Be silly. Be brave. Be kind: Vanessa Kerkhoff, Havas Düsseldorf

Vanessa Kerkhoff
Managing Director Havas Düsseldorf

How would you describe the overall culture at your agency, and would you say that there is a separate female culture?
I strongly believe that culture is what makes an organization, agency or not, successful. And that there’s an opportunity, need, and responsibility for every person working within the organization to shape it. Ours at Havas follows three simple rules: “Be silly. Be brave. Be kind.” In my own words this means don’t settle for common standards but create your own, leave your comfort zone, and do it in the most respectful way possible. Talking about female culture, these three points are also of significant importance for the personal and professional fulfillment of women in business. Havas already has an exceptionally strong understanding of the challenges the female workforce traditionally faced and lives the commitment to support all employees on a daily basis – regardless of gender, religious or sexual orientation, or any other points that makes our diverse ad community a fun and inspiring one.

In your opinion, what do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”?
I had the pleasure to work under highly talented female business leaders, two of them being amongst the first female CEOs in the US ad industry. These women taught me a lot, but most importantly, that no woman in charge should try to live up to the standards men have created for themselves and proved to be successful for all the years women weren’t part of the game. All successful leaders I know, regardless of their gender, have three things in common: They are authentic, leverage their personality to do the best job possible, and base their decisions on what their own gut tells them is right or wrong. Obviously, this varies from person to person, and women, like men, should be empowered and allow themselves to leave their very own foot print in their very own style. Since more and more foot prints become female, change in any industry is a given.

What are some of the challenges that women still face in the industry?

The still existing salary gap, the fact that most women still feel forced to make a choice between family and professional growth, ... There still are various challenges for women in business. Unfortunately, most of them cannot be blamed on one factor like society, the system, how men treat women, or the way women see themselves and behave. It’s often a complex mix of different components and there’s rarely one answer to these problems. The good news is that the mindset of both women and men is changing and important trends such as “daddy-leave” for new fathers and men recognizing (and acknowledging) the positive change they see with women entering global C-suites are helping tremendously. For our industry particularly, I see positive trends for women in account management, strategy and operational roles like HR or finance. Surprisingly, it has been rare that I met women who filled creative leadership roles. That’s something we should have an eye on. Diversity, variety and inspiration are the essence of creativity and that’s our core business after all.

What steps do you take to ensure you achieve a healthy work-life balance?

A few years ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take or stay in a job I don’t enjoy. We spend a good amount of time working - so you better love what you do or actively create an environment that allows you to do so. Over the years I also learned that true professionalism means to know when your body and mind needs rest. In the end, you work to live and not live to work, and that’s something we all need to keep in mind. If you’re not balanced and rested, you won’t perform well in your job either – and this is especially true for the creative industry as we all know.

Tell us about a mentor that helped guide you in your career. What made them so special?

I was lucky to have worked with a huge variety of leaders, some exceptionally skilled, others less so, all around the globe. I’m grateful for all of them, because they helped me grow and become who I am today in one way or the other. Three people inspired my professional journey the most. Funny enough, none of them was in Account Management – the part of the agency world I grew up in. Don’t get me wrong – I had fantastic bosses, but the people who come to mind as mentors first were a Head of Strategy who taught me the ins and out in advertising, a female CFO who became my advocate, always believing in my personal vision and professional skillset, and a female creative leader, who taught me to raise my hand, speak up as a woman in a board room, and ask for the things I wanted to achieve. This constellation shows once again: A mentor isn’t necessarily your boss, direct supervisor or a person who knows the job you do. Anyone who inspires you can be a mentor. And for those people who are looking for one: Stop. If you are open to growth, they will cross your path automatically. And once they do, enjoy and make the most of it.

How do you as a successful woman plan to inspire the next generation of women?

Being a role model is one thing. Talking about your own experiences to inspire growth and motivate others another. Not every woman in the industry might have the desire to become the next CEO, MD, or team lead, but they should know that, whatever their professional or personal goal is, there’s a way to achieve it. In addition to that, many books have been written and talks were held about the changing role of women in business. If people are truly interested in the topic, they have a lot of information at their fingertips. I understand my own mission to arouse exactly that interest by sharing personal experiences and inviting women to openly share their point of views and experiences, good and bad. This way we can learn from each other and create the environment of acceptance, growth, and transparency we need.