She’s vivacious and bright. In fact, let’s say brilliant – many do. Debbi Vandeven has taken on the role of global chief creative officer of the newly merged VMLY&R. If that’s a tough job, she is unperturbed by it. Her positivity about most things seems inextinguishable. If she had the current problems of Time’s Up on her mind when we met, and there’s little doubt that, as one of its founding members, she did (it was the first topic she brought up), all that showed was her ability to see an issue from every viewpoint. So far, the job has made her uproot herself and her family from Kansas City and move to New York. And spend a lot of time in the air. She offered to talk to The Stable during the couple of days she was in Sydney. I took that as quite an honour.
Predicting the future power of digital
Getting to the top creative position in a digital, and now a digital-creative, agency is still unusual for a woman. When digital was just an awkward newcomer to the world of advertising and still not quite sure of where it would fit and what it would become, Vandeven, whose career had begun as a traditional designer, foresaw its potential. “I was working on my Masters and everything I was doing was in digital,” she recalls. “I told my husband, ‘I think digital is the future,’ and I set my sights on VML. Even my husband questioned my judgement.” It turned out to be a good one.
Vandeven got that job at VML she wanted. Ironically, she began working there on more traditional accounts. Then the agency won Colgate. She was put on the account, and everything the team did was digital. Vandeven’s prediction about digital being the future then became true for VML’s. It was winning a lot of business. “When we were eventually bought out 100% by WPP, we just worked really hard on building what we wanted in the company.”
“VML started in Kansas City. When you come from that market, you’re an underdog, so no one really expects greatness. Then Martin told us our reputation wasn’t big enough. We asked some clients and found out that we were the ‘best kept secret’. I realised that was a problem. We started figuring out what we needed to do to build our name.” By the time that VML merged with Y&R, it was a merger of creative equals. VML was doing above the line, digital, social, influencer marketing…even product design. It was also bringing in media and consultants as needed.
The Stable: Is consulting the agency’s future?
I had to ask – If merging digital and creative was an obvious evolution, is merging the roles of consultancy and agency not so much a threat as a clue to the problem plaguing agencies – “What’s next for us?” So I did.
Vandeven agrees. She uses VMLY&R client, Ford’s business as an example. The future for Ford is dramatically different to its past, Vandeven explains. Eventually cars are not going to sell the way they do now. Ford is, or will be, getting into all sorts of different businesses – from car sharing to arranging a parking space. “So you have to look at all the partners they can bring in and new ideas they can work with. If Kodak had done that, it would have been fine. When you talk about consulting, we do that too. We have a group of advisory teams we work with, that come from consultancies.
“It’s kind of like the way we brought in digital. It was so easy for me to bring back traditional creative people once digital platforms got strong enough to handle the long form film and do all kinds of things online that were much more creative than brochure-ware, which is what digital was for years. Now, you can either have consultancies buying agencies or the creative agencies bring in consultants.”
The Stable: Is creativity under threat?
Again, I had to ask. Everyone is speculating.
“I actually think it’s fun to be creative right now,” Vandeven answers. “It feels like you can do anything you want. Some people feel that the creativity is being limited, but you can do anything that makes sense for your brand.
“I always think there’s a time when clients have become as efficient as they possibly can,” she adds. “And the race to the middle happened a long time ago. Clients got there and wondered, what next? I think what we need to do now is not get boxed in, especially with the next generation of kids coming out of school now – they didn’t grow up in a world full of silos. We even do product design, for instance,” she notes. “Y&R South Africa had won the retail account for chain, Edgars, right before the merger last January. The client was a little hesitant when the two companies came together but the work blew them away. They came in, I’m sure, expecting a TVC and maybe some print. The team rebranded the entire company instead. We have designers who were designing the fashion with the influencers they brought in. They redesigned the stores, they did a music video with influencers from all over the world. They took an old brand and gave it new life. This is the new kind of work. Work that completely changes the culture when it’s called for. You look at work like that and ask, ‘Wow, is that the kind of work you can do now?’”
Vandeven cites an example. “In Brasil, there was a swimmer who lost out to gold in just microseconds, every time. So the Sao Paulo agency came up with a podium that changes its levels depending on the competitors’ times,” she comments. “It is a tricky situation right now, but for creativity a big idea could be something that’s actually small.”
Vandeven moves to another example. “Wendy’s in the US is really ‘in culture’. Anything that’s happening, they’re really good at getting into it. The game, Fortnite, is currently a phenomenon, with millions of players in the US. There was a day on Twitch that pitted Team Burgers against Team Pizzas. Our team noticed that there were freezers in the burger joint in the game. Wendy’s doesn’t do frozen beef. So the kids in the office flew in with an avatar that has long red pigtails like the Wendy’s logo and tore down the freezers for nine hours straight, and pushed it through Twitter. That got everyone else doing it. They took over a piece of culture and made it a Wendy’s thing. To make it happen, we just had to get a client to say, ‘try it’. The results proved its worth.”
“We’re making films that are drawing audiences as films, not adverts,” Vandeven notes.
Vandeven’s favourite film example comes from her “home” office, Kansas City, which works for Tennessee Tourism. “They do all kinds of work but the most rewarding is their long form documentary work,” she notes. The agency has just completed its second film for the brand, a film right about Tennessee song writers that’s an hour and a half long. “When we did our first one, about Nashville, it went to ABC. The client got it on TV, sold advertising against it and shared the revenue with the station. Plus all of these people in the US are watching the film and seeing Nashville in a very different way. You’d never know it was about tourism. It went on airlines, it went to different countries. The song writers one has already started doing the film festival circuit and the client is looking at Netflix for it.”
“Colgate is going to Cannes this year,” Vandeven adds as an epilogue. That excites her. It suggests that more clients are interested in exploring great work and bettering what their competitors are doing.
The Stable: What are the rewards of awards?
I want to win awards for work that people are talking about. You win new clients by doing really great work for your clients. So the way I look at awards is that they’re great for reputation, great for bringing in talent, great for all of that. But what it’s really about is that if that work is celebrated, other clients look at and say, “This is the kind of work we want to do,” and they’re the clients you want to get.
The Stable: What are VMLY&R’s challenges?
This is a difficult question for Vandeven to answer. Her head fills with positive thoughts first. “We thought the merger would go well, but it has gone better than we thought. We’ve been winning work based on it, whether it’s a completely new account or going to clients for whom you’ve only been doing a portion of the work and gaining a lot more of it,” she answers.
“One challenge is that there are different ways of working and we’re having to put people with different skills together and tell them to collaborate. We were lucky in Kansas City. VML was already doing a lot of above the line work and we had already gone through some of those working out complementary skills challenges. The challenge now is to do it globally. Structures are set up differently. Titles are different.” There haven’t been physical agency mergers in every market. Sydney and New York, though, had both VML and Y&R to integrate. “Part of the challenge is just personalities,” she states.
“I tell them, ‘you have this huge engine behind you now so let’s start reshaping how the agency works to maximise its usefulness and get the right capabilities so you can do more. Do what your clients are asking for but then bring them something they didn’t realise that we could do. And if you don’t have the capabilities today, don’t worry about it because you can tap into the other groups’.” Vandeven calls out the Sao Paulo office as the ideal. “They brought in all the LATAM offices and worked out together what they could now that they couldn’t before.”
The Stable: What gets you up in the morning?
“I have two creative daughters and a creative husband. The whole family is around this industry, so everyone understands what it’s like. Your conversations aren’t left-of-field. If you have an advertising emergency, everyone gets what it’s like.
“I love the people I work with. I’m really happy that we have such great people everywhere. We’re finding that, overall, people are much more alike than they are different. If you like the people you work with, and you love what you’re doing, everything’s OK. Even if it’s 24 hours a day.”