The No-B.S. Guide to Winning in Creative Business as a Woman
Pum Lefebure, an award-winning creative director who runs her own branding agency and works with Pepsi and Ritz-Carlton, serves it up cold.
Talking to Pum Lefebure, it becomes immediately apparent that she knows what she’s doing. Not only that, she knows she knows what she’s doing—and she’s worked hard to get there. Having first arrived in the U.S. from Thailand as a foreign exchange student in high school, she stuck around after getting a college scholarship, won herself an internship at a branding agency, and within a few years was managing a team of 50 as a creative director. With art and design being her driving passions, Lefebure has since opened her own agency with her husband called Design Army and won countless awards for her work with clients like Pepsi, Bloomingdale’s, Smithsonian, and Disney.
If you haven’t caught on quite yet, the woman works hard. She’s also a mom and one of the best living examples we’ve ever met of actually having a real answer when it comes to how she makes it all come together without compromising anything. If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy answer to how to get your shit together and be the many things you want to be (we happen to agree with Lefebure when it comes to the notion that a woman doesn’t have to be just an executive or just a mom or just anything else, for that matter—that she can actually be both, or none, or much more), this isn’t it. No, this is the place to come if you want to hear a super successful woman tell it like it is: that if you want to be the best, get ready to work really, really hard.
Here, Lefebure’s rules for success in creative work.
Differentiate yourself and people will come to you:
“Having a small business, you have to ask yourself what differentiates you from other people. It’s very important to be sought after rather than chasing clients. I spend a lot of time curating our own brand and voice that clients will look for because we’re the only ones creating that vibe.”
Learn new things all the time, even when you’re the expert:
“I am a strong believer in learning by doing. In order to survive in any business today, you have to be a student at all times. Whatever we are designing today might not be relevant six months from now because the world is moving so fast, technology is changing so dramatically, and the way people communicate changes all the time. You’ve got to adapt. It’s very important for me to learn everything over and over again. A lot of people still practice design the same way—logos and brochures—they haven’t moved into the digital space, which means they’ll become obsolete. That shift is crucial for me as a business leader to continue to take the company in new directions. While we’re an award-winning design firm, we can’t always look in the rearview mirror and be happy with what we’ve done; we need to move forward and [think about] what’s next for the company. What’s next five years from now?”
Create boundaries for yourself so that you’re always doing the work you want to do:
“At my old firm, I did a thousand dot-com logos. There was the boom and then the bust, and we had to lay off half of the staff. It was a very, very difficult experience. And we learned that if we ever had our own company, it’s better to be small and be selective about the clients and projects we really want to work on. The reason is that when you have 50 people, you have to take every single project in order to be able to afford their salaries. When we opened Design Army, we wanted to keep it really small and boutique so that we could be in a position to pick and choose the clients we wanted to work with instead of taking work for work’s sake. In the beginning, we said no to a lot of work. We were trying to create a new agency that would fit with fashion, art, and entertainment—in order to do that, you have to curate.”
Live and work on a strict schedule:
“I try to exercise three days a week in the morning if I can. Then I come into work and I have increments of literally 15 minutes in my schedule. I have an amazing PA who stays on top of me, because otherwise I can’t get everything done. I never go out for lunch, ever. I work through lunch. We have a lunch hour at our office from 12:30 - 1:30, but I stay. I stay until 7:30 or 8. Then I go home and sit down with Sophie, my daughter, who’s 13 now, and spend some time with her. We talk for an hour, and then she goes to bed, and I talk to my husband and do my own thing—Facebook if I have time—or I go back to work again. Lately we have a lot of international clients, so most nights I’ll have another late-night call with clients in Bangkok—it’s nine o’clock in the morning there. So between 10 and midnight is my time with Asian clients.”
Balance means whatever you want it to mean:
“Balance depends on how you want to define it. A lot of people think balance means a separation between work and life. But balance for me isn’t about separation; balance for me is about blending, curating, and making everything work together—make it all fun for me. I am extremely off balance when I’m trying to separate the two. I don’t want to feel guilty about answering a client’s email on a Saturday. And with international clients I work constantly. I’m very off balance and unhappy when I try to separate the two because that’s just not me. Every person needs to make their own definition of balance. Don’t follow the conventional wisdom. Do you actually mind working on something on a Sunday morning for a couple hours to feel like you’re getting ahead for Monday? For me, I love working.”
Work harder than anyone else:
“I make a point to work harder than anyone else since I came here as an immigrant. English is my second language, and I remember my first year in college, just to read anything took me three times longer. Imagine reading French or Spanish—every single word that you see doesn’t make sense. I’d open a dictionary, write the Thai word down for each word in the sentence and try to make sense of it. To even pass, I needed to work harder, and even harder to memorize another language. I know now that if I’m going to survive or be successful in this country, there is no way but one way: Work harder than anyone else.”
Know that you’re competing with everyone for work, not just other women:
“Often, I feel like women have to make a decision between family and career. But for me, it was about figuring out how to have both. In reality, as a female, you compete with everybody. You’re not just competing with other women. But as a woman, you have a lot to offer—if you are smart, you work hard, and you make interesting work, you will be valued. I find that some women have this idea that they’re only going to advance so far because advertising, for example, is a male-dominated profession. It is—only three percent of C-level executives in advertising are women—but it’s changing. I see more women on boards, and we bring another perspective. Our voice matters a lot, and a lot of businesses now know that.”
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Photos: Kate Warren
Photographed by Heidi Niemala and Kate Warren.