Committed to delivering excellence, Nadja Bellan-White sits at the helm of Ogilvy Africa, the continent’s largest agency network. Like most African power women, Nadja towers brilliantly, having created a niche for herself in the marketing and advertising industry.
With over 20 years of experience, the leading lady has worked with several Fortune 1000 brands, like American Express, Citibank, Motorola, and LG Electronics. Nadja’s high achievements serves as an encouragement for working mothers, making them understand that one can be a high achiever on the job and still be an amazing mother.
Her journey has recorded several outstanding results, yet it hasn’t been without challenges and disappointments.
“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.” Nadja opens up to mater mea.com
At the time she began the journey towards building her career, advertising didn’t seem an option. After her graduation with degrees in foreign affairs and Spanish from the University of Virginia in 1989, Nadja longed to follow in her father’s footsteps and work for the United Nations, but she was soon discouraged when she found herself so bored during a trip to the UN.
“At the time I entered business school,” she explains. “I really thought that I was going to have a career in urban development and real estate corporate finance.”
By the time Nadja graduated from New York University, she had two job offers, one to go into corporate finance and the other consulting brands on restructuring after bankruptcy. She opted for consulting, and worked with IBM in its marketing strategy group.
Her first assignment was researching on how IBM could develop a direct business, and so, she devoted her time to studying their competitor Dell Corporation, which, at the time, was selling directly to consumers in the mid-1990s.
There, she learnt about Oglivy and also developed a strong desire, to be part of the organization. “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!’
Her focus and resilience got her into Strategic Interactive Group, a global digital marketing and technology agency, which later became Digitas. There, Nadja gained full balance in the branding and advertising industry, as she worked on transforming American Express’ small-business services arm. The move also served as a platform to announce her transition into a new and exciting phase.
“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.”
Even with her pregnancy, the career woman saw no reason to reduce her pace; instead she worked even harder.
“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.”
After six years, Nadja left Digitas, did some consulting work for a few years before returning to the marketing world in 2007. An old boss at Digitas offered her an opportunity to serve as senior vice president and marketing director of Publicis, and she took it with thanks.
“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.”
Just then Ogilvy, the company she had longed to join since the beginning of her career, offered her an interesting position.
“I came in, and it felt like home,” 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.”
At Ogilvy, Nadja rose through the ranks to become the CEO, overseeing branding, advertising, marketing, and strategy for clients like Nestle, Coca Cola, and Airtel.
Nadja has now moved with her amazing family to Nairobi, Kenya, where they have settled into their new life and hope for the best.
To the young and aspiring, the power lady leaves this advice in her interview with matermea.com
“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.”