Introducing Sink or Swim

One of the overarching goals of The Message is to produce content by and for a new generation of Canadian marketers and communications professionals.

We want to be a platform for new voices and new talent, allowing them to share ideas about how they want to change the industry and build world-class brands right here in Canada.

But we also know that success in this industry does not come easily, and every career path contains many hurdles to clear. We want to provide some career guidance from experienced industry leaders willing to share their own stories and advice, and two of the very best are Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin.

Vonk and Kestin are Canadian advertising legends (both are inductees into the Marketing Hall of Legends) with a long list of accomplishments over the course of their sterling careers at Ogilvy—where they were co-chief creative officers for 13 years.

In 2012, they began a new chapter in their careers, with a goal of helping close the leadership skills gap in creative companies. They founded Swim to offer training to leaders at every level. Today, they work with people across multiple industries, including advertising, architecture and film.

Vonk and Kestin have agreed to share their insights in a regular column for The Message, answering real questions about the challenges faced by new leaders in marketing and advertising. We spoke with Vonk and Kestin about their leadership philosophy and how good leaders are tied to today’s organizational performance.

The value of leadership training

As they see it, the industry has been running so lean for so long that most agencies have stopped seeing the need to train and develop a new generation of leaders as an absolute must.

The cost of that strategy was becoming a big topic when Kestin and Vonk launched Swim, and is even more acute today. “The industry is in crisis,” says Vonk bluntly. She says the shortage of highly trained, experienced, well-equipped leaders is a significant factor in many of the issues plaguing advertising. “People are often promoted into leadership roles because they excel at a craft, yet they’re not really interested in the development of others or the business as whole, which is the first job of a leader,” says Kestin.

On leading millennials

“Many leaders today think millennials are too demanding, but in fact they don’t want anything different than most employees: they want to feel valued,” says Vonk. “Millennials are just less willing to stay at a job if they feel like cogs in a wheel.

“If you’re a leader that thinks millennials are high-maintenance, you need to realize that you need to change, not your employees,” she continues. “What works for millennials works for everybody else. You’re going to have major retention issues—and you won’t attract the best people—if you don’t grasp the concept of modern leadership.”

“Today, the best leaders are collaborative, empathetic and make people feel like they’re having real impact,” says Kestin. “They are a whole lot different from the lone wolves of the past who issued orders and didn’t think about the people carrying them out.”

“Great leaders know how to open people up, and ineffective leaders close them down,” says Vonk.

The value of experience

“Advertising is terrible at remembering its history,” says Kestin. “Experience has lost its value, and age is a handicap—which makes it easier to mistake what’s new for what’s good,” she says.

Happily, more companies are beginning to notice and are finding ways to give young leaders access to experience—not to replicate how things were done in the past, but to learn from it.

“There’s no replacement for experience,” adds Vonk. “We can only teach so much. There’s a lot you have to live through to really understand. You have be in a room with people at odds many times before you can consistently navigate that conflict well. You have to grow real relationships with your clients before you can internalize how to make that a regular practice.”

The importance of leadership on a creative culture

“Gallup’s daily engagement poll of thousands of companies shows that on any given day, only about one-third of any workforce is actively engaged and contributing,” says Kestin.

“People quit their bosses, not their companies, so increasing the number of employees who do their best is up to the people at the top. Asking questions, showing curiosity about employees, listening to them, creating a safe space to take risks—are all hallmarks of progressive leaders. And the beginning of understanding what motivates people to actually want to come to work, rather than just being there for the paycheque.”

David Brown