VML Global CCO Debbi Vandeven: Over the Rainbow – How knowledge, heart, courage and spirit can take VML into the future

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VML Global CCO Debbi Vandeven: Over the Rainbow – How knowledge, heart, courage and spirit can take VML into the future

Campaign Brief caught up with Debbi Vandeven, global chief creative officer, VML, on her recent visit to Australia. Here she outlines what to expect from the massive worldwide merger of Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R to create VML


If there’s one thing I’ve never questioned over the years, it’s that things are going to change. And there’s no doubt the industry is changing — more rapidly now than ever.

Our recent merger between Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R to create VML is clear evidence of that.

Clients are asking us to simplify our offering, yet the landscape has become increasingly complex in terms of all the areas our ideas are creatively coming to life.

In my global role at VMLY&R — now VML — I’ve visited many markets around the world. Working with clients. Participating in new business pitches. Leading award show juries. Giving industry speeches. And much of the time, when people learn I’m from Kansas City, the first question or comment I get is about the Wizard of Oz.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to embrace the story that was written over 100 years ago. Because I realize that there are some timeless creative lessons the Wizard of Oz has taught me.

While I know the next stage of VML’s journey won’t be as easy as clicking my heels three times and wishing for creative greatness to bring us home, I do believe we’ll succeed at delivering remarkable creativity at every touchpoint along the consumer journey if we can follow some basic principles.

Lesson #1: Knowledge

Dorothy first met the scarecrow on her journey toward the Emerald City. And he reveals that above all else, he wishes for a brain.

One thing I love most about creativity is the unique position we’re in to learn. Being curious about the world, ever-changing technology and new ways to connect with people should keep us all wanting to learn more.  At VML, every day is an opportunity to expand perspectives with a variety of creative thinking and skills, and I feel privileged to learn from so many.

The tools and platforms we leverage keep changing as well. Today, it’s AI and tomorrow, who knows? But regardless, we need to learn to use each and every one of these tools to our advantage. And to our clients’ advantage like we did when helping to launch Augmental’s MouthPad^, an inspiring inclusive design innovation that opens up a new way for people with disabilities to interact with the world, or using Jen AI to invite sailors to book with Virgin Voyages.

Going forward, it’s vital that we remember the importance of knowledge — our industry moves fast, so we must stay curious, continually ask questions and always keep learning.

Lesson #2: Heart

What can we learn from the tin man? Put your heart into it. Believe in what you do and make people feel something powerful.

And creativity has power. It has the power to make a brand distinctive by creating emotional connections.

At VML, we are in a unique position to deliver an integrated solution that goes from the business foundations all the way into and through each brand expression, customer experience and commerce touchpoint. As a team, we’re connected — and creativity connects us — through all of it. And in the process, we’re creating connected brands that people love and driving growth for our clients.

We bring heart to what we do as we make these emotional connections. We love what we do. Whether we’re making sure chickens get their steps in for Honest Eggs Co., working with Vow to create a Mammoth meatball or helping The Coca-Cola Company create magic by introducing new music to generations and geographies worldwide.

It’s a heartfelt rallying cry we say frequently — and that will continue to permeate the culture at VML: Put everything you are into everything you do.

Lesson #3: Courage

It’s hard to work up your courage some days. The cowardly lion knew that.

But it’s important to find the courage to push for great work. Because I believe, in the best of cases, what we do can truly be more than advertising. Or experiences. Or design. Or commerce. It can be powerful.

So, as VML moves forward, we’ll take risks. Hard as it might be, we’ll not go for safe. We’ll push ideas into uncharted territory. If it hasn’t been done before, we won’t stop. After all, that’s the very definition of innovation.

And it’s hard to innovate if you are working alone — so we’ll build strong relationships. With colleagues and with clients. Tapping into more talent than we’ve ever had across our connected teams. We’ll build trust and we’ll take those risks together.

Because as courageous as it was for Oreo to own the barcode, or Monash University to create a full-length documentary on climate change, or HSBC to provide bank accounts for the homeless, it was the right thing for those brands to do.

So we’ll continue to be brave with ideas for our clients. Some of our attempts at courageous work won’t be successful. But it’s impossible to live without failure. So, we’ll put ourselves out there, learn from our mistakes and take on projects that make us uncomfortable and push boundaries.

Lesson #4: Positive Spirit

Finally, there’s Dorothy. She had the will not to give up. I find this the hardest of the lessons because some days we will want to.

Dorothy faced some serious obstacles — flying monkeys and a wicked witch — yet she kept going.

We’re sure to face obstacles as well as we merge these two great creative agencies and combine our technology solutions, customer experience and commerce capabilities. But I know this team — and am getting to know so many more talented people — and we won’t give up. We’ll continue to believe in ourselves, our work and our clients. And in the end, we’ll be able to execute the best creative ideas faster and at scale.

One more thought regarding Dorothy: It all came back to home.

So, we’ll be proud of our roots and the unmatched creative legacies of the legendary companies that our predecessors created: J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, Wunderman, George Patterson and Valentine McCormick & Ligibel. And we’ll go show the world what we can do together as VML.

We’ll look at every challenge as an opportunity. An opportunity to make our client partners more connected. The brands we support more loved.

And in the best of cases, we’ll make the world a little better like we did with Intel & Dell when we created “I Will Always Be Me” or — in a fun way — as we did with Wendy’s when we rid a virtual world of freezers in Fortnight.

My time spent recently in Australia for SXSW reinforced the fact that our AUNZ region exemplifies all the things I’ve talked about. From Oz to Oz, we are bringing creative excellence to life across our entire offering at VML. We look to our teams in APAC to help lead the way forward by continuing to create award-winning, innovative work that is built with knowledge, heart, courage, and positive spirit

I couldn’t be prouder — or more excited — to see what we will do.