Uprising: “In Our Partnership, Nothing Is Off-limits and there Are No Hard Feelings”
Ambassadors, the Dutch creative studio with offices in Amsterdam and New York, has partnered with Little Black Book to sponsor the Uprising Channel. The channel gives a voice to important talent in the industry who often don't get the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions, as this is something often reserved elsewhere for c-suite executives only. Ambassadors’ support means that the industry’s top talent will have an even louder voice on LBB’s global platform.
“It had some 10 million eyeballs over the course of a month with women reposting and commenting about how seen and represented they felt. Being able to see our vision through from start to finish and have it be appreciated as more than just an ad still makes my heart swell.”
Speaking on their Valentine’s Day ‘Here For It’ campaign for Adore Me, copywriter Mia Rafowitz, is one half of a Droga5 duo - alongside art director Cara Cecchini - that are using their chemistry to experiment creatively.
Mia was pushed to embrace her creative side, by her family of talented musicians - her father a professional pianist and her brother a guitarist. She played and created music with them as a child and rather than pushing them into conventional careers, Mia’s parents instilled their children with a belief in the importance of creativity. Whether it be achieving her taekwondo black belt at 13, her years of playing piano by-ear or finding creative ways to torment her Sims characters, Mia found ways to develop her confidence and imagination. “Being raised in that kind of environment gave me the confidence to freely express myself without fear of failing.”
Cara also expressed her creativity from a young age, getting involved in dance, singing, theatre and anything else she could participate in. Her dreams changed year to year, but at their core they revolved around a desire to have a creative career.
The pair not only have this long-held love of creativity in common. They also share a sense of openness. Their sense of mutual respect and admiration is palpable.
“I’ve been work-married to Cara for over six years now and can honestly say she’s the best partner and friend there is.” Mia says, “She’s the kind of person who makes everybody around her better. Including me. She has that ‘it’ factor that makes everybody want to know exactly who she is, what she thinks and why she thinks it. It’s a striking quality and I’ve met few (if any) who have it.” She continues, “Everybody wants to know her opinion, but she tactfully holds her fire until the exact right moment to really make it count and have a huge impact on a room. I’ve always been in awe of that talent. She is also very compassionate and open to letting people in but, at the same time, it takes time to peel back the layers and earn her trust.”
Reciprocating the admiration, Cara says, “There are plenty of people in the world who can have a conversation with anyone, but Mia really has this unique ability to connect with and empathize with people. She’s a huge presence in any room, hilarious and charismatic and infectious, and she endears people to her so easily… It really makes you want to lean in and listen and be brought into the fold.” Cara jokingly adds, “That said, she’s a Gemini so, you know, run.”
The creative duo both share a Jewish heritage, which has shaped both of the creatives’ identities and outlook on life. For Mia, her grandfather had a significant impact and taught her ‘the art of storytelling’ when speaking on his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps. “He had this way of delivering hard truths with such an openness and authenticity that he could speak about his experience while making the audience feel comfortable,” she says. “He also taught me not to take shit from anybody, that there was no moment that couldn’t be made lighter by a little laughter and the dying art of dark humour.”
Despite being ‘not particularly religious’ and growing up between cultures and states, splitting her time in the tri-state area and Florida, in adulthood Cara has also begun to identify more with her Jewish background as well as her Italian heritage. She believes that the way culture and the industry represents Jewish people and other minority groups has often relied on stereotypes and homogeneity - something that she feels has to change. “There’s a responsibility in our profession to be representative but, even more so, to be authentic and reflective of the groups we represent and speak to and show up in ways that are as dynamic as they are.”
The duo both studied at the University of Miami – though they didn’t meet until the end of their time at college. After graduating, a mutual professor recognised Mia’s writing talents and Cara’s passion for the “creative writing and design elements” of her degree and paired the two together for the first time. After they exchanged a few texts, they stumbled upon an unexpected bond – a shared name. While Mia is ‘Mia Louise’, Cara’s full name is ‘Cara Mia Louise’.
They soon took their first steps into the industry, starting an internship together at Grey New York. “We walked in on our first day, and our PM said, ‘You must be the art director with the eyebrows.’” Cara says, “Mia was naturally ‘the copywriter with the nose ring’.”
Despite, in Cara’s words, both being ‘big personalities’, she says that they almost always manage to meet in the middle and find a compromise, “Mia's continually pushing the limit and asking a million questions, whereas I'll be more focused on finessing, crafting and digging quietly for answers. It’s that match of her continued eagerness to push and my compulsion to refine.” Mia agrees that the duo bolster each other’s weaknesses and appreciates their ability to always have fun and not take themselves too seriously. She says, “The things I respect about her are also the things I try to be better at as a human and a creative. A healthy level of jealousy and admiration goes a long way in a friendship and a partnership.”
When it comes to their work Mia describes a dynamic that blends her obsession with insights and untouched cultural facts or tension with Cara’s ‘amazing bank of cultural references’. Mia says of her creative counterpart, “She can instantly pair a weird insight with a relevant piece of the world to make something totally unique—totally us.” This almost telepathic ability to create collaborative yet profoundly unique work is partially developed from a healthy cycle of creative disagreement and resolution. Mia continues, “We’re constantly disagreeing. It’s amazing. The respect that we have for one another means that a disagreement isn’t viewed as something bad but rather as something exciting.” Cara echoes her partner, saying that creative disagreements ‘come with the territory of a great partnership’. The art director explains why, after seven years, the disagreements still result in personal and professional growth, rather than frustration, “That push and pull of challenging each other and always questioning ‘can this be better?’ or ‘can someone be doing more?’ is what yields great work… In our partnership, nothing is off-limits and there are no hard feelings. I work with my best friend every day, and I truly mean that. It’s a relationship like none other, with so much respect.”
Their first project together was an open brief Super Bowl spot for Downey, where they both realised how capable they were as a creative duo. They stayed late every day to complete the spot, which put the pair on their ECD’s radar and made it to the client untouched - a display of passion and initiative that translated well for job offers after their internship. Remembering the spot, which involved a Beyoncé track and messages of empowerment and protecting clothes as a tool for communicating identity, Cara says, “We were rewarded with confidence in our instincts, and it energized us to keep pushing on the next project and the next one and so on. This industry can be a bit of a positive feedback loop in that way - each time you succeed, it feels like the ceiling for what’s possible gets a bit higher - and it’s kept us motivated to keep hitting that ceiling.”
A campaign that both the copywriter and art director agree played a pivotal role in their joint career was their ‘Greatest Stories Retold’ project for YouTube which adapted Little Red Riding Hood into different advert formats and was shown at the Sundance and SXSW festivals. Cara says, “It was the week after the Harvey Weinstein story broke. There was so much excitement around the idea, and with a budget of only $10k, we had women across every role of production volunteering their time to bring it to life.” For Cara, the experience felt like a whirlwind. At just 24 they affected change in the industry’s mind-set and realised that their work could be ‘powerful, connective and deserving of commentary’. Mia adds, “We also got to just collaborate with amazing people and felt for the first time that we actually have the power to put amazing shit into the world. Before that, it was just a series of decks and what-ifs, but this was real.”
With these projects the pair were able to benefit from working with experienced and successful people who also gave them a high degree of autonomy. It wasn’t always easy - Cara remembers a period of self-doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ which was alleviated over time as she developed her craft. She says, “I don’t think I started to wrap my head around it until about a year in… It’s only after you find that initial comfort zone that you can push outside of it.”
After more than seven years of creative partnership and friendship, the creatives have realised the benefits of working as a duo. “If something goes wrong, I always have somebody to blame…” kids Mia, before revealing the true appreciation she holds for her partner in crime, “It’s an incredibly special bond and friendship that I don’t think can compare to any other I’ve ever had or will have. We’re essentially responsible for each other’s future. It’s crazy but it’s so much fun.” Similarly, Cara describes the working relationship as a ‘lifeline’. She says, “Mia inspires me every day to keep charging forward, but she also offers the support to recharge in order to keep that momentum and arrive at ideas that excite us.”
As deeply as they draw inspiration from each other, the pair also feel they’ve benefited from working with many experienced and creative women. “I have been blessed to work with so many amazing creative directors, specifically female creative directors,” Cara says, explaining that the way in which CDs connect with and lead a team affects the impact they make. “Successful, hardworking, supportive and strong female talent is so important, but strength doesn’t always have to be loud. The way that each of these women garners and captures respect has made me actively think about the type of creative director I hope to be.”
Both now settled in New York, Mia is unsure if she’ll be able to work vertically again after enjoying working from bed during the pandemic, overlooking a pair of nesting doves on her fire escape. Although she does miss the occasional ‘long lunch with a glass of wine’ and working together, Mia says that the partnership with Cara - also a ‘working from home enthusiast’ - remained strong during the pandemic. “I think Cara and I are lucky because we’ve been partners for so long that we’re so in sync, we don’t even need to be together to work.”
There’s a sense of fun to the partnership and that fun is something that Mia would like to see more of in the broader body of creative work put out by the industry. She feels there’s too much seriousness and pressure to imbue everything with weighty meaning. “Some things should just be fun, weird and confusing.” Never before has this been so prevalent than during the last year where, according to Cara, the ‘overly emotional, come-together ad space’ has become oversaturated. Cara says, “There are so many ways to break through that don’t settle for pulling at the heartstrings but have the power to make a genuine impact.” Before adding, “Cue the sombre piano music...”
Their passion for creativity and experimentation is a joy, but it can come with an emotional cost. For Cara, the biggest challenge for art directors is burnout. Every campaign consumes time and energy, which can be mentally tough if the team overruns or ‘falls in love’ with a project that has to go back to the drawing board.
More focused on the copywriting aspect of the work, Mia finds the greatest challenge in deciding when to use her voice and when to step back. She says that it’s important to be sensitive when writing something that speaks to a topic that you are not involved with, or an audience whose community you don’t represent. “When a lingerie brand speaks to people about empowering their audience, do I feel comfortable having a man be the one writing it? I don’t know,” says Mia. “When working on brands that speak to historically excluded communities, as a white woman, I’ve tried really hard to understand that my voice can’t be the loudest - I have to listen to others and not be precious about the creative… I follow this rule: Write the message, then find somebody from that community who said it better. That’s that.”
Cara believes that creatives have a responsibility to guide clients to more inclusive ways of working. “We should be able to make campaigns that are inclusive because they’re about humans, not because they’re about inclusion. It’s our job as creatives to push brands to that space where it becomes the benchmark.”
In terms of other industry developments that are exciting the pair, both Mia and Cara highlight the industry-wide blurring of the lines between disciplines and organisations. Mia says that platforms are now giving agencies ‘a run for their money’, Cara reveals her enthusiasm for the blending of art, design, film, fashion and more. “I’m so excited by the possibility to make work that is able to intersect at those convergent points. To contribute to culture, capture real interests and offer real solutions as the means of solving client business problems.”
Helping fresh talent come to terms with this ever-evolving landscape, the pair spend at least 10 hours a week with ad-school graduates, advising them and connecting them with Droga5 recruiters. They understand how much this visibility means to young talent and also have participated in a virtual recruitment program with VCU Brandcenter. Cara says, “It’s exciting to feel that energy of new talent and help someone get their foot in the door.”
When they’re not creating together, they like to relax in different ways that, even off-the-clock, complement each other’s style. “Mia thrives on being surrounded by friends and social recharge - she’s a huge organiser and brings people together, and I definitely capitalise on that,” says Cara, who prefers to creatively recharge through escapism, “I read a ton of fiction, and I’m a bit of a gamer... it’s nice to sort of slip into another world where reason isn’t always the guiding principle. I absorb so much art and design throughout the day in the ideating process - visually those other worlds’ spaces often are inspiring because they’re such a departure.” Besides yoga and saving things for a yet-to-be-realised scrapbook, Mia tends to turn hobbies and events into a creative exercise - shown by the 2020 New Year murder mystery she created, complete with hand-crafted props and 10 scripts. Cara also likes to get 100% stuck in to every activity. “I’ve always been someone who picks something up and fully jumps down the rabbit hole,” says Cara. “I want to be passionate about everything. You have to care about the work you’re putting out in the world and about the processes and people along the way.”
That passion can be seen in both their professional and personal pursuits. “Stay hungry,” says Cara. “If you’re restless, you’re doing it right.”
Mia traces that dedication to advice her father once gave her. “Work gives us purpose.” Mia says that in advertising, she and Cara have the ability to ‘push culture forward’ and are tireless in their efforts to realise ideas and briefs that have the potential for this. “We give everything our all, from banner ads to big-name briefs. I can’t really explain it, it’s just in us. It’s a part of who we are as a team.”