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Odette van der Haar: On a mission

by Poloko Mofokeng
When Odette van der Haar replied to an advertisement asking people to apply for the job of CEO of the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) she had a mission in mind: a desire to impact on an entire industry by changing some practices for the better. Based on peer opinions, she’s well on her way to achieving that goal.

She has been credited with turning the ACA around, making it into one that’s a voice for the industry while also holding it to account. Topping Van der Haar’s agenda when she was appointed in 2007 was ensuring fairness between companies and the agencies hired as service providers. When pitches and tenders are conducted in a way that disadvantages agencies, or clients attempt to use their position to get as much work as possible for as little remuneration as possible, the ACA is often called in to mediate.

She says she lost her first mediation but hasn’t lost one since, despite often having to face teams of lawyers alone. “We provide a professional service and – like any other profession – we should be given respect and remunerated for our services,” she says. “In no other field will you be expected to do the work and then the client can decide to pay you or not or pay less than agreed on. I’m glad we’ve provided an environment where people can approach us when things aren’t done in the right way without fear of their confidence being broken or being labelled troublemakers.”

When agencies in the United States walked out of a pitch last year it made international news, but that was nothing new for the ACA, says Van der Haar, who believes it can become the benchmark for other countries and other industries, such as public relations. Her belief is it takes one person to set the wheels of change in motion.

Iron will or not, a job where you’re representing an entire industry can weigh heavily on the leader. Van der Haar confides there have been tough moments, and she’s even questioned if she made the correct decision. “But I just said: ‘Lord, if this is where you want me to be then open the door. If not, then close it’.” She’s remained resolute since.

Part of her role has been to educate the industry that it can contribute to better working relationships by articulating their worth better and not underselling themselves. Another important point is talking to potential clients in a language they understand. Her biggest current fear is that agencies will slide back into undercharging post-recession because they had to do more on less during the tough times to survive and help their clients weather the storm.

As a mother and a black woman, her other areas of concern have been education and transformation. She’s been heavily involved with the industry school – AAA School of Advertising – to help students with bursaries and assist those who have fallen on hard times. She’s built close ties with the Seta so they can be considered when it comes to budget time. The industry offers very few bursaries and the schools offering places can be prohibitively expensive, so financial assistance is critical to aiding transformation.

Always on the go, Van der Haar says her family and faith keep her sane. She can sometimes be found cooking in her business suit and in stilettos straight from work.


Age: 42.

Family: Married, with two sons.

Best way to unwind: Doing absolutely nothing.

Little-known fact: Carries the presentation she submitted for her interview for the ACA’s CEO position every day to remind her of her mission.
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