Debbi Vandeven joined VML in 2000 and rose to become the agency's global chief creative officer—a role she retained after WPP merged VML and Y&R to form VMLY&R in the fall of 2018.
Her creative philosophy focuses on the idea rather than a specific channel, and she encourages teams to approach any project from this perspective. This approach is at the heart of VMLY&R's mission to move brands forward by creating connections across the connected consumer experience.
We spent two minutes with Debbi—chair of the Direct and Experiential/Events jury for the 2019 Clio Awards, judging this week in Cabo—to learn more about her background, inspirations and the power of working in the early mornings.
Debbi, tell us...
The town where you were born.
Kansas City, Missouri.
What you wanted to be when you grew up.
How you discovered you were creative.
Actually, a first grade art teacher helped draw my attention to my creative talents. After that, I spent as much time in art classes as I could.
A person you idolized creatively growing up.
Several art teachers and professors were idols of mine.
A moment from high school or college that changed your life.
The Kansas Jayhawks winning the national basketball championship. That may seem trivial—and it was definitely great to join the celebration as a freshman in college—but it was seriously a moment that made me so proud to come from where I did.
The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.
Van Halen was the first concert I saw. And while I don't really have a favorite band, I do really like Kings of Leon.
Your favorite artist.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction.
Right now, I would have to go with Eleven.
The best book you've read lately.
I read a lot of historical fiction, especially books about World War II. The last one was Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Many of the tragic stories of war have such incredible human stories, and I find it inspiring when everyday people are heroic.
Your favorite movie.
Pride and Prejudice.
Your favorite Instagram follow.
My two daughters, Kylie and Hallie. Although I am quite sure they don't share all their stories with me. 😊
Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.
I don't know about my favorite ever, but just this year I was lucky enough to work on a project for the Super Bowl with an amazing group of female leaders. The spot was for Bumble and starred Serena Williams.
The work was very fast and happened over the holidays, which is never easy. But I loved the way the team pulled together and the message to all women: "Don't wait for someone to give you power in your life (or tell you it's OK to make the first move), because you already have it."
Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.
I have two favorite projects from the past year that, although very different from each other, are alike in the way they capitalized on a cultural moment.
Wendy's "Keeping Fortnite Fresh" happened because the team remained true to the simplicity of the Wendy's "Fresh, never frozen" beef message and because they responded quickly when they saw an opportunity.
Our "Last Ever Issue" effort in Poland capitalized on a moment in a vastly different way. By buying an iconic porn magazine, only to shut it down—but first using the last issue to educate—we were able to make a real difference. I'm so proud of the brands that got behind this work. It shows how real commitment can influence positive change in society. Winning a Glass Grand Prix at Cannes for the work was especially rewarding, too.
Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.
The P&G "Thank You, Mom" campaign is one of my favorites. The storytelling in the work is so strong and connects with so many people. As a mom—as a parent—you feel every success and failure of your children. You know the importance of being there to pick them up and how it will make them stronger. And this work absolutely made the brand matter. The products from P&G are used every day, and moms are there for the little and big things in a child's life every day, too. Olympics or not, this campaign connects. And "Proud Sponsor of Moms" … brilliant!
Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.
Of course, there are several, but a few of my favorites include Burger King's "Whopper Detour" by FCB, Nike's "Dream Crazy" by Wieden + Kennedy, "Dali Lives" by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and the Tommy Hilfiger's "Tommy Adaptive" work by Wunderman Thompson.
Your main strength as a creative person.
My team at VMLY&R would most likely say getting an entire day's worth of work done between 4 and 5 a.m. Although not sleeping isn't really a strength! I would say it's being able to make quick decisions and encouraging people to work together to produce the best work possible. I'm good at fostering powerful creative collaboration.
Your weakness or blind spot.
My weakness ... well, when it comes to food, it's definitely chips and salsa. In work, I am hoping I don't have a lot of blind spots, but a weakness would be saying yes to more than I probably should.
One thing that always makes you happy.
Spending time with my husband, daughters and dog.
One thing that always makes you sad.
Losing a pitch. Not that I think any team always wins, but after you know how dedicated the teams were to the work, and the long hours they put in, it's always a little sad when it just doesn't happen.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.