This week we’re doing it a little differently here on 5+.
Westside was fortunate enough to spend a little time with ever so popular, Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin from Swim.
Nancy and Janet have been long time friends of Westside from their many years at Ogilvy and Mather here in Toronto. We were VERY excited to hear about their new venture, Swim, and wanted to get them in here to find out more.
Nancy & Janet © George Simhoni
When did you first start working together? What brought you together?
N: We met 20 years ago, when I was an art director at Ogilvy and Janet came in as a freelancer to help me with a “fem hy” project (could it be more cliche?) over the May 24 weekend. We had an instant friendship. We had both had talented partners in the past, but it struck both of us that this was a first for seeing so eye-to-eye, and the incredible ease we felt together through the scary creative process. For whatever reason, we trusted one another quickly and felt no judgement when we brainstormed ideas. It was liberating to not care about looking stupid as ideas flew into the air.
J: It’s so long ago now, that it should be impossible to remember, but like all good things it’s as vivid today as it was in, yes I’ll say it, 1989. Ogilvy Toronto was working on an assignment to help out the Chicago office. They needed a woman to work with Nancy on it (it’s true, it was the dreaded “feminine hygiene” products) and there weren’t any female writers. I was busily trying to get out of advertising at the time, so home with my 4yr old, writing poverty-inducing articles for Owl magazine and doing the occasional bit of ad freelance. Ogilvy called and asked me to work with Nance, whom I’d never met. It was the May long weekend. We spent all of it in the office. We laughed and laughed. Were instant friends, but as I didn’t plan to work in advertising ever again (you can see how well plan turn out), we didn’t actually start working together for real for another two years.
What was your first project together?
N: Our first major project together was for Dove. That remains a big moment for us all these years later. We had a visionary client (Peter Elwood) with a big challenge for us. He was ready to do whatever it took to respond effectively to a daunting development: Dove was about to lose its patent, and its major competitor was about to launch their version of Dove. We’ve since recognized the biggest ideas are often born of crisis, because in those circumstances, minds are more open to unconventional solutions. We left behind Dove’s long running campaign tricks (1/4 moisturizing cream, women speaking happily about their husbands liking how soft their skin is) in favor of presenting objective proof Dove is milder than any soap. The Lever team did an inspired job of helping us to understand the truths of how Dove is made, what makes it different (literally, it isn’t a soap) and why it’s actually so much better for skin (its neutral pH doesn’t strip out oils which is why regular soaps dry out skin). We were able to present a compelling reason to believe no other bar could be better, which preempted the news from the major competitor. The work was intelligent, simple and convincing. Sales went through the roof. The work won major awards, including a Cannes Lion. Our creative director at the time told us it was the moment we went “from junior to senior.” because the work was so rule-breaking for the brand, it wasn’t appreciated globally at first. But ultimately it was so successful, it became the new high bar for the brand globally. Ironically, 20 years later, some of the influence from the “Litmus” campaign has created some brand ‘rules’ we don’t agree with. But that’s for another day.
J: Our first legit project together as a writer/art director team was the Dove Litmus Test. It was a blast to do, the clients were amazing, and it set the tone for our partnership ever after.
Why has it worked for you two over the last 20 years?
N: It’s worked for me and Janet because we’re so alike, and so different. Alike in our overall consensus on what great work is. Different in how we manage the process and people, which I’d like to think is good yin-yang. Our differences make for better decisions; we respect one another’s point of view and factor it in to anything we do of consequence. It has also worked for so long because we are best friends. That dynamic can work against a team, often good friends mean the important factor of “I disagree!” can be missing. I guess that hasn’t been a problem for us. Ultimately, the area we’re both most passionate about is the same: the people part. Because of that we’ve had a shared interest in mentoring and the career development of others, for a very long time. We built a career on that. We have been writing our advice column, Ask Jancy, since ’03. We wrote an Adweek book together on career advice. Now we’re writing a new book on female leadership. And oh yeah, we started a new business together. That’s a lot of shared interest. Working with Janet is incredibly fun. Even on our worst day, there’s always laughter. That’s had a lot to do with staying together.
J: We’re very close friends and we’ve managed to make that last and work for this whole time, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m not sure that if we’d remained writer/art director we’d still be working together, though I’m sure we’d still be friends. I think the fact that we became creative directors, with different, though parallel work lives, is the thing that’s kept us together. Ironically, despite having had offices that faced each other, but 8 feet apart for the 13 years, we didn’t see each other all that often, except socially. But both in work and in life, we’ve always been “there” for each other, helping bring ideas in for a landing, dealing with family crises. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s been good for us.
What inspired you to take the leap into the “Swim” pool?
N: We had the notion of the “next” being grounded in talent development for a long time. It was always our favorite part of the CD job. It was just a matter of what we were going to do with that. No creative director makes it to 65, there was always going to be the next career. 13 years in that role was really fantastic, we had experiences and achievements we wouldn’t trade for anything. And it was time for a new experience. We were transparent with Ogilvy about our goals and they supported our decision in the end. We worked closely with Steve Simpson, the North American CCO of Ogilvy as we developed our vision; his feedback as it took shape was great. He believes so strongly in the need, and our approach, that he has booked groups well into 2013. We had our first group in NYC last week. It went really well. There was that moment of truth (the one I used to feel, right before seeing a rough cut for the first time)—does it work? Honestly, it went better than I even hoped. I love this new role. All the good stuff.
J: You know when it’s time to do something else. Look around. There are no “old” creative directors. Once you feel like you’ve done whatever it was you set out to do and there’s nothing else to learn in that role, it’s time to think about what’s next. For us, Swim was a logical next step. We’ve spent our whole careers, long before we were CDs, putting energy into teaching and mentoring. From online advice column, to book (Pick Me) to Swim, it’s clearly been a journey though we didn’t know that then.
What are your hopes for future of this industry and what influence do you hope Swim will bring?
N: Janet and I have big ambition for putting a real dent in the problem—our industry and others took leadership training off the menu years ago when budgets dried up in bad times. The consequences are finally so keenly felt, we can’t look away any more. Clients are turning to others for their solutions as credibility wanes. The best students are looking at other industries; the ‘coolest job’ thing isn’t ringing true anymore. The CD’s we talked to around the world as we made the decision to leap from our old jobs all felt the next level down where the future leaders should be looks like a case of arrested development. It’s been sink or swim for so long, people have stumbled up the ladder at best, without the skills to lead others. We hope with so much press on the subject for the past year or so, budget priorities will be revisited, as has been the case for Ogilvy. We’ll see how far we get in the next little while. If the will is there, the steps to get back on the rails will be taken. Happily, we’re seeing a bunch of will.
J: Our ambition is to bring some strong, new leaders into the business. Everyone works so hard just getting the work done that there’s no time to learn the skills of management (how dreary does that sound?), which is entirely different. It’s like stepping through an invisible curtain that you didn’t even know was there and oops there are all these new expectations and people flounder. There isn’t time to flounder anymore. The world with that luxury is past. We hope we can help people step through that curtain with more knowledge and a little more confidence.