Julie Vessel is a visionary Group Account Director with 20 years experience helping challenger brands find their truth, edge and way to the top. She currently works as Group Account Director at mono, an award-winning creative agency focused on leveraging the power of simplicity to drive true innovation.
With equal parts inspiration and motivation, she has a passion for helping teams/clients seize their highest potential. This approach has led to successful brand transformations, consumer product launches, and perception-changing campaigns for a wide range of brands at mono including: MSNBC, Lucy Activewear, General Mills, Herman Miller, GOOD Magazine, and Virgin.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up on a farm in a small town in Iowa, the neighborly kind where people still say hi to those they pass by. But at a very young age, I became drawn to the "big city." To me, the "big city" represented the heart of where leaders and success was born and bred. But as I look back, I realize growing up on a family farm taught me more about leadership than anything I've experienced in any big city or company.
When I was growing up, farm business was infused into the fabric of daily family life. The state of things on the farm was a regular conversation at the dinner table, a very open and transparent discussion about daily problems, worries or successes. My siblings and I were expected to pitch in, oftentimes at our complaining about wanting to sleep in or play longer. But we were all seen as having something we could contribute, and as such, we were all part of the success of the family business. This transparency and connection created an inextricable link to one another that we still feel today.
Of everything I learned, maybe the most important lesson is that the most successful teams are based on need and active contribution. Visit a farm during fall harvest, and you'll see an all-hands-on-deck team where everyone is needed and actively contributing to the operation in whatever way they can. The team is driven by a real and meaningful purpose - to get the crops at the peak time and critically before frost hits. Accountability is understood, because there's no "I'll do it later" when you're working night and day against the clock to get the job done. You also won't find anyone sitting around or observing. And if you do, it won't be long before they are politely (and sometimes, not so politely) directed to "do something or get out of the way."
That experience has shaped how I look at building and leading successful teams. In the most successful teams, everyone is invested, needed and accountable. Too many teams today are organized because of process and obligation instead of a true desire to get something done. Teams, by their very definition, are about people coming together to achieve a common goal. Teams are nothing without a purpose, a mission - a real and meaningful thing to do.
Leading a team is about defining and rallying the team around that need. And equally important, it's about being smart and insightful about bringing people together who are needed for the task at hand. It's not about including people to include people. It's not that more people working on something is better. Instead, it's about bringing together the perfect combination of people who are needed and empowering them to contribute in a real, meaningful way.
How did your previous employment experience aid your position at mono?
I've never worked on a #1 brand or worked at the biggest agency, and I love that. I am proud to have worked with Agencies and Clients that were known as the challenger, underdog, wild card or long shot. Approaching things from a challenger mindset has really forced me to be innovative and disruptive, because "me-too" or "we're better" are rarely successful strategies when up against the giants.
These experiences have also trained me to be constantly on the search for opportunities. Big, nationally known agencies can react to things that come their way. But when you're working at a smaller or lesser-known agency, you have to go make opportunities happen. My most favorite moments in my career have been pitching businesses where we were the longest of long shots. Being the long shot is the biggest advantage an agency can have, because there is nothing to lose. Nothing to protect. Nothing to fear. And when you work from that place, you work from a very pure intention of trying to create the best possible thinking and ideas. When you have something to prove, it pushes you beyond what you think you can do. And there is no victory than proving to someone what you are truly, fully capable of.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at mono?
I was employee number 16 at mono and was lucky to be at the "ground level" of shaping what has become an amazing culture and experience. mono was designed for people who wanted a different experience. For people that wanted to contribute to thinking and ideas, not just manage them. It's for people who want to be part of something bigger - who want to be part of an agency that's paving a new way to work, think and help brands implement real change. I am most proud of the culture we've created and to be part of work that is making a real impact in the business world.
The challenge is that we're growing, and with that growth, there's always tension between wanting to hold on to the past and wanting to change for the sake of growth. It's forced us to be really introspective about what we need to hang on to, what we need to leave behind and what we need to add in order to grow the way we want to. It would be easier to just do what others have done before us, but we are always intentional on staying true to the original reasons mono was formed.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The day I gave up on trying to maintain a perfect work/life balance was the day I found true freedom. There's tremendous pressure on women to "do it all" and I think this has done more damage to women's self-esteem and confidence than the introduction of photo retouching. Whenever I find myself focused on the notion of achieving balance or "doing it all" it always creates a landslide of guilt and negativity about the things I'm not doing that I "should" be. And that's a really sucky place to operate from.
Above all, it's important to believe that your life is as, if not more, important than your work. You have to believe that before you can make it happen. I'll be the first to admit that it's been a process for me to get to that point. I'm easily swept away by the lure of a juicy assignment or the pressure of an impending deadline. Balance begins in understanding and believing that your life informs your work, and that your work informs your life.
To me, it's not about balance. It's about daily choices. Balance to me is about being really clear on what is most important to me on any given day. And it's about trying to align those priorities with how I spend my time. Believe me, some days are more aligned than others. But my best days are the ones where I feel like I'm living proactively in accordance to what is most important to me and my family.
What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in the advertising industry?
Advertising is a pretty crazy business. It's dynamic and ever changing with an endless cycle of ups, downs, twists and turns. After 20 years in the business, I can confidently say that it isn't the most sensible, easy or safe of career choices. So, I would offer women two pieces of advice.
First, do it for the love of it.
If you want a long and successful career in advertising, then first make sure you're getting into it for the right reasons. And from what I've seen, the most successful people in advertising are those that are in it for the love of it. Because they truly love ideas and the potential of ideas. Because there's a part of them that is undeniably creative and curious. Because they crave being a part of defining what can be vs. what is. Because they believe that it's much bigger than advertising, it's about making a difference. When you do it for the love of it, it will help you navigate the ups & downs.
Then, start making it better.
Wherever you land, you are there to make things better. You are there to make the industry better. And know that we are counting on you to do so. You don't have to log in so many hours, days or years in order to do so. Jump into this business with an ambition to make it better. It could be small things - making a meeting better, making a team better, making a spreadsheet better. You'll quickly find the small things will lead to big things - making a brand better, making a business better, making a culture better. It all adds up. But it all starts with someone taking the initiative to make something happen.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Somewhere along the way, we all became believers that we have to be good at everything. We became focused on stopping, changing, fixing and fitting in. It became more about them and less about us. The standard became anchored in becoming well-rounded.
Unfortunately, most of us have it backwards. We focus far too much energy on our weaknesses or trying to be perfect. We spend our time thinking about what's wrong or what we need to change. Meanwhile, our strengths--the gifts, traits and talents that make us truly special--take a backseat and don't get fully developed and cherished.
Here's the thing: you don't have to be a master of all things. You don't need to change. You need to be more you. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, focus on your strengths. You don't need to be great at everything, but you're probably world-class at something. Play to your strengths. Spend a disproportionate amount of time being the absolute best at a small number of things, rather than trying to master every skill.
What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's 'Ban Bossy' campaign?
As the mother of two young girls, I'm a big fan of anyone who is championing self-worth and confidence in girls. So, I commend Sheryl for doing something and for starting a conversation. That said, I hope the conversation goes beyond the word "bossy" because to me it's so much bigger than a particular word. It's about helping our girls know and understand that what some might see as a negative could be a strength in disguise. We should be encouraging these girls to own their power, regardless of what others think. Be bossy, be loud, be demanding, but most importantly be you.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I'm not someone who's felt the need for a specific mentor in my life. That said, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the philosophy of really listening to people who have different experiences than my own. If people want to offer advice, I always make sure I'm willing to truly listen. And I've learned a lot by simply asking people what has led to their success.
More than mentorship, there is a sisterhood of experienced, working women who have become my go-tos for advice, collaboration and debate. These amazing women are peers who share my ambition to do meaningful and impactful work; who share my compulsion to challenge the status quo and who share my determination to make things better. We always have each other's best interest in mind, and have established a pretty sacred space where we can be completely honest with each other. These women have talked me off the ledge, pushed me out of the nest and, more than anything, validated that I am never alone in my wonder, questions or ideas. I simply would not be who I am without them in my life. It's great to find a mentor who can offer outside perspective, but I've found it's equally important to find perspective with people share a common experience.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many leaders I admire, but I've never tuned my radar to looking specifically for female leaders. I'm always drawn to learning from best in class, whether they are male or female. Particularly interesting to me are change-makers who are charting new courses while still staying completely true to themselves and their values. I'm a huge fan of Warren Buffett's values-based, hands-off style to management and leadership. I have huge admiration for Pope Francis' ability to lead by example, and his intentional and honest approach to setting a new direction for the church in the face of tremendous convention and controversy. I love that Angelina Jolie is becoming known more as humanitarian than actor, and I admire her willingness to leverage her global influence to spark a conversation around human rights and humanitarian issues.
What are you currently working on at mono, and how do you hope it will have a positive impact?
I am excited to be devoting more time to talent and development efforts at mono. Our people are the most important factor to our future success. And we are lucky to have attracted amazing talent, talent that comes to mono with great aspirations to do great work and be part of something special. In this new role, I will be responsible for making sure mono is an environment where people can do the best work of their careers. My goal is make mono one of the most innovative, talent-forward companies in the industry.