Vanessa Holden On Being a Straight-Shooter

Vanessa Holden is the lead Creative Strategist and Creative Director at Williams-Sonoma, Inc (which includes much loved brands such as West Elm, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn) and Founder of Soul Safari, a creative collective tapping into global communities to inspire creative possibilities. Her career started in Australia, in the world of publishing where she most notably launched the Donna Hay brand. In 2004 she moved her young family to New York to expand the Real Simple magazine into a lifestyle platform. In more recent years, Vanessa has been the creative voice behind the global success of West Elm. Vanessa is clever, intuitive and thrives on uncovering the creativity within us all.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to “do art for work”, so I set my sights on magazines and advertising.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with?
Absolutely my family.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you?
I read Tim Winton's books over and over again. I must have read Cloudstreet and Breath dozens of times.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed too too late, so I wake up too late. But once I’m up I’m going!

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I studied fine arts at university which exposed me to the likes of studio arts, sculpture, drawing, film, video and story-making, with an emphasis on graphic design. I had freelanced with magazines in Australia whilst still studying but when my course finished I left and moved to the UK for the classic gap year. I worked at the Design Museum in London, which gave me a deeper understanding and respect for design in all its permutations, and I came back to Australia knowing that I wanted to work in publishing.

I started out freelancing for teen magazines in the hey day of Beverly Hills 90210, the Spice Girls and Take That!, which was ridiculously fun, and a real boot camp – tight deadlines, tight pages, tiny teams, and a really demanding audience. I freelanced with them for a few years, and then moved into the entertaining and lifestyle space at Conde Nast Australia, working across Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living and Vogue Australia. There I met many of the collaborators I’ve sustained tight creative relationships with for decades now working on those titles.

From there I moved into a full-time graphic design role at Marie Claire and this is where I met Donna Hay. Donna and I started working together on her cook books and as a result, we established a studio together and launched the Donna Hay media platform, the first omni-channel platform I was involved with. It was a true 360-degree brand, anchored by her cook books, and extending into the magazine, newspaper syndication, radio, multi-category product and events and collaborations – we set ourselves the goal of building a brand that the customer could really immerse themselves in, and immersed ourselves every opportunity that came our way.

Following the success of the Donna Hay brand, I was offered a role at a magazine called Real Simple in New York. At the time it was an emerging women's lifestyle magazine and I was hired to work with the team to take it from its magazine roots and build it out into a much broader lifestyle brand. My family and I moved to New York for the opportunity and over the following three years we blew it out to include online, television, product, books, newspapers, and special issues, and went global.

I left Real Simple and had a couple of years out – I needed some time out of the corporate space, and consulted for lifestyle brands in the US, UK and Australia, before being offered the role of Editor-in-Chief of Martha Stewart Weddings – stepping out of the art department into overall responsibility for editorial direction.  As a graphic designer it was an incredibly exciting opportunity to create and tell rich visual stories at the same time as evolving the voice of the magazine. About twelve months later I became the editor of Martha Stewart Living.

I’d been at MSLO for about three years when I was approached by the President of West Elm to take on the Creative Director role. The brand was in transition - at the time it was a heavily retail focused business, and my brief was to editorialize the product and the entire multi-channel brand, infusing it with rich stories that were integrated into all aspects of the customer's experience – from partnerships, concepts and collaborations to the store experience, to online, social and the catalog. It was an exciting change for me to transition out of publishing and into true retail. I was there for about five years before I took a time out in July last year. I continue to work with them, and all of the Williams-Sonoma, Inc brands.

In 2016 I launched a new idea called Soul Safari, which is my passion project and I hope the beginnings of a really big movement for creative people around the world. I really think that people have been consumers for such a long time that they've forgotten their creative potential and I want to help bring that out. It’s the ability to make things that makes us human – we need to reconnect to that, and to each other.

So the mission of Soul Safari is three fold:
1. To create a space for people to tap into their own creativity
2. To connect people together to collaborate on projects
3. Bring those people together around work that is going to do some good in the world

We launched in Sydney in June and I am hosting the first event in New York on the 25th of August.

Vanessa with Beci Orpin at Soul Safari in Sydney

Vanessa with Beci Orpin at Soul Safari in Sydney

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
As an entrepreneurial creative type – I like to dream, but I also really like to get things done – that can rub up against more “corporate” approaches. I can make the most impact when I have a wide open space, and a problem to fix, and then can get into it by scoping the vision, and then connecting the right people and teams to make ideas come to life: fast, flexible, loose, but to really high standards and clear goals.

What motivates you?
I'm super motivated by showing people that life can be beautiful and creative. I believe everybody can, SHOULD, live a beautiful, creative, rich, optimistic life. My mission is to provide people with the tools to do that. Whether that's sharing someone’s great story, an inspiring insight, showing ideas to create or recreate – anything to make it not only desirable but achievable.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d known that I didn't have to do it all by myself. I feel like I spent many years trying to figure it out by myself. Often we don’t think it’s okay to ask for help, especially when we’re starting out and trying to prove ourselves, but you absolutely can, and absolutely should.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My family, for sure. None of my professional achievements would have been reached without them.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Being really optimistic – believing something CAN be goes a good way toward the possibility that it WILL be. My attitude to work is also pretty physical – I turn up to do whatever it takes. I'm a strategic person but I think a big part of my success has been about showing up and asking: what's the work? how can I help do it? how can I help other people do it? How can I make it better along the way? I continue to believe that as long as we keep working on something, it's going to be amazing.

What is your life motto?
The one that’s always whispering to me is When in doubt, err on the side of awesome. There’s always a safe path to fall back on so why not err on the side of the amazing, scary, risky, WOW thing?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My father used to say to me, "If there's going to be a boss, it might as well be you." As a teenage girl it was something that really empowered me to put myself at the center of my professional (and personal) decisions – and it’s definitely driven me forward into risky, but ultimately rewarding territory.

Where do you go for inspiration?
I look at industry-specific media all the time, but I also search out really eclectic points of view. Jason Kottke’s website,, is hyper eclectic, very intelligent and wonderfully weird. There's always a surprising nugget in there, whether it’s something about space travel or history or fashion or hip hop – I love the way he connects all of these divergent themes and invariably gets me thinking on something new.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
My favorite people are people who create businesses on their own terms and in doing so, invent new spaces for everybody. Rossana Orlandi in Milan, has spent decades building out not just an incredible store, but a community based around design and lifestyle that’s vibrant and specific to her very personal vision. Similarly I admire Paola Navone for her very quirky, but unified point of view, and Isabel Marant who in making clothes for herself and her modern life made an effortless attitude to dressing accessible to all.  I'm always inspired by social entrepreneurs at any scale – independent designers like Raan Parton at Apolis, Marissa Maximo at Anaak, Caroline Fuss at Harare, to mid-size teams at Maiyet, or Zady, or John Moore and the team at Outerknown, to the larger efforts of Eileen Fisher and Patagonia - the people within brands working to change not just the way people shop but what they shop for, addressing the sourcing models that will powerfully, and positively, impact the world. It’s hard, complicated work, but what a difference it can make.

What do you believe is the secret to success?
Sticking with it. The longer I've worked the more I believe this to be true. This saying -  some days are long but the years are short  - it’s true in work as well. Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress over days and weeks but when you look back over a year, you can see the giant steps forward.

Are there work ethics and attitudes that you most admire in women?
I've never taken gender into consideration when it comes to who I work with or how I operate. That said, I do believe women are inclusive and collaborative in a very natural, fluid way that is increasingly valuable. I also appreciate a straight shooter, and think it’s a trait that’s underrated. Generally, within larger organizations there’s a culture that means you have to temper your messaging. For me, simple, honest, straight-forward communication, delivered in a really kind and positive way, is always the easiest way forward.

What's next?
For me, it's always working on the balance between work and play. Blending them more successfully together everyday – my family, my friends, my work in the lifestyle space, and Soul Safari.

That’s launching in New York on 25th August – so it’s front of mind! I'm racing towards that deadline. Finalizing the speaker schedule, working on finalizing the art installation and putting together a day that is truly electric. I've been to a lot of day conferences that don't necessarily get me going and the Soul Safari mission is to leave everybody electrified and connected to make their ideas happen.


As told to Caroline Hugall at Bubby’s Tribeca on Monday 8th August 2016