The senior art director at DDB Düsseldorf has overcome her natural shyness to embrace the creative strength of open collaboration, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
Ambassadors, the Dutch creative studio with offices in Amsterdam and New York, has partnered with Little Black Book to sponsor the Uprising Channel. The channel gives a voice to important talent in the industry who often don't get the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions, as this is something often reserved elsewhere for c-suite executives only. Ambassadors’ support means that the industry’s top talent will have an even louder voice on LBB’s global platform.
Dominika Zaja was born in Poland but moved to Germany aged four. An only child whose parents’ jobs meant she was always on the move, she was shaped by the fact that she was constantly adapting to new surroundings. “This helped me to always stay open minded in new situations,” she says. “I was actually a very shy and reserved kid.” But her situation forced her to adapt. “I always stayed open to finding new friends. Of course I also learned early to be creative and keep myself busy.”
Her hobbies changed constantly. Dominika tried playing various musical instruments until after years she “finally realised that I’m not talented in doing music”. In the process of making new friends each time she moved, she joined sports clubs too. Nothing ever lasted long though. “I tried a lot, but never actually finished anything,” she says. “Then somehow I realised that I’m talented in drawing – and from when I was about 13 years old I didn’t stop drawing and tried more and more art and photography.”
Growing up surrounded by change and immersed in creativity exposed Dominika to a breadth of influences that put her on the path to her current role as a senior art director at DDB Düsseldorf.
She originally wanted to study art, but counts herself lucky that she was able to try graphic design at school, suddenly realising that it stimulated her more. She looked for design courses. Among other things she needed an internship to be accepted to study, so she applied for every design studio in the area and that was the beginning of her creative career. She ended up at a small studio in Leverkusen, receiving a crash course in corporate design and typography and “how complicated it is to design an Aspirin package insert.”
Next Dominika studied Communication Design at university in Düsseldorf. “I loved to study, because I was able to try out a lot of things and experiment with design and media. But now after some years I think I was a bit too ambitious then and should have studied longer than the standard study period, because after starting to work I never had that much time to just try out and just design as when I was a student.”
A crucial moment came when some people from Jung von Matt Hamburg visited the university to speak about the ad agency and their work. “I was suddenly fascinated about how cool advertising can be and wanted to try this (and my parents suddenly had hope that I could actually earn money with my studies).” So right after her diploma Dominika applied at Jung von Matt for an internship. She got in and moved to Hamburg.
Quickly she was doing big German car advertising, immersed in a project as part of a Mercedes E-Class launch. “It was really exciting and even though I was not on the shoot and just a small part of a big team I was really proud to see my design at Mercedes dealers across Germany,” she says.
Dominika’s never fully shaken her shy nature, despite all her practice in making new friends. She doesn’t fully identify as an introvert, but is usually quiet. “Most people always told me that I’m too quiet, I need to show more of myself, because I will be overlooked,” she says. But it hasn’t hindered her. “I actually like that about me. And it’s quite good to be like that, because I only say something when I really have to (not repeating what others already said or just trying to get attention like so many), so people really listen to what I have to say (or maybe they are just staggered to hear me finally…). Also I have to admit to having a horrible sarcastic sense of humour that a lot of people don’t get. Which makes it even funnier.” For example, she’s always had an ice-breaker she can rely on when meeting new people: “Being a Polish girl that hates potatoes is always a good conversation starter.”
Since 2009 Dominika’s put down roots at DDB Düsseldorf and built a career of formidable work. The first project that changed her career was the DIESEL Facepark in 2011, “when Facebook was still a thing,” she jokes. “It was one of my first projects at DDB and it was super fun to create and design a completely analog Facebook in a Berlin park. But also this was the first project that I won an award with and I knew I wanted more.”
Another important job was Pink Ribbon - CareWhileYouCare
. “Instead of just doing a breast cancer awareness campaign like briefed, we created a product – a body care brand designed to self-check your breasts regularly, at a moment when you are naked anyway – under the shower.”
Dominika remembers how novel it felt to create a bodycare line from scratch. “It was a great experience to work so closely with the clients to bring this to life.” She’s also proud that it's not just a project that ran for a few months, but it’s still ongoing two years on. “We created a product that helps Pink Ribbon Germany collect donations continuously and maybe saves lives.”
Dominika stays hungry thanks to the variety of challenges ad agency life offers. She loves to be able to work on so many different projects, “to dive into always changing topics. And next to selling shoes, washing powder etc. we can create ideas that are able to really solve someone’s problems. Every brief is different and you need to start from scratch. And with every brief and new topic I learn more – from how shoes are being produced to how the 5G network is being built or how to check your breasts for cancer to save lives.
“With every project I do, I think ‘this will never be finished,’ because you need to create something new for each project and you work with different people, you are never on your own, so you constantly learn and develop further.”
Dominika knows she needs to stay inspired and creatively sharp, admitting that every time she gets a new brief she’s afraid that she’ll have no ideas to answer it. “It’s totally weird, because when you start thinking and designing of course you always come up with something, it’s not something magical that comes up, you just have to start,” she says.
To keep herself armed with ideas and inspiration, she looks anywhere she can, be it movies, books, advertising, art, concerts, TikTok videos. “Everything can be an inspiration and you can find something new in everything,” she says. An art director through and through, she finds joy in the details of creativity, particularly when watching films or series. “My friends are sometimes annoyed when I’m too excited about great image composition or the cast - just small details that make me personally happy.”
It also makes her happy when her advertising can have a positive impact on someone's life, “whether it’s a problem we solved or just a passerby that we could make smile.” That desire to please spills over into her personal passions, whether it’s crafting a small personal greeting card for a friend, making a “perfectly perfect Christmas dessert, finding the right route for our next holiday trip or redecorating a room.”
Living in the countryside between Cologne and Düsseldorf, Dominika’s life has shifted to a more rural mode since the pandemic began. She loved the first few months of lockdown, realising how effectively she could work on her own without so many distractions. She appreciated her daily long walks with her dog, passing through forests and fields to escape stress or to come up with new ideas.
“But of course after some time you miss colleagues and especially the separation of work and family and friends. Before lockdown I had a 30 minute drive to work by car and that was such a good separation from agency and my private life. This separation I actually miss.
But I’m looking forward to a good combination of working at the agency and at home in the future.
“I also have to admit that I have a lot of space because I’m in the countryside and there are no kids that could disturb me during work. This probably made lockdown and working from home a lot easier for me. But even my dog misses the agency and all the people that spoil him the whole day.”
After over a decade working in the German agency community, Dominika’s firm on how she’d like to see it progress in the post-pandemic era. As a creative she’s frustrated by the distinction often made between “daily business” and “award work.”
“Somehow in Germany you do ‘normal’ advertising that is very factual and checks all the clients' boxes. To compensate you do proactive ‘award’” work, sometimes even for the same clients that you just did a normal ad with. It would be more fun to be able to do the fun award work everyday for every client. I really believe that more creativity and good thought out design can change something and address more people than just checked boxes.”
As a sarcastic Pole, she’s sometimes found herself disheartened by the factual, unemotional tendencies in German advertising. “Humour is somehow a real challenge here, because a lot are just afraid that it will not be understood in the right way, but this is changing now and I’m looking forward to it.”
But there’s one issue that she’s most keen to address: “Right now a lot of women still don’t know their own (financial) worth! There are so many women (not only in the advertising industry) that just don’t know what salary they can ask for, because nobody talks about it and we all keep it to ourselves. Women should empower each other more to talk about finances and salaries, we should dare to stand by our successes and be more proud to get credited for our work and not hide it. And then just dare to claim your successes financially too.”
Despite her natural shyness, Dominika has found strength in solidarity and unity. The biggest lesson she’s learnt in her career is: “Work together and not against each other.”
At the beginning of her career every creative she knew was working on their own and for their own benefits, she notes. But then she learned that by sharing ideas with others and adding further opinions an idea only gets better and better. “You can’t do everything on your own, you need to find the right group of people that are perfect for your project to bring an idea to life.”