Along the road to her current post as a CD at Google, Suzana Apelbaum traveled along quickly, “breaking things,” as they used to say,—succeeding and moving into a new career at an unheralded pace. But, as things began to stall in her new post, she had to learn how to integrate what made her successful in the first place, her creativity, with her managerial demands. From both her achievements and successes, Suzana’s learned exactly what’s made her the success she is today.
The Work That Made Me
By Suzana Apelbaum, Creative Director at Google
When asked to write about “the work that made me”, I immediately thought of a project I did which won several awards. But actually, I realized it was the failure that came right afterwards that really made me who I am today.
Back in 2006, I was invited to be the Executive Creative Director at ‘Africa’, one of the leading advertising agencies in Brazil, my home country. The agency was struggling to go digital rapidly and efficiently. I was given the challenge to ensure creative excellence in every execution and infuse the agency with digital culture.
Two years later, Africa was awarded the second place in the Interactive Agency of the Year awards at Cannes, coming just one point behind Crispin Porter (in its golden days). This was a big feat, especially considering we were total underdogs.
Following that success, Africa’s owner, Nizan Guanaes (a legend in the advertising world) invited me to be his partner and co-founder in a new “post-digital” agency. It’s like if Bob Greenberg had invited you to open a new boutique agency in the industry. Wow.
I hesitated at first. Although I was an experienced creative, I worried I wasn’t ready to be a business owner.
I asked my father for advice and he said: “Filha, it’s not a big deal. Being an owner is a mindset. You already act like an owner in every place you work. It’s a natural evolution for you”.
So I went for it.
And that’s when everything changed.
We started out on a great note. I was really bringing a dream agency to life. But less than a year later, even though the creative part was working well, the business and operations started to collapse.
Suddenly, I had to stop focusing on the creative part and start caring about excel spreadsheets, scope creep, budget, and office politics.
I felt powerless and overwhelmed, having to take responsibility for things I didn’t really master.
I felt my creative inspiration and energy falling.
Then, out of the blue, I get a call from a theater director friend who had actually directed me in a few plays (yes, I had been an actress). He tells me he wrote a monologue featuring six different characters, inspired by my love stories. Ha! And he invites me to be the actress playing them. HA!
At that point I had been feeling really burned out.
I could have just kept pushing myself at the agency, hurting while trying to do my best, and secretly hoping for a miracle to happen that would solve all my problems.
Or I could take a time out.
Over the next two months, I rehearsed every day and helped produce the play. I used all of the creative and entrepreneurial cells in my body to bring that project to life. We debuted and…
The week after the opening night, I was back at the agency.
I was criticized by several people in the industry. ‘Why is she having have fun on stage while her agency is struggling?’
The truth is, it was the smartest move I could possibly have made.
After producing the play and breathing some new creative air, I came back to the agency with my mind working at full speed. I was feeling energized and inspired, coming up with solutions like never before.
That experience taught me that reconnecting with one of my passions is a great way to fire up my creative energy.
Feeling fearless, I started to get more engaged with the business issues at the agency. That gave me a wider and richer vision into the clients’ world, turning me into a truly business- oriented creative.
Moreover, all of those struggles helped me put my most difficult challenges into perspective. I became more resilient, more strategic. And more humble.
That for me was a successful failure. Although it was over ten years ago, it truly was the job that made me who I am today.
And who am I today?
I’m a Creative Director working at Google - or, as my father says: I'm now a Google 'owner' ;)