Skip to content

You Will Never…Overcome Culture Barriers

The ICA’s new series, You Will Never, is designed to offer encouragement and inspiration in the face of criticism or adversity in or out of the workplace. In the latest article, Rodrigo Coelho, VP, strategy, Momentum Worldwide, talks about how he discovered a new superpower to overcome language and cultural barriers.

Some 30 months ago I arrived in Canada from Brazil, after securing a new role at Momentum Worldwide that involved building its strategy team in Toronto. I’ll talk here about the culture and language challenges I faced initially, and how I discovered that vulnerability was my main super power in overcoming any barriers that were in my way.

I’ve been at Momentum for almost 12 years and have travelled all over the world, including leading sports sponsorships in London for the 2012 Olympics before returning to Brazil to apply what I’d learned to the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics. After that, I spent two months in Japan running client workshops for Sony and Mastercard ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, where I gained more global perspective and understanding.

Back in Brazil I learned that Momentum was opening up a strategy and creative department in Canada. I applied for the role leading this and they were crazy enough to hire me. I had a vision of how to build the department, and I knew it couldn’t work to just replicate what we did in Brazil.

There were so many obstacles to overcome. One was cultural because, from a strategy perspective, everyday you use and exercise your intuition when it comes to culture. That pushed me far away from my comfort zone because I didn’t have that intuition.

That’s when I learned that vulnerability was my superpower. Because I was new to Canada, I embraced my vulnerability. I realized that I didn’t need to pretend that I knew something. I just admitted I didn’t know and then people jumped in to help and were happy to answer my questions. I had sessions with different people from the agency to talk about politics, music and the arts. I also explored the most pressing human challenges and issues here, for example to gain an understanding of the complex Indigenous conversation.

After all this, my advice to any one experiencing faced with barriers or difficulties is always to recognize that vulnerability is your superpower. Don’t try to be right but try to ask the right questions because you’re better off having the right answers.

And don’t fall in love with the words that you write. For me this was a personal struggle. I was writing things and then other people were coming in and changing them. But then I realised if you’re just open to it then it makes the work itself better. I don’t need to fall in love with the words that I’m saying or writing I just need to be able to nail what I want to express.

This extended to the language itself because, although I had spoken English from time to time when I’d worked in other countries, it was still a barrier. Ahead of client presentations I needed to rehearse everything, writing every word I was going to say. And then, in the meetings, if the client asked a question, I was blank, I couldn’t react immediately because I had to think in English before I responded. It was very hard in the beginning, I was getting home exhausted after putting so much energy into communicating. The positive aspect of this situation was that everyone was so welcoming and eager to help. The high level of co-operation and welcoming someone from a different culture made everything much easier.

On top of recognizing and using my vulnerability, I also immersed myself in the language by watching and listening to shows, or podcasts, reading articles, that used different ways of expressing yourself. One show I watched again and again was Suits, because it’s all about argument, presentation, being powerful with your words. I took notes and started to build a routine to learn more of the language. And I read more about the history and culture of the country, it was a case of full-on learning.

But I had another strategy to address these challenges – and this could be useful to anyone looking to express strategic or creative ideas. The meetings I really had trouble with were the ones about creative briefs because I needed to be very purposeful about what I wanted to express. My way of doing this was to go beyond words – I used videos, images, music, and even sampling. That worked because, as humans, we are multi-sensory beings; we listen to people beyond our ears. Our minds are only half paying attention because we’re half thinking about what to ask next, or what to understand from the conversation. So immersing people in what you’re trying to express takes that multi-sensory experience.

I’d say that’s much harder in a virtual situation but I like to have visuals on the wall, something to write on live. I still find ways to include references and visuals just by plugging things into the chat, showing video, using background sounds to articulate what I want to say. Virtual platforms are less than ideal for inspiration and collaboration, it’s a little transactional and flat, because when you’re in a room you can talk over each other a little, and that chaos pushes us to creativity, but it’s still worth trying the multi-sensory approach.

I’ve realised recently that strategists don’t really need to come up with the final insight, the idea that everyone will follow. That should be an output from collaboration, not from a single person. Just by shifting this perception, you start to have a conversation and people will help you build the exact words to express the big idea.

On the road ahead, as we grow the team, I want to be a facilitator for growth and have realized that keeping people motivated needs inspiration from outside the screen, from experiencing things in the real world. So, as we come back into the office, this is something that I really want to keep pushing – connection with the real world.

And diversity is a big point because in my team we have Brazilian, Chinese, and French people, so we communicate naturally, but differently. That’s such a good thing, diversity is so important because when you add the blocks together you end up with something completely new and exciting.

You will never overcome language and cultural barriers…Rodrigo embraced his vulnerability, immersed himself in Canadian cultural and learned to “kill his darlings.” He shifted viewpoint and is creating a team where a diversity of perspectives is welcomed and encouraged.  

Momentum WW is a member of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

Marketing Insights

See all Ideas & Insights