Grey's Samira Ansari on life as a funny woman in advertising

The latest in our series of interviews between a young copywriter and a senior creative about making it in the ad industry

Lalita Salgaokar is a young advertising writer in New York. Creative Class is a recurring column in which she interviews senior creatives about their professional journey, the state of the industry and how to develop a creative voice.

Samira Ansari is someone I’ve wanted to meet since I first saw the commercials she did for Kotex while at JWT. The "funny" in her work made me curious about the mind behind it. We recently met for coffee in New York’s Flatiron District, where she graciously answered questions about her career and life in advertising as a funny female creative director.

A native Aussie, Ansari started her career nearly 20 years ago as an art director and writer at Cummins & Partners in Melbourne. After four years at Saatchi & Saatchi, Paris, she arrived in New York, where she has worked for JWT, TBWA\Chiat\Day and Leo Burnett. Now, she continues to make a name for herself as group creative director at Grey, New York. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

What do you like about New York?
It’s the center of the world. It attracts the people who are at the top of their game. The best thing about working here is you work with the best thinkers. Everybody comes to New York because they’re chasing something. It’s what drags you here, and then you get stuck here because you like it so much.

Almost all of your work has a sense of humor. Is that intentional?
Your personality comes through your work. When I started, funny commercials for women weren’t a thing. Being a funny girl was rare. And that’s what gravitated me even more to it.

Why do you think your Kotex campaign gained so much attention?
It was well-received because it was cheeky and told the truth. It was the beginning of, "Why are you speaking to us like it’s the 50s?" We were talking to young girls about their changing bodies. I still don’t understand why you can say the word "penis" in a TV commercial but not "vagina." They are both organs.

What was it like selling this kind of work to a conservative client?
Kotex was interesting because our client came in and said, "We want to make conservative groups angry." They were on a mission. And they wanted to buy good work. We got to work on everything from the packaging to branding. We changed the cliché floral print to a black box with some bright, unapologetic colors.

It took two years, and we went through many, many rounds. We had a big, talented team. The client was great, and they trusted the agency. If they do that, they end up with really good work.

Moving up in your career, how did you develop both disciplines of art and copy?
It kind of happened accidentally. When I first started working, my copywriter moved to go traveling. My creative director at the time didn’t hire a partner for me, and I remember being upset about it. I was competing with senior teams and I did OK, but it was a learning experience. It forced me to actually sit on my own and write ideas down.

I’m comfortable with words, but I’ve worked with some really good writers. Naturally, I’m more design-based, and I have a design degree, but you have to be able to do both. It’s important to be able to write the idea.

Women are such great negotiators in other aspects of life, but when it comes to asking for the money we deserve, we don’t do it. Do you agree?
Oh God, yeah. I’m the worst negotiator. I negotiate myself down. I worked with a very great partner and she taught me to ask, "Why not?" Don’t negotiate yourself down. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about money. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing for me or the way I was brought up, but it’s a real struggle. l do it through email. It’s much easier to negotiate in writing. Ask for what you want and they can laugh at you if they want, but at least you asked.

That’s a great hot tip in negotiations — do it through email.
Yup. And another thing, when you’re changing jobs and they ask you how much you make, don’t tell them what you’re earning, instead tell them what you want.

Always, tell them what you’re worth.

You’re mentoring new talent, now. What do you expect from creatives you mentor?
I was such an annoying creative. I used to chase people around, find them outside restrooms. I was so stubborn in the way I approached people, and I like that stubbornness. I expect people to work hard, I expect them to bring fresh ideas and new thinking to the table. Also, I think ambition is key. Without ambition, there’s nothing.

Why is ambition the key?
You need to want to be in this industry to be in it. There’s no place in this industry for people without that ambition. You need it to survive. Otherwise there are so many other people who want in. It’s hyper-competitive.

Is it important to go after awards?
As much as I hate saying it: Yes, it’s important to win awards. The system is a little cracked sometimes. But they’re important. I think the best creatives in the world can do both things, manage tough clients and win awards. The ideas that win big, usually win big with both — the general public and the award jury.

Going back to your point about ambition. What gives you the ambition or the drive to be in this industry?
You know you look at all the other jobs that people have, and realize that this is so much better. We are really lucky. We have a lot of fun. We work with really good people. It’s always different. You’re always learning and no two clients are the same. You’re using your brain and there’s always a new problem to solve. That’s what gives me the drive to be in the industry. We bitch about stilos, we bitch about the hours. But again, if you look at the stuff other people do for a living, we’re lucky.

Any career highlights you’ll always remember?
Yeah. My very first client meeting was with Richard Branson. He came in after we won the pitch for Virgin. I was 23 and lived with my parents. I was on such a high after speaking with him. He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

We’re in such a stressful industry. What do you to bounce back?
I try to travel a lot, and I read a lot.

Tell us what you read about.
I love reading the New York Times over the weekend.I still love a good old-fashioned newspaper. I remember craving reading the paper during the five years I lived in Paris. So I subscribe to the New York Times with all the right intentions. It’s a running joke though, because it tends to pile up in a corner in my apartment.

There’s the cliché where people ask our industry to chill and not take ourselves seriously because we’re really not saving lives.

We try to. If we do it right, we can save lives. I mean it is mass media. When we put things out in the world, it’s seen by massive amounts of people. You can create change if you want to. Whether you do it or not is another thing.

What’s your favorite piece of advice in advertising and in life?
Bite off more than you can chew and then chew really, really hard.

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