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Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

It's noisy at Drake One Fifty in Toronto's financial district, and my two lunch companions are worried that our conversation won't record properly.

Not wanting them to be preoccupied, I tell them not to worry or perhaps to think about leaning closer to the little device sitting between the water glasses. Janet Kestin does not miss a beat.

"No leaning in at this table."

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It's a jab, of course, at Sheryl Sandberg's hotly debated career advice book for women, Lean In. But it's an affectionate one. The more conversation about women's progress in the corporate world, the better, according to Ms. Kestin and her creative partner, Nancy Vonk.

The former advertising executives' new book, Darling You Can't Do Both, is a book about leadership from "two women who had exactly no ambition to be the leaders of anything," and about women's career empowerment from a pair "who had to be pushed through the glass ceiling by others (including men)," they write.

They are hoping it can further that conversation while also being accessible. (Some might say that "accessible" is not the best word for books by women at the upper echelons who are either urging others to lean in, or in Arianna Huffington's case, to sleep more.)

Rather, the pair, who were chief creative officers at Ogilvy Toronto for 13 years, and the minds behind Dove's award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty, want to impart small bits of advice that feel achievable for women at any level in their careers.

It's advice such as being wary of imposter syndrome – that tendency for people to believe they have faked their way to success, which they say just gets in the way. It is something both women have experienced, which sounds silly coming from a pair whom Advertising Age named among the "100 Most Influential Women in Advertising" in 2012.

If it hadn't been for Ms. Vonk, Ms. Kestin wouldn't have received that title – she wouldn't have come back to advertising. When they met in 1989, she had left the industry altogether and was freelancing for the children's magazine OWL while staying home with her young son, Devin. Three years later, their boss at Ogilvy convinced her to come back.

Working with Ms. Vonk was part of what enticed Ms. Kestin. It was the start of a working relationship that, they say, has meant two heads are as good as 10. They evaluate each other's work and laugh uproariously at each other's jokes. Ms. Vonk doesn't bat an eye at her partner's decision to wear a headband with two triangle peaks that look like cat ears – a giveaway at a recent Internet Cat Video festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox – out in public.

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Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin are out of the advertising game now. Their company, Swim, consults with individuals and businesses to teach them leadership skills.

The mistakes they've made professionally are also addressed in the book, such as being reluctant to ask for better pay. The book cites a stat that 57 per cent of young men negotiate their first salary, compared to just 7 per cent of women. It's from a well-known 2003 study, but bears repeating because of the long-term effect this behaviour can have.

"If I as a woman start at just $2,000 less than my male buddy, it doesn't seem like that big of a difference. And then over a career – 30 years, 35 years – depending on the profession, you are leaving $350,000 up to even $700,000 on the table," Ms. Kestin says.

That is as good a reason as any for women to learn to advocate for themselves early on. "I couldn't imagine having what I would have considered the gall to do that," she says. "...We don't serve ourselves well."

The same goes for the common instinct to say yes when one has already taken on too much; "self-sabotage," they say, because the work often suffers.

The "allergic reactions" many women have to networking and self-promotion are also a target. "Women tend to believe it's a meritocracy and you can sit back and wait for the right thing to happen," Ms. Vonk said. "...Bosses are paying attention to 50 things at a time. You think they know all about you. No they don't. They only know what's really obvious to them, and they may have your story totally wrong. So taking control of that narrative is really important."

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So is finding a mentor – not always an easy task for a young person approaching busy superiors.

Ironically, the discouraging title of the book was inspired by a mentor.

It comes from advice Ms. Vonk received in 1993 from her boss, Mark Hilltout. Then the creative director at Ogilvy, he was leaving for a job in the agency's New York office and told her she should fill his shoes. But, he advised, she shouldn't have children.

"Darling, you can't do both," he said.

It sounds like a story from another era, and in some ways it is – Mr. Hilltout was smoking a cigarette in the office at the time – but the fact is that motherhood still often deflects women from the leadership track. Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin found it easy to hire women for junior positions at Ogilvy but almost impossible when they were looking for seasoned art directors or copywriters.

Their book is not an account of subjugation by men. (Much of the advice is relevant for men as well, though it is clearly targeted toward women.) The writers talk about the many men who mentored, supported and promoted them through the years. And they also discuss regretfully the senior women who confess that they hesitate to hire women, because they don't want to deal with the headaches when those women have children.

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The pair pull no punches when they discuss what they call a "notoriously sexist" industry. As a junior copywriter asking for a chance to work on a high-profile beer account, Ms. Kestin was informed by a male creative director, "You can no more understand beer than I can understand tampons."

Ms. Vonk, by the way, was so irritated by her boss's advice that soon enough she marched into the office proudly bearing what she calls, exaggeratedly, a "revenge pregnancy." Ms. Kestin says that "the day Nancy had a baby" was one of the best of her life – if they had a Vulcan-mind-meld-type understanding of each other before, it was only heightened. After they were promoted, they helped cover for each other for doctor's appointments or other obligations, and even a leave of absence when Ms. Vonk wanted to take some time away with her daughter.

It's an issue that goes beyond the industry: Women often do not receive the support they need after having children to continue their way up the corporate ladder. What's worse, they often take themselves out of the running for senior positions because they internalize the idea that they can't be both a mother and a dweller of the corner office.

"The number of women out of school is bigger and bigger and bigger, but nothing is moving at the senior level," Ms. Vonk says. "Where did the women go?"

They say the very idea that mothers come back to work as employees with lesser value is a flawed proposition.

Having that focus outside of work grants people perspective, the pair argue. Parents often develop greater patience, empathy, and coping skills. Those are traits bred out of necessity when faced with a tiny, screaming, irrational being, all while sleep deprived. But they can also be valuable in a work setting.

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"Work eats up most of our waking hours during our lives. So it's good to be passionate about it," Ms. Kestin says. "But it doesn't mean that's the only thing. It's good to have things that you love. It only makes you love other things more."

"That's one of the key messages in the book: Actually, you can do both," Ms. Vonk adds. "It calls for challenging your own buy-in to the idea that it can't be done."


Darling, they did do both: moments from Vonk and Kestin's career

They received a scolding from David Ogilvy himself.

The legendary ad man and founder of the eponymous agency got wind of Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin's idea for their client, Dove. And he was not impressed. It was the early '90s and the pair had been inspired by a visit to the parent company's labs, where they had learned that the soap was milder because it was pH neutral. Others had high alkalinity and were harsher, they were told. If you do an experiment – just like in high school science class – with litmus paper, all the other soaps would turn it blue and the Dove bar wouldn't do a thing. It was a totally different idea for the brand: no shots of women with perfect skin, no emphasis on the soap being "one-quarter moisturizing cream." Just a reminder to intelligent women that they might not want to use the same rough ingredients on their faces that they use on their kitchen counters.

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Mr. Ogilvy conveyed his disdain in a letter: "Science won't sell."

He was wrong, and Dove's competitors took a major beating.

Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin would also later oversee the creation of Dove's ad, "Evolution," which showed the manipulation of beauty perceptions through a time-lapse video of a model being made up, photographed and Photoshopped beyond recognition.

Their awards toppled a table – literally.

At Marketing magazine's awards in 1997, they won a bundle for their campaign for Timex's Indiglo watches. The ads had run during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta the previous year. They showed only the blue dot from the watch's light-up screen, shining through total darkness. The dot moved in little swings like it would on a runner's wrist, or in an arc capped off with a twirl like it would if worn by a diver. The sound effects told the tale. (The concept was also used in print with a time-lapse design for the movement of the dot.)

The highly creative campaign would go on to win at shows around the world as well, including the advertising awards in Cannes. At this show in Canada, theirs were piled on one side of a table and were heavy enough to throw off its balance.

But it's not just a good anecdote: This was also a big career moment for the team. After years of saying no to promotions, they decided to say yes. Ogilvy creative director Steve Landsberg was leaving and told them to "take his job, please."

"Our kids were young. We were really, really happy in our jobs. We didn't feel like we needed anything to change," Ms. Kestin says.

They helped create and vigorously advertise a fake product.

Their client, Kraft, was desperate. Sales of its Shreddies cereal were in decline. An intern had an idea he almost did not show them because he thought it was too stupid: Diamond Shreddies. It was a joke about reinvigorating the brand, which showed that Kraft had a sense of humour and ended up reinvigorating the brand.

Some people didn't get that it was a joke, and were infuriated that Kraft was trying to pull a fast one. Others complained that they had bought the product but the squares and diamonds were mixed up in the box. (Shreddies launched another ad airing these complaints and offering, in compensation, the chance to try a "combo pack.")

"Of many favourites, it's probably my favourite campaign I was ever part of," Ms. Vonk says. "... It literally rocked Kraft's world. It was so successful."

Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin are out of the advertising game now. Their company, Swim, consults with individuals and businesses to teach them leadership skills. But they still judge ad competitions, and keep an eye on interesting work. Here's what has caught their attention lately.

New Zealand Transport Agency: “Mistakes”

This ad targets an unusual group for a safety campaign: people who are good drivers, but who tend to go a little too fast.

On a quiet country road, a father pulls out to make a turn, cutting it too close with an oncoming car. The other car is going too fast and does not have time to stop. The action freezes at the moment when the two men realize what’s happening. In shock, they open their doors to meet each other on the road. The father apologizes for his mistake; the other man regretfully tells him that if he were going slower he could change things. The father begs for help, for himself and his son in the back seat. The stricken driver says he’s sorry and they both return to their vehicles to meet their fate.

Ms. Kestin is a little emotional just describing the ad.

“Just when you think you couldn’t find a new idea to talk about speeding,” she says. “It’s a totally new way of thinking about it. It just blew my mind.”

La société de l’assurance automobile du Québec: “Texto 2013”

Another road safety message, this one from the consistently creative Quebec agency lg2, tackled texting and driving. Unlike other campaigns showing graphic crashes, however, the agency decided to communicate a simple idea: get people used to waiting for your response. In conversation, people are shown greeting others’ questions with uncomfortable silence before giving an answer. Awkward in person, sure, but totally acceptable over text message – and necessary when driving.

“They take an angle I’ve never heard before,” Ms. Vonk says. “The simple insight is, ‘Is it going to kill you to wait 10 minutes?’”

Watch the videos: Texto 2013 television campaign

Google+: “Hangouts - same sex marriage”

Both Ms. Vonk and Ms. Kestin are happy to see a trend toward more emotional storytelling in ads; a welcome break from the constant battle to have the most clever one-liner, they say.

Google did an exemplary job with a video about gay couples in France, where at the time same-sex marriage was not legal. It showed couples using Google’s video-messaging “hangouts” to reach a mayor in Belgium who agreed to officiate their marriages, and had the power to do so where he was.

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