Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk have become so personally and professionally entwined over their more than 30-year partnership and close friendship that they once spent a decade penning an advice column for marketing professionals under the name “Jancy.”
Now the former co-chief creative officers at Ogilvy Toronto, who since 2011 have run the creative leadership consultancy Swim, are being jointly inducted into the One Club for Creativity’s Creative Hall of Fame.
They are among five women inductees this year, joining just nine women inducted since the Hall’s 1961 inception. They take their place alongside titans of the industry including Leo Burnett (inducted: 1961); David Ogilvy (inducted: 1963) and Mary Wells Lawrence (inducted: 1969).
“The Creative Hall of Fame is the ultimate recognition of a storied career of a visionary creative professional,” said The One Club’s CEO, Kevin Swanepoel. “Nancy and Janet are well deserving of this highest honour, as they have helped transform the industry, uplift underrepresented groups, and continue to inspire the next generation of creative thinkers and doers.”
It’s the latest in a series of recent accolades for the two creative leaders, which includes winning the ADCC’s lifetime achievement award, The Les Usherwood Award, in 2021.
“I don’t know what all the pent-up hall of fame stuff is, but it’s one sort of head-spinning moment after another,” says Vonk via Zoom from her home in the Algonquin Highlands. “It’s given us a lot of cause to pause. It’s like ‘Whaat? Whaat?'”
While people in the creative realm tend to be resolutely focused on the future, Kestin says the string of accolades has given the pair reason to look back on a fulsome body of work that includes not only award-winning ad campaigns for brands like Dove and Shreddies, but also two books—Pick Me and Darling, You Can’t Do Both—and, perhaps most importantly, an entire generation of creative talent they helped nurture and develop.
“A lot of what we’re known for creative wise is in our rearview mirror, but because we are often asked to comment on things connected to the ad industry, we have occasion now and again to think about it,” says Kestin, from New Zealand, where a trip to visit her new grandchild has been temporarily waylaid by an unexpected bout with Covid. (“It’s a long way to come to get Covid,” she says wryly.)
Winning the Les Usherwood award last year led the two to look back over their entire body of work, says Kestin. “I can’t believe how much stuff we’d forgotten,” she says. “We were very focused on the work at a certain point in our lives, and our energy shifted after we’d been CCO’s for a number of years, and we realized we were most attached to the people, what they could do, and the environment we could provide that would let them do their best work. People are all about the future, so primarily we’re looking forward for that reason.”
The two first came together in the 1990s, when Kestin was hired as a freelance copywriter on what Vonk remembers as a “hilariously ridiculous” feminine hygiene campaign. The two hit it off from the very start, and both say their subsequent partnership helped unlock the other’s true potential.
“We were having average careers before we started working together,” says Vonk. “We were fine, but we were not on track to be people who were inducted into halls of fame. Janet really filled in a big blank spot in my abilities, and vice versa, and there was always a really high level of trust.”
In two decades as a creative team, they created campaigns both big and small, some of which achieved the rare feat of transcending advertising to become part of the cultural conversation.
While their work on Unilever’s Dove brand, including the hugely acclaimed “Evolution” that was one of the “Campaign for Real Beauty’s” signature ads, tends to overshadow the other work in their career, they also had considerable success with a late 1990s campaign for Timex Indiglo, and the much-lauded “Diamond Shreddies” campaign, as well as producing smart, punchy campaigns for brands including Royal Chinet, Castrol and Hot Wheels.
Their roles were fluid. While Kestin was ostensibly a copywriter, she would often provide input on the creative aesthetic; Vonk was the art director, but would sometimes write radio scripts or headlines. “Eventually we were just having ideas together, and who knows who did what in the end,” says Vonk. It was a melding of minds into a single entity, adds Kestin.
Along the way they discovered an inherent ability for mentoring and growing the next generation of talent, which led to them championing what would become a hugely successful intern program at Ogilvy. “We came to see the juniors as the secret weapon,” says Vonk. “We became kind of a feeder agency for a lot of other places, because we really put so much into mentoring and training people.”
After leaving Ogilvy, the two launched Swim to fill what Vonk describes as a “huge gap” in leadership skills for creative people.
“They don’t give you the manual with a promotion: We had to stumble and fumble along, and had a certain amount of good luck and care from some great mentors, but we still were falling flat on our face half the time,” she says. “And we know that was true for everybody else too.”
The two say they’re uncertain about what the next chapter of their career might bring. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you never know,” says Vonk, who was among the wave of people who left the city for a more rural life during the pandemic. “At this point I’m more interested in bee-keeping than on a new career move.”
For now, though, the creative duo is just enjoying the renewed buzz around their career.