Ana Balarin had a significant, creative "side hustle" during her maternity leave: as well as successfully keeping a tiny human alive, she took the time to take part in the judging for five awards ceremonies. "I became a professional juror," she jokes.
This year, Balarin is taking her son with her to Cannes – a far cry from the clichéd, but nonetheless accurate, description of inebriated agency execs cluttering the pavements around the Gutter Bar.
So how, then, in the fog of new motherhood, did Balarin summon up the time and energy to make space for this creative endeavour, when for some it’s a stretch just to arrange a spare moment to drink their cup of tea while it’s still hot? "When you first have a baby, like the first time you do anything, it’s hard, but it helped keep me connected to the work," she explains.
When she judged at Cannes, Balarin’s husband (and creative partner), Hermeti, came with her so that she could take regular breaks to breastfeed. "When they invite women who have just had a baby, it creates an extra layer of logistics, but everyone was really accommodating," she says.
It was an important investment of time, effort and planning, underlining that at the heart of the diversity debate there often lie the nuts and bolts of life and work. Those tiny demands that serve to reinforce existing structures, met not by big, sweeping gestures, but with a focus on the little details and an understanding of the logistics of working life. It is a sad fact that non-diverse juries are one of the industry’s worst culprits for confirmation bias, so making judging accessible to a broader range of people is a mainstream marketing issue.
According to Balarin, women should not be apologetic about their creative output. "We tend to overthink things. You worry about how your idea is coming across from a woman, when really we just need to think of an idea. When it comes to creativity, gender doesn’t play a part," she says.
For Balarin, the journey of combining motherhood with a fulfilling creative career is particularly unusual because her marriage extends beyond the home into a creative partnership.
She recounts how hard it was on her husband professionally when she went on leave: "He had to take on a lot of responsibility, and when I came back he tried to protect me. In a team that wasn’t married, this wouldn’t happen."
The partnership also brings with it a raft of unique challenges. For example, if both are working late on a pitch, who looks after their child? "One of the things that happens now, which didn’t used to happen, is that we don’t work together on everything. Some accounts we split, although we still need to work together a lot," says Balarin.
It is clear that she views their creative method as an ongoing process. "There are times when I am doing more at home or more at work, and vice versa. I wake up three times in the night, and [Hermeti] takes the baby in the morning," she explains.
Harmony reigns at home. "All our arguments are about work," Balarin says. "We save our battles for work, such as ‘Why did you promise that?’ It is all about creative choices, not whose turn it is to do this or that."
Balarin also feels that men are more willing to share the load than women think they are. "A lot of women take it all on themselves and I’m assuming that sometimes that discussion [about who will be flexible] isn’t even had," she adds.
Creativity fast and slow
This is not to say that Balarin found her return to work entirely seamless."Your mind needs to change gear when you come back to work after maternity leave, and the real shift is that difference in pace. It is difficult to readjust," she says.
"The working hours are the biggest challenge. It is not so much about getting the headspace, but the hours are the hardest to shift. When we have a pitch, we are in a particular situation where we are both in the same boat."
To tackle the challenge of the industry’s ever-increasing array of evening events, Balarin splits her commitments with Hermeti so that they do not double up. At first, Hermeti would attend the majority, but now Balarin takes on the lion’s share. Her apparent energy belies the fact that last week she turned up to three events in a row. So is the industry colluding in creating an impossible working culture for parents? "I don’t stop to think about it much, but it would help to have more industry events during the day," she replies.
For Balarin, who began her advertising career with a placement at Mother, the agency is her creative home. However, with the looming threat of Brexit, the role of London as a creative capital faces uncertainty.
"We haven’t started feeling the pressures of Brexit yet – we are a very multicultural agency and it would be such a shame to see so much creative talent under threat," she says. "That talent is why we came here. We are South Americans but we ended up here because we have Italian passports. I hate to think there will be a day when talent can’t get in the door."
All ideas created equal
Like many of the industry’s leading female talent, Balarin is thoughtful about her position as a role model to others. "A few months ago I thought to myself that perhaps I am not doing enough to promote workplace equality," she says. "Then I realised that I am flying the flag just by being here. Working here is one of the best things that I could do. If I were out at events talking about it, that role model wouldn’t be here."
Nonetheless, she has looked at more-active ways to engage the agency. At Mother, parents meet monthly. "We have to think about how we can make the return to work better. Mums don’t want to bring things up, so they bottle it. It isn’t as easy as coming back from a sabbatical. Everyone is worried about leaving at the most exciting part of a meeting," she says. It is also a conversation that extends to fathers. "It’s liberating and reassuring when dads say they have to leave early," she adds.
It is fitting that Balarin, the very definition of a "doer", spent Mother’s Day in the office as she tackled the absurdity of the taboo around breastfeeding by placing a giant inflatable breast on a London rooftop. The #FreeTheFeed campaign ignited an important debate about the stigma associated with public breastfeeding. "It was symbolic that our Mother’s Day was spent here. It was a very evocative thing to do," she says.
Like the very best creative trailblazers, Balarin’s vision of equality is driven by action, not the often empty promise of words. She advises the next generation of talent not to look to the past, "but instead to think instinctively about what you know is best, and do it".
When you don’t have time simply to "admire the problem", rather than endlessly analysing the situation, challenging the way things have always been done comes as naturally as getting dressed in the morning.