Macalester Today Fall 2011

rebecca van dyck

Like many of her ’90s Mac peers, Rebecca Van Dyck ’91 had no clear career path in mind when she graduated. She did, however, have a double major in psychology and history, a wide streak of curiosity, and a sense of adventure, all of which have served her well as she has rapidly climbed through the ranks in the advertising and marketing world.

Today Van Dyck is global chief marketing officer of the Levi's brand at Levis Strauss & Co., one of several iconic U.S. brands on her resumue. Until recently she was head of worldwide advertising at Apple, and before that she worked on the agency side, handling global accounts for Nike and reebok. Last May Advertising Age included Van Dyck on its "Women to Watch" list.

“At its best, advertising both reflects and comments on contemporary culture,” says Van Dyck. “I feel fortunate to have stayed in the forefront of culture even though advertising wasn’t something I set out to do.” In retrospect, though, Van Dyck acknowledges that her choice of majors and her liberal arts background taught her to think critically and prepared her remarkably well for a career in marketing and advertising. “Looking back, the dots do connect,” she says.

The fall after she graduated, a friend of Van Dyck’s recommended that she meet with staff at the New York ad agency Chiat Day. Van Dyck came out of the Chiat Day meeting with a job. “I figured I had nothing to lose by taking this job,” she says. “I was interested in sports, and Chiat Day offered me an account coordinator position on the Reebok account. I answered phones, kept people’s schedules, organized details for shoots. I thought it was something I’d do for a year.” But she was soon promoted to the Reebok international account and ended up “having a blast,” traveling the world and meeting with athletes. “It was addictive. I worked very long hours but didn’t even notice.”

Two years later, she was hire by Wieden+Kennedy, based in Portland, Oregon, to be their global account director for Nike. Her husband, Erik Thomsen ’91, had tired of New York, and this new position promised Van Dyck even more international exposure. The couple lived in Australia for two of the 12 years she worked for Wieden+Kennedy, and throughout those years Van Dyck traveled around the world. In 2007 she was lured to California by Apple, where she worked until joining Levi’s earlier this year.

As Levi’s global chief marketing officer, she oversees a 100-member marketing team responsible for establishing a consistent brand experience in advertising, digitally, at events, and through media and PR. This is a new approach for Levi’s, which had formerly created marketing separately by region and country. “My task is to help Levi’s establish a globally consistent brand voice relevant to diverse cultures around the world,” she says. “I travel the world, listening, learning, negotiating, and then set a clear direction and vision for how Levi’s presents itself globally.”

Despite its fame and its tradition of quality products, “Levi’s lost its voice and even its confidence for a while,” says Van Dyck. “But the ‘Go Forth’ campaign introduced two years ago really got my attention and reminded me who Levi’s was. The message was confident, artful, bold, and inspiring. Levi’s is a great brand that deserves this kind of messaging, and I hope to build on this.”

Van Dyck launched the Levi’s Go Forth campaign globally on Facebook earlier this year. In a Forbes video shot the day after the launch, she reported that in one day the company’s Facebook page had been seen by 325 million people.

Van Dyck’s appreciation for her alma mater, especially its international focus, has grown since her graduation. “The global nature of the education at Mac is increasingly important as we try to understand things going on around the world,” she says. “I’ve always needed to understand how strong American-born brands are understood and adapted in cultures around the world. I love looking at American history, politics, and culture from different vantage points, and this perspective has made me a better business person, and a better global citizen.”

Van Dyck’s Mac soccer coach, John Leaney, was a big influence on her—then and now. “He taught me about managing people and dealing with conflict,” she says. “I still think a lot about what he taught the soccer team—about communicating and playing to our strengths and working on the field. He always worked to get the best from people, and I use that in my job at Levi’s, changing tactics when needed, to get the best work from the people around me. The sports metaphor is well played-out, but true.”

Van Dyck still plays soccer on a competitive league in Palo Alto, where she lives with Thomsen and their two daughters, ages 7 and 9. Thomsen is a stay-at-home dad who “keeps us all grounded and happy,” says Van Dyck.

Looking back on her own stable childhood, she says, “There must be something in my DNA that attracts me to adventure. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of four kids, and I was not the most adventurous child. But I chose to go away to college in the Midwest, I studied in Egypt, and I’ve been traveling the world ever since.”

Rebecca Van Dyck hasn’t forgotten her roots: She continues to help her fellow Mac alumni. Last summer she was contacted by Shruti Dhanda ’11, who was trying to land a job at the hot Los Angeles ad agency TBWA/Media Arts Lab. Dhanda had applied through the company’s website, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then she spoke to Van Dyck, who had worked with the agency on Apple business. “She was lovely,” says Dhanda. Van Dyck “got in touch with one of my senior interviewers and put in a good word. Rebecca is well known in that office and held in high esteem, so her recommendation made a huge difference.” Dhanda is now an assistant account executive at TBWA.