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Debbi Vandeven, “The qualities for a leader are an equal mix of creative talent, interpersonal skills and fearlessness”

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Nov
24,
2011
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Debbi-Vandeven

Our collaborator Jie li Mei has interviewed Debbi Vandeven,  Chief Creative Officer at VML.

Debbi began her career at MMG Worldwide and then went on to own her own award-winning design firm. In 2000, Debbi joined digital marketing agency VML where she rose through the ranks working with clients such as Colgate-Palmolive, Gatorade, Revlon, and Kellogg’s, and now serves as the agency’s Chief Creative Officer.

As Chief Creative Officer, Debbi draws on her 18 years of industry experience to successfully oversee over 150 creative talent and 25 user-experience professionals, including creative directors, branded content directors, copywriters, art directors, motion graphics designers, producers, user experience directors and experience architects.

Debbi’s creative leadership has been instrumental in differentiating VML from its competitors, helping VML to become one of the top digital agencies in the U.S. Recognition for outstanding VML creative output includes numerous awards and recognition by One Show Interactive, NY Festivals, The Webby Awards, Web Marketing Association WebAwards, Internet Ad Competition (IAC) Awards, OMMA Awards, HOW Interactive Design Awards and numerous ADDY Awards for local, district and national recognition.

It must take a lot be Chief Creative Officer at VML! What is a typical day in the life of Debbi Vandeven?

I don’t think I can say I have a typical day, in fact I think not having a typical day is what has kept me happy with my career choice and working for VML for nearly 12 years. Every day is a little different and working with multiple teams and clients keeps me always learning something new too.

What do you believe are the top three qualities a leader should possess in this industry where 99 out of 100 ideas are rejected and thick skin is a must?

I don’t believe you need thick skin if you keep the right perspective about your ideas and your work. If you understand that getting a good idea rejected by a client, or even others from your team, is not a personal rejection of your talent it is easier to move on to the next great idea.

I believe the top three qualities for a leader to be successful in the creative field is an equal mix of creative talent, interpersonal skills and fearlessness. You have to have talent for others to follow and you must possess good interpersonal skills because relationships are key to working with your team and selling-in work to clients. And the third quality is equally important, you have to be fearless. If you don’t put ideas out there for rejection you will never come up with something great. You simply cannot be afraid to fail.

What/Who do you believe has been a key contribution to your success?

This one is easy for me; my family has been a key contribution to my success. From my parents always supporting my choice to pursue a career in advertising/design to my husband and daughters supporting my career even today.

It is also easier for me with demanding schedules and long hours because my husband is a creative director as well, so he is more understanding and supportive with a better understanding of the industry. Having my daughters has contributed to my success too, from gaining better time management skills to always learning from them. It’s a huge help to see the world from their perspective.

Overseeing over 175 individuals is a gigantic task. How do you prepare yourself mentally each day? Is there a “ritual” you usually do (e.g. Coffee, coffee, espresso)?

It might seem like a large task and I have to admit some days it feels like it, but there is a key to being a successful with a team this large, hire a great team of leaders. The success of VML is the people and I have long tenured senior staff that I really trust. I don’t think I have any rituals I try to exercise to relieve stress and I just feel better overall when I take time to run.

Is it a tough balancing act between work and family? Have there been any sacrifices?

Yes, it is a tough act to balance work and family. You have to decide what the right balance is for you. Not the standards that you believe are societies’ norm, but what type of balance you need to be happy.

Early in my career I beat myself up trying to be great at it all, for instance, trying to bake cookies for the classroom and still make deadlines for my job. I learned that store bought cookies might be a better option for me. The saying “don’t sweat the small stuff” is sometimes tough to follow, but I find that it helps when you have to make choices about life and career. You can have it all but it just might not be the same “all” you thought it was.

I don’t believe there is a secret way to be successful at both all the time. I feel like work suffers when I am focused on family and family suffers when I am focused on work. I just learned that neither would be perfect from my point of view all the time.

I have been a mother and worked in the advertising industry long enough to find a good balance for me, as well as my family.

Lisa Seward, media director at Fallon Minneapolis mentioned in an Advertising Age article, “To succeed wildly, one pretty much has to sacrifice much in their personal lives. Those who choose to make those sacrifices are rewarded. If more of the `sacrificers’ are men, so be it”. Would you agree that fewer women choose a not-so-nine-to-five job due to the priority of their personal lives?

I do believe that fewer women choose a not-so-nine-to-five job because of their personal lives. I have seen women that were becoming more successful and were leaders in their companies to choose family and cut back at work.  I understand their choice though, it is really tough to do both.

The question is more about why they make this choice. Is it because they really choose family over career, because they believe the earning potential is greater for their partner, or is it because if they choose they would have to sacrifice family for career because they don’t see an option on how to do both?

I don’t have an answer, but I think what worked for me was an understanding that my life is one continual path that includes family and career, but that my career would take different turns than I originally thought.

When I had my first child I did make a change and worked on the corporate side of the business. I also took the time to work on my masters, I think I was already used to the long the hours.  So I traded long work hours for shorter work hours, time with my baby and hours with school.

I headed back into the ad industry a few years later when my youngest was just under a year old. From then on, with the support of my husband, we just figured out what worked for us and for us it definitely meant both of us taking an equal role in parenting as well as career.

What is the ratio of women to men in your creative teams?

I don’t know the exact ratio but I can definitely tell you it is less women.  It is not for the lack of trying though. Similar to your earlier question, we do find a lot of women out of school and thankfully, VML has a great tenure of staff. It is usually around five years or so we lose some very talented women and it is usually due to the hours in the industry. I see many get married and a few have children but I am not surprised if they make a decision for a career change.

I have one female ECD out of four, one Group CD out of six, and six out of 13 or so CD’s on our teams some are a better mix of women and men than others. I believe all the leaders on my team would say the same – that they would prefer a mix of women and men on their teams. Having different perspectives is better for the work and our business.

Do you believe we will see a smaller gender gap in creatives in the future…or far away future?

I hope it is in the near future, but I don’t see the business changing to fit gender issues that are part of the cause of the gaps we see. What gives me hope is that we do see great talent in the young female recruits and recently we have hired some senior talent too that have managed to figure out a balance that works for them.

How do you keep the synergy and the motivation going in the teams you oversee?

Synergies get tougher the bigger the company gets, and the more offices we have, but of course we have process and sharing between teams to keep as much synergies as possible between groups.

Motivation is more fun and easier in many ways. We have healthy, supportive competition at VML. Our leaders know that if the work is great we all win so they push their teams to do great work we can all be proud.

As digital media begins to dominate, do you think traditional mediums will be taking a back seat permanently? Or is digital media just a “trend”?

Well I think digital as a “trend” days are over, doesn’t everyone?  I don’t look at it as traditional vs. digital anymore.

We are hired to solve problems. If you focus on problem solving and not lead with a channel, you will be more successful and so will your clients.

I think the most successful agencies in the future will continue to focus on problem solving first.

What do you think a creative should always keep sight of in the haze of the creative process?

Creatives have to understand what the problem is they are trying to solve. Not just creative for creative sake. It can actually be tougher than you think. I have seen a beautiful work and ideas that on their own are great but the message is lost on the consumer.  I try my best to make sure the work is solving the client’s problem.

What have you seen as the biggest challenge creatives face during ideation?

There are a lot of challenges with the ideation process. More so today because of the multiple ways to reach audiences, creatives get overwhelmed in all the choices available and the possibilities technology has afforded the industry to reach our audience. Tactics can get in the way of the problem-solution process. If they can stay focused on solving the problem with a great idea first and decide on tactics second the ideation process will be more successful.

What would you say is the biggest difference in female creativity and male creativity? Is there a difference?

I don’t think the actual sense of creativity is different based on the gender. I believe the genders are inherently different in the way they perceive many things in life, so the outcome of the ideation process may be different. Most of our teams are not “traditional” as in one CW and AD, so I believe the mix up of talent could have more differences in outcomes than simple male vs. female creativity.

From the campaigns that you have overseen, has female creativity ever been on the other side of the spectrum from male creative creativity?

It really hasn’t. I have seen differences when the team doesn’t really have a good insight about the audience. But if you understand your audience I haven’t seen huge discrepancies in the end result.

In your opinion, what is the forte of women creativity in the ad industry? In contrast, what is not?

I don’t really know if there is a forte of women creativity and something that is not. Personally, I prefer to work on business that is targeted to women but only because it’s easier to relate to the audience, but our agency has many different clients and verticals. I think stretching yourself is good too.

Do you judge campaigns based on the gender(s) of the creative(s) behind the idea? Have you ever done so?

No, I honestly do not judge work based on the gender of the creators. I just critique the work itself, and often do not know all team members involved when viewing it for the first time.

What is your favorite advertising medium?

Well I do work for a digital company so it’s a bit of a giveaway. I truly love design, which is how I took a turn in my career into digital away from a traditional advertising agency.

What is/are your favorite ad campaign(s) of all time?

All time is tough… maybe I should have one but I don’t. I love work that touches an emotion doesn’t matter what they are selling if the work makes me laugh, cry or I am inspired then it makes my list.

What is your drink of choice for the late hours at work?

Sounds boring, but I guess it would be water… at least it would be now. When I was in my twenties lots of diet soda. But after a few kidney stones you learn to drink a lot more water.

What is one campaign you are most proud of?

We don’t always do “campaigns” but our body of work on Gatorade is definitely work I am proud to say is ours.  The clients live and breath the brand and so does our team! Everything from digital campaign work to innovations in iPad advertising to branded content work with the NFL, on a web series called “Everything To Prove.”  When you have clients that have a clear focus then it is easier for the team to be create work you are proud of.

What is one of the best moments in your career thus far/you are looking forward to?

There is not one best moment for me in my career. I really enjoy winning business, but sharing time with people that I really enjoy working with creates the best moments for me along the way.

Who—AdWomen, AdMen, or otherwise—has inspired you in your work or personal endeavors?

In all honestly I have not followed career paths, but I have been really inspired by some of the work since, Tony Granger, has taken the Global Chief Creative Officer role with Y&R. He has created a team of great talent as well as good people to lead the creative globally.

As an avid reader, has a book recently inspired you? Can you share the title?

I just finished reading, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. It is a truly inspirational story about survival and redemption. Makes a day at the office and this industry look like a cakewalk.

Sometimes creatives alike might have writer’s block and need to take a figurative jackhammer to it. What advice would you give to those stuck in that mental rut?

Take a vacation. Seriously, a good holiday where you really unplug is needed! Go to the beach or the mountains or anywhere you find inspiration. For me, it could be a museum or a beach anywhere that is quiet and let’s me think about something else that is bigger than me and this industry.

What advice would you give to women:

1. Aiming for a spot on the creative side?

The same advice I would give a man… work hard. It takes hard work and dedication.

2. Who want to succeed in the ad industry as a whole?

Besides working hard, be nice. Really, the world has enough people that forget to be nice to others. Simply treat others the way you want to be treated.

3. Who want to stay curious?

Always, try to learn something new. Ask a question everyday. If you haven’t in a few days then search it out – something you don’t now. The world changes fast so it should be easy to stay curious.

Jie Li Amy Mei

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