Gift of the Gabberer: Carmela Soares
Interview by Jess Lilley
Carmela Soares has been in her current ECD role at Clemenger BBDO Melbourne for just over a year following a fruitful few years as Isobar’s national CD. Her career is not just noteworthy for her enormously awarded agency successes, but also for the extra-curricular roles she takes on — Soares is a woman who wants to help shape the advertising industry as much as she wants to forge her own path within it, making her a prime candidate to tackle the subject of work-life balance in an industry notorious for taking every little bit we are willing to give.
When we meet early one morning in South Melbourne, our interview is abandoned for a much more enjoyable chat over breakfast. As a writer by trade, and with English as her second language, Carmela prefers answering written questions. This is telling and endearing — Carmela is pragmatic and open, happily discussing both the strengths she brings to work collaborations and the areas where she encourages someone else’s expertise to shine.
Being in Carmela’s company is to be awash with a genuine and enthusiastic energy that is instantly charming. You can’t help but become a cheerleader for her success, hoping she stops at nothing short of world domination.
J: In a way you were born into advertising, with both parents in the business. Was it inevitable that you would get into it too?
C: Inevitable is probably too strong a word – my sister, for example, is a professional surfer and personal trainer. But of course the environment you grow up in influences your choices. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, so I was aware of the career choices involving these skills very early. Like a good teenager, I did try to avoid following on my parents’ footsteps and studied a bit of journalism, French literature and classical ballet. All great skills to have in an advertising agency.
J: Do you remember having any impressions of advertising as a child, seeing it through your parents’ experiences?
C: I was an avid reader and my parents couldn’t keep up with my reading pace so when I finished a book and had nothing else to read I’d get Dad’s advertising annuals. I really enjoyed it. The ads were funny, smart and beautiful. I loved the feeling of connecting the dots and recognising an idea.
I remember the 'bring your kids to work' days when I’d spend the day at Lintas looking at all the new ads. They were like little sharp, funny stories.
J: You started a copywriting career in Brazil then moved to Portugal, then worked between Paris-Sao Paulo-NYC – when words are your business, what were the challenges associated with writing in a second language?
C: The first time I moved overseas I chose Portugal, as the language is the same. When I worked in a regional role that saw me in US and France, my job was much more focussed on ideas and didn’t demand perfect English. But when I arrived in Australia things were different. I had to work hard on my English, as well as cultural awareness. For about a year I felt unable to express myself and articulate my ideas, which is a very uncomfortable, helpless feeling.
Writing is not the problem. When you have to write you have time to think and review, use Grammarly or one of those tools. It’s the speaking that’s hard, expressing or presenting your ideas.
J: What were the other cultural challenges you remember facing, and how did you manage them?
C: Punctuality. Brazilians understand time as a flexible thing. If you book an appointment for 9 am, any time between 8:30 am and 9:30 am is acceptable. If you have a Brazilian creative in your team, be understanding of their time management and chat to them about how it works in Australia.
J: Achieving a work-life balance is the perennial quest of many people in creative industries. When you leave your home base for work and move to another country, is it tempting to throw yourself more into the work because you have less commitments outside of it?
C: One of the reasons I left Brazil was the lack of work/life balance. The culture in Brazilian agencies is to be in the office for as long as you can. People work from 9 am to 11 pm every day and every second weekend. And it’s not about productivity, it’s about visibility, to appear busy to your boss. So pointless and harmful.
I always try to be aware of when I’m tired and not being productive anymore, and I don’t stick around and pretend to work. It will only make you hate your job.
J: Having worked in multiple markets, what are the main differences in terms of how ad culture accommodates people’s lives outside work?
C: A healthy economy heavily influences the work culture. Australia is an affluent country, with a low unemployment rate, so people are more confident to respect their working rhythms and the pressure to work harder is not overwhelming. Brazil is a different story. With almost 50% of the population out of a job, people live in fear of losing their jobs and end up trying to become or appear very busy. They’re also more susceptible to take on a workload bigger than acceptable as they don’t feel they can say no.
J: A year ago you started an ECD role at Clemenger. What does work-life balance look like to you in that role?
C: I was bracing myself for a tough gig. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s actually excitingly challenging. We work pretty hard, but I don’t feel a lot of imbalance. I try to get to work early, grab a coffee with the other ECDs then hit the ground running, keeping a fast pace and focus throughout the day. But we’re rarely there after 7 pm and weekends are few and far between.
I believe work-life balance is a shared responsibility between employees and the company. The company has to make the employees feel supported to respect their limits. A culture of wellness does that.
At Clems we have things like life admin time (two hours a month to do stuff like go to the dentist or wait for furniture delivery), Osteo in the office, PT, and a dog friendly office (you’ve got to meet Yves, Stevie, Gracie, Cosmo, Paddy, Max, Florence and many others that make the highlights of my day).
On the other hand, we have to know when we’re crossing the line between being productive or just being there, and go home, rest, come back the next day with a healthy amount of energy.
J: A lot of people who make that move to the next level (from CD to ECD) can mistake long hours for effectiveness. How did you make sure you didn’t burn out with the new level of responsibility?
C: With stepping up also comes more responsibility towards others and the work. It can feel that we need to be more available for more time, but in reality, it’s about the quality of attention. There’s a limited number of informed decisions we can make every day, so a useful skill in leadership is to know which ones, and delegate the others. You have no choice but to be confident and trust your team.
J: You are very involved in a lot of extra industry activities outside of work – including being on the Advisory Boards of RMIT Advertising and Collarts Content & Media, Lecturer at AWARD School and ADMA. Why is it important to you to help shape the industry outside your immediate workplace?
C: It certainly is. I’m especially interested in education right now as advertising seems to go through a talent crisis. Rather than complaining about it, I believe we have to use our experience to help shape the future. And it’s not even a long-term play. Some of our best emerging talent right now at Clems joined my team straight out of RMIT just three years ago.
J: What are the things that, in the moment, allow you to switch off entirely from the work and the industry – to recharge your batteries and refresh your mind?
C: Spending time with my wife, a short trip to the coast, books.
J: What would your advice be to young people entering the industry who feel a bit overwhelmed by the pace and the demands of advertising? How would you encourage them to avoid overworking or burning out?
C: If you work harder than your body and mind can handle, you’re going to hate your job. We have a great career, we get paid to be creative, make sure you enjoy every second of it.