Advertising isn’t a field known for its longevity and loyalty, with top talent and their agencies often parting ways every few years. But for nearly two decades, Eva Santos has been a fixture at Proximity, the global network owned by Omnicom.
In that time, Santos has risen to be not only one Spain’s top women in creative leadership, but also one of the world’s most respected agency executives. Serving as global chief creative officer for the past three years, she has been featured on a litany of awards juries, been a frequent public speaker around the world and was named to Adweek’s Creative 100 in 2017.
But now Santos has ended her 18-year run at Proximity, which Omnicom recently folded into sister network Rapp Worldwide. She hasn’t committed to a next step yet, saying she’s deciding whether there’s an agency that fits with her goal of prioritizing creativity—or whether it’s time to just launch her own shop.
Adweek caught up with Santos to learn more about how the ad industry has changed, especially for women, over the course of her career, and what she’s looking for with her next opportunity.
You’ve been with Proximity for 18 years, which is an incredibly long run in the agency world. What are some of the benefits of staying at one agency as your career grows, rather than moving to a different company every few years?
Santos: I started at Proximity when I was 22 years old. During these 18 years, the industry and the agency itself have radically changed, so I really feel like I have been in at least three different agencies: one more focused on direct marketing, another one on digital and CRM, and the last one on a holistic creative thinking, where the channel is chosen based on the idea and not the reverse.
The latter was my vision, and still is, and the one I tried to instill during my three years in the global role. I believe the benefit of developing your career in one agency is that you are more likely to influence the vision of the company and get to leave your own stamp.
What can you tell us about your decision to leave Proximity? And do you have any firm plans for what’s next?
My decision to leave Proximity is closely related to the previous point. I felt that there was beginning to be too much distance between my vision and the global strategy of the company. I felt my capacity to influence was limited, just at the moment when we most need a complete rethink our industry’s model.
I live this profession with great passion, and I was entering a monotony and a conformism that not only did not make me a better professional, but probably a worse one. This profession is for adrenaline junkies, as my friend Laura Visco says.
My plans for this new chapter are focused first on listening to what the market has to tell me, and then trying to find or build my new projects—projects where I could develop my vision at a moment when creativity is going to be one of the key disciplines to rebuild ourselves socially and economically. And my plans include feeling that adrenaline again too.
The worst inequalities are the invisible ones, and when I started in creativity, nobody talked about why all creative directors were men. It was normal.
You’re one of the most well known female leaders in the global creative industry. How would you describe the situation for women—in Spain and globally—when you first joined advertising?
The worst inequalities are the invisible ones, and when I started in creativity, nobody talked about why all creative directors were men. It was normal. While I was in junior positions it was not that evident, but when I was promoted I found myself in many clearly “not normal” situations, such as being announced as “the first female juror in the history of our festival” or a client who told me that “you are a weird creative director, because you wear necklaces,” just to name a few.
While in 2015 there were 3% of female creative directors in the world, in Spain there was 1%. Taking into account that it was bad everywhere, it was even a little worse here. That is why I decided to help make the problem visible. I set up the first Latin association of creative women, and I spoke about it in several forums. I considered that I had the responsibility of not looking the other way and helping to make visible an inequality that we were normalizing.
Spain seems to have so many incredible women in creative leadership now. How do you feel things have changed in recent years, and where is there still room for improvement?
In Spain there is a lot of female creative talent: Mónica Moro, Marta Llucià, Raquel Martínez, Susana Pérez, Alba Vence, to name a few. But in a recent study of more creative women, it emerged that behind these names that have achieved a certain notoriety, great inequalities are still hidden, mainly salaries. The “token effect” is also very dangerous, because it makes you think that everything is already fixed when in fact it is not. It is true that we have advanced, but power is still in the same place at the level of gender and also of races.
Your work for brands like Audi and Gillette has often challenged gender stereotypes. How was that work received, internally and with the public?
I once read a phrase that said that advertising does not have the responsibility of fixing the world, but of not making it a worse place. Throughout my career I have tried to apply that premise, and I have been lucky enough to get great brands like the ones you mention to accompany me in that direction.
Specifically, the work of Audi, Skoda and Gillette is where I have been able to develop my vision of the business and demonstrate that a brand can grow from a communication with values and purpose. In all these projects, the key to success for me was to be a team with the client and all row in the same direction, believing that it is possible to make communication that excites and sells. Obviously during the process fears arise, but if you listen to them the fear paralyzes you and you do not advance. The results obtained validated that we were on the right path.
What kind of role or company would you like to work in next? What sorts of challenges are you looking forward to?
Good question. I’m just in the process of finding out. What I am looking for now is to be able to carry out my current vision of the business, help to revalue creativity as a discipline, be part of a dynamic and open-minded project, and be able to use the global expertise and knowledge that leading 22 countries has given me.
Deciding from what role or company I can do this or if, on the contrary, it is time to open my own shop, is the process I am in right now. Despite the hard times we are living in as a society, in the weeks that I have been away from my job, I’ve seen that there are many clients wanting to do different things and many silos in the industry that were a bit outdated that are breaking down. I see openness and desire to collaborate and many opportunities for development in the world of creative consulting and entertainment.
Any advice for young creatives just coming into the industry, especially those with global ambitions?
My advice is that you never lose sight of why you decided to enter this business, the adrenaline rush of facing a briefing with all your energy and passion. This is a vocational profession, and if you lose that, you lose everything—along with the possibility of reaching higher roles in an organization. It is a cliché, but in this profession the path is destiny.