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'Real Beauty' duo dives into new venture

00:00 EDT Monday, September 19, 2011

The meagre ranks of senior women in the Canadian advertising industry will shrink even further as Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin, the long-time co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, quit the business at the end of the month.

But if their hunch is right, a new venture they're starting might actually help increase the number of women in the business.

Best known for shepherding unusual and award-winning efforts like Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, which included a viral video that deconstructed the beauty industry's oppressive artifice, the two women are in the 20th year of their partnership at Ogilvy, including the last 13 years sharing leadership of the creative department.

Other recent award-winning campaigns developed under their watch include Diamond Shreddies, a tongue-in-cheek 2008 effort to create excitement around the square cereal that prompted some people to call for a boycott, seemingly unaware the campaign was poking gentle fun at the industry's never-ending love of promoting "new-and-improved" products.

Ogilvy will announce their replacement Monday, the same day the news of their departures becomes official.

But Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin won't be going far: On Oct. 1, they will open the doors on Swim, a two-person "laboratory" dedicated to helping solve the widely acknowledged lack of creative leadership in their own industry - and, they hope, other sectors as well.

Their first client? Ogilvy's North American network.

"We live in a time where so many of the answers to problems - people look at technology or whatever as the solution to a problem, but what they don't look at is their own creativity, which is to say, to make marvellous and mental leaps and connections between things to get to a new way of looking and seeing and thinking about a solution," Ms. Kestin said in an interview.

They spoke of the importance of so-called "soft skills": the ability to collaborate, a facility for empathy, navigating company politics, finding common language with others, and thinking laterally.

The pair pointed to a recent article in the trade publication AdWeek, "Why the average barista gets more training than most agency staffers," which reported on a study by the advertising agency Arnold Worldwide outlining a "crisis" in talent leadership.

The women said that the creative skills training programs that used to be commonplace when they broke into the industry in the mid-1980s had been the victim of cutbacks in the recessionary 1990s and were never properly replaced.

"The sense is the whole next generation of creative directors, creative leaders is missing, and it certainly is going to feed into having a multitude of problems, including agencies having less and less credibility as thought-leaders for their clients," said Ms. Vonk.

"When you have people leading that don't know how to teach others - that's a problem. And it's kind of a domino effect. We're just not well poised going into the future."

The pair are acknowledged experts on the issue of mentoring, with their advice column Ask Jancy on I Have an Idea, an online industry hub, now in its ninth year.

Their book Pick Me: Breaking Into Advertising and Staying There, is an oft-quoted resource.

The Swim training programs will comprise about four days of intensive workshops stretched across three months, and will include immersive experiences and discussions with actors, political speechwriters, and inventors.

The pair hope Swim will add fuel to their long-running mission of increasing the number of women in senior advertising roles.

"We're going to be having particular dialogues with the women in the program that we hope will mean more women can show up better equipped to go into those positions," noted Ms. Vonk.

"We won't promise we're going to change the world on that front in any short order, but we certainly have the interest in continuing to push up against that unfortunate statistic in any way we can."

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