Founder at Mesa&Cadeira, Barbara Soalheiro has a prodigious career in several fields of the creative market. Mesa&Cadeira is a company that has been pointed out as one of the most efficient and innovative models in the world by people at SXSW, GOOD Magazine and Proxxima. Barbara is also an author (her book Como Fazíamos Sem won a Jabuti, Brazil’s most prestigious literary prize, and is compulsory reading in every public in the country). Barbara has been helping companies like Google, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Samsung make bold moves in a world of constant change.
an interview by Romanita Oprea
How did you decide to go into journalism and how did that evolve for you?
It’s funny, because I didn’t know what to do when it was time to enter the University. I’ve always liked reading and writing. I wanted to study Literature, so I did a year at the Literature University, but then a friend of mine told me that I was really good at communications.
At that time I didn’t know really well what communications comprised of. I was thinking about trying both universities, but by that time I was already teaching English and I didn’t want to drop off my work. And then, by the end of the first semester, I was so in love with communication that I didn’t go to Literature anymore
I’ve always been like a creative journalist and I’ve always worked with magazines. I am from a big city, but the market there is not so big, but when I entered the university I had the luck that a guy opened a wonderful magazine, so I became a trainee. I’ve always worked for magazines. So when I went to Sao Paolo I went to work for to a publishing house, I loved it. I’ve always been an editor more than a reporter. When I started at Superinteressante I was already an assistant editor and I think it’s interesting because when you look at the complexity of the world and you tap it in a certain way that people get interested in reading about it. We would put a lot of accent on research, I would spent 4 months researching a really big issue such as health problems or prostitution. Therefore, this is an ability I am still using a lot in my career right now.
And then there was this magazine I loved – Colors magazine. I thought it was amazing. One day I sent my portfolio to Fabrica, that produces Colors, and I ended up getting to be invited to be a resident. When I was nine months into my residency, then I become stuff for Color, there was a big issue on terrorism and I had a great idea, I went upstairs and gave the idea to the editor-in-chief, they chose my idea and they promoted me as part of the staff and then I went on and become editor-in-chief for the rest of the time I was at Fabrica.
When I came back to Brazil I accepted an invitation to work at an ad agency, because at Colors I had already achieved my dream of becoming an editor-in-chief at a magazine that I respected a lot. I always know that what I was doing at Fabrica was advertising for Benetton, I’ve never been any naïve about it, therefore I thought I could try working in advertising. But it was very different and I really didn’t like it too much. A lot of the things that I didn’t like in the experience of working in an agency and the learnings I took with me and I think that helped us get to a place that I think it makes more sense. The idea that you have to solve a problem for the client, but the client is not present, didn’t make too much sense. As a journalist I thought “nobody knows more about Unilever than Unilever. Why do I have to solve it by myself?”
And I think that back in the days when all you needed was one big idea, a creative idea, this might make more sense. But when you have to solve a problem for me it makes no sense to work without the “problem owner”, the client. That bothered me.
It also bothered me the whole process: you brief someone. In journalism you have a great idea and you do it. The client doesn’t interfere in your process. Maybe they don’t like it and you react to that. Whereas in the agency life, the client is not present, is not accountable, but he/she is interfering all the time.
We want to feel proud in the last day when we deliver the idea and the solution. Every single person around the table feels that is the best thing they could do. In terms of human rewards, human creative is very important.
Very often I compare doing a Mesa with baking a cake. It didn’t exist and now it does. We are super focused on making something. It was a problem, now it’s a solution that you can see. It’s not a key note presentation, it’s a solution itself.
But the “ingredients” you use are also very important.
The ingredients for me are the people. We are a technology that only uses people as a tool. If there will be ever a war between robots and humans we are the company that says: we are going to win this – the humans. We believe in unlocking the human potential to the point humans are way better than robots. The most important aspect that I am focusing on when doing a Mesa is selecting the people that I am going to be working with.
You said that you are using the best people from the categories that you need to work on that project, yes?
Yes, this is what we do. When somebody brings us a problem, a challenge, we are going to break that challenge into pillars of knowledge and the tools that you need. This is phase one. Here is where I believe that a lot of people get it wrong.
Somebody asked us about the problem of copycats: they like the Mesa and they want to do it by themselves thinking is much cheaper. Not long ago I received a phone call from a client of ours saying telling me “I am going to do a Mesa here next week and I was wondering if you could come and speak to us about it”. And I decided to help them, because this is a program that we are about to launch: this in-company forming leaders. And I asked them what they have done already. And he told me they have already invited an amazing team, but they have sent some very expensive and un-personal invitations, which was very wrong. We don’t have to spend a lot of money inviting people, but it has to be really personal if they want it to work. And they had sent them to really great people, some of which he met during the Mesa organized by us. Very talented people, but not chosen for a specific task or territory. I think that if you get some great talented people, very professional in what they do, you will get somewhere. But it’s different form getting all the knowledge that you can.
Therefore, this is about breaking all the knowledge into the pillars and then we start looking into the right people and the names. If I do a Mesa in Brazil and I want to fly somebody from outside, there is a difference, because the Mesa it probably must be in English, etc. Sometimes the client might get you a limitation: everybody must be from Mexico or Brazil, etc, and it’s fair enough. Research is really important and we spend quite a great deal of time here, in finding the right people.
The thing with people is that the more Mesas we do, the better is our network and in cities and countries where we have an operation for a while now and where we have a reputation ready (in Brazil almost everywhere and in USA – Los Angeles) it’s easier for us because people already know and write to us sending us their portfolio. In other parts of the world, like in New Zeeland or in the Eastern European market for example, there is a huge amount of work. I am sure we will be better at it in some years. Each time we enter a country it takes us a little bit of time to have a network, because curating and analyzing the information takes a lot of time. And we are only looking for the best people for the specific problem.
It’s also the culture and the language barrier, no?
Of course. I will need somebody from that specific country helping me. And ideally, that person has to know me really well to know exactly what I am looking for.
There is one type of person that is perfect Mesa material and those are the Doers. People that really put their hands into solving that problem. Somebody that is more of a thinker, an analyzer, is harder to be that person that we are looking for. There is a space for that knowledge, on day one, when the problem owner introduces the context, the reality, their vision, etc, and the outside specialists present.
But to work you have to be that person who wants to solve things. They have to have the mindset of a Doer.
There is the idea that only some people are creative and I disagree with that because I believe that all humans are creative, but some people stop being confident enough to share their ideas and a lot of times when we start the Mesa the guys that feel they are not creative prove to be in the end the ones that solve the stuff, because we create an environment where everyone is allowed and responsible for the solution and, if they have it inside of them, they have the courage to speak up.
So you believe that, in the right environment, everyone can be creative?
I totally believe that and I think we do it really well with Mesa. We focus on rituals rather than rules. Mesa has a frame that is very rigid (you start here, you finish here, you have a final presentation, everyone has to be their full time, there is no getting in and out, your cellphone cannot be there), but inside that frame is very chaotic. It’s in real time and about connecting to that problem and making decisions in real time. When I or a colleague of mine is leading a Mesa I cannot tell you what is going to happen on Wednesday at 3 o’clock, because I really don’t know.
That makes us be really present. We have to understand what is really going on in order to make it work. We give people rituals that are changing their behaviors.
The fact that we all open a mission together it’s like you sign a contract. Something makes you commit. We are not in love with processes, we are in love with work. What we are trying to find out is how do you work better, what is the perfect environment. I believe that great work involves amazing results, and even though a Mesa can be an amazing process, the fact that we are so focused on results makes us deliver such an unique thing.
What we are doing is sitting with the client and promising him that we can solve in 5 days a situation he was confronting with for a long time. And I am very aware of how bold that declaration sounds like and we are 100 % committed to delivering it. Even when it comes to the leader of the Mesa, it’s more the idea of a “freelance boss” that comes and learns with the rest of the group during the Mesa.
Did it ever happen to you to have to change somebody from the team?
If I could I might have wanted to send somebody home once, but we are very careful to not bring somebody that we are not sure about. What it happens is that sometimes we might need to add someone. For example, I did this Mesa with Nestle Brazil and it was about launching something for the young generation. As we were preparing Mesa, someone was saying to bring the 13 years old, the people really young because we are starting to loose in that category, while the other person was saying that it has to be somebody a little bit closer to adulthood when they already have money and they make purchase choices. In this situation I didn’t bring anyone, neither a 13 year old nor an 18-20 year old. At Mesa we never bring the mission before the end of day one. Because you learn so much from that day. Even the client. He learns from the others, from the specialists. And at the end of the day 1 we sent out the client and I already have a preliminary mission. At that stage they have to make a decision and I had to find someone that was just entering the university.
What type of companies do you target? Are they only big companies or also middle ones and entrepreneurs?
We have a challenge as a company. There was a moment when we looked at our clients and we realized they were all really big, which proves that a Mesa costs a chunk of money. It’s not expensive in the sense that we deliver that value and we are cheaper than other possible competitors such as big consultancy companies and we deliver in 5 days what sometimes these huge consultancy companies do in 6 months. We are also sometimes an alternative to ad agencies and we cost way less because we don’t have a retainer fee, etc. But there is a chunk of money that most middle companies or start-ups don’t really have available.
This is something that bothers us because what we really like are problems. A lot of start-ups have a lot of problems that we would love to solve. We are in constant search of how to unlock something that will help us help those start-ups. Maybe we could teach some people from smaller companies how to create their own Mesas.
Something like a franchise?
It’s more radical than a franchise because we are not going to make money. We are really opening it. We think that in the world of today you own things more if you open them. There is a business model where you are going to pay to learn it, but once you learn it we don’t have any recurrent fee.
I believe that the more we open it, the more complex challenges are going to come to us. People that are really great at what they do are driven by great challenges so I believe this way we will attract even more talented people. Every time we have a very difficult challenge I find and I have the best teams. We created a bridge between working and learning.
More about Barbara Soalheiro
After graduating, she was selected for Editora Abril (the biggest publishing house in Latin America) New Talents program, was soon hired as an editor and, by the time she was 26, became the youngest editor-in-chief in the company – in charge of the teen brand Capricho, she ran an operation that included a magazine (which doubled its readership on the first year of Barbara’s tenure), a website, a range of licensed products and a set of events. In 2008, Barbara was invited to work at Fabrica, Benetton’s Communication Research Center in Italy. She became editor-in-chief of Colors (the groundbreaking magazine founded in the 90’s by Oliviero Toscani and Tibor Kalman) and started blurring the limits between content and technology in her work: she was in the team that transformed the magazine website into a collaborative platform and launched the first magazine using Augmented Reality in the world. Back to Brazil, she became a Creative Director at digital ad agencyCubocc (part of FLAGCX).