Gabriela Guerra and her friend Leandro Bordoni weren’t asking for much. Simply that the Young Lions competition in their native Brazil, which lets young creatives compete for the chance to share their winning ideas at Cannes, adopt the same selection system used by most other countries rather than the expensive, non-inclusive process that had seen “white boys” — predominantly former Young Lions themselves — “voting for their white boy friends”, as Guerra puts it, for too many years.
“It’s been an issue in Brazil for so long,” says the 31-year-old, a senior freelance copywriter who moved to Singapore last year. “Every year we would complain about the process being too unfair but no one would do anything because they were so scared of fighting with the big sharks.”
That the present Young Lions were resistant to change told Guerra and Bordoni, a senior art director at Saatchi & Saatchi Madrid, everything they needed to know about the inherent discrimination that was going on. They created a website called Fair Lions, outlining the issues and pointing out that since 1995, just 15% of 432 elected Young Lions from Brazil had been women. In 2018, no women were elected. The pair also launched a petition calling for an affordable, anonymous competition with more diverse juries and membership programmes for underrepresented groups, which was signed by over 1,000 people.
Their actions prompted some changes. The selection process for this year's Young Lions was made anonymous, as they wanted, but Guerra and Bordoni would also have liked the 'portfolio analysis' method to be switched for the more egalitarian 48-hour single brief system used by most other countries. For next year, however, Brazil’s organisation says the Young Lions rules will be standardized worldwide.
Guerra is modest about this significant achievement — “I like to think we had something to do with it” — but accepts it may be part of the reason her application for the Cannes See It Be It programme was picked from over 760, making her one of three Asia-based women invited to join a 15-strong group of finalists in France this summer. The project aims to support young female creative directors as they progress in their careers, giving them the opportunity to spend the week at Cannes networking with successful senior industry figures and boosting their personal profiles.
Aside from her success with Fair Lions, Guerra thinks the personal tone of her application helped her case. “I decided to tell the truth when I applied and talked about real life experiences, about my daily life in agencies, what was positive about working with women and how we partner together. I focused more on that than big campaigns or how creative leadership can change the world.”
On working with women, she can list many upsides. But this has been “compensation” for all that Guerra finds imperfect about gender equality in the advertising world: Guerra is tired of pushing for what she knows is right.
“All the time we need to be fighting and trying to be listened to because it is still very difficult to make men listen to our ideas and to our opinions,” she says. “Every time we need to keep stepping up and saying: ‘This is wrong, this is wrong.’ So my question for the men in the industry is: ‘Hey, when are you going to realise — it’s time.’” See It Be It is important as an initiative because it tells women that they deserve to be in leadership positions, she thinks. “It promotes us and values us in good ways, something that the industry hasn’t.”
The situation is slightly better in Singapore than in Brazil, she accepts. She moved here with her husband, who works for Publicis, in March 2018, and initially was a senior creative copywriter at Ogilvy, for whom she’d also worked in Sao Paulo, before going freelance after three months. She sees a lot more women in creative teams in her new home city and more diversity in general, but ultimately thinks men still don’t listen to women and fail to see their perspective on given subjects. What will change this? “I have no idea,” she sighs, almost laughing.
Singapore can sometimes feel a little too perfect, admits Guerra, but the physical space the city state offers also helps create thinking space in her brain. That’s another contrast to Brazil, where Guerra grew up in the northeastern city of Recife before moving to Sao Paulo in 2011 to work as a creative copywriter, first for AlmapBBDO — “they shaped me into the copywriter I am today” — and then for Ogilvy.
“In Brazil we like to say that because of the many problems our country has, we are so creative because we are always trying to find solutions,” she says. “Although this is true, I don't like valuing the bad stuff, you know?”
One piece of work of which she is particularly proud, however, is Hidden Truth, a 2017 project by Ogilvy Brazil for the media conglomerate Grupo Bandeirantes (Band News), based on the insight that 70% of domestic violence victims struggle to speak up about their experiences. In one of the YouTube videos in the campaign, a woman sits beside her husband, apparently talking positively about their lives together. Viewers were invited to type ‘1-8-0’ (Brazil’s anonymous domestic violence tip hotline), making the video jump between YouTube’s keyboard time shortcuts, to reveal that her words contained a different, hidden truth: “He beats me”.
“It really shocks people when they see it and that was our intention,” says Guerra. “We wanted people to pay attention and read between the lines of what’s going on with friends and family and to call their hotline if they see something weird.”
This campaign speaks to what Guerra likes most about her work as a copywriter: the “sparks” that happen when you know a brainwave is coming. While all creatives deal in ideas, Guerra enjoys the way her job lets her incorporate these with writing, something she’s been doing since she was a little girl making ‘books’ out of her own made-up stories, with hand-drawn covers. She still writes, and has seen some of her short stories published in independent collections in Brazil.
But although she’s now living a career that fulfils a childhood dream, Guerra would never say she longed for the lifestyle that comes with agency work. The incredibly long — and, she feels, unnecessary — hours are part of the reason she is now freelancing, although the environment in Singapore is an improvement on Brazil, where working overtime is “so deep in our bones that we think it is true”.
“Sometimes I would work 15,16 hours for two days in a row or three days in a row and then I would get sick,” she recounts. Why does the overtime culture exist? “I think they believe that it is OK to do that. Everyone hates doing it but it’s so OK, it happens a lot, it’s like ‘now you have a pitch to work on’ but it’s in-between the lines that you are going to stay until late in the night. From my experience, in most of the cases you don't have to. You can work earlier, you can focus more and you don’t have to stay until four in the morning. I don't feel very comfortable with that kind of work.”
Guerra is a change-merchant, as proven by work like Hidden Truth and the Fair Lions project — but even she doesn’t have a clear answer to quashing the overtime culture. “It should be an agreement, on which everyone should agree, including our client, including our bosses. Because if the client asks for something — ‘oh, I need it today’ — of course a lot of agencies will say yes, and then the creatives have to stay longer. I think the clients need to help us here.” The irony, as she points out, is that clients themselves offer good healthy work environments, but don’t mind asking agency staff to stay late.
Guerra is ultimately positive — “I like to think it’s going to change. I think that some places are trying to change it but I think everyone needs to be conscious about it” — but says adland should consider why more and more people, herself included, are choosing to take the freelance route these days.
Industry — you have been warned.
Putting women in the industry under the spotlight — Campaign's Women Leading Change event
We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June, 2019.
Register your interest and find out more about entering our Women Leading Change Awards at www.womenleadingchange.asia.