Next Creative Leaders 2020: Sara Uhelski
on Oct 29, 2020
She / Her / Hers
Hometown and country:
Current employer, city and role:
Freelancer, San Francisco, Senior Copywriter
How did your upbringing, family or hometown shape you as a creative?
Growing up in Brazil, advertising was part of my life from really early on. Although no one in my family worked in the industry, it was something I grew up watching and knowing about, since it was such a big part of our pop culture. I've always enjoyed writing and, during my teenage years, I would spend hours trying to craft some clever lines in hopes to win sweepstakes on local TV channels and radio stations. I ended up winning things like a flat screen TV, a guitar, tennis shoes, a trip to Rio de Janeiro and lots of T-shirts and CDs. At the time it was just a fun hobby, but later I realized that it was the beginning of my creative path.
What’s your “breaking into advertising” story?
I studied Journalism in college and worked as a reporter for a few years in Brazil before realizing that I'd rather come up with my own stories than tell real ones. I quit my job thinking about pursuing a career in copywriting, but without really knowing what that entailed, and was lucky to get an interview at a digital agency in Sao Paulo without even having a portfolio. Somehow my soon to be boss saw potential and offered me a job as a junior writer. Three months in, right when I was starting to learn more about the craft and the industry, my husband got an opportunity to move to San Francisco and we packed our bags. In the US I realized that my "potential" wouldn't be enough to land a job at an agency, so I enrolled at Miami Ad School, got an internship towards the end of the program, which later turned into my first job in the US.
What’s the piece of work you’re most proud of and why?
It's the anti-bullying campaign we did for the Ad Council called "Because of You". The whole idea was based on the insight that everything we say and do, good and bad, has an impact on others. We, as individuals, have the power to choose which impact we want to create. Instead of pointing fingers and showcasing how bad bullying is, we decided to champion kindness instead. I think what makes this campaign special is how real and raw it is. The whole "cast" was made of real teens, not actors, and we let them tell their own stories without a script. Since we needed to appeal to a younger audience, we partnered with two super talented young women to direct the films. More than two years later I still get emotional when I watch the videos because, even though we are targeting teens, we can all relate to their stories.
What does being named a Next Creative Leader mean to you?
It means a lot, really. I've been following the competition for a while and a lot of people whose work I admire made the list in previous years. As creatives (and as women, especially), we are never 100% happy with our work, so being chosen by a jury of this caliber gives me validation that I must be doing something right.
Who has most influenced you in your career thus far?
So many people, honestly. I think everyone who I ever worked with helped shape me creatively– those who gave me opportunities, mentorship and helped me grow, and those who doubted me and made me work extra hard.
What is your secret (or not-so-secret) creative super power and how do you flex it?
I'm a big observer, in life and at work. One of my creative partners used to call me a witch, but I wouldn't go that far. I like to pay attention to my instincts, though. When it comes to creativity I use observation as a way to remove myself from the work and always think why would people care about the things we do and why would they engage with it. I think a lot of times we're so immersed in our own industry that we create work that's only relevant for us and no one else.
Your work for Welcoming America tells a powerful and poignant story of an undocumented artist. How has being an immigrant yourself shaped your creative POV and the stories you feel compelled to tell?
I truly believe that diversity fuels creativity. If we all looked the same, shared similar experiences and backgrounds, our ideas would also probably be the same. My personal experiences helped shape who I am and therefore shape the work I put out into the world. Working in a foreign country and having to express my ideas in a language that's not my native one also forces me to look for insights that are universally relevant– stories that my friends in Brazil, in the US and in other parts of the world can all see and equally relate to.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the creative industry right now and how would you solve it?
How can we stay relevant while so many urgent things are happening around us? More than ever, it's our job to help brands and clients stand for something– to position themselves and to create real change. Consumers need to see that brands are willing to take a side and take risks in order to fully commit to them.
What’s the biggest lesson that 2020 has taught you?
2020 forced me to slow down and pause. I had a baby in January and I was planning to go back to work in May, but before that, I got the news that my agency was closing. So I decided to embrace the chaos and take some extra time off to be with my family and to really think about what to do next. I guess the lesson here is to never get too attached to your plans, because in the end, we can't control anything.
How have you pivoted your creative process/the way you work while sheltering in place?
Introspection has always been part of my process… I like to spend some time alone with a brief before jumping into ideas and bouncing things off with my partner and the team. In that sense, it's good to have space to do that. On the other hand, I think we all had to learn how to be extra collaborative and transparent while we're not physically together. We have to trust that everyone is doing the best they can while also taking care of their families, homes and sanity.
How do you “fill up your cup” creatively?
I got really into podcasts over the past months. It might be an attempt to shift my focus to listening instead of staring at my phone, or a way to pretend I'm talking to people while we can't actually meet in person– it's been a great source of inspiration. If you're looking for an ad-related podcast, Talking to Ourselves is a great way to get into the head of basically every creative leader in the US.
How are you caring for yourself during this stressful time? Any self-care tips and tricks you can share?
Long walks and long showers. I think I've never craved alone time this much, and these are the only two moments throughout my day when I can really unplug and organize my thoughts without distractions. Trips to Target have also been really therapeutic.
How are you working to celebrate, support or elevate other marginalized voices and experiences?
By making a conscious effort to give space to other women and people whose voices have been silenced or talked over for so long. Whether it's mentoring younger talent and using my experiences and connections to help them, or making sure that every casting and director selection includes a diverse pool of candidates, I think it's my job to be an ally and help close the many gaps in our industry.
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?
I would use creativity to help people believe in science. Climate change, antivax, the state of politics… Many of the world's biggest problems are rooted in the fact that some people would rather believe in conspiracy theories than in scientific evidence. That's the brief, who's in?
What or who is currently inspiring you?
All the working mothers around the world who are managing to keep their jobs while also helping their kids with online classes, taking care of their homes and keeping all the plates spinning. They're the true heroes of 2020.
How are you leaving the work, the workplace or the world a better place than you found it?
Always doing my best to create work that is relevant and, hopefully, can create change. Work that not only clients like, but also people care about. And being nice to people, that goes a long way.
If you could go back in time, what pivotal advice would you give yourself before your first day as a professional creative?
Don't be too afraid of failure. From now on, you'll fail more than you'll succeed. Trust yourself, trust your instincts and keep going, you'll have a lot of fun!