#EmbraceEquity with judge Devon Williamson
A Q&A with 2023 Photography & Illustration judge
March 8, 2023
In recognition of this year's International Women's Day (#EmbraceEquity)we wanted to celebrate all the talented hard-working women in our industry and so, we approached the women jurors of our three 2023 Awards competitions – Photography & Illustration, Design and Student - with a Q&A. We wanted to provide them with a space to discuss their experience in the industry today as well as share their advice to up-and-coming creatives.
Devon Williamson, Creative Director, Partner, Berners Bowie Lee, Toronto, ON
How did you end up in the industry?
It was very much by accident. I knew that I liked Art, but that no one would pay me to draw for a living because I was just okay. I was on track to go to university but I had made some rebellious decisions in grade 12 and my marks weren’t there, so I landed in college to take Graphic Design with dreams of working for a magazine working in editorial design which now makes me laugh. I think I would have been so bored doing that. I graduated into a recession, so the job prospects didn’t quite fit my glamorous expectations – Canadian Living wasn’t quite where I saw myself in my early twenties. I naively ended up in some bizarre jobs. My very first project was a 3 month contract in a Mississauga industrial park warehouse redesigning the packaging and visual identity for a home-goods brand with thousands of products. They still use the same designs today and it’s still wild to see it randomly when I’m shopping for a new bath mat or shower curtain. I had no idea what I was doing and I was terrified every single day. My big break happened when one of my friends from school got me an interview with his creative director at a cool indie ad agency at Queen and Spadina. I got the job, but was laid off suddenly when they lost the client I was brought in to work on. I learned early on that this industry isn’t much for job security, and that trying new things is more my speed anyway.
What were your goals as an up-and-coming creative?
I’ve had that “imposter syndrome” feeling since I started in this industry, but it’s usually because I thought I had to pretend I knew everything in order to prove I deserved a job. Because of that, I fell into a perfectionism mindset. I worked hard to get better because I was constantly comparing myself to my peers or the more senior creatives around me that I admired. It wasn’t necessarily from a healthy place at the time, but I can look back and appreciate how relentlessly I chased my own improvement and pushed myself to do work that I felt I could grow into. Work that made me uncomfortable. If I could go back, I would switch my mindset to one of curiosity and desire for growth instead of fear that I wasn’t good enough and had to prove myself over and over to everyone around me. From this perspective, I think my goal was to get as much experience as I could in my twenties. I didn’t stick around too long at any one job. Maybe at the time I was looking for people around me who would believe in me in a way that I was struggling to believe in myself, and for work that I could find meaning in.
Who was your mentor?
I didn’t have a mentor in any official sense. But there were many people around me who let me in on their secrets every-so-often and made me realize I didn’t have to isolate myself in the way that I was earlier in my career. And that asking for help and relying on other people was actually how you got to amazing work like that these people were known for. Getting to learn from people like Ian Mackenzie, Sanya Grujicic, David Ross, Paul Wallace, Paul Riss and Peter Borrell while at my first “real” agency job at DDB was incredibly formative. But you can find mentorship in all kinds of places and in formal and informal ways. My peer group and designer friends were a huge part of my growth. I was always inspired by what they were working on and learning from their experiences.
What was your experience climbing the creative ladder?
The way I climbed the ladder was by making leaps and trying new things. I’ve had a meandering path as a creative. I’ve spent time in design agencies & tech innovation and software, I’ve worked in a number of the top Canadian agencies and spent some time working in NYC too. But I didn’t stick around long enough to grow into a promotion or advance my career in one place over time. That has its pros and cons. Regardless, the most important part of growth in my career was finding the people that I cared about and respected to push me and help me grow into a better creative. Find those leaders or that team of people, work on building trust and connection and then stay in touch.
Do you feel the creative industry has evolved when it comes to fairness to women in the workplace?
It’s a tough question. The industry is always evolving, and I think that it’s evolving for the better, but there’s still a long way to go. There has been a lot of hiring for optics without setting people up to succeed and providing support. Our industry is known for promoting creative directors because they’re great at their craft without always giving the support to learn how to be a great leader. This is a problem for anyone thrust into a leadership position, of course, and often you have to learn by doing, but you shouldn’t have to do that alone and in fear because you’re not part of a dominant group (whether that’s gender or race, or both) and the agency hasn’t yet worked out how to provide support for new kinds of leaders.
What is your advice to young creative women seeking a career in the industry today?
Make sure that you are interviewing the agency just as much as they are interviewing you. You’ll never know what a place is really like until you work there, but if you get a weird gut feeling, pay attention to it. Finding mentorship is more important than working on a specific client or at a specific agency, but the most important thing is a leader who will advocate for you to have creative opportunities and who fights to create an environment for you to experiment and build on your thinking. Pay attention to the makeup of the team - who has been promoted recently? Is everyone white? How long do people typically stay there? Is their diversity effort deeper than their PR story around it?
Lastly, meet lots of creative people of all levels and talk to people from all walks of life. It will help you think more laterally and will help make sure you don’t get stuck in an advertising and design bubble. There’s a whole wide world of inspiration out there outside of your screens and the latest PR-able campaign headline. And if you can find it in five minutes through a quick search, so can our up and coming AI tools.