Welcome to the Ad Spotlight series where we will hear from a different guest from the industry each month to get an insight into the landscape of advertising as well as their own personal experiences.
Our first guest is Nicola Lewis, CGO at Finecast. Nicola is responsible for leading Finecast’s engagement with agencies and clients and delivering industry-leading addressable TV solutions to brands and advertisers internationally.
And, earlier this month, she celebrated being five years clear of cancer. Here is her powerful story…
Me, my career, and breast cancer
This week marks five years since I heard the life changing words, “you have breast cancer”. The year was 2016, I was 41, fit and strong, had no children – through choice – and was married to a wonderful man, Andrew. I was living by Tamarama beach in Sydney, Australia, surrounded by brilliant friends and was two years into one of my biggest career moves.
I had done what many people don’t and moved from media vendor side to agency side at 40, and well into my media career. I was learning a whole new craft and integrating myself into the biggest media organization in the world – WPP, and GroupM. Not only was it a challenging and enthralling time in my career, it was an incredibly important time in my life.
You see, when I was a child, my aspiration was to be a ‘businesswoman’ – yep, that was it! I wanted to travel to work every day, absorb myself into an office environment, sit at a boardroom table and excel. Some might say not terribly adventurous but, for me, that was the dream having grown up in modest surroundings.
My career has always been a part of me, defined me if you like. Working in media is fun, it is an industry that never stops, and is full of incredibly talented, inspiring people. I thrived in the work place.
The news that changed everything
But then everything changed on that day five years ago. I didn’t have a discernable lump, but something just felt wrong and what I can only describe as my female intuition kicked in. A mammogram showed very clearly that I had breast cancer and, in fact, a 4cm tumor that had travelled to three lymph nodes.
Upon diagnosis the doctors were noticeably puzzled – the person sitting in front of them didn’t look like they had cancer, and they couldn’t really feel the offending tumor. But the scans very clearly showed a woman in her early 40’s with stage 2B breast cancer. It was action stations. They were going to need to act, and fast.
Through the haze, I could make out the words ‘chemotherapy’, ‘mastectomy’, and ‘radiotherapy’. I was told to put my life on hold for at least the next 12 months.
It was this last sentence that I could not compute. How could I, Nicola, who was always out of bed early for a good, challenging day a work, whilst running from one thing to another and balancing a great and fulfilled social life stop for 12 months!
And so not only did I have to wrap my head around losing my hair and my femininity, I had to level the fact that I would lose the energy I had, and would not be able to continue doing what I loved. Or did I?
“I couldn’t imagine not being at work”
After I had gone home and gathered myself, off I went back to work. I was the Chief Investment Officer for Mindshare Australia, a job I had held for two years, and a job I loved. I couldn’t imagine not being at work. I was worried about missing out, losing my relevance, and losing all I had worked so hard for. So, I kept going.
For my type and stage of cancer I opted for neo adjuvant chemo, so chemo before surgery. It was a chance to make sure it was working, and for me to watch the tumor shrink ahead of surgery.
First chemo down, and right on schedule at the two weeks mark, my hair started to fall out. I decided to get ahead of the curve and shave my hair before it got worse (well my gorgeous hubby did). I have to say there is something incredibly bonding about a husband shaving your hair due to chemo. Each time, we laughed, and we cried.
I kept going to work, but the side effects arrived. I knew what was coming, but until you start to feel it, it simply isn’t a reality.
I was so reluctant amongst all the mayhem to let go of work. I kept going to the office, dressed in my ‘businesswoman’ attire, but now with the addition of a head scarf. Except there was one big difference, I couldn’t think straight. I had what is affectionately termed as “chemo brain”. I would cry at the slightest hint of criticism – frequently leaving a meeting room in tears. I wasn’t myself, and people could see it.
Love and support
The first act of kindness and encouragement I had within the workplace came from the ever-amazing Katie Rigg Smith (CEO of Mindshare Australia). She brought me a cup of tea and told me to stop working. Just for a little bit while I went through chemo.
She was wonderfully honest and encouraged me to spend time focusing on me, my husband, and the journey I had just started. She finished by saying one of the most powerful things I have ever heard. She told me I was brilliant, how much I was respected and how much I was loved. She told me to leave and let people remember that version on me, ready for when I came steaming back through the doors of Mindshare as the same person I had been prior to the chemo treatment. She knew me and knew that, deep down, that was what I was holding on to! She was right and I left at the end of that week with the with full support of Mindshare and GroupM.
Unfortunately, my treatment journey didn’t go quite to plan. 12 months turned into 24 after a series of infections, the decision to have a preventative mastectomy, along with the non-elective one, and five grueling weeks of radiotherapy. I was literally broken and totally exhausted.
Me being me, I had attempted to go back to work straight after my necessary mastectomy, but my body was so tired. As a halfway point I started back three days a week between 10 am – 2 pm. But, as soon as I started radiotherapy that stopped, too.
But, and this is a big but, my career didn’t. Not only did GroupM and Mindshare support me 100% during my treatment, but they supported me in my career advancement whilst I was undergoing treatment.
Tackling chemo and my career
In March 2017 the then CIO of GroupM Seb Renne resigned to move to GM Canada. It was my dream job, and a big job too. My first thought was there is no way they are going to promote someone who is in the throes of breast cancer. Why would they? I felt broken, less sharp, not as bright somehow and not as driven. But I was!
Amongst all the hospital treatments, and unknowns, I wanted the role. I wanted that next step in my career. I was physically broken, but not mentally!
I called Seb and asked him what he thought, and he countered my concerns. He told me I was, in fact, incredibly strong, that I had bounced back to work post-surgery before radiotherapy and that there was a general sense of respect in my approach and attitude to my cancer journey. Disclaimer: This isn’t to claim I am amazing; it is more an illustration of the disconnect between my internal thoughts and processing and external perception.
After an exhaustive interview process – including one that came two days after a surgery for an infection – I was promoted. The first female GroupM CIO in Australia.
The outpouring of support I received from work colleagues, both within the GM walls and the Australian media industry was amazing! Their love, encouragement and kind words lifted me up and made me believe I could do it, and, crucially, that breast cancer hadn’t taken my career away from me.
It was an unbelievable moment of triumph for me personally, and one I will always be very proud of. But, it wouldn’t have been possible without the unwavering support of my employer – GroupM.
Going through a breast cancer journey is hard enough on your body and soul – not to mention the impact on your loved ones, too. You have so many big decisions to make, with little to no previous experience or knowledge of what the outcome might be. To be able to do it with financial and career stability cannot be underestimated, and removes an incredible amount of unnecessary stress, so you can focus on you.
I was one of the lucky ones. Not everyone is in that position. During my treatment I met women who had been demoted at work, been made to continue full time, had no insurance cover and who’s pay had ceased whilst they undertook treatment. Most of them also had children. Me, I never had to tackle any of those things.
The support didn’t and hasn’t stopped there.
Yes, I have worked hard, and yes, I have always been incredibly passionate about media, clients, and the industry I work in, but I have also been afforded amazing opportunities at every turn.
Taking the next step
Five years on, I have since taken the next big step in my career as Global Chief Growth Officer at Finecast, our ever growing, incredibly exciting Addressable TV division. I have relocated from my beloved Australia back to my homeland in Europe. And I have done so with the company that has supported me from day one.
I feel very lucky to be a part of it and am incredibly grateful that I am able to get up every day with my health intact and to do what I love every day, surrounded by a team of brilliant, talented people, and a leader who will always support my career, but also my wellbeing.
Breast cancer challenges your very femininity. It takes away a lot physically, mentally, emotionally. It is the gift that keeps on giving – I still can’t feel four toes on each of my feet due to neuropathy, I have pre osteoporosis sustained through chemo, and I take a daily tablet that controls my hormones and ultimately keeps me alive.
Cancer never leaves you, although I have now been in remission for the magical five years. But nor does the immense support I have had from GroupM, WPP, Mindshare and now Finecast. Without a doubt any challenges I face in my life and career now always come with a lens of awareness, strength, and desire to succeed. I tend not to wait for opportunity now, and rather chase after it, knowing I have the tenacity to succeed.
Finally, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Early detection is key and can literally save you. My female sense of intuition did. Please anyone reading this – male or female – have a feel around. You will never lose out from doing so.