Marcela Tabares, SVP, Strategic Insights, Revenue at A+E Networks, studied Political Science at NYU with noble ambitions of making the world a better place. She started her journey working at the Americas Society / Council of the Americas, which promotes understanding of the economic, political and social issues confronting the Americas. “I was fascinated by the work in driving awareness of the cultural heritage of Latin America, but I could barely survive in NYC working in the non-profit sector. So with hopes of getting into journalism, I eyed media as a viable stepping stone and landed a job at Nielsen as an administrative assistant,” she explained.
It was there that she got hooked on research and has (rarely) looked back. She worked her way up to Research Supervisor before moving to the agency world, making stops at OMD and Mediavest, then shifting to publisher-side, leading the sales research efforts at MTV and eventually to A+E Networks. While sales research may seem like a significant departure from her early ambitions, there are common and constant values that underpin her career: a curiosity to understand human behavior and cultural influence, and the art of storytelling.
Her current job at A+E applies these passions through qualitative and quantitative research precepts that produce compelling insights for both sales and clients. “The role of research has changed tremendously since I first started,” she noted. “At a recent dinner with a friend, we laughed recalling that we literally (and almost comically) sat in a dark, back corner office where we were isolated from the general population (though sometimes that worked to our benefit, especially as twenty-somethings). We went from working in the background to being a strategic voice at the table, but even more interestingly, the essence of the work itself is far more dynamic, creative and challenging. That’s been the most exciting part!” she added.
Charlene Weisler: Tell me about the work you do at A+E.
Marcela Tabares: My team works directly with the sales and revenue management teams to help drive the sales effort. It’s really interesting work because we have to flex between left and right side thinking as we blend analytical rigor with creative storytelling. We play with a wide range of research techniques, methodologies and datasets, in a problem solving and insight based approach.
Our work falls into three key buckets – 1. Advertising effectiveness to understand how partnerships are delivering against client KPI’s and to gain insight on how to enhance experiences for future efforts. 2. Data driven decision making where we help navigate business conversations regarding data implementation and strategy. We work with client on advanced targeting solutions, integrating first and third party datasets for precision-based optimizations. 3. Cultural and human insights studies, which is some of my favorite work. Over the past 18 months, we’ve been conducting some fascinating research on gender identity, exploring how womanhood and masculinity have evolved and translating the insights for content creators and advertisers. We’re about to come out of field with the second phase of the womanhood study in which we applied anthropological methods to understand how women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds perceive gender representation in advertising. It was really eye-opening to hear their experiences and aspirations; I’m excited to use the insights to advance the conversation around how young girls and women should be portrayed. In fact, we’ve shared our work with the ANA’s #SeeHer committee members and it was very resonant as it closely aligns their mission and goals.
Charlene Weisler: How did it feel to move to an agency from a supplier?
Marcela Tabares: It was like a baptism by fire! I was thrown into all sorts of projects that were way above my level of experience at the time. At first, I was terrified of failure but that fear put a fire in my belly and really pushed me. I learned invaluable lessons and I’d say it was probably the most formative experience I’ve had – I realized my untapped potential, it thickened my skin, built my confidence and taught me how to take challenges head on. An example that comes to mind is when the company sent me to Colombia to lead a regional workshop on strategic planning, in Spanish. I was only a Sr. Analyst and I hardly even understood strategic planning in English! It was a bit terrifying but an absolutely amazing opportunity. I want to pass that forward to others. I believe empowerment is critical for learning and growing - give people opportunity, get out of their way and allow them to stumble…I think too much guidance can be limiting.
Charlene Weisler: Where do you see the role of research going 3-5 years from now?
Marcela Tabares: Technology will continue to advance, data will get bigger and systems and processes will become more sophisticated. So while there will continue to be demand for data science, I also see increased importance in bridging the two divisions of the research role in the future - of hard data driven analytics and the cultural, human insights from qualitative research. We need to connect the Art and Science of research to harness its fullest power and this takes an innate curiosity, creativity, and constant critical thinking to illuminate meaning from data big AND small; it’s an important skill to be able to synthesize stories that engage the organization and offer meaningful insights for the marketplace. That’s my focus with my team – building the bridge and connecting the dots through great storytelling.
Charlene Weisler: What is your outlook on mentorship?
Marcela Tabares: I think of mentoring as “always on” and it often happens in unplanned, unexpected ways. From my experience, it has worked best organically and unstructured. Working with my team, I am mindful of providing honest feedback, especially in areas that they need to develop…it’s not always the most popular approach but I believe it will be productive in the long run. I also believe in leading by example and stretching people beyond their comfort zone. Some humility also goes a long way - I have no problem admitting that I don’t have all the answers and it’s often more fun figuring it out together. I was never a part of a formal mentorship program until recently. This year I was a mentor through NAMIC and I think I learned just as much from my mentee and am looking forward to continuing the relationship.
Over the last year, I’ve been a part of an internal women’s leadership group, whi
ch has been a really empowering experience (it’s the closest I’ve ever been to having mentors.) I’ve developed relationships with a group of colleagues who I can turn to for leadership advice; they’re there to listen and give me clarity on how to handle tough situations. Most of us are in similar leadership and family/lifestage situations, so I feel very lucky to have this resource of incredibly smart women who are empathetic and supportive.
Charlene Weisler: How do you achieve work/life balance?
Marcela Tabares: I have two young boys so my philosophy these days is “Let it go”. I learn how to let go of self-prescribed expectations and the “should do’s”. The reality is that I can’t do it all so I need to be accepting and kind with myself, while embracing the chaos Every day is a dance with prioritizing life’s demands. And you can’t do it alone so it’s really important to have a strong support system at home and at work. My husband cooks, I clean (he gets the creative end of that deal) and we juggle the rest. At work, I have a great team and a boss that’s flexible and understanding. It gets kinda crazy at times so I need some stillness and something to ground me; I turn to yoga, mindfulness and spiritual practice (and a glass of wine). Our motto at home is “it never works out as planned, but it always works out”. It makes life more entertaining.
Charlene Weisler: Please give me some predictions about the state of media in the next couple of years.
Marcela Tabares: We continue apace with technological developments that accelerate personalization, targeting capabilities, accountability metrics, and so on. More data, more sophistication that will bring greater value to the ecosystem and (hopefully) mitigate confusion. Metrics have been messy and I think some of the chaos and chest-pounding will settle and we’ll get closer to a consensus on trading metrics - we might even reach a standardized cross-platform currency. It’s been a complicated time for folks on all sides of the table and I think more dynamic relationships with advertisers will unfold; we will see greater collaboration in bringing their stories to life through new creative formats and context will matter even more. Overall, I think it will be a more vibrant environment. This is a bit self-serving, but I’d say greater value on human insights that link data to creativity and great storytelling.
This article first appeared in www.MediaBizBloggers.com