AbelsonTaylor’s Tarah Sperando talks brands, trends and creative challenges

Tarah Sperando
Tarah Sperando

Tarah Sperando joined AbelsonTaylor in 2011, shortly after earning a Bachelor of Arts in marketing communications from Chicago’s Columbia College.

She started her career as a traditional copywriter before expanding into content strategy and finding her niche where creativity and strategy meet. Her work has been recognized with several professional awards, including PM360 Greatest Creators and Pharma Choice awards.  

Tarah recently received a promotion at AbelsonTaylor from content strategist and copy supervisor to associate creative director.

Reel Chicago had an opportunity to get to know Tarah in this exclusive interview:

How did you get started in advertising?
I once read that terrible childhoods make great writers. Not that my childhood was terrible – my family had its dysfunctions, but I fanned the flames. I would not have been considered a well-behaved kid. I ran away, got banned from field trips, barely graduated high school. But I always wrote. Poetry, lyrics, journaling. My diaries date back to fourth grade. A mix of playground gossip and Genesis lyrics. In sixth grade, I created a school newspaper no one wanted. I released one edition. It had a heavy focus on Hard Candy nail polish.

What drew you to pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising?
I went to Columbia College Chicago. Part of what makes the school so great (and so worth the student debt) is the portfolio show that’s a requirement to graduate. The school invites all agencies in the city to come view student work. I chatted with a few creative directors at AT, and three days after graduation, I had my first interview. I’ll be honest, I initially wanted the same thing every young creative wants—to write the next “Just Do It.” But during my last semester at school, I had a very sick sister. And I learned just how important it is to educate, support, and empower patients. So much responsibility and decision-making is placed on patients and caregivers. Helping them has outweighed any satisfaction I could’ve ever received from a shoe ad. This is my true passion

Walk us through how you would develop a brand for a new product.
Developing a brand for a new product must start with a strategic insight. How is this product different? What need is it fulfilling? Why will people care? How can the brand be unique and memorable? Can we do more than sell a product? Can we connect on an emotional level with our user? AT has an amazing strategy department to help guide our work. I don’t believe in creative for creative’s sake. It needs to fulfill on the strategy. Creative that doesn’t fulfill on a strategy is just pretty bullshit.

And if there’s truly nothing special about the product, I harken back to something Dale Taylor (AT’s founder and CEO) once told me in passing: You don’t need to be the only one who has it, you just need to be the only one who says it. Meaning, if an orange juice says it has 8 grams of calcium – the same as milk and the amount needed to meet your daily requirement – you might think, great, I need calcium, I’m lactose intolerant, this is the OJ for me. But most fortified OJ brands have that much calcium. They just forgot to mention it.

What has been your biggest creative challenge?
My biggest creative challenge has probably come in the transition from writer to manager. Pulling the creative I want out of other people. Did you know that creative directors are untrained psychologists? How does that make you feel? Really though, it can be challenging to pull your vision out of other people and walk the line of mentor versus executor. I feel like this is an ongoing education for me. Every employee is different and needs different mentorship. What I try to do consistently is provide clear expectations, a clear rationale for my edits, and involve employees in as many brainstorms and working sessions as possible. Group working sessions are especially important in this WFH age. I’m leading by example, hoping for the best, and continuously focused on improvement.

What are your all-time favorite brands and why?
L’Oréal mascara for no other reason than my eyelashes have looked like a lash blast butterfly since high school. She’s a keeper. Vanity aside, the brands I truly love have a common theme – how they care for their customers and their community. Thinx and Parade said don’t return the bras and underwear you don’t like – give them to homeless shelters – we’ll happily refund you. My running shoes are made from recycled plastic and returns are donated to charity. And my laundry detergent, Earth Breeze, comes in a biodegradable envelop – it’s completely carbon neutral, free from animal cruelty, and gives 1% of its profits to nonprofits. That and carrying a sheet of paper up and down the back of your four-story walk-up is a hell of a lot easier than a sticky tub of detergent.  

Whether its genuine or contrived, these companies get it. When price is no longer the only deciding factor, we want more. A brand that embraces the values I’d like to be known for. That’s what buys my love and loyalty. That and good lashes.

How do you develop a solid understanding of an established brand?
The early days of research are such a delight. You feel like a college kid, cramming information at warp speed. And there’s still a lot of googling to dumb down the information provided. At AT, all things start with a solid strategy, planning, and clinical download. I spent a few years in ExD and learned the value of a thorough content audit, whether or not your end goal is a digital tactic. Through a content audit, you’ll compare the messaging, the hierarchy, clarity, tone, and organization of a brand with its competitors. It’s slow and methodical but you come out with a clear vision of where your brand stands, and what it lacks.

How do you keep up to date with the latest creative trends and tech?
When it comes to staying on top of tech and trends, it’s hard to fake it. You just have to slap on your mom jeans, turn on Megan the Stallion, and get bussin’ on TikTok. (Am I using that word right? I don’t think I am.) The point is, you have to try to keep up and make an honest effort to stay invested in your career and what’s considered ‘cool.’ Read the articles, judge the award shows, download the apps. I used to use my commute as research time. Now I’ll search for podcasts on trends, medical breakthroughs, or disease states to pump up my power walks. It’s important to be honest with yourself. If you’re not someone who is going to stay current in your free time, commit to things that will force your hand. One of the reasons I seek out new challenges, whether it’s a new business opportunity at AT, or leading a digital trends lunch-and-learn, is to ensure I continue to grow, even when I don’t feel like it.  

What do you do creatively in your own time?
I write poetry, and paint, and cook. I rewrite the same chapters of a children’s book again and again hoping one day I’ll be satisfied enough to move forward. I’ve submitted short stories to various podcasts, for the sole purpose of wanting a creative challenge outside of work. If you’re a creative person, creativity works its way into all your hobbies. I love cooking. A dash there, a pinch here, trusting your senses. Unsurprisingly, I am a terrible baker (all that precision!). I love working out, creating customized exercise plans for myself and my friends. And when I’m drained, I look toward nature to refresh. Beautiful colors, a crunch beneath my feet; a good hike never fails to put me in the creative head space.

How influenced are you by current trends?
Current trends seem most important when executing actual tactics. It’s hard to do digital, social, and experiential well without a deep understanding of what is trending around you. But there is also so much about quality work that doesn’t depend on trends at all. A good user experience will always overrule a trendy one. A good campaign is transcendent, not topical. Real marketing solutions are rarely based on trends. So I think there’s a balancing act that occurs, where quality considers trends to create a successful brand.

How do you handle analytics and reporting?
We have an analytics team at AT that helps us understand what is working and what’s not. It ensures strategy, UX, and creative have solid rationales for the decisions they need to make when creating a new tactic. It’s one of the few aspects of our work that is not subjective, something I can really appreciate in a sea of opinions. Bringing analytic reports into creative strategy and brand planning helps us make drivers stronger and content more valuable to the end user.

Should design ever overrule data? Why?
Assuming the most important takeaway is an understanding of the data—no I don’t think design should ever overrule. A design should support the data story, help make it clear and digestible. A nice design is worthless if the key takeaway is missed. I feel the same way about design that disserves the story as I do a beautiful sentence that’s not grounded in strategy – what’s the point?

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