Mila Golubov Wears Many Advertising Hats
A conversation with the acclaimed group creative director at 160over90 about creativity, poetry, and more.
At eight years old, most kids want to be wrestlers, influencers, video game streamers, or musicians. Sometimes, they want to be all of those things. Mila Golubov, however, planned to be either an architect or a creative in the advertising industry. “I think I was always interested in advertising because, coming from the Ukraine, brands just hold a different kind of power,” she says happily over Zoom. “Nobody had Coca-Cola, Levi's jeans, or McDonald's. They were these surreal things that you didn't have access to. So I always thought advertising was interesting because of that, because brands were these magical things in my head.”
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If Golubov could go back in time and speak with her eight-year-old self, that little girl would be beaming from ear-to-ear. Currently a group creative director at 160over90, Golubov has made award-winning creative ideas for brands like Burger King, Dr. Pepper, and Maybelline. A lifelong fan of writing, she’s studied playwriting, screenwriting, and poetry — competing in slam competitions, devising TikTok musicals, and much more.
Here’s Golubov on her favorite projects she’s worked on, being a hybrid creative with experience in multiple facets of advertising, and working on personal film projects to express herself outside of her creative work.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
I read that you're a playwright and you're very into poetry. How did you get into those?
I've been writing my entire life. I used to make little books when I was a kid and I read everything. My favorite book growing up was Matilda because I'm like, "She's like me. She wants to just read every book in the library.” I did spoken word for a long time and then I decided I didn't want to be on stage — I just wanted to be in the background. That led me to playwriting. I also do screenwriting. Anything that involves writing just makes me happy.
Advertising is a creative field that feels like a next step that a playwright or poet would get into. What’s your story for getting into the industry? Did it evolve out of those earlier interests?
Well, it's funny because I found a little notebook that I had when I was a kid, and when I was eight years old, I wrote on one of its pages, "I want to be an architect or an ad person when I grow up.” I think I was always interested in advertising because, coming from the Ukraine, brands just hold a different kind of power. Nobody had Coca-Cola, Levi's jeans, or McDonald's. They were these surreal things that you didn't have access to. So I always thought advertising was interesting because of that, because brands were these magical things in my head.
But I think as far as writing, I had two courses I could go down. I got into Tisch for playwriting and screenwriting and I got into Syracuse for advertising, and my immigrant parents said, "Go make some money." So that was the deciding factor. I still do it all on the side and I think it comes through in your work.
As a writer (like I am), you don't want to write ads, you want to write poetry. You want to write something that sounds like a story. You want to write something that's meaningful and you can tell when people are writers versus just advertising people. You hear their voice. It doesn't feel like an ad.
Throughout your career, you’ve climbed the creative ladder. First starting as a copywriter before progressing to senior copywriter, associate creative director, and so forth. Specifically about the time period you spent as a copywriter and senior copywriter, what were some of the important lessons you learned that helped propel your creative growth?
I think that the first phase of my career was about learning how to work fast and be nimble and not be afraid of a blank page. Just write it down, and it'll be shitty half the time and it'll be good some of the time. But I think a lot of young writers fear the page. They don't want to write the wrong thing, but sometimes the wrong thing is the right thing.
The first year or two of your career is for finding your voice and learning how to flex it. After that, it's about learning everything that's not about being a creative such as figuring out how to be part-strategist, thinking like an account director, understanding producers, and so forth. You become this hybrid personality that can guide others.
At what point in your career did you start to think, “Hey, I’m actually good at this?” Is it something you come into the industry with or you develop over time?
I think there's natural talent for people, but I think that a lot of creatives' careers are what opportunities they end up falling into. So I don't think it's like, "Oh, I am good at this and I'm not good at this." I think you get faster. You get more adept. You get more flexible and learn more new skills, but I think that the talent is always there or not for people and then it's whether you take advantage of opportunities.
Speaking of being good at this — let’s talk about the amount of awards you’ve won. These are the industry’s way of validating spectacular talent, but I want to ask you about how you feel about them. What do awards do for your portfolio and career?
I'm not that much about awards. I think that it helps. Some people are very attracted to them. When they see it in your portfolio, no one will ignore it. But I think that some of winning awards is about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right client. At this point in my career, I'd rather do work that means something to someone or fixes something to make it better.
How many times in your career have you had that “right” client? The one that’s adventurous and ready to make something special?
I think that every once in a while, you get a client where you're lucky, where they want the awards too. You work on an account like Burger King, they're going to want awards. They are as hungry as the teams that work under them and they push for the work and they make it happen. That said, the client that wants awards also works agencies to the bone a lot of the time and wants them to be “always on” with proactive ideas. It's a balancing act because there are clients that are great for your book but not for your work-life balance. It depends on the person, but most of the time, clients aren't that great to start with and you build trust with them. You get all the small things until they let you do more big things.
What would you say are some of the ideas or projects that have defined your career so far?
My success has been built on the fact that I have become so hybrid over my career. I learned social before social was a thing and then I started to win some awards and get recognition in it. Then, I moved to PR before creatives were doing it and I started to get more recognition. But the projects that mean the most to me in my portfolio are, simply, ideas that people cared about — like the rainbow-wrapped whopper for Burger King, or announcing the return of the company’s chicken fries on social media. made in support of Pride or promoting Burger King’s chicken fries. These are rewarding because you didn’t pay people to react to them. People responded because it meant something to them.
Within advertising, it feels like traditional backgrounds and portfolios often climb to the top. That’s why it’s exciting to see your range of experiences that you talked about earlier. How do you think that working in so many creative fields impacts your approach to creativity?
Where I'm at now is a hybrid of all those things in one agency, so I think that it just made me be able to work on anything. Back when I freelanced for a while, I could freelance on anything. And I think it just makes you that kind of Swiss army knife that can plug and play and teach others. Because I've touched all these categories that I have, I now teach other people how to flex. And when you can do that, they’ll put you on everything in the building.
Totally agree. Working freelance is awesome for the freedom that it brings. You’re someone with much more experience in that side of the business, so I wanted to ask you about your experience as a freelancer. How’s that been different for you when you’re accustomed to working in different creative full-time roles?
I think freelance is just the fun part, and I think obviously as you move up the ladder, there's less and less of that fun part. For me, doing the work will always be the fun part. I know a lot of people want to move up the ladder but I'll say stay in ACD forever if you want to have fun, because then you can push the work but do the work. I think that in freelance, you're kind of freed from the shackles. You're usually asked for bolder ideas because you're brought in to help or win a pitch.
When you work at an agency, as you move up in the ranks, you're balancing the politics of the place. You're balancing pushing the client while keeping the client. You're balancing financial realities. So I think once you hit ACD and above, half your job is going to be creative once you're in-house, and the other half is all these management things that are important and will keep your teams protected and will help push the work, but they're not as fun.
What would you say is most rewarding about your leadership role in advertising today?
It’s really exciting for me once young writers become comfortable with their voice and put their real selves on the page instead of trying to write something for other people. You see it happening and you see that when they read their manifesto or other piece of writing, it's so much better, authentic , and real.
It takes a while for people to come to that, but it's exciting to see that growth. I love watching the growth of juniors to mid-levels as they present more and become confident in front of clients. For me, it's been particularly rewarding to see female creatives on that path, because I think a lot of female creatives will relegate themselves to be workhorses so they don't get as many opportunities or shine from the get-go. Pushing them out there so that they will take those opportunities for themselves and then seeing them thrive is really exciting.
You’re currently a group creative director at 160over90. As you climb higher on the agency leadership ladder, what about your role as a creative has changed? Are you growing away from the ideas or becoming more closely involved?:
I personally am never far from the creative because I would be miserable if I was. I don't think I'll ever change. I don't want to work in a place where I do have to change that to be honest, because that's the reason I chose this career. I didn't choose this career to be an account manager. That said, as a GCD, you do have to act like an account manager and a strategist and a producer. You have to start harnessing your connections to make things happen when they can't happen. You have to do a lot of politicking behind the scenes to push for your teams, and you have to think more strategically about the role of creative in the agency as a whole and not just your team project. Always important but not always fun.
What are you looking forward to working on and accomplishing this year?
My agency has a lot of exciting projects down the pipeline but I think what I’m ready for, after having two kids and taking a little personal hiatus from personal projects for a while, is to return to my personal projects. I have a short film that's going into editing. I have a long film that I just finished. I have some TikTok theater stuff I'm trying to work on, so that stuff is more exciting for me because I think that when you define your creativity by being in this industry, you're likely to be disappointed. And I think that personal projects keep the passion there and always having something that you're working on on the side makes you a better creative at work.
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