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So You Want My Job? Rod Sobral on how he became global chief creative officer at Oliver

Rod Sobral, chief creative officer at Oliver Group, tells all about his career path

Welcome to The Drum’s new series, So You Want My Job? Each week, we’ll be asking the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. And, along the way, we’ll dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can help inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.

With fluctuations in the economy threatening the security of many marketers’ jobs, we have launched a bi-monthly newsletter (Working it Out) to map the trends in the wider jobs market.

Featuring regularly on the newsletter will be our So You Want My Job? series, which this week speaks to Rod Sobral, global chief creative officer of Oliver.

What did you want to be when you growing up? Does it match what you do now?

My first career choice was to be a binman. I grew up in the Brazilian countryside, and I used to get so excited watching the big trucks drive past twice a week – always with those guys riding on the back of them. My mum once persuaded them to let me in the truck and the other kids from my street saw me riding it. It was huge. I was invited to all birthday parties after that.

My next dream profession was straight-up advertising. And I got to that with a bit of luck, a lot of hard work and a big inspiration from my dad.

How did you get the gig?

My dad loved three things in life: his family, architecture and advertising. My sister became an architect. I couldn’t cope with so much homework, so I became the ad guy.

Dad introduced me to advertising when I was really young. At nine years old, we would have ‘Party Fridays’ and stay up late watching a mixture of Mike Tyson fights and ‘Intervalo’, a show about advertising featuring the craziest ads and the Cannes Lions winners. My dad recorded seven or eight years of that show on VHS, and I still reference the work today. By the time I hit university, I was a walking encyclopaedia of the world’s major brand campaigns and creative agencies.

I come from a humble family in São Paulo and I knew that if I wanted to go to university I needed to work hard to pay for it (I was the first in my family to get a degree). This is the reality of most poor kids in my country, so I’m not special in that respect.

I willingly started work at 15, using CorelDRAW to make print ads for local businesses. My first ‘proper’ job was for a small ad agency owned by a guy that my dad had met at church. He was a creative director, and my dad convinced him to give me a shot. I had a blast there, creating the shittiest TV commercials you can think of using old video cameras. It sowed a strong seed.

Later in my career, after Unit9 and AKQA, I moved to set up R/GA in LA. The business was booming, but we didn’t yet have a proper office space. I started to use my clients’ offices as my own, and I learned then that amazing work happens when you have that level of proximity (we call it in-housing today).

I did some of my best work when I was in the same building as my clients, not sitting separately, because I could see their challenges through their eyes. I decided then, this is how I wanted to work.

After helping to build the Beats by Dre brand and voice, I opened my own agency and was lucky to have clients already waiting at the door. The idea was to build bespoke creative teams for the exact problem that the brand was trying to solve.

We were doing everything from digital transformation and experience design for Harry Potter, to integrated campaigns and writing ads for Super Bowl. With clients like Beats, Waze and Ambassador Theater Group, it was time to look for an investor.

I was blessed to have a couple of large agency networks interested, but they didn’t share my ambition. I think they just wanted my clients!

Then, I met Simon Martin. My friend Hannah Brown, told me that Simon had a big job that was a perfect fit for me. And I said, but I’m not looking for a job? In a crazy turn of events and a healthy dose of ‘bromance’ it became clear that Simon and I were looking for each other. Simon had pioneered the world’s first and most unique in-housing model through Oliver, which he was taking creatively upstream – and I wanted to give clients an entire ecosystem of the world’s best solutions and talent to use in their marketing.

Believe it or not, the biggest challenge for me in all of this was way before Oliver. It happened when I moved to the UK in 2004. In Brazil, I was well established. In the UK, I had to start at the bottom. It turns out, watching episodes of Friends didn’t teach me to speak English the way I thought it had! I spent the first year in London barely being able to communicate with people. I still don’t know how I wasn’t sacked in my first job at Unit9.

In the end, I paid an Oxford University graduate to teach me English for two years. Incredibly, I finally learned fluent English… and he went on to become an awesome advertising copywriter.

OK – so what do you actually do?

At Oliver, I help build better brands from within our clients’ organisations. My scope is to lead our network’s creative vision and output globally. But, day-to-day, what I actually do is help clients’ businesses be more desirable and accelerate the evolution of their marketing teams.

On a personal level, my mission is to demonstrate what I truly believe: that creativity can be done better and faster on the inside. We demonstrate this when we create work that people fall in love with, and brands that improve people’s lives in big and small ways. Whether that’s a simple tweet that brightens someone’s day, or a service that helps people live life more fully, like getting fitter or dealing with their diabetes easier. Get me?

When it comes to my team, they do not work for me. I work for them every day. I’m here to help them be more successful and remove any obstacles to doing stellar work.

Do your parents understand what you do for a living?

Yes, 100%. Especially my dad. Although, when I started working with digital marketing, they thought I had become an IT guy. That was before the internet bubble burst, back in the days where everyone used ICQ to chat and Internet Explorer with Flash and Shockwave players installed.

What do you love most about your job?

There are two parts that I cannot distinguish between:

1. People. Humanity is every creative’s main source of inspiration. I want to create work that’s meaningful to all kinds of people. I love the creative tension that comes from everyone being different. Our differences make life fun, and reaching different audiences helps me to learn something new every day.

2. And, the rush you get when you’ve cracked an idea. This one is entirely selfish, but it’s true of almost every creative. It’s the feeling of knowing that you’ve nailed the brief. That you found a simple idea to solve a big problem. And that people will fall in love with that idea. That’s a pure hit of adrenalin. It’s addictive.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now?

Work harder than everyone else. And tell no one. Let your success make the noise. I don’t come from money so I had no other option. I know a lot of people that had a similar upbringing to mine, and everyone I know that succeeded did the same damn thing: they worked harder than everyone around them.

There’s always a sacrifice that you have to make if you want to be successful. So make sure you love what you do, otherwise, it is not gonna be a nice ride. It’s that simple.

Regarding the route, there are many ways to get here. My route was to become a hybrid thinker, learning to use both the left and right sides of my brain equally well.

My background is design and technology but I have always been dominated by creative storytelling. This duality is the foundation of my career, but many people think that us creatives can’t be both. Mostly in my career, I was either the ‘digital’ guy hired to help traditional agencies be more innovative, or I was the ‘big idea’ TV guy hired to help digital agencies be better at creativity. Sadly, our industry likes to categorise things.

So, my advice is, be a hybrid. Make sure you have a good level of depth in different disciplines. Don’t stay on the shallow side by becoming a generalist. Generalists are good at talking-the-talk but often can’t walk-the-walk.

What advice would you offer to those entering the ad industry right now?

This has been a weird year. I was fortunate that Covid-19 didn’t hurt my family but I have friends who lost loved ones. It’s a terrifying virus and it won’t ever be forgotten. And then there’s the global recession, which will impact everyone hard. It’s not nice seeing people lose their jobs and agencies going bust.

On a more positive note, where there’s disruption there is also transformation. I believe we will see an intense acceleration and evolution of the advertising industry. Creatives entering the industry now will be part of its re-engineering and re-invention. And this is a really exciting thing.

Importantly, the idea that brilliant work can only come from the four walls of advertising studios is dead. Just look at how working from home, instead of fancy offices with ping-pong tables and open bars, changed everything. Creative culture now lives in your backpack.

My point is, being flexible and adaptable are paramount, particularly if you’re just coming in. Other than that you’ve got to obsess about quality and creating work that people fall in love with. Craft every piece of work as if it would follow you forever.

One last piece of advice, and a piece I wish I had when starting out, is to treat your brief as if it is the best brief in town. It doesn’t matter how small or weird it is. At the end of the day, it is your duty to make things interesting for audiences.

I remember getting a brief once to develop a B2B campaign for a new software aimed at database analysts (yeah, that exciting). No one in the agency wanted to touch that brief, but I said let’s do it. I saw it as my opportunity to find the most compelling way to solve this client’s problem. We ended up creating a comedic sci-fi series and sending a DBA into space. It was one of the most fun and rewarding projects I’ve ever done.

What is the trait that best suits you for your role?

I’ve heard people say that I’m good at “unfucking” things. I’m sure what they meant to say is, I’m good at fixing problems and making things better. I’m obsessed with quality.

There’s always a way to make things better; better the work, better the people, better the business, better the industry. But do it in the most human way possible.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

This is gonna sound cheesy as hell but I’d say: you’ve got to listen to yourself and understand what drives you before you listen to what other people say. You’ll realise that we’re all driven by something that’s important and unique to us. Realising this human truth makes you a better listener, and you’ll start to notice what drives your team members and your audience. Work becomes a lot more interesting, fun and efficient that way.

A strictly business answer (and what helped me a lot) would be: learn about language, about communication and about rhetoric. Our work is all about communication and connection. The more repertoire you have to be able to connect, the better you’ll be in this industry. This is particularly important for non-English-speaking ‘immigrants’ like me!

Come back next week for another interesting job talk, and sign up to our jobs newsletter, Working it Out. Colin Gottlieb, the former Omnicom media boss who is now tasked with ‘putting Lad on the moon’ as LadBible’s chief growth officer, was in the hot seat last week.