'A role model': Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes reflects on her legacy, retirement and raising four children

Aedhmar Hynes speaks to The Drum about her legacy, diversity and transparency.

In the 20-odd years that Aedhmar Hynes has worked at Text100, she has risen to become the chief executive of the global marketing communications agency, securing the likes of IBM, Adobe, Cisco and American Express as the firm’s major clients along the way.

Her position as one of the leading figures of the communications industry has also helped her to become a board member at TechnoServe, which focuses on helping entrepreneurs in third world countries to get out of poverty, a Henry Crown Fellow at The Aspen Institute, which seeks to develop the next generation of community-spirited leaders, and work with the Arthur W. Page Society, where she will become chair in 2018.

However, the legacy that Hynes wants to leave behind is one of being a role model for leading a company and raising a family of four at the same time, the 51-year-old says in a conversation with The Drum during her trip to Singapore.

“I feel that my job has changed so much from what I did when I started my career. I have worked and lived in many countries, and I have had the privilege to work with some of the world's most important brands,” she reflects with a smile. “I turned out to be a fairly well-balanced, even-keeled person and I did not have to sacrifice who I am as a person in order to do either. I hope that my legacy is that I act as a good role model for both men and women in my company to not sacrifice one thing or the other.”

The Irish-born woman, who sports a stylishly sliver-cropped hair and still speaks with a hint of Irish accent, now calls the United States home, where she cooks for her family, watches the theatre and opera, and practises yoga when she is not travelling to meet her Text100 colleagues and clients in the agency’s 22 offices around the world.

Hynes reckons that she still has a decade left in the industry before she calls it a day because, simply put, she is enjoying her work. “The beauty of my work is that I have not just seen it as just work, I have always seen my personal life infused with my work. That, for me as a mother of four children and as a CEO of global company, is to ensure one influences the other in a helpful way,” she explains.

“My children have reached a stage where they no longer need me physically and therefore I can see myself being able to travel the world and take more time to see the world from a personal perspective. In some shape or form, I think I will always try and do something that feels meaningful beyond taking time off and pursuing things I like to pursue like cooking, theatre, opera and yoga.”

Having witnessed disruption in the form of the work that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were doing, the Sony Walkmans and Nintendos, and the chunky cellphones when Hynes started her career in the 80s, she fell in love with business, technology and storytelling, leading her to join Text100 after moving from Ireland to London.

As the world started to fully grasp the powers of technology during that period, Hynes recalls that Text100, with its roots in technology public relations and having perspective, technology, innovation, creativity and change at its core, had no trouble transforming itself into a marketing communications agency, as other traditional PR agencies struggled to evolve in the communications space.

“We saw technology disrupting our clients space, but what we did not expect to happen is that technology would disrupt the communications space,” explains Hynes. “What I have seen is that Text 100 was in a better position than most of the other agencies to be able to deal with that disruption and change, because we were used to doing it on behalf of our clients.”

The next wave of disruption came with the arrival of the likes of Google and Facebook, changing the way that brands advertised their products and communicated with their consumers. According to Hynes, this disruption was more of a blessing than the last.

“The biggest change for us has been the proliferation of digital and social platforms, and the fact that people can communicate now so easily across all of the different platforms. For an agency that specialises in marketing communications, it gives us so much more opportunity to actually go direct to our target audience.”

Hynes adds that technology has democratised communications in a way that it is no longer just dealing with demographics, but also dealing with an 'audience of one' through data analytics and understanding of consumers digital footprint. This has changed the communications industry massively and for the better because they can be far more strategic in how it communicates to various stakeholders.

Spending time with Hynes, it quickly becomes clear that she is a person who has strong opinions about the issues inside and outside her industry. And there is nothing she is more passionate about when the topic of diversity is brought up, having written twice about the subject via Linkedln.

“We have an issue in communications,” she says of the lack of gender diversity in the industry. “You just have to look at the top 10 agencies in the world and see that, despite the fact that we are in industry that has more women in general, the number of women in senior leadership positions is less representative.”

While she acknowledges that she is one of the few agency leaders who is a female, Hynes says Text100’s practice is not to focus on gender as a reason to promote people and instead, promote people based on their skill sets and capabilities. She says the issue is not whether to promote a woman or promote a man, it is about providing the right kind of work environment where women can compete as effectively as men.

For example, when staff in Text100 have children, the agency ensures that in giving women maternity leave, it is also giving men paternity leave. Hynes explains that this is because Text100 wants to ensure a work environment that is equal to both men and women, not just proportionately in favour of men or disproportionately in favour of women.

“I think if you provide that sort of work environment, then you can promote people based on skill sets, not based on gender. There is a danger if you are promoting based on gender alone that you end up with more of the men in senior positions because you are not providing the right culture for women to thrive at work,” she adds.

Even though she is a great believer in the notion of diversity and inclusion, Hynes laments that the issue often focuses too much on gender diversity and ethnic diversity, which leads to discussions about how somebody appears on the outside, but not about what they are thinking on the inside.

What people are thinking on the inside is also important, she explains, because the heart of diversity and the real reason to have diverse workforce is to ensure that there is diverse thinking and diverse background, and that people are thinking about the challenges that their clients are facing in a different way.

“If at the heart of diversity debate it is to create a diverse workforce, you have to also focus on what is inside, which is the diversity in thinking. So we need people from different religious backgrounds, cultural experiences and diverse skill sets,” she says, adding that companies also need to provide people from a different background with training if they need to change their particular skill set.

She warns that if there is no diversity in training, there is a danger of sidelining good people just because they do not appear to have the right skill sets. “We want to retrain people, find the right talent and ultimately, create a workforce that thinks differently,” she adds.

The conversation about diversity naturally moves on to Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement in the entertainment industry, as Hynes expresses her hopes that similar sexual assault cases in her industry come to the forefront. “I am incredibly proud of the women who have come forward despite the fact that it may have implications for their career,” she adds.

Agreeing that the issue exists in all industries, Hynes says she is fascinated that in an era where there is fake news and people are ‘lying a lot’, whether its politically or in other industries, the truth is emerging. She adds that the #metoo campaign is just one example of where people are seeking the truth, which is powerful now than it has ever been before.

She reveals that because she had cases of men having issues with other men or women, she focuses on, not just in her agency and in dealing with clients, trying to create an environment where women and men can feel like they are in a safe environment, where they can report sexual assault cases and the agency can deal with it effectively without it creating a backlash.

“Culture is everything, and having a culture of transparency and openness, sexual harassment is less tolerable to people and therefore the instances of this happening becomes fewer and fewer,” she says. “The single most important thing to protect them is that if they are found out, there will be consequences. In the cases of the big public figures, they are losing their careers, livelihoods and their position of power. But in the less influential and powerful positions, people will lose their jobs. You cannot behave inappropriately and continue to be employed.”

The culture of transparency and openness is something the communications industry is struggling with too, having been rocked recently by the Bell Pottinger saga. The sky turns grey outside the restaurant in Singapore as the rain starts to fall and Hynes’ mood also darkens when asked what advice she has to firms and her own firm in order to avoid going down that path.

“At the heart of our firm, and many good firms, is a strong set of values and cultures. In the same way that we advise our clients, when you are in a period of uncertainty, go back to your values,” she says firmly. “Your values can really help you to determine what are the kind of clients you want to work with, what are the kind of campaigns you want to build. We have in the past, been asked to bid for work that does not align with our values, or the people that we hire are in aligned with our values and do not want to work on that kind of work.”

She reveals that there have been several occasions where the agency has been doubtful after taking a brief, on the basis that they cannot judge something without knowing more.

However, she is keen to stress that the agency will always seek more information in order to get to the truth and that if the company does not align with values or that Text100 cannot do good work on their behalf, then it will turn down that work.

“As the leader of my agency, I cannot be in my staffs' head when they take a brief, but if my culture and values are strong as an agency, they will be lived in Singapore and in our other offices,” she explains. “We live in a world where we have to make our clients front and centre, and believe in what they are doing. If at some point you work with a company and their strategy changes, and they are making decisions that you cannot support, you have to exit that relationship.”

Nonetheless, Hynes believes that the communications industry’s future is exciting, as much as there is change, there is as much that stays the same. “Human beings, whatever generation they are, are still fundamentally the same. I think the technology is changing to allow us to do a lot more. In reality, what is happening with AI, or we call it augmented intelligence, is how can you combine machines and technologies with human abilities to make something more powerful.”

“Our role as communicators is to understand that, because the understanding of that goes through the entire customer journey. At what point will a customer be content and happy to deal with AI versus dealing with a human being, and being able to ensure that we are using all that data to look at insights on consumer behaviours and build creative campaigns on top of that,” she adds.

It is evident that the passion that drove her to join Text100 is still strong, as Hynes remains fascinated by technology and says she is hoping to see these emerging technologies talk and connect with each other before she exits the industry after her self-declared deadline.

However, while there is definitely a temptation for Hynes to spend her remaining time in the industry pondering about how the agency will handle another new wave of disruption, she says she has learnt to let go after years of sleepless nights worrying about her self-confidence and insecurities when it comes to making the right decisions for the business.

“I do not worry about finances because they are merely the outcome of the decisions you make and the real purpose of how the decisions impact people. You have to put the people and strategy at the centre, and the numbers will be fine,” she says of her ways of dealing with stress.

“You have to constantly remind yourself that we are not saving lives and for me it is about the big picture, where I look at the things that my decision will impact. Finance is important, but at the end of the day, as long as everyone is safe and healthy, that is fundamentally important,” she adds.

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Shawn Lim

Shawn Lim is a reporter at The Drum, covering industry news around the Asia Pacific region with a focus on Singapore and Southeast Asia. Based in Singapore, he has worked across photography, video and online, covering a range of subjects including current affairs and sports.

Before Game of Thrones, he was a huge Breaking Bad fan. He does CrossFit and yoga to stay healthy.

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