Denise Rossetto: inspiring others with her creativity and her humanity

By any industry standard, ranking or report card, Denise Rossetto is one of Canada’s most successful and respected creatives, and has been for a long time.

Over a 27-year career, she’s won top award show hardware both in Canada and around the world; served on the most prestigious juries, and been responsible a long list of innovative work that makes other creatives jealous.

She then went out and co-founded Broken Heart Love Affair, a groundbreaking and fast-growing agency that instantly became one of the most watched in Canada.

“Denise will always stand out as a leading chief creative officer in Canada for how exceptional she is at her craft,” said Lori Davison, one of Canada’s most respected marketers who worked with Rossetto at the ROM. “Moving up through management roles, she has never lost that muscle for writing and ideas which propelled her early success… It makes her a great problem solver for clients, because the well is very deep.” (Asked about her favourite work, Rossetto mentions this and this from BHLA and this and this from her pre-BHLA career.)

But when it was time to discuss her Mighty Women nomination, the jury didn’t spend much time on her work—that record speaks for itself. Instead, they talked about how long she’s been doing it—“We’ve come a long way, right? But to do what she was doing in the early 2000s, there just wasn’t a lot like her doing that,” said one—and how she has been an inspiration for other women by proving it was okay to prioritize family and still be great at your job.

Rossetto was an associate creative director at DDB when she had her twin boys in 2008. When it was time to return to the office, she knew she simply could not maintain the pace she set before having kids. “I was prepared to lose my job,” she said. But she went to her then executive CD Andrew Simon to ask about doing something different, prepared to quit if she didn’t get it. “I said, ‘I need four days a week. I will do the output that I’ve always done, but I can’t work the hours that I used to work,’” she told him.

It may feel different in a post-COVID world with flexible work expectations, but 14 years ago it was rare for a woman to ask for, and get, that kind of flexibility. (Just three years before, WPP’s then worldwide creative director had come to Toronto and said he didn’t like hiring women creative directors because they inevitably ran off and had children—though he used far more degrading language than that.)

“It was such a hard thing for people to understand that you might want to be at the events that your kids are in,” she said. “You want to be at the Christmas concert, or whatever concert—you want to be there.” She credits Simon for being “ahead of his time” and for his willingness to do things differently. “He understood that he wanted to keep me versus me leaving,” she said.

Rossetto soon realized just how unusual her arrangement was: “Women called me and said, ‘Okay, talk me through how you did that. Tell me how you got to a point where you could do that,’” she said. Her actions, though, weren’t just an inspiration for other women. “She showed me how you can have an unwavering commitment to your work and your family at the same time,” said her long-time creative / business partner Todd Mackie.

Fourteen years later, working conditions and expectations may be better for women, but Rossetto still feels a “responsibility” to look out for and support other women, especially those working in creative.

“I feel a connection to creative people in general,” she says. “There’s something about creative people who are either vulnerable, or lost, or trying so hard, and I know how hard the business is going be on them.” But she also knows that young women creatives have different questions and fewer role models for advice and guidance.

“They’re looking for it, they’re asking for it, like ‘How did you do it?’ Or ‘What was your experience?’ And so I feel responsible for helping them,” she said. “I feel I haven’t done enough for as many women as I’d like to, but for the women that I’ve connected with, I feel proud of the connections I’ve made with them.”

Beyond all of the work she’s done and the boundaries she’s broken for other women in the industry, The Mighty Women jury was also impressed by how she’s treated people along the way—her reputation for generosity and for treating people so well in an industry generally not known for its compassion or humility. “She’s always so impressed by other people, always shining a light on others,” said one judge at the time.

“Denise Rossetto is undoubtedly one of these exceptional leaders who inspires others with her incredible creativity and empathy,” said Kate Bate, one of the judges, and co-founder of creative studio Tendril. “What truly sets Denise apart is her humility and grace as a leader. Despite her success and expertise, she is quick to deflect attention and shine the spotlight on others, promoting and uplifting anyone in her wake.”

Davis, meanwhile, called her “one of the most gracious people you will ever meet,” and Mackie said her empathy is what makes her such a great creative, partner and leader. “She understands humans like no one else. When she writes it is not just to communicate; it’s to connect. Really connect,” he said. “When she directs creative talent and gives feedback, it’s not just to help make the work better, it’s to teach them something and propel their career forward.”

But it was Broken Heart Love Affair partner Carlos Moreno who succinctly captured what made Denise Rossetto a Mighty Woman for 2023, one of Canada’s creative greats, who’s at the top of the industry but is always looking to pull others up beside her.

“Denise is an open brain and heart,” said Moreno. “As a leader all she wants is for you to bring your own music to life. Not her music.”

David Brown