Prior to life in advertising Helen Pak was an award-winning architect, tempted over to the agency world by its quick creative turnaround time (buildings tend to take a little longer to put together than commercials). And what a leap it’s turned out to be. Armed with “a really terrible portfolio,” Helen knocked on the door of the agency closest to the office that she worked in and landed herself a job. Since then she’s held down roles at Saatchi & Saatchi, Taxi, JWT, Ogilvy - where she was part of the original global team behind Dove’s highly awarded ‘Real Beauty’ campaign - Havas and StrawberryFrog Amsterdam. She recently took a break from the ad industry to take up a role at Facebook and Instagram as a creative strategist and to head up Facebook’s Creative Shop in Canada.
But she missed the big ideas that the advertising industry offered and, in February of last year, joined Grey Canada as CCO. Just over one year on, LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with her for a chat.
LBB> You emigrated from Korea to Canada at the age of three - what was your childhood like?
HP> For the first few years, it was a bit weird because I didn't know how to speak English and I looked so drastically different from everyone. Wanting to be included was a big part of my childhood. I joined every club, every sports team and all school activities in an effort to fit in.
LBB> Did you grow up in what you’d call a creative household?
HP> Absolutely not. It was the opposite in fact. My parents really had me focus on math and science. To them, mastering those subjects was key to a successful future. My dad was an engineer and my mom a lawyer, and they gave that all up to run a grocery store in Toronto. I had a lot of pressure to go into a reputable profession (medicine, law, etc.). They did encourage the arts though and I grew up taking art and music lessons, but it was never something to pursue as a career.
LBB> You went back to Korea for the first time last year to judge at Ad Stars - outside of the judging, how was that experience for you personally?
HP> It was a very emotional experience. I left Korea when I was three and never returned until then. I was so focused on blending in and being accepted that I ended up ignoring my heritage.
It was amazing to be surrounded by everyone who looked similar to me. I grew up as a minority, always visibly different but this wasn’t the case during my visit.
LBB> And so how did you get into the ad industry?
HP> I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. I practiced for a few years and then decided to try something else. We were in the middle of a recession and the architecture industry was experiencing some challenges. I was lucky to be at a great firm but I really wanted to go into an industry that was a bit more fun and where the timelines were shorter. Creating a building takes a long time compared to campaigns and I guess I had too short an attention span to commit to architecture.
LBB> You’ve touched on it there but can you tell us a bit more about why you decided to switch from architecture to the ad industry? That’s a switch I see quite often amongst creatives!
HP> I wanted a change. I also thought, surely if I could design a physical space - a building - I might be OK at designing experiences between brands and people. Looking back now, I had a lot of foolish courage. I cobbled together a really terrible portfolio and tried to get a meeting at the closest agency to my firm. I was lucky that the agency’s founder had wanted to study architecture in school and he gave me a chance.
LBB> What were the biggest lessons you learned early on in your career?
HP> Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Push the work to be as amazing as it can be and then push some more but treat people well along the way. And never to take it personally.
LBB> A few years ago you took a short break from the ad industry to work as a creative strategist at Facebook and Instagram - how did you find that experience and what did you learn from it?
HP> It was a fantastic experience. It changed the way I looked at the industry. I had the opportunity to work with so many great agencies and brands that I admired. It also allowed me to see the importance of working more nimbly. Understanding the changing landscape of how we communicate and connect with each other and with brands was a big a-ha. Ads aren’t competing with other ads, brands are competing with Netflix, with friends’ posts, pop culture and more. We need to be relevant in people’s lives and not be about just selling things. It also made me realise the incredible scale and speed at which giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like are operating. Agencies need to move faster and evolve. I also realised the power of data and innovation and how that can really harness creativity.
LBB> But you were tempted back! Did you miss being in the thick of the ad industry?
HP> I did. Even though there are a ton of perks being on the tech and media side, I missed the white space creativity of the ad industry. I missed the opportunity of creating big ideas. I also believed that there was incredible learning to bring back to the ad industry.
LBB> Which pieces of work from your time at Grey are you most proud of and why?
HP> Too many to talk about. We have some proactive work that we’re working on right now that is super exciting. Without giving away the details, one project is an innovative piece of technology to help in early disease detection. Our ongoing work for the Salvation Army has been extremely rewarding as we shed a light on poverty in Canada while ultimately driving donations.
LBB> Canada killed it at Cannes last year with 44 Lions - it must be great to see work from the country recognised on that global stage?
HP> Yes, I remember when I first got into the industry, Canadians were underrepresented in Cannes and didn't even really attend. It is amazing to see Canadian success on the global stage.
LBB> But how do you see the Canadian industry at the moment?
HP> Everyone keeps talking about the changes happening in the industry. It’s been an ongoing topic for years. I think we feel it now more than ever. There are a lot of different agencies popping up, a lot of consultancies and media companies aiming to do work that’s typically led by advertising agencies.
LBB> What do you like to get up to in your free time to unwind / keep your batteries charged?
HP> I love free time spent with my daughter, Stella. She puts everything into perspective.