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Creative World Creative Rankings My Creative Career

My Creative Career: VML’s Debbi Vandeven, the most-awarded CCO in the world


By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

March 4, 2024 | 10 min read

VML is “at the forefront of shaping the future of advertising,” says its global chief creative officer as she tops the World Creative Rankings people list and her agency network is named second-best in the world. We find out all about how she got where she is today.

Debbi Vandeven

VML's global chief creative officer Debbi Vandeven / VML

Debbi Vandeven always thought of herself as creative, ever since an elementary school teacher praised her knack for the arts and encouraged her to work on projects during her free periods. And when she had her first brush with advertising, through a high school friend who introduced her to a creative director, she made up her mind that this was the career for her.

The first step in that journey, in 1987, was a scholarship to the University of Kansas to study fine arts, where, obsessed with design, she relished classes in illustration, graphics and visual communication. Knowing that business acumen was going to be just as important as creative nous, however, she followed this up with the marketing and advertising course at Webster University in 1996.

“If you’re going to work in advertising, you’re not just an artist that is working on art; the understanding of the business is extremely important,” she says. “So I worked on my masters and then, after that, I was back in Kansas City.”

It was there that she and her husband, Jeff (also a creative), ran their own agency, Vandeven Design, for a few years before she took on some short stints at other agencies in the city, including MMG Worldwide, where she worked on hospitality and consumer package goods accounts.

Then, in 2000, she joined VML, the Missouri shop that at the time had around 130 employees (Vandeven reckons she was the 130th person they employed). The first account she worked on at the agency was Colgate-Palmolive. “Believe it or not, it is still one of our largest accounts all these years later!”

During those initial years at VML, Vandeven recalls that they didn’t have laptops, only Mac towers, so you were tied to the office all of the time, but the atmosphere was “so fun,” she adds.

Over the next five years, she had her two daughters, Kylie and Hallie. “They literally grew up in the business because I would have to work. They would be here on weekends. You just got used to it. As a parent, you bring in stuff for your kids to play with or have them watch TV while you’re working on work. It’s such a different way to think about life.”

To this day, the VML office in Kansas City is still in the same location, which is on the site of an old, but still in use, airport. The runways are right behind the agency’s windows, which Vandeven says is pretty exciting as a lot of celebrities, bands and sports teams with private planes use it.

“At first, I had a desk that I swear was in a hallway,” she laughs. “I would be working and people would come up behind me as I was designing something and go, ‘Oh, I think I like that one.’ Everyone had to comment on the work as they walked by.”

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Spending their formative years in the agency with their mother had a great impact on Vandeven’s children, who now work in advertising themselves. “Everyone knows what an advertising emergency is,” she says. “All of us understand when somebody has a pitch.”

Her daughter Kylie is a creative director at VML in New York and worked alongside her mother on Bumble’s first Super Bowl ad, which starred Serena Williams. It was a fully female team working on the spot and showed the tennis legend making moves as a young athlete to becoming a global icon today.

“It’s interesting when you work together. Everybody else in the family understands constant phone calls with clients.”

With her being so accomplished in her career, Vandeven jokes that people tend to tease her daughters about the pressure that puts on them, but says it is them who teach her so much about culture and tech – especially what can be accomplished with AI. “They keep me young.”

This no doubt helped with what Vandeven sees as one of the most stand-out campaigns of her illustrious career when, in 2020, Wendy’s inserted its brand into a Fortnite live stream on Twitch. After the popular game had announced a new event called ‘Food Fight,’ which saw a rivalry between Team Pizza and Team Burger, the creatives working on Wendy’s account saw an organic way to reach millions of gamers.

“The great thing about Wendy’s is it is always up on what’s happening in culture, right? Its team meets every single week and talks about the world and what’s going on. The whole premise of Wendy’s being on any platform is to be like a person who is actually on that platform.”

In 2001, when Vandeven was in her 30s, VML was bought by WPP and the original founders left the company. “We stayed with the business and we built the company, so anything that you might want to leave for, we just kept building it inwards.” Then in 2018, VML famously joined forces with Y&R to become VMLY&R, then last year announced there would be yet another merger, this time with Wunderman Thompson, and a return to the VML name.

“Whenever you’re talking about a big merger, you need to try and bring teams together and make sure that the culture of the company is something that people want to be part of,” she notes. “I think we’ll be fine because we’ve done it so many times. The big thing is just making people feel like they belong in an environment.”

It’s the people and the culture that have kept Vandeven at VML all these years. She says that she understands that people want to go to other agencies to pursue different dreams, but they have tried hard to make sure that if creatives want to advance their careers, they don’t need to leave the VML network.

“That’s what’s kept me here; there’s never a dull day here. I just got back from Madrid, where I had a global council meeting with the most senior creatives. And to see the amount of work, the number of clients that we work for, is just amazing.”

For younger creatives, her advice is to be relentless. “The thing is, you chose a field that you’re going to be judged; your work is judged every day. It’s going to be judged by a client; it’s going to be judged by your bosses. You have to have thick skin, but you have to be relentless; you have to fight for your ideas.”

Being judged is something Vandeven is used to and, this year, she has been named the most-awarded chief creative officer in the world in the World Creative Rankings, with her work on Wendy’s ‘Don’t Delete Menu’ and Dell’s ‘I Will Always Be Me’ contributing to this huge accolade.

Vandeven understands the importance of winning awards. “If you win for big clients, you get more big clients,” she says bluntly. “In our RFPs and in new business, you are asked about your rankings; that’s how important it is. And then, on top of that, that’s how you get good talent. If you’re an award-winning shop, more creatives want to work for you. Across the board, it is extremely important.”

As well as Vandeven taking the top CCO spot, VML has been named the second most awarded agency network in the world. “As VML continues to push the boundaries of creativity and innovation, our standout performance in World Creative Rankings serves as evidence of our commitment to excellence,” she concludes. “With a talented team driving groundbreaking ideas and campaigns, we’re at the forefront of shaping the future of advertising and marketing on a global scale.”

Creative World Creative Rankings My Creative Career

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