Vonk and Kestin go Swimming

The award-winning duo give details about their new venture, Swim, after leaving their posts as co-CCOs of Ogilvy.

Ogilvy’s award-winning co-chief creative officers and arguably Canada’s best known creative duo Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin are leaving the nest and starting their own business. It’s not a new agency, it’s not named Jancy and their first client is…Ogilvy.

While Canada will no longer benefit from the groundbreaking  ideas Kestin and Vonk have hatched over the years, such as the award-winning attitude-changing programs for Dove and Hellman’s and zany fun like Diamond Shreddies, the good news is the next generation of creatives – and the current one – can benefit from the wisdom that lead to this kind of work.

“We are starting our own business,” explains Vonk, “and it’s what I’m going call a ‘creative leadership training’ business. We’re kind of running with our longstanding interest in mentoring and training and leaving behind stuff we don’t want to do any more.”

Vonk says the stuff that they do like doing – imparting knowledge – lines up with a skills training gap in the industry. “We started [our column] Ask Jancy in 2003 on the obvious observation that nobody knows what they’re doing. People are learning by sink or swim or osmosis. You can get valuable lessons that way but it’s random.”

The name of the new enterprise is in fact Swim, and the goal is to make the osmosis easier, without all that painful sinking. “We’ve had amazing mentors, and learned some things the right way, so we feel we can jump in and try to push up against what’s looking to us as an industry-wide crisis,” says Vonk, citing an Ad Age article that stated that baristas get more training than an average agency staffer.

Steve Simpson, CCO of Ogilvy North America, states quite frankly in the press release that he gave Swim it’s first series of gigs – sessions across the North American network booked a year out – to remedy the sad state of training the ad industry is guilty of.

“We bid and outbid each other for the most promising young people then we do not a whit to train them,” he says. “Then we release them—still untrained—into the talent recycling pool. This explains much about many of us who presently preside as Creative Directors: the insecurity masked by temperament, the inability to offer clear (let alone actionable) direction, and the failure to hold adult conversations with clients”

Stating that Vonk and Kestin’s mentoring skills match their celebrated creative work so he expects their lasting impact as CDs to parlay into a similar legacy with Swim, Simpson concludes “Swim is unique, it’s highly inventive and it’s really important.”

Although Kestin and Vonk remain based in Toronto, Swim is no brick and mortar affair, taking their lessons wherever they’re needed, which in the case of their first client – Ogilvy – is in New York in October, followed by Chicago and LA.

“Lucky for us they want to hold onto our skills,” says Vonk, “They agreed that what we want to do lines up with what Ogilvy needs as well as many others.”

Swim will focus on more senior people first, not at the CD level but on the way there, and will tailor programs to all levels including marketers.

The actual learning goes from better presentation skills to looking at clients’ business on a more holistic level to help agencies partner more effectively with their clients. “It’s more the psychology of the situation and communications, working on giving people insights into their clients’ world, and presenting themselves authentically,” explains Vonk, who says all of their biggest success stories involved great client partnerships.

Vonk and Kestin will personally be teaching, as well as curating the skill sets of others. Vonk says they won’t tell groups what to expect, and will be customizing content, whether that’s dinner with an inventor or an acting class.

“We have interesting means for lessons to sink in that aren’t normal lectures,” says Vonk, describing the program as an experiential dynamic experience that will spread out over three months, include online components. “No two will be alike,” she says, adding that they’ll “take advantage of our giant rolodexes” to keep Swim unique. “I hope it will be like some of the experiences I’ve had where I left thinking ‘wow that changed my career.’”

Vonk joined Ogilvy in 1988 as an art director, having worked at shops in the US prior to partnering up with Kestin in 1991, who began her career in Montreal before moving to Toronto agencies including Y&R and Leo Burnett. Awards include Cannes Lions, One Show Pencils and Clios, and both have lectured at schools such as the VCU Adcenter, OCAD University, University of Toronto Rotman School of Management and the Syracuse University Masters of Advertising and Design Program. In between, they found time to co-author “Pick Me,” published in 2005.