Helen Pak on ‘Bamboo Ceilings’ and Finding Your Voice in Advertising


In a provocative session at Ad Stars in South Korea over the weekend, Helen Pak explained how she’s managed to break through the glass and bamboo ceilings to become Chief Creative Officer of Grey Group Canada and President of Grey Toronto.

In 2014, Pak took a year’s break from advertising to work at Facebook, where she encountered two powerful leaders who happened to be women: Sheryl Sandberg, author of ‘Lean in’, and Carolyn Everson, VP, global marketing solutions at Facebook.

Pak was inspired to break through the ‘glass ceiling’, but also the ‘bamboo ceiling’.


 

In Asia, it’s still often discouraged for Asian women to have their voices heard at the boardroom table, often we’re sitting to the side.

“In advertising in particular, we’ve been talking a lot about the glass ceiling. It’s important to talk about why women only make up a small percentage of the top roles in advertising in many markets,” she said.

Pak also spoke of the ‘bamboo ceiling’, a term coined by an American journalist who believes certain cultural traits can hinder Asians from making it to the C-suite – beliefs like the importance of saving face, an unwavering devotion to elders, maintaining restraint, or always having a calm demeanor.

“We’re raised to be very obedient without challenging the authority of our elders. Because of these very worthy attributes, a lot of times in North America, Asians are overlooked for those C-Suite positions. In Asia, it’s still often discouraged for Asian women to have their voices heard at the boardroom table, often we’re sitting to the side.


 

“I was determined not only to break through the glass ceiling but the bamboo ceiling. I didn’t want anyone to single me out and say, ‘You’re Asian, you can’t excel’”, said Pak. “I’m lucky because in Canada, we have a lot of women who have excelled and broken traditional norms – I’m not sure it’s the same in other regions.”

Pak’s session at Ad Stars was called ‘Breaking Through: Finding your voice in advertising’.

“This is actually the first time I’ve been back to Korea since I was three years old. It’s very emotional for me, so if I start to cry in the middle of my presentation, you’ll know why,” she said.

In advertising, even on the best of days we’re stressed and scared of blank pages and briefs – it doesn’t get any easier. It’s a very daunting profession, but exciting. So my advice is to be confident and courageous.

She decided not to show any advertising, but instead shared a few personal stories that have led to her many successes, opening with a family photo taken soon after her family moved to Canada.

“On my first day at pre-school, all the kids laughed at me. I stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t look like anybody else. My snacks didn’t look like anyone else’s. It was very easy for the kids to target me and say, ‘You’re different’,” said Pak. “Later, I realised how much I wanted to fit in – I didn’t want to be that kid that was different.”

This fear of being different helped Pak find a powerful voice as a creative professional.

“My voice came from wanting to be heard – I knew what it was like to be that little girl who felt belittled. As I was growing up, I really practiced making sure people could hear my voice. In advertising, even on the best of days we’re stressed and scared of blank pages and briefs – it doesn’t get any easier. It’s a very daunting profession, but exciting. So my advice is to be confident and courageous – ideas are just ideas, don’t hold them too closely to your chest. Express yourself and know there’s no wrong answer.”

Helen was originally an architect, but soon joined Ogilvy where she found her first female advertising mentors: Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, authors of “Darling, you can’t do both’ – a book she highly recommends.

They had done some breakthrough work for Dove, shifting it from a commoditized bar of soap to something more meaningful. “They invited me into the fold to be part of the global team to help launch Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty – a campaign that continues to challenge beauty norms, and how we look at advertising. Certainly, working on Dove really helped my career in terms of shaping how I make ideas.”

When asked is she had any advice for men, she said: “It’s not men versus women, or Asia versus others, ideas are like Switzerland – the best ideas win. But I do think it’s more important for all leaders to be more aware of the disparities between gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity. The ideas we create should reflect the diversity of all people.”

“I actually think the best leaders are the ones that are a bit more vulnerable, who are very inclusive and don’t rule with an iron fist. Look at great leaders and icons, like Suthi [Suthisak Sucharittanonta] from Thailand, one of the most humble people you can think of. I do think there’s room for improvement in terms of creative leaders showing more empathy, compassion and vulnerability.”

 

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