Johanna McDowell on the role of work ethic and partnerships in building a successful business

Join me and Johanna McDowell in the Tree House Studio at the Fairlawns as we delve into foundational, evergreen values that build sustainable and reputable enterprises.


Johanna McDowell has built her career in marketing and advertising since 1974, starting out in marketing in the UK then holding directorships in both South African and British advertising agencies until she was appointed Managing Director of Grey – Phillips Advertising in 1988.  She joined Mazole Holdings in 2005 as CEO and founded the Independent Agency Search and Selection company (IAS) in 2007. IAS was rated the “most recommended pitch consultants” in South Africa by advertising executives in the MarkLives survey in March 2018. In 2018 she was selected as the only representative of South Africa to be appointed on the UK-based Women in Marketing’s (WIM) advisory council. She was a Fellow, Honorary Life Member, Board and Council member of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa for 11 years and a Member Emeritus, Past President and Board member of International Public Relations Association. Ms. McDowell is a graduate of the Twickenham College of Technology where she majored in Business Studies and Marketing, Economics, Accounting, French, Law, Marketing Research, European Union, Psychology and Advertising. Ms. McDowell has been recognized by Ernst & Young for her entrepreneurial activities and success and was honored as part of the Entrepreneurial Winning Women of 2013.

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Doing business in the Fourth Industrial Revolution era should not imply letting go of foundational values such as work ethic, building meaningful partnerships, setting and achieving goals and building a solid reputation in one’s field. In fact, these times call for the deepening of such values. Interviewing an accomplished leader like Johanna McDowell, whose experience spans several decades, should serve as a reminder that in an era where information and technology are increasingly accessible to all at the speed of light, building something of virtue and having true staying power takes a concerted effort and growth. There are no shortcuts. The Tree House Studio at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa was the sumptuous venue for a very important conversation.

You started your career in England in the 1970s, how did your entry into the world of marketing come about?

I consider myself very fortunate because I seem to have known what I wanted to do from the age of about 15. I was fortunate in the sense that I had a wonderful education at a girls-only convent and we were encouraged to be whatever we wanted to be. I had excellent teachers and then I also had my parents who were professionals. My mother was a teacher and my father a civil servant of many years. My parents encouraged my sister and I to be independent and nobody ever talked to us about, oh and when you get married…my mother never had those conversations with us. It’s not necessarily to imply that my parents didn’t want that for me, but the focus was on developing myself and I was encouraged to do that all the way along and I think that’s what solidified my trajectory. So, by the time I got to 15, I knew I wanted to be in business and I knew what I didn’t want to be; for instance, I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be anybody’s secretary, and this was 50 years ago. Between career guidance in school and conversations with my parents, I was introduced to the world of marketing. In school I was very strong in Mathematics and Art, which was unusual and a bit of a problem because they couldn’t stream me. Marketing is a combination of those two skills in a sense, so it was a natural fit for me. For my tertiary studies I attended what was then called a college of technology in Twickenham right at the start of the computer age and in those days, computers occupied floors and floors of buildings. My main focus of study was the European Union and the Common Market which was at the time that England was entering the common market.

How would you describe your transition from school to the college of technology in terms of being mentally prepared for it?

When I was in primary school, I attended a co-ed school before moving to the girls’ convent so when I went off to college, the class I was in consisted of 17 males and only 3 females and it’s easy to see why because it was Business and Marketing and in those days more males studied those subjects. So suddenly, I was in a class of young men and you must make decisions about that and one of the decisions that I made was to not get romantically involved with any of them and I stuck to that rule. The thing is, I was going to be studying with this group for 3 years, so how could I have a relationship with one of them which would end and still be in the same class? So, you must make those kinds of decisions very early on in your career and you must consciously make them. There was a girl who did in fact get involved with one of the boys in the class and sure enough it became very awkward for everybody else when it all went pear-shaped. It was quite interesting how, once the boys knew that they were not expected to hit on me, they actually became quite protective; it was like having a whole big bunch of brothers and it enabled me to focus on the task at hand, my studies, and do very well.

I find it interesting that you were in environment that nurtured you and respected your decisions and boundaries and you had all this clarity about yourself…looking back, is this a thread running through your career to date?

I had very far-sighted parents and I was incredibly fortunate because they as parents were partners. In all those years growing up, I never once heard my father say to my mother, no, that’s your job. He was a highly participant father. My parents both had careers and there was a deep sense of mutual respect. My father participated in the tasks in the home from washing up to cooking even though he’d put in a full day’s work outside the home because he knew that my mother had also worked all day. So, I only know that, I don’t know this other thing of women shouldering certain tasks and responsibilities because they are women. Having said that, I remember when I was 29 years old, talking to my mother some years after my father had passed on and asking her ere the head teacher, why she hadn’t gone on to be the head mistress when she’d been the head teacher. She did say that she had to make a decision and she had decided to put us, her daughters, first, because she knew that if she took up the position of head mistress she would have less time with us and she did feel that my father would have been a little uncomfortable had she gone on and got that position because the truth is she was stronger than him in many ways and she didn’t want to “unseat” him, so she was conscious of these dynamics.

So, growing up and coming into my own, I expected the world to be like that, to be more, and not less, egalitarian and I behaved accordingly. And this empowered me to change the world around me at a time, when, looking back now, it could have easily gone the other way.

I was also taught from a very early age that there is no such word as “can’t”, that mentality was simply not allowed to take root and having a can-do attitude has primed me to power through various scenarios in business and in life.

From the age of 15 I was fiercely independent and very eager to earn my own money even though I came from a good middle-class home. There wasn’t a lot of spare money, so I would do babysitting, weekend jobs and always worked over the holidays as well. So, I got introduced to the world of work and loved it from a relatively young age. Most mornings my father would get up first and make tea for everybody and my mother and my sister would have their tea in bed and I would get up and have tea in the kitchen with my father because I enjoyed his company and our time together. We’d read the papers together, talk about the latest happenings and he would tell me about his world of work. He’d tell me about what had happened in the office, his colleagues, and the kind of work that he was doing; I found it all very interesting. So, by the time I actually got into the real world of work, I had kind of been in it in a way for a long time. As a graduate, I went into a management trainee position for a very large retail store for about 2.5 years. There were 20 of us graduates who’d come in. There were some adjustments that I had to make; when you come in as a graduate, you think you know everything, and you’re quickly put in your place by those senior people who’ve been working in that environment for some time. Coming out of college and realizing that the world didn’t owe me a job at all, I had to work very hard to get the kind of job that I wanted, and it was incredibly competitive even back then.

Realizing that the world doesn’t owe you anything, and certainly not a job, in what ways did that propel you in your career and prime you for achievement?

The first full-time job that I had wasn’t my first choice by the way. In the last year of college, they started sensitizing us about job interviews so for 3 months I was going to job interviews. I got offered a wonderful position, which would’ve utilized all my skills, in the marketing department of British Oxygen and I was also going to do French translations because my second language was French. I was supposed to start on the 1st of August but my lecturer at college said that they’d put my name forward for a post-graduate 6-week program in Paris working for a company which studied the viability of opening hotels in French-speaking countries. This excited me, but the other reality was having to start my new job on the 1st of August, so I sent a letter to my prospective employer to inform them about this new opportunity in France and asked if they could wait for me. They refused. I had to make that decision and I’m glad I did; Paris was wonderful, and I learned a lot. After that 6-week stint in Paris, I had to go back to the UK and look for another job. I’d heard about the management trainee program at this large retail store, so I applied for it and got it. I was with the retail company for 2 years but what I wasn’t really using were my marketing skills, so I started looking for a job that would allow me to use and develop that. I then got employed by United Biscuits and that involved Marketing.

I came to South Africa and started working in advertising and it was a very challenging transition from being in the UK to this country. South Africa in the 1970s was sexist beyond speech and the fact that I was British and had all these qualifications worked against me and nobody would hire me in marketing. One of the marketing directors I’d been interviewed by suggested that I try out advertising and initially I was resistant to that idea because I saw myself as a marketer, but I did go into advertising.

What keeps me going when the going gets tough is the belief that if I keep going and keep working at this, it’ll come right, and it usually does.

My most important tool has proved to be my notebook, and I’ve accumulated hundreds of them over the years. I always have a list of what I’m doing and things to do, and as I do them, I cross them out. I also keep notes of meetings and so on. You must keep a record and when I write things, I never forget. Anything that’s been left over is transferred to a new notebook and I simply carry on. All these little steps are steps towards the next thing. As you get older, you also learn which opportunities to say no to and which opportunities to say yes to because otherwise you run ragged. Just yesterday for example, I had a conversation with a young woman in her early 40s based in Ghana and she is in the process of building a business that is very similar to mine. She was put in contact with me via mutual associates who she had a meeting with based in the UK. This opportunity is exactly in line with what my intentions have always been with my business, I’ve always wanted to have people throughout Africa to network with and do business with and I’ve met plenty over the years and it’s interesting that a few weeks ago I had a client who is interested in finding a suitable agency in Nigeria. You must have your intentions, you have to write them down otherwise you’re just dreaming and on a daily basis you’ve got to do something to work towards that. You can’t leave it, you can’t say I’m going to do that and then not do anything about it. Perseverance is absolutely key. What I tend to do is, if something written in my notebook hasn’t moved at all (some things take longer than others) then I do review and rethink it and question whether I want to do it or whether it even fits in with what I’m doing. I very rarely abandon something that’s in my notebook and if it’s worth pursuing I might then delegate it or postpone it.

I grew up in a home where the work ethic was everything. My father’s career played itself out in the national health service and the social security system and there you have children who’ve been raised in families where nobody has ever worked, they’ve never seen anybody go out to work every morning, whereas I only know that, I had both parents going out every morning and it truly shapes and grounds you. So, it’s a combination of that work ethic and the realization that nothing happens unless you try that has propelled me forward. My mother retired and then got herself retrained at the age of 60 to teach gym to the over-60s so for the next 20 years she was a volunteer in her community doing this work. Eventually my mother moved down to South Africa and for 10 years she was my sounding board in my business and I had really amazing coaching from her as well. She never told me what to do but she was a keen listener and her feedback always consisted of lots of questions and options that I could think about.

I started my first business when I was 40, up until then I’d worked for other people. I ran the largest advertising agency in the country at the age of 36 but I was an employee, I wasn’t a shareholder and a whole lot of mergers and acquisitions happened and suddenly there were 2 guys ahead of me who were never there before. As a working mother I was also concerned about spending more time with my son but also building a career that I respect and that I am respected for. The conclusion was I needed to start my own company which is something I’d been thinking about in the UK. I had accumulated a lot of experience, had a well-regarded name in the industry, had built a fantastic network but still, nothing prepares you for starting your own business.

So, how have you navigated your way through being an entrepreneur in your 40s?

You’ve got to find the right people to ask questions of, experienced people. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had very good mentors, both men and women whom I’ve sought out. I’ve worked with very good people. The reason I’ve had good mentors who are eager to mentor me is that they see my work ethic, they see how hard I work, and they can see how serious I am about my job, my business and the people around me. So, they choose to spend time with me. You have to know them, they have to know you, they have to observe you for a little while, otherwise why would they do it? The ideal mentors are usually very busy successful people so there’s no room for mentoring someone who is lazy and is not prepared to put in the effort that’s required. I actually didn’t understand what mentoring was for a very long time but over time I’ve come to see it as essentially having a guide and sometimes you have to be quite assertive about it but generally, you’re there as a guide and as an example. Mentorship is leadership by example. Coaching is not one of my biggest strengths, but I think mentoring is a very different thing; to be guided by people who lead by example is a real privilege.

There’s no short route to success, it’s all about the work ethic. I’ve had hundreds of people who’ve worked for me over the years and I can tell who’s got a good work ethic and who doesn’t.

When I started my first business, I knew that I wanted to have business partners, I never intended to go it alone. I think it is absolutely critical to be part of a team of people who are as invested as you are, people who work as hard as you do, who have as much to lose and gain as you do, in order to build something sustainable. People find it very difficult to have business partners and truly, these are very difficult relationships, they are not easy, and I’ve had failures and successes with partnerships all along the way but it’s a way of doing business that is certainly worth pursuing.

Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography