Very few women—let alone women of color—have made their way to the rarified top ranks of marketing and advertising. But Nadja Bellan-White is one of those few, thanks to her willingness to give 110% to her clients and her company, Ogilvy + Mather Worldwide. It’s the same kind of commitment she shows as head of another important team: her family. Recently named the CEO of Ogilvy Africa, the continent’s largest agency network, we chatted with Bellan-White about how she manages her work and family life before they moved to Nairobi, Kenya.
No advertising or media world’s “best of” list is complete if Nadja Bellan-White’s name doesn’t make an appearance. With more than 20 years of experience, the mother of two (Troy Jr., 13, and Azza, 10) has made her mark at a number of high-profile agencies—most recently Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide—for her work with Fortune 1000 brands like American Express, Citibank, Motorola, and LG Electronics.
Her tireless work ethic—and we mean that quite literally: “I will not go to sleep until something’s done as perfectly as possible,” Bellan-White says—has borne the type of fruit typically believed to be unattainable to working mothers or only seen on the other side of the glass ceiling. But she’s quick to disabuse anyone of the notion that her career has followed a gilded path.
“It’s funny,” she says. “I meet some young people who think, ‘Oh, I want to be you one day.’ [But] you know what? It took 20 years for me to be me, and I’m still evolving. It doesn’t come easy.”
Advertising wasn’t on the horizon when Nadja Bellan-White graduated the University of Virginia with degrees in foreign affairs and Spanish in 1989. She wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and work for the United Nations, but found herself so bored during a trip to the UN, “I kept falling asleep.”
“At the time I entered business school,” she recalls. “I really thought that I was going to have a career in urban development and real estate corporate finance.” But a teaching fellowship with an enthusiastic professor at New York University introduced her to the possibility of working with brands. When she graduated from NYU, she had two job offers on the table: one to go into corporate finance and the other consulting brands on restructuring after bankruptcy. She went with consulting, and worked with IBM in its marketing strategy group.
“My assignment was figuring out how IBM could actually develop a direct business,” Nadja Bellan-White explains. She studied their upstart competitor Dell Corporation, which, at the time, was doing an unheard thing by selling directly to consumers in the mid-1990s. It was then that she first became acquainted with Ogilvy. “I was so impressed by Ogilvy, I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing group of people. I hope to work with them, because they sure seem to be having a lot more fun than I am!’
“I was making these presentations about Dell and how they’re changing the market,” Nadja Bellan-White recalls. “Here I am, this young person at this behemoth IBM talking about ‘We have to expand!’ Some of these executives were like, ‘What is she talking about?’”
Her foresight and doggedness got her recruited from IBM in 1999 to Strategic Interactive Group, which later became Digitas, a global digital marketing and technology agency. The move placed Nadja Bellan-White solidly in the advertising and branding world, as she worked on turning around American Express’ small-business services arm and had a spot on the company’s coveted global advertising team. It also marked a place in her life when she was ready for another transition: becoming a mother.
“There’s never a good point—particularly in a career like mine—to have kids,” she says. “[But] as one of my mentors once told me, ‘You’re never going to have any regrets for having kids.’ My husband [marketing executive Troy White] and I were so excited when we found out we were pregnant.”
Nadja Bellan-White didn’t slow down during her pregnancies. “I remember sitting in a room with [American Express chief marketing officer John Hayes], 9.5 months pregnant, talking about the power of persuasive marketing,” she recalls. “I worked up until like the day before. I’m kind of extreme; I was that person writing presentations up until right before I delivered.
“I prayed every day,” she continues. “‘Lord, get me through today. Let me be ok.’ And you know, at the end of the day, you’re ok.”
She also had a support system in place to help her manage the difficult juggle of being a working mom in a client-driven field. “I have an amazing husband doing the heavy lifting at home. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and I don’t go to bed until 11. From the grandmothers to my husband to cousins to babysitters, they all help me so I can do what I do.”
But shortly after her daughter’s first birthday, Nadja Bellan-White decided to slow down and devote more time to her family. “As a mother you have to make a conscious decision to really get off that fast track for a minute and focus more on the kids and the family,” she explains now. “And I did that.”
Nadja Bellan-White left Digitas after six years, and did some consulting work for a few years before the marketing world beckoned here back in 2007. An old boss at Digitas called her with an opportunity she couldn’t turn down: senior vice president and marketing director of Publicis.
“It was another amazing ride. We’re transforming the LG brand in America, we’re doing work sessions in Paris,” she says. “My clients and I had a great relationship. And then, typical me, I’m like, ‘What’s next?’ I reached a point where I took a conscious step back to focus on the kids, and there’s a point where you have to move forward. You can’t just tread water anymore.”
That’s when Ogilvy, the company she had admired from afar at the start of her career, came a-calling.
“I came in, and it felt like home,” Nadja Bellan-White says of her interview. “[I thought], ‘This is where I want to end my career and this is where I want to make my mark.’”
And she’s made good on that feeling: Nadja Bellan-White was recently tapped by her company to become the CEO of Ogilvy Africa, the continent’s largest agency network, overseeing branding, advertising, marketing, and strategy for clients like Nestle, Coca Cola, and Airtel. The family moved to Nairobi, Kenya in the fall, and have since settled into their new life abroad.
“It’s a lot for me,” she admits. “My mind is spinning. I’m blessed that Troy is excited for the ride too, and also to give our kids that exposure.
“I don’t know what’s to come,” she continues, “but I think it will be amazing.”
WHAT’S THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF YOUR JOB?
I think working with different brands [and] the look on people’s faces when they see my team’s work. It’s kind of exciting.
The other part of it is changing perceptions of people of color in the market. I think so many of us are quick to be in front of the camera [and] not enough of us are behind the camera. In the board room, in these meetings, [I can say], “Well, I don’t think that’s the right assumption, I don’t think that’s what we should be putting forward.” If enough of us aren’t there, then how can we make a change? So that’s kind of the role that I play.
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A MOTHER?
I come from a large Caribbean family where the young kids were always taking care of somebody’s child. I’ve always had that instinct, so I’ve always known I was going to be a mom. I was pretty excited. I was ready.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU’VE FACED AS A MOM?
I think work-life balance. I know a lot of moms who feel this way: Kids can cut you deep when they want to know, “Why can’t you be the one who doesn’t have to go to work every day?” I never sugar coat anything with my kids. [I say,] “This is the reality. These are the cards that we’ve been dealt, this is what God has blessed us with. I know you want me to stay home every day, but that is just not possible. But because I work where I [do], you are able to have the experiences what other friends of yours may not normally have.” So that’s what I try to tell them.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE MOM GUILT THAT COMES WITH THE BALANCING YOUR CAREER AND HOME LIFE?
It’s hard. I just came off a vacation where I was working on a big business pitch [and ultimately] the company wasn’t really that interested. I can’t get that week back. At the same time in my career, if you don’t give a 110% at all times, you’re just not keeping up.
So you try to balance it all. You try to carve out time when you can, and recognize that if I didn’t love what I did every day, it would be really hard. But I do love what I do; I love the people I work with at Ogilvy. It’s an extraordinary company to be a part of. I get excited to come to work everyday just like I get excited to go home at night. Is everything perfect? I don’t think anybody’s life is perfect, but I try to strike a balance where I can.
HOW DO YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND BALANCE PARENTING WITH THE DEMANDS OF YOUR JOBS?
He works from home, so he does a lot of the heavy lifting. We also have a sitter who helps us out as well, so that makes it easier for me. I also choose to live in the city and not in the suburbs. Now some may say, “Well, that’s why [you] have to pay for private school.” At the same time, I’m able to rush to a school recital and get back to work within 45 minutes. If I lived 2.5 hours away I couldn’t do that.
I usually try to set the table for breakfast unless I’m traveling on business, so at least the kids have the table set for breakfast. And on Sundays, I try to cook for the week, so I end up being hyper-organized. I’ll label stuff: “Here’s chicken for Monday and Tuesday, and I want you guys to take this fish out for Wednesday.” I try to be sure I organize the meals for the week with instructions on what needs to get done.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOUR MOM OR THE MOMS IN YOUR LIFE HAVE GIVEN YOU?
Never ever, ever give up and don’t rest on your laurels at any time. You keep on striving, you keep on doing, you keep on trying to be better than everybody else. And because you’re a woman, because you’re a black woman, you have to work three-, four-, five-times harder than everyone else.
I tell my daughter that. Even though we may have evolved a little bit as a culture, we’re still not that evolved. (Laughs) The standards are going to be different. That may not be fair, but it is reality. I feel bad for somebody who thinks, “Oh, everything’s fair, and everything’s equal, and everything’s perfect, and everyone cares.” Just because someone looks like you doesn’t mean they’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt, [and] just because someone doesn’t look like you doesn’t mean they’re against you, either. You judge people based on who they are as individuals. You don’t come to anybody with preconceived notions because chances are it’s not going to be what you thought it was going to be. So just bring your A game always—110% at all times.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR KIDS’ PERSONALITIES?
My son is very structured, very, very analytical—although at 13, he’s kind of discovered girls, so he’s lost a brain cell, I think. I mean, woof, I didn’t see that coming. I knew it would happen, but it is real.
My daughter is the most amazing flower child ever. She’s like peace, love, and happiness. She loves to write, she loves to sing… she’s a girly girl. She doesn’t want me to tell her she’s a girly girl because she’s a little more funky, but she’s definitely influenced by Disney.
My son is all jock, all sports all the time. His voice is changing and he’s really into it. For my son, his dad is his best friend. And for my daughter, she’s like my shadow. It just worked out like that.
HOW DO YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND HANDLE RAISING A BLACK BOY WITH ALL THE ATTENDANT STEREOTYPES AND DANGERS OF BEING A BLACK MAN?
I have to tell you, my husband is, I think, the number-one dad in the world. He has spent such an extraordinary [amount of] time giving the kids balance. He is on the board of Harlem’s Little League and he’s also very active with the Harlem Jets [a youth football team].
My kids attend private school and we’re members of Jack and Jill, but I got to tell you, my kids have one foot in each world. By no means do they think that they’re better than anyone else, so my son sees both sides of the world. He rolls in his very privileged private school world, [and] he also rolls with the kids who come from cross-socioeconomic backgrounds on the Jets and Harlem Little League. And I think it’s great. It makes him a better person.
My children are perfectly well-suited for this world today. They are always respectful of other kids, and they’re not the mean kids. My kids are the ones that stand up for the ones who are being bullied, and that’s what we taught them.
YOU’VE HAD QUITE THE CAREER! WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED WHILE MOVING UP THE RANKS?
Show me someone who’s had a perfect career, and I’ll show you someone who is lying. Lying through their teeth. (Laughs) It doesn’t come easy, and every day I’m learning. I never feel as though, “I’ve got it now, I’m good.” I’m always learning from other people. That’s kind of been my philosophy.
Don’t take anything personally. I think it’s easy to take things personally, [but] don’t hold grudges. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives [or] why they are the way they are in meetings.
Be good to the people who are around you, because you never know what’s going to happen and where you’re going to end up, and be true to yourself. Know who you are, know what you’re really, really good at, and know what you need to succeed.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WANTS TO BE WHERE YOU ARE TODAY IN YOUR INDUSTRY?
Be honest: Do you want to be in this career? Is it fancy? Sure. Is it like Mad Men? Sorry. Mad Men does not exist here. But if you work hard and make sure you’re good—and if you’re diligent, organized, and really committed—you can do really well in advertising and media. You just have to be willing to do the work.
Take care to study the field. You’ve got to be willing to work. Roll your sleeves up. I work on a team of women who are working with me and for me. They’re extraordinary; they’re your roll-your-sleeves-up kind of women. No task is too difficult, nothing is beneath them. You have to learn all bases. You can’t lead if you don’t know a little bit of what everyone else’s challenges have been.