BUSAN – AD STARS 2017 marks the tenth year of the popular advertising showcase that is also known as the “Busan International Advertising Festival.” It has become a source of pride for several residents of this city in South Korea, but one particular visitor this year found AD STARS to be surprisingly emotional. For Helen Pak, the President and Chief Creative Officer of Grey Group Canada, this is the first time that he has been back in the country in the last 46 years.
On the second day of this year's AD STARS, Pak gave a talk titled, “Breaking Through, Finding Your Voice in Advertising.” She began the talk by sharing how her family immigrated to Canada when she was only three-years-old, and that on her first day in school in her new home, she was bullied. She looked different from everyone else, her name was different, even the food that she brought to school was different. What she realized, though, was that being Korean in Canada made her unique, and that realization helped set her on the path that she is currently on.
For Helen and many women, there has long been a struggle to break through what has been known as “the glass ceiling.” Not limited to advertising, the glass ceiling is what prevents many women from reaching the highest positions in whatever industry they are in due to a male-oriented world.
From there, Helen spoke of “the 3% Conference.” This was a movement that began when advertising veteran Kat Gordon noticed that approximately five years ago, women only represented 3% of creative directors or higher positions in advertising. Gordon wanted to change that, and did so by launching the first such conference in 2012 to support more female creative leadership in ad agencies.
With that in mind, Helen found that rather than the typical glass ceiling, she had to deal with a “bamboo ceiling” as she rose through the ranks in advertising. Coined by writer Jane Hyun, the bamboo ceiling is defined as a combination of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that impede the careers of Asians from progressing in North American organizations. These traits, which include veneration of elders, the desire to save face, and being non-confrontational, are traits that Helen saw in herself.
Beginning her professional career as an architect, Helen noted that the female to male ratio in architecture firms continues to be skewed in favor of men. Unconsciously though, Helen began to see female architects including Eileen Gray and Zaha Hadid as her role models. After growing tired at the dearth of female role models in the world of architecture, Helen decided to enter the world of advertising.
She cites Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, former co-Chief Creative Officers at Ogilvy Toronto from 1998-2011, as her first real mentors in a professional capacity. It was the duo's groundbreaking work for Dove that had them tapping Helen for input, and helped her find her own voice in the industry. The Dove campaign for “Real Beauty” opened Helen's eyes on what a really transformative campaign can be like, and the book that Kestin and Vonk wrote, Darling You Can’t Do Both (And Other Noise To Ignore On Your Way Up) is something Helen highly recommends for women who would like to balance a family life with a professional career.
When Helen took a hiatus from advertising four years ago, she worked at Facebook, where two female role models presented themselves to her. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, and Carolyn Everson, Vice President of Global Marketing Solutions, offered two distinct kinds of leadership in the social media giant, and they just happened to be women.
Finally, Helen shared something that she read from BBH Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Pelle Sjoenell. Sjoenell wrote that in order to be a great creative leader, one must exhibit traits of a farmer, a diplomat, and a ninja. A farmer needs to identify what makes their team grow, shelter them, and feed them. The diplomat has to be able to listen to a great many stakeholders and differing opinions without shutting people down. Meanwhile, the ninja needs to take a really high view of what is happening, be five steps ahead, and with stealth-like precision, annihilate anything that comes in the path of that wonderful idea that you helped grow.
These insights, gathered together by Helen for a homecoming that she really didn't think would happen anymore, captured how the shy Asian girl thrown into Canada's public school system gradually found her voice and the strength to make that voice heard in male-dominated industries that are slowly opening their doors to inevitable change. A satisfying and emotional homecoming if ever there was one.