Joy Jennissen: The Jennissen Group


Joy Jennissen, The Jennissen Group

You want to be that go-to person who people reach out to for a variety of issues. It needs to be more than a business relationship — it needs to be a business friendship.” 

Joy Jennissen’s career success and impressive CV suggest she set her sights on public relations early, and strategically put foundational steps in place from a young age. However, aside from drive and ambition, Joy’s early aspirations and journey have little in common with her achievements today. Her path to leadership involved taking risks, following her gut, and foremost putting relationships first.

Today, Jennissen is a confident dynamo, and one of Canada’s most savvy go-to experts on the art of effective communication. As the owner of The Jennissen Group, a communications firm that works with senior executives in Canada, Joy has over thirty years of business experience behind her. She has been a designer, an entrepreneur, a manager of acquisitions, a builder of regional offices for an international PR firm, and she has helped some of Canada’s most powerful leaders hone their communication skills. 

But as Joy likes to say, her path was definitely the road less travelled.

At the age of eighteen, Jennissen was eager to leave Ashcroft, BC where she grew up singing country and gospel music so well that a career as a performer seemed like a foregone conclusion. She seemed destined to fulfill the dreams of her family and the local church community who knew her as their gifted local singer. Joy will tell you that it was ultimately crippling stage fright and insecurities that had her veer from this path; although sitting across from her and listening to her boldly tell her story, it’s hard to imagine she’s inhibited by much. 

Growing up in a small town, Joy spent her teenage years packing to leave so she could start her life — a life she was excited to change as she never felt she fit in a small town. Leaving her local community of Ashcroft to travel around Europe and then moving to Vancouver were the first big risks Joy took, and the first of many throughout her life. Once in Vancouver, Joy began to build a network of friendships that would last for decades and would be the cornerstone of her future.

While waiting to start university, Joy found herself capitalizing on the opportunities that presented themselves. Remarkably, one of those areas included clothing design, something Joy enjoyed throughout high school when she created and sewed her own patterns to achieve a designer wardrobe at a fraction of the price – a feat still possible during the 80s, pre-Zara and the mass production of discount designer looks. Joy landed a position with one of North America’s most successful apparel manufacturers. It was the late 1980s and Canada’s department stores were thriving and demand for private-label clothing kept manufacturers busy.  Joy threw everything she had into being the best she could be and soon she was the lead designer travelling to India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong, where she visited manufacturing divisions, staying for longer periods in Delhi. Although attending university had been her initial plan, after many discussions with her father, Joy decided UBC would have to wait. It would be another risk and a decision that would change her life, and although she gained a deep understanding of international business, her choice to forgo university would keep her second-guessing the choice for years to come.

Innovative thinkers needing talent seemed to find Joy, and after four years of demanding travel, she made the decision to focus on working locally in Vancouver, with Radical Shirt Company and Chip Wilson at West Beach, before taking the next big pivot into public relations. The mid-’90s were a time when the hospitality industry was booming and so was the Cactus Club Cafe. A contract developing clothing and promotional wear led Richard Jaffray to hire Joy as marketing director, and soon she established her PR roots promoting and marketing new Cactus Club restaurant locations across BC and in Alberta. 

But a corporate job was not something that was in the cards for Joy and within a year of taking on the position with Cactus Restaurants, Joy made the decision to follow her fiance to Halifax, Nova Scotia leaving the west, her friends, and her network behind, and embarking on what would be a whole new chapter. Most entrepreneurs seem to remember exactly when they knew they would start their own business, and Joy is no different, recounting the pivotal moment she decided to become her own boss. As someone who was constantly fielding new opportunities, becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t necessarily on Joy’s radar until it became her best option — if she wanted to stay in the PR business. Joy found that while the Maritime provinces were very hospitable to visitors and newcomers, landing a position in PR would be difficult…if you were “from away.” These words, spoken by the president of one of the top PR firms could have put a halt to the career of a less confident and assured personality. Instead, Joy felt emboldened to start her own firm where she could compete directly for the same accounts as the Halifax PR Goliath. Within a year, she and her business partner, Cindy Roberts had hired several staff and won some of the largest local businesses as clients, 

Their East Coast PR presence began attracting interest from larger metropolitan areas and soon Hill and Knowlton (H&K), one of the world’s leading global communications companies, invited Joy and her team to become their Atlantic Canada affiliate. The deal became even sweeter when Arlene Dickensen’s Venture Group (of Dragon’s Den fame) bought the firm, keeping Joy and her partner in leadership roles and maintaining the H&K affiliate agreement. 

But life was about to take another much more serious twist when SwissAir flight 111, heading from New York to Geneva, crashed into St. Margaret’s Bay off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 passengers on board. It was the worst airline disaster in Canadian history and Joy and her partner, as the H&K affiliate, were on the frontlines. A free-spirited life in the marketing and communications world ended that day and Joy developed the perspective and gravitas demanded during crisis management. It was these skills she brought forward to her future work that impacted her decisions moving forward. A year later when Arlene Dickinson asked her to lead an acquisition in Ottawa, she didn’t hesitate in accepting the opportunity to not only move cities but also to once again take the risk to do something she had not done before.

Jennissen counts her experience with Arlene Dickinson at Venture Group as a pivotal time  “Arlene taught me the importance of relationships, she was so good at it. It was a huge learning experience, just observing her and how she treated her employees and how she interacted with them.”

Joy admits that she is able to recognize opportunity quickly: “I have an ability to make decisions quickly — each pivotal moment of change I have trusted my gut, So I left and went to Ottawa. I did the acquisition for Venture Group, stayed for a year and then moved to the next opportunity and  joined Hill & Knowlton permanently.”

Fast forward, and Joy describes her twenty years at H&K Strategies as some of her key times of learning and growth. During that time, she was again encouraged by another mentor, larger-than-life then-CEO, Mike Coates. “Mike taught me the power of listening and trust. He listened, trusted and created an environment where you could succeed in an entrepreneurial way. I never felt encumbered working for that organization. I felt empowered and that was the gift he gave me and others in the company.”

Taking risks and trusting her gut was the theme again when Joy moved back to Vancouver to take over the BC offices for H&K. “I remember the first day I looked at the books and it was bad, I was starting over, I was responsible and it was mine alone to fix,” Joy recalls. “It was then I realized how important relationships were to me. My network was made up of friends and those connections and relationships were critical to moving forward. It was more than just business. That remains my philosophy to this day. You want to be that go-to person who people reach out for a variety of issues. It needs to be more than a business relationship — it needs to be a business friendship.” 

Joy says she also counts the importance of listening to the strength of any relationship. “It sounds like a throwaway line but eighty percent of people are not listening and they have their own agenda,” she said, “ they’re already waiting for the chance to say what’s on their mind. You miss opportunities when you’re not there with them and actively engaged. You miss that inflection in someone’s voice— you miss that moment when maybe you realize things aren’t 100%. You miss that moment to take a relationship to the next level.”

In 2017, Joy took her relationship-building philosophy to her new role as H&K’s first Canadian Chief Client Officer and today it is the cornerstone of her approach.

Jennissen with her team at Hill + Knowlton, 2007

Like many successful professionals who began to reevaluate their careers during the pandemic, in late 2020, Joy started to reflect on the future trajectory of her career. She had become an entrepreneur in her early 30s and had circled back to a leadership role in a large corporation, but with COVID pressing pause on her once-overflowing workday, Joy had time to reflect on becoming an entrepreneur again.

Joy has had a very diverse career but she says what she has carried through has been the power of relationships, listening to your gut and taking risks. 

“The path to leadership is complex, no one is born with all the abilities, but being a good leader is about trusting yourself and those around you. Excellent leaders communicate and allow themselves to develop and nurture relationships with their teams, board, peers, friends and stakeholders. If I can help CEOs or other senior executives be the best they can be in their business environment, that is success. It’s all about how you communicate — listening and communicating go hand in hand.”

As the world emerges from global restrictions, the Jennissen Group is rapidly expanding and Joy’s leadership role in PR is broadening to include international clients. While her path to running a successful PR firm was unconventional at the outset, her achievements as a female founder are the result of a “relationship-first” ethos that has been unwavering from the start. She has taken risks, followed her instincts, and made relationship-building a priority — it is these same relationships that have followed her to the Jennissen Group and have enabled her to thrive in a post-lockdown world.