Next Creative Leaders 2020: Elma Karabegovic
on Oct 29, 2020
She / Her / Hers
Hometown and country:
Teslić, Bosnia-Herzegovina & Kumanovo, Macedonia (it’s complicated)
Current employer, city and role:
FCB Toronto, Toronto, Canada, Art Director
How did your upbringing, family or hometown shape you as a creative?
My formative years witnessed the events of the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s, which instilled in me the strong principles of human rights and inclusivity that often show up in my work.
Also, I am fortunate to have Balkan parents who taught me how to fail. Constantly. They knew how difficult life could get, so we treated failure as a positive and a great opportunity to grow and learn. Harnessing the power of failure and learning from it has helped me grow exponentially as a person, an artist, and an advertising creative.
What’s your “breaking into advertising” story?
I got into advertising while I was attending Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto. At the time, OCAD had partnerships with FCB and Leo Burnett which offered a scholarship and internship to one third year student in the Advertising stream. It was a simple portfolio competition, but since I had no connections in the industry, I competed like my life depended on it. I threw out all of my student work and over a number of sleepless nights, I made a whole new portfolio to stand out from the other students. It paid off as I won both scholarships and got my foot in the door.
What’s the piece of work you’re most proud of and why?
I would have to say Project Understood, our latest campaign for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS). It’s an incredible example of how channeling passion and effort toward one singular cause can manifest in success. Making voice technology more inclusive for the 78 million people around the world living with a speech impairment is a tall order for a small non-profit like CDSS. It becomes very attainable when you partner with a tech giant like Google, who is as passionate about the cause as you are. The work was rewarding, our team was amazing, and I’ve never received more sincere hugs or developed a love for a client like I did for CDSS. It was a pleasure on all fronts.
What does being named a Next Creative Leader mean to you?
It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized amongst so many amazing women. Our industry is very challenging and to be named one of the Next Creative Leaders, is not only humbling, but fills me with a great responsibility to continue to grow as a leader.
Who has most influenced you in your career thus far?
There have been many. Robin Heisey gave me my start and calls me to impart wisdom to this day. Jeff Hilts took me under his wing as a junior and created the foundation of the creative I am today. His nurturing, non-judgmental approach and unwavering support turned me from a hot mess to a strategic and detail-oriented creative. Finally, Nancy Crimi-Lamanna and Shelley Brown’s relentless creative and strategic prowess have helped me unlock the next level of the advertising game.
What is your secret (or not-so-secret) creative super power and how do you flex it?
I’m a human sponge. I’m constantly observing people, artists, creatives, filmmakers, musicians, behavioral economists, etc. I love breaking down how people think, form opinions, create, and behave to see if I can inspire some positive change in my own work and life.
Through Project Understood, you engaged the Down syndrome community in the design process. What did this experience teach you about allyship and representation?
It’s incredibly unfair that in all the excitement of technological innovation meant to be used by people, we forget to consider all abilities. It’s not malicious– it’s just a problem of underrepresentation for certain communities. For Project Understood, there was no better way to advocate for people with Down syndrome than by creating the platform for them to advocate for themselves. After all, our hilarious, clever, and motivated Project Understood cast were more than capable of doing so.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the creative industry right now and how would you solve it?
The biggest challenge in the industry right now is BIPOC underrepresentation in leadership and creative departments. Sadly, there is no quick fix to systemic racism. We need to incorporate the growth of young creatives into our budgets and timelines. I believe agencies need to be reaching out to high-schools and removing the obstacles to entering the field. Once in the creative field, and this is the important part, there needs to be a protective shield around young BIPOC professionals in the form of mentorship and guidance, so they feel free to fail and learn. When I think about my first years in advertising, I know I wouldn’t have made it without the guidance and mentorship of Jeff Hilts.
What’s the biggest lesson that 2020 has taught you?
The biggest lesson 2020 taught me is that we need a million more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs. We need more people in positions of power fighting for human rights, so that when we lose one, we don’t feel lost.
How have you pivoted your creative process/the way you work while sheltering in place?
The creative process has remained the same, but the challenge has become how to churn out campaigns in record time, at the same high standards, from home. I’m lucky to have a great partner in Shannon McCarroll who shares my creative vision and work ethic. Plus, an agency of dedicated colleagues. In these difficult times, having a solid and supportive team is everything.
How do you “fill up your cup” creatively?
I am a collector of amazing people. I surround myself with hilarious, caring, intelligent and super creative people and chat with them regularly. Watching, listening to and supporting their creative endeavors really inspire me.
How are you caring for yourself during this stressful time? Any self-care tips and tricks you can share?
The only body part that gets a workout in advertising is our brain. And a lot of it. Our poor bodies have all of this pent-up energy that doesn’t get released because we sit all day. It’s not good for our physical or mental health. I suffer from a lot of anxiety and the only way I have been able to control it is by working out. I start my day with yoga by following the intense Juliana from Boho Beautiful.
How are you working to celebrate, support or elevate other marginalized voices and experiences?
It was very emotional and eye-opening for me when I saw what movies like Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther meant to the Asian and Black communities. The power of representation shouldn’t be underestimated, and neither should the power of advertising. After all, advertising is just a mirror of society and it should be including marginalized voices and experiences. For the rest of my career, representation will always be a priority to me.
Creativity can save the world. What real world problem would you want to tackle with creativity, if time, budget and logistics were not an issue?
1. I would like to tackle packaging waste for the biggest brand polluters. For instance, I think any packaging that touches food should be compostable. There are so many ingenious packaging solutions that would alleviate the strain on our recycling plants, waste management centers, and help the world’s waste problem overall. This is highly achievable.
2. Ensuring ALL women have access to education and are encouraged to prosper financially. Women are half the world’s population and have incredible earning potential that would boost the entire world’s GDP. Not including all women in our efforts to grow the economy is just bad business.
What or who is currently inspiring you?
I love me some AOC. She’s got the intelligence and drive, she’s got the leadership skills, she’s got the young demographic who normally can’t be bothered by politics, she’s cleverly fighting the broken system and she can deliver one hell of a speech.
How are you leaving the work, the workplace or the world a better place than you found it?
There are a lot of negative aspects of this business that affect everyone, but not everyone feels empowered to speak up. Throughout my career, I’ve been lending my voice and white privilege to speak up on behalf of others so they can remain anonymous. I have no reservations about rocking the boat and saying what needs to be said to make others feel more comfortable to speak up as well. What gives me hope is that more and more people are using their voices and holding people accountable. It’s the only way to force change.
If you could go back in time, what pivotal advice would you give yourself before your first day as a professional creative?
I would tell myself “leave sooner”. Take whatever positive lessons you can and always try to improve your circumstances. But, if you find yourself in an unrelenting toxic work environment, whether an agency or a partnership, cut your losses and leave sooner. Life’s way too short.