Riding Shotgun with the Dames

BY daryl aitken
2011/10/26

If you’ve worked in this business for any length of time, you know who Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are.

When they were promoted in 1998 into their roles as co-creative directors at Ogilvy & Mather, they were one of the first pairs to share the creative leadership role, now it’s a common model.  They were among the first women to take the creative leadership reigns in our industry, more common now, at least in Toronto.  They literally wrote the book on getting into advertising (see Pick Me or Ask Jancy).  They have been recognized by every award show for their work and their teams.  I had the pleasure of working with them many years ago (and in the spirit of transparency, they’re among my BFFs).

Janet and Nancy are leaving the agency world with a killer idea, a new company, and a reputation for putting their thoughts into action.  I asked them 5 questions…

1. I think by now everyone knows that you’ve left Ogilvy and are starting your own business training and developing the next generation of creative leaders.  What I want to know is why do you think the industry has done so little to invest in leadership training for creatives?

JK - There’s a school of thought that believes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Creative directors have done ok in the school of hard knocks, so the industry hasn’t had much motivation to change things. But it seems like that time has come to an end. Before we threw over our very good day jobs for a leap into the unknown, we talked to creative heads from London to Buenos Aires and heard over and over again that the next generation of leadership seems to be missing.  No time for teaching, no time for learning. Time to do something about it.

NV- I don’t think there has ever been much in the way of “soft skills” training for creatives as they make their way up the ladder. Way back in the day David Ogilvy made training account people a science, but thought creative people couldn’t be taught—you either ‘had it’ or you didn’t. I don’t think our industry truly discounts the value of training people, but it got redefined as a “frill” in the early 90′s when the economy took a nose dive, and never reclaimed its importance. Today it’s still the first thing to go when budgets are tight. With everyone run off their feet, making the time is also seen as a challenge. But years and years of leaving people to learn by osmosis is taking a big toll. Many creative directors we’ve talked to agree: there’s a gaping hole where tomorrow’s leaders should be. Agencies can suffer many repercussions from a lack of thought leadership on their client’s brands, a dearth of mentoring and mature perspective from senior talent.

2. In your experience, what do you think are the biggest surprises for creative people when they move into a leadership role for the first time?  What are they really not prepared for?

NV - Some of the big, hard shifts as people step up:


  • Managing professional relationships when your peer is now your employee. (Suddenly, you really shouldn’t be having that extra beer with Bob, and you can’t tell him your problems anymore. And yes, he resents that you got the promotion and doesn’t like reporting to you.)
  • Putting others first: it’s unnatural for many creative people to shift energies to create conditions for the success of others.
  • You’ll discover a great deal of what you do to help people and make the work better can be invisible to your employees. A lot of thankless effort, part of the territory.
  • Developing strong relationships with clients, yes even on the accounts you’d rather avoid, isn’t optional. Shmoozing isn’t the model; authentic interest, a holistic understanding of their businesses is what’s needed.
  • Really owning your projects/accounts; following through with real commitment even when you’d rather wash your hands of a project gone wrong. Being the one to confront the need to change course if that’s what’s called for.
  • Shifting from focus on your own accounts to a holistic view and interest in the agency, and acting accordingly. Same for the client’s businesses.
  • Shifting from ad-maker to creative problem solver. The best place to be; people who really pull that off find their value goes up exponentially.

Just a few examples. Lots of gray areas, lots of going against the grain.

JK - The pressure of the buck actually stopping with you.

  • Seeing your 11-hour a day job become a 24-hour a day job.
  • Hiring and firing. (If you didn’t have an ulcer before…)
  • What it really means to lose an account.
  • Understanding that you only succeed if your people succeed.
  • Understanding that you only succeed if the agency succeeds.
  • Grappling with the big picture.
  • Getting in touch with the fact that you’re no longer your co-workers’ friend.
  • Not being liked.
  • Giving away credit.
  • Being a decision-maker without being a dictator.
  • Letting people make their own mistakes even at some cost to yourself.
  • Shall I go on?

3. What would your current self tell your 25-year old self if you could give her one piece of career advice?

JK - Live in another country; change jobs more often; reach for what you want; never move for money; don’t be afraid to have kids (if you’re good, a job will be there for you even if you’re living your life); if you’re not happy, go somewhere else, do something else. And give thanks for the semi-colon without which this would be 6 pieces of advice. Make that 7.

NV - I’d tell my 25 year old self to shut up and listen. I’m still not as good of a listener as I should be. And, stop taking it all so hard.

4. Borrowing from Inside the Actor’s Studio’s, what other career do you think you might have liked to try?

NV – I always liked to write. When I was in my first semester of college and wondering about journalism, a teacher who had been a journalist strongly discouraged me. In one short exchange, I crossed it off the list. I also loved acting when I was very young, and singing. I didn’t have the confidence to pursue either. Recently I took an acting workshop and it was a revelation. I didn’t suck. However, no illusions about giving up my day job.

JK – My childhood idols were Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart and Joan of Arc.  I always wanted to be a singer or pilot. Burned at the stake, not so much.

5. What do you think you’ll miss most about Agency life? (keep it clean ladies)

JK – The unpredictability. The highs (not the lows). Too many birthday cakes. The people, Marina, in particular.  And my parking pass. (sniff sniff)

NV – I already miss the great people I worked with every day. It was a privilege to hire talented, smart, incredibly nice people who made every day interesting. Then of course I inherited our assistant Marina Pietracci. Words cannot express my attachment after 13 years in the trenches with that great woman.

Say hi to Nancy or Janet at https://www.facebook.com/swim.meet.  Or, check out their article in Fast Company, http://www.fastcompany.com/1787101/leadership-training-advertising-agencies

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  • 26/10/11

    Julie says:

    Thanks Ladies. Always an inspiration.