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Opinion and Insight

Helen Pak on Bamboo Ceilings, Role Models and Finding Her Voice

Chief Creative Officer of Grey Group Canada and President of Grey Toronto opens up to LBB’s Laura Swinton at Ad Stars

Helen Pak on Bamboo Ceilings, Role Models and Finding Her Voice

“This is actually a really emotional time for me because not only am I surrounded by great advertising, but this is actually the first time I’ve been back to Korea since I was born. My first time back in 46 years.”

For most of the judges at this year’s Ad Stars advertising festival in Busan, South Korea, the experience has been pretty special. But for Helen Pak, who has been one of the Executive Judges, the trip has taken on a special resonance. It’s the first time the Canadian CCO has been back to Korea, the country of her birth, since emigrating to Canada at the age of three.

And that childhood experience forms the foundation of the keynote Helen gave at the Ad Stars conference. Covering her personal journey in adland, Helen explored the idea of finding her creative voice – and noted that she has been shaped by the early experiences of being a Korean-Canadian immigrant.

“When I first got to Canada, on my first day of Kindergarten, all the kids laughed at me. They ostracised me and taunted me. So, on the first day of school, which is meant to be really fun, I stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t look like everybody else, I didn’t act like everybody else, my name didn’t even sound like everybody else’s name ad when I brought snacks to school, my snacks didn’t look like everybody else’s. I brought octopus and dried seaweed,” she reflected. “What I didn’t realise was that back then I really wanted to fit in. That day was really quite formative for me. I didn’t want to be that kid that was different from everybody else. Preparing for the speech I realised that being Korean and leaving for another country helped shape me.”

For Helen, the ‘bamboo ceiling’ (a term coined in 2005 by journalist Jane Hyun to cover the factors that impede Asian Americans’ career progress) has been more keenly felt than the glass ceiling.

Helen spoke of important role models and mentors throughout her career. As someone who had started out as an architect before making the switch to advertising, these mentors were particularly important. 

During her time at Ogilvy, Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk were instrumental in inspiring Helen and supporting her career. The pair wrote the book ‘Darling You Can’t Do Both’ and blazed the trail as women successfully combining motherhood and an advertising career. And they also pulled Helen into one of the biggest campaign platforms of the 21st century.

“In 2004, something tremendous happened. Janet and Nancy were working on a campaign for Dove. They had done some breakthrough work, shifting it from a commoditised bar of soap to something meaningful. They were talking about this big global initiative in the works and they invited me into the fold to be part of the creative ideation… and that was the birth of the Dove campaign for Real Beauty,” said Helen.

“Certainly, working on the campaign for real beauty really helped my career in terms of how to approach ideas: ‘is this good enough? Can we come up with something that’s more fresh and interesting?’”

When it comes to role models, Helen says she’s been extremely fortunate. “In Canada we’ve been really lucky early on to chip away at the gender gap. We’ve had a lot of senior roles where women have excelled – not only excelled but exponentially exceeded expectations. I’m not sure that’s the same with other countries and other regions. We’ve been very lucky to break down traditional norms. We’ve had amazing successful women in the C suite,” says Helen, listing the likes of Leo Burnett’s Judy John as one such inspiring figure.

In 2013, Helen headed to Facebook. Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ philosophy took on an added resonance for Helen because of cultural and social norms that affect Asian women particularly.

“It’s interesting as I look back at the bamboo ceiling, it’s often discouraged for Asian women to let their voices be heard and sit at the table. Very often you’re sitting at the side and letting other people sit at the table. Women like Sheryl are hopefully encouraging that advocacy to travel across the boundaries.”

And, in a twist of fate, Helen has also found herself sitting working alongside one person who influenced her – one of her fellow Executive Judges at Ad Stars. “I mentioned to Wain Choi [SVP and CCO at Cheil Worldwide], who is also an executive judge here, that when he lived in Canada I looked up to him. I shared a story with him that, until my parents saw an article in the Korea Times about Wain Choi and his success, until that time my parents didn’t actually realise what I did and didn’t understand what I did. Actually I don’t think they accepted what I did.”