Vanessa is responsible for the overall vision and strategic direction for Fluid. Prior to becoming CEO, Vanessa was the Chief Client Officer for Fluid for 4 years, managing all of our client relationships and the delivery of our services and solutions. Vanessa has deep experience in Retail and eCommerce, as well as Financial Services, Telecommunications, Publishing and CPG.
Before joining Fluid, Vanessa was General Manager (NY) and SVP Senior Client Partner for Blast Radius. Vanessa has also held senior leadership positions within RMG Connect/J Walter (Canada) and Rapp Collins (UK) and carries with her a deep digital background. She has a BA in Russian and English, and a post-graduate Chartered Institute of Marketing.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I always worked as a teenager and at university. Growing up in the English countryside meant I had to be inventive and open to all types of jobs, as they were in pretty short supply. I did everything including packing tins of sardines and greetings cards in warehouses, serving behind the bar in centuries old country pubs and crowded city nightclubs, waitressing in a garden center cafe and handling data entry for a small town real estate office. I think these experiences taught me a great deal about how to work alongside a wide variety of people and find a way to get along with them all. I learned how to get up every day and find something interesting in even the most mundane roles and I also realized that you need to create your own opportunities since very few people are just presented with them.
Perhaps because of all of this, I have always been open to tackling new challenges, whether it was studying Russian at university, and electing to live for a full semester in Russia for a ‘pilot exchange program’, or moving from London to Vancouver really just to see what it would be like – and then jumping on the chance to relocate to New York to take on an expanded role here. Most recently, when I was offered the opportunity to become Fluid’s CEO, despite knowing it would be an intense and challenging role, I of course leapt at the change to help craft the future of such a great agency and business.
My general leadership philosophy can be summarized as ‘Have common sense. Be curious. And know that you are responsible for yourself and your own luck, so don’t be afraid to try. After all, even if you fail, you will always learn and grow.’
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Fluid?
I have a background in direct marketing, which is really the precursor to today’s world of digital customer experience and ecommerce. My career began in London in publishing, specifically with Book Club Associates (BCA), one of the most successful mail order companies. Back then, BCA was the training ground for many of the world’s best direct marketers and I followed in the footsteps of many BCA alumni by moving to WWAV Rapp Collins, Europe’s largest direct marketing agency. Using customer data intelligently, and understanding how to create marketing communications that make it as easy as possible for customers to respond are at the root of all successful direct marketing, and of course are the predecessor in many ways to digital customer experience and ecommerce. Through my journey from WWAV to Fluid, I helped steer a Vancouver-based direct marketing agency to become fully digital, and managed a transition into a larger holding company network, JWT. I then moved with Blast Radius to New York, to establish and grow their New York presence and lead the integration into the Wunderman network as part of Blast’s executive leadership team
Along the way, I grew confident in terms of making decisions, setting direction, managing financials, and communicating to boards and banks – and also learned how important humanity, grace and having fun are when it comes to leading any group of people or business.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Fluid?
Right away, I knew that the highlight at Fluid would be the people. My first conversation with Andrew, one of the company’s co-founders, ranged from the future of marketing, how to make e-Commerce come to life by understanding the human insights around real-world shopping, to his dog and our respective children. The past five years have been just like that – working and traveling with smart, insightful people, who have increasingly become not just colleagues but friends. It was incredibly fun to find our NY office location, work with the architects on the design – keeping as much of our NoHo loft style intact with brick walls, wood floors, and a very open plan – and plenty of office dogs! Pulling it all together was a labor of love – our strategy director painted one of our meeting rooms with chalk, one of our UX team helped our Brooklyn-based carpenters finish the wooden meeting room tables, and our kitchen island counter was made for us by an industrial kitchen supplies company in Chinatown.
There are of course challenges too – it’s never fun to lose a pitch, or when a client relationship ends, however amicably. It’s equally challenging when we do win new business and need to grow rapidly in order to deliver great work – always termed ‘a good problem to have’ but tricky, nevertheless! The hardest part of all of that is to keep everyone’s morale and fun-level high, and the focus on doing great work!
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
This business is tremendous for people who are naturally curious, have points of view and are happy to share them and be collaborative with colleagues and clients. It’s generally not constrained by too much tradition – agencies need to continually reinvent themselves and try new things to continue to succeed, so don’t be afraid to try something that hasn’t been done before.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
It’s what you make it.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Often coming to work feels very much like being at home – there are at least 3 dogs here at any given time, sometimes children, and always a good supply of food and drink! We also have a flexible approach to working from home, so if there are events at school, for example, I can generally move my schedule around to make them. However, there are also times when unpredicted travel comes up, or meetings that require in-person presence. I suppose my approach is that balance isn’t always fully in equilibrium – there are times when home and family need me more, times when work needs me more, and that it is fruitless to try to always have balance – the best I can do is to try to figure out which comes first whenever a conflicting need comes up.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The majority of the companies where I have worked have had strong women at the helm, and in senior leadership positions. This meant that right from the beginning of my career, I could see women did not need to be held back by gender. However, this is still not the norm. There remains a significant gap in terms of women in board positions, helping guide and direct businesses, as well as a large number of companies with an almost exclusively male executive team. I’d like to be a part of making that change.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
At every company where I have worked, people have given me an opportunity to learn new skills, and to take on additional responsibility, and each of them have coached and encouraged me. I am still in touch with all of my former bosses and colleagues, from London to Vancouver to New York, and really value their ongoing advice and direction. I look to each of them for different lessons – from understanding the importance of never losing sight of joy and graciousness in a business context, to learning business financials and how to manage them to reach specific goals, how to take risk without fear of finger-pointing, and how to allow others to do the same. I have also been lucky enough to have professional mentors and great influencers in my career who have become long-term friends.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Cindy Gallop always gets my vote. Her drive and intelligence throughout her career took Cindy from Account Manager in London to Chair of BBH in New York, and just when other people might have decided to take on fewer challenges, Cindy fully reinvented her life – not just career. She founded MakeLoveNotPorn, but is also a strong and vocal advocate for women in leadership in technology companies and creative agencies and in her words ‘likes to blow shit up’. Fearless and relentless, Cindy is also hugely compassionate and gives a great deal of her very limited time to help others figure out their own paths and goals.
What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Have fun, create great work for our clients, and provide an environment at Fluid where everyone can succeed.