG leader MJ Kim

As part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage, Campaign looks at the state of gender representation in Asia-Pacific alongside senior women leaders. To read the other interviews in this series, click on the links below:

‘The lack of female leadership in Japan is undeniable’: McCann’s Ji Watson


Danone's Sri Widowati on work-life challenges, the glass cliff, and women's advancement in corporate Indonesia


Google's Sapna Chadha on increasing women's board participation

In 2022, Benja Stig Fagerland, founder of Sheconomy, an organisation working towards progress in gender-based social sustainability, said in an interview with The Korea Times that female leadership is "not just a diversity issue, but a necessity for survival."

The article followed the announcement of a mandate by Korea, which obligated listed companies with assets exceeding 2 trillion won ($1.5 billion) to appoint at least one female member to their management teams. As a result, the percentage of female directors in Korea rose from 10.5% in 2016 to 14.6% in 2022, in accordance with data quoted from The Economist

Currently, women only account for 6% of executives at Korea's top firms, indicating that the journey towards gender parity in corporate leadership is only beginning to take its first steps in the country.

MJ Kim is among those paving the path. An ad industry veteran with over 30 years of experience across media-planning, buying and products, she's now the CEO of IPG Mediabrands in Korea, assuming the position in January 2020 after nearly 17 years with UM. Throughout her varied career, Kim has also worked for the likes of Starcom and McCann-Erickson, where she joined in the early 90s as an account executive.

Kim has been a pioneer of sorts in South Korea, where the skew of men in media-buying is already heightened. Nevertheless, she has been a champion of women investing in their careers, finding the right balance between work and life, and consciously carving out space for female leaders at the top.

For International Women's Day this year, IPG Mediabrands invited Campaign to host a candid discussion with Kim on a variety of topics to celebrate the day, as the brand marked the occasion by unpacking the United Nations' 2024 theme of ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate progress’. The conversation focused on supporting female changemakers and addressing gender inequality as a human rights issue. 

Below are the highlights and excerpts of that session, together with Kim's insights on what IWD truly means to her.

Let's rewind to your early career days. Tell us about your backstory and what early factors influenced your current success?

I started my career at McCann-Erickson as an account executive. McCann was the first international agency that had come into the local market back in 1990, as our economy opened to global businesses. At that time, there was no such thing as a media planner or a media planning department. So, I joined McCann after university upon seeing an article in the newspaper about a really great account executive at the company. It looked like he was working for a multi-national agency on Coca-Cola (the biggest client for the company at that time), and it all looked very fascinating and attractive to me.

I came to meet that very man during my interview at McCann-Erickson, and he later went on to become my first manager. He was incredibly high-calibre, and had worked in the US and I asked him endless questions about what the experience was like during my five years there. Towards the mid-90s, media planning began emerging as a field and I asked my line manager if account executives could transition over to such a role, but he told me that there's not much of a cross-over. But I was really interested and wanted to explore it. My line manager wouldn't let me transfer internally at the time, so I decided to leave to join Leo Burnett (Starcom), and from there, my media planning journey began. From there I went on to UM and now, I am CEO of IPG Mediabrands Korea.

The lesson here is: If you don't support your employees in their ambitions to grow and learn new things, they will leave to find those opportunities elsewhere. 

Tell us about the challenges you’ve faced as a woman throughout your career, and how did you overcome them?

There are some things which are market-specific, and then there are other things which are market-specific. One of the universal challenges I find we face is being a working mom, or a ‘working housewife’, as I call it. Or even a working daughter. Korea has changed a lot now, but it used to be very conservative and at a certain time, it was very difficult for working mothers to balance both work and their home life, with a lack of time. Overtime used to be prevalent and getting help was for the lucky. It's not like that anymore.

We now even have a law that says we cannot do over 52 hours of work a week—including overtime. Today, my son is in university and he stays at his dorm, but when he was growing up, I really had to lean on my family, my in-laws, and at times, paid help, to be able to juggle all the elements of being a mother and a woman with a career. I was lucky because everyone was generous with their time and help for me, so I could manage everything. But ultimately, I also didn't see it as a sacrifice. It's a decision you have to make based on what you choose. It's a matter of choice, and for me, I saw it as an investment over a sacrifice; an investment in my future, my development and my career, and I believe it pays back someday. And I'm so thankful to our family and friends and all those who supported, because it's an investment of their time too. I always show my gratitude and appreciation, because nothing is for free, including their time. 

I also cannot stress the importance of higher education, especially for women. For me, although I didn't pursue a full-time MBA, I still completed five courses and an Executive MBA. It gives you the confidence to know you've invested in your career and opened up future potential opportunities for yourself, especially when competing against other candidates. I always say that being a CEO shouldn't necessarily be the aim, but it will become a reality as a consequence of your hard work and efforts.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about women in senior leadership roles?

If a woman is strong, they label her ‘bossy’, and on the other hand, if she's very thorough or perfect, they call her ‘microscopic’. I actually asked an AI tool if the word ‘microscopic’ is gender-neutral, and apparently it isn’t. So, let's not use it. Because in reality, any leadership role effectively requires a range of skills and qualities, including the ability to make tough decisions. Sometimes that includes unpleasant things like letting people go and the reality is, that's a very tough thing to do.

During times like that, you have to communicate effectively and continue to inspire others at the same time. So, these qualities are not exclusive to any gender. Women in senior leadership roles often bring unique perspectives and strengths to the table, such as empathy and emotional intelligence, and it's important to challenge these stereotypes and recognise that a woman can be just as capable and effective a leader as a man, or sometimes, even more so. So, we need to see things equally. 

What does International Women's Day mean to you?

To me, it's needed for the collective intelligence of women. It's a way for us to have our stories recognised and boosted, and to action and learn more from one another while encouraging each other. 

DEI has become a hot corporate buzzword but doesn’t always translate into progress. Reflecting on the theme ‘Inspire Inclusion’, what's one thing that companies do not get right about DEI?   

Disability inclusion is an important aspect of DEI that is often overlooked. Companies need to make sure that they are creating an environment that is accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. This includes providing physical accommodations, such as ramps and elevators, as well as making sure that their websites and other communication channels are accessible to people with disabilities. It requires some investment for corporates to embrace and implement this kind of inclusion. Additionally, companies need to create a culture of inclusion where people with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities and requesting accommodations.

How does culture need to change in your industry so more women are able to shatter the glass ceiling? 

Effective leadership is a crucial skill for professionals of all genders. By developing their leadership abilities, individuals gain fresh perspectives and insights. For women, actively cultivating leadership skills early in their careers is particularly important. Leadership growth is a gradual process that requires consistent effort and practice over time.

Self-development is beneficial at every career stage, but it becomes even more critical for women in light of the gender biases and stereotypes that persist in hiring, promotion, and workplace dynamics. Embracing self-development empowers women to break through barriers and shatter the glass ceiling.

Can you discuss a decision you made that went against the grain of conventional wisdom in your industry, specifically to address gender bias or inequality?   

We recently hired a female buyer. In the advertising industry, the role of a media buyer has traditionally been seen as male-dominated, with a belief that women may not be as adept at handling tough negotiations with media vendors. However, in today's data-driven world, we have seen that female buyers can excel in this role by leveraging data and analytics to rationalise negotiations. This challenges the traditional notion that the buyer job is exclusively suited for men, and we are witnessing exceptional performance from our female buyer.

What is the best professional wisdom anyone has ever given you that you want to pass on to someone starting their career?

During an interview with a renowned magazine, the celebrated action star Tom Cruise shared his insights on achieving success. When asked about the secret to his remarkable achievements, he humbly responded that he simply focused on giving his best in every role or project entrusted to him. Over time, he realised that his dedication and hard work had propelled him to fame.

Similarly, for me as I said, I emphasise that success should not be the primary goal, but rather a natural consequence of their diligent efforts, passion and commitment. When driven solely by the pursuit of a top position or success itself, one risks losing sight of the inherent value and meaning in their endeavours even if such goals are attained. Please do not let your career journey be devoid of fulfillment or personal growth and [it’s important to] enjoy the process of learning as well.

Finally, can you tell us about an International Women's Day campaign that connects with you? 

This Nike campaign [see below] takes a bold stance in celebrating diversity by confronting the conventional portrayal of women in the context of exercise. It challenges the narrow perception that women engage in physical activity primarily to achieve a certain body shape, shifting the focus towards the genuine benefits of exercise for health and personal enjoyment. Nike's campaign empowers women to prioritise their well-being and to embrace exercise as a means of self-fulfillment, rather than solely as a pursuit of external validation. I think it embraces inclusivity and fires all the right boxes for International Women’s Day.

Campaign Asia

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