An Unexpected Way into Advertising – and a Focus on Talent First: A Q&A with Tara Weerasinghe, Associate Creative Director at Leo Burnett Colombo
The creative lead is quickly earning her stripes as a judge for international advertising shows, and recently participated for the first time on Leo Burnett’s very own Global Product Committee. She shares her take on the agency’s HumanKind philosophy and underscores the need to champion humans of all kinds in the industry.
You say you discovered a career in advertising by chance. Can you tell us more about your start in the industry? What did your experience teach you – challenges and all – and how might your learnings guide like-minded individuals who are looking to break into advertising?
Long story short, I was a nerd looking for some way to pay for Law School. My mum took me and my scraps of poetry to meet ‘a friend’ one day. I don’t know who was more awkward, the ECD whose office was invaded by his son’s schoolteacher, or the confused 18-year-old (me) who realized a little too late that it was a job interview.
Much to my surprise, he called me back. And nine years later, we still laugh over this story. I knew nothing about advertising, but I just immersed myself in its magic and instantly fell in love. There were lots of sleepless nights, fiery debates, blank pages, writer’s block, existential crises – but I loved every minute of it.
Your start really does set your path. So give it all you got.
Also, thanks mum.
You’ve served on several juries over the past several months, including The Gerety Awards and One Club Asia. What do you react to first when evaluating the work? Is there a sure way to stand out? And how do these juries function well in a remote format?
I’m drawn to ideas that instantly make me jealous and think, “damn I wish I did that.” It’s the type of work that breaks taboos, challenges norms, defines a culture. Imagine goosebumps, chills, heightened emotions – all the feels. Those are the campaigns that stay with me for long after.
Alas, I so wish these discussions and deliberations were in person.
You’ve also competed from the other side of the judging table. A few years back at the Young Lotus Workshop, the brief was “to create a campaign in just 24-hours that would get each team their dream job with their dream ECD at their dream agency.” How do you go about creating work under those tight conditions, and is it something you would do again?
There’s nothing like a looming deadline to get your creative energies flowing. And the added pressure of representing your country on a global stage. I remember my Art Director and I fighting about ideas, calming down, fighting again, picking the winning one and moving quickly into execution, before practicing our presentation over and over and over again, until it was time for the competition. Forget sleep: we gave it everything we had, and it was thrilling. We left AdFest with premature grey hair, some shiny bling and a few dream jobs.
These Young Creative Competitions really do prepare you for the pace of the industry. Once you know you can crack a campaign in 24 hours, the real-world deadlines seem a little more manageable.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Of course, most recently you participated for the first time as a judge for the Global Product Committee, which gathers 20 of Leo Burnett’s creative leaders to evaluate the latest body of work against the agency’s HumanKind scale. Can you share a bit more about how you interpret that 1-10 rating (two campaigns scored a 9!) and how you think advertising is positioned to transform human behavior today?
What I love about Leo Burnett is its HumanKind philosophy. It’s something I admired even before receiving my first apple a few years ago. The two 9-balls were a testament to the power of this belief. I’ve shown the campaigns to my team and other poor, unsuspecting, captive audiences and each time there’s not a single eye that’s not moist. Including my own.
But to answer your question, the 1-10 rating is not just a set of numbers, but a human lens. It puts focus on the most important thing, people, and how our acts have impacted them. Because what helps people, helps business. And at our best, we have the power to transform lives and the world.
You were recognized by CMO Asia as one of the top 22 Women Leaders across 11 industries – at the height of the pandemic, no less. What does that recognition mean to you; and what do we mean when we describe a “sustainable leadership pipeline”?
All my life, I’ve had mentors, bosses and teammates who have chosen to close their eyes to my limitations and build me up instead. And that’s something I want to foster as well. To be the kind of leader I was fortunate to have when growing up. So whatever I may see as achievements in my career aren’t mine alone.
While it is our responsibility to support diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s important to not make it feel like a quota you must fill. We must make it an ambition, and not merely something to tick off a hiring checklist.
It’s still all about talent, not gender. We should focus on finding real and effective ways to support, champion and create equal opportunities for talent, who just so happen to be female, across the ranks.
Off the top of your head – favorite brand tagline?
Not being very different here – but, Think Different (formerly for Apple, Inc.).
One more, think fast – dream client?