Workplace Leaders
VMLY&R Commerce
Chief People Officer

Elke Van Tienen

In recent years, many workplaces have seen a clear link between culture, inclusion, and commercial success, emphasising the importance of creating a positive work environment. It is down to effective people leaders within companies to take this link and create something tangible from it.

Max Webber, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Elke Van Tienen, Chief People Officer at VMLY&R Commerce. With a deep commitment to equity, inclusion, and belonging, Elke shares her journey into the world of HR, her perspective on embedding a sense of belonging within an organisation, and the advice that has defined her career. 

Max: Let’s start with an introduction to your role and company.

I'm Elke Van Tienen, my pronouns are she/her. I hold two key roles within VMLY&R Commerce. I am the Global Head of People for VMLY&R Commerce, and I also serve as the Chief People Officer across all the VMLY&R brands in the EMEA region. Our primary focus is combining creativity, technology, and culture to create connected customer and brand experiences for our clients. The VMLY&R Commerce part of our business plays a pivotal role in helping brands grow by uniting strategies around customer and brand experiences through creative commerce. 

One exciting recent development is our announcement about merging with Wunderman Thompson, another WPP network agency, to form a new company called VML, beginning in January next year. As a combined agency, we'll be an impressive force with around 30,000 people across 64 markets. So, there's a lot of exciting times ahead.

Max: What drew you into the world of HR?

I think it's true that HR professionals often come from diverse backgrounds and don't necessarily have a linear path into HR based on their studies or early career. My personal journey into HR started with different intentions. Initially, I wanted to study art and photography at university, but I had to consider what that would mean in terms of a practical job in the real world. So, while I was passionate about entering the business world, I wanted to do so in a creative environment that centred on people and culture. Growing up in various countries made me particularly interested in that intersection.

To chart my path, I consulted with people in business, family, and educators to explore the business landscape and find a suitable place for me. Based on their advice, I decided to take a chance and enrolled at the London School of Economics to study human resources and industrial relations. That educational choice defined my career trajectory, and I've never looked back. My journey included roles in the media industry, including brands like Viacom and MTV, which provided a strong foundation for my career. I then transitioned to the advertising world, staying within the creative sphere and serving in various business partner roles across the UK, EMEA, and globally. The mergers and acquisitions in our industry also influenced my career journey.

Max: What sort of initiatives are you working on around people and inclusion at the moment?

Our organisation is fortunate to have an exceptional program and leader, Tasha Gilroy, accelerating the focus on Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. In addition to our global and local leaders prioritising this push, we rely on a network of what we call "fearless champions" worldwide. This ensures the building of an inclusive culture isn't limited to a specific team but is about collective responsibility for promoting equity, inclusion, and belonging.

We've established several initiatives that demonstrate our commitment to inclusion. For instance, we have active Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) across our Global but also EMEA markets. These groups help create a sense of belonging and connection for our diverse employees. We also have an equity, inclusion, and belonging community that seeks to understand the unique nuances of our incredibly diverse EMEA region. For younger talents, we offer various programs, including one called "The Incubator" in the UK. This program provides work experience for 16 to 18-year-old students, allowing them to work on live client briefs within a mini-agency setup, and then present their work both internally and to business schools. It's a unique opportunity for these students to experience the agency world while also engaging with the fun aspects of our industry.

Another initiative we've recently launched, which was initially in the US and is now in the UK, is a mentoring program called "Ujima" for our Black talent. It's an enriching experience both for mentees and mentors. 

Max: In terms of engaging staff, especially in a client-facing, fast-paced industry like yours, how do you ensure that employees are engaged in these initiatives?

The pandemic introduced a significant shift in how we work and engage with employees. The transition from predominantly in-person initiatives to fully online ones was substantial. Ensuring the same level of engagement in these remote or hybrid settings presented challenges, especially within an organisation that prioritises creativity and collaboration

We've had to adapt to this change and, to an extent, it's been a trial-and-error process. As the landscape evolves, including the discussions around the optimal amount of time spent in the office and the flexibility of remote work, we've learned that we need to be agile and continue to experiment and adjust our approaches, always with a focus on effective and maximised delivery for our clients.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to drive engagement in these initiatives. We must continuously monitor engagement levels, gather feedback from employees and clients, and be ready to make changes based on their responses. The way we work is evolving, and the strategies for engagement that worked in the past may not be suitable for the present or the future.

Max: Could you share the best piece of advice you've received during your career?

One quote from a Creative Lead at an agency that has stuck with me and that I often discuss with others is, "Find your tribe." She shared this at a Creative Equals Rise conference aimed at the next generation of creative talent, particularly females. "Find your tribe" means surrounding yourself with people who form your support network, share the spotlight with you, and lift you up. It's not just about self-gain but also about how you can show up to support others. This advice has been a guiding principle for me throughout my career.

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