Where some live their lives continuously wishing they’d done things differently, Aisling Penco has but a single regret. The Leo Burnett Toronto copywriter rues the day she traded her Yugioh cards - giving away two fully working decks - because she was moving from Trinidad and Tobago to Toronto. “I thought that it wouldn’t be cool,” she says. “But, I joined the anime club as soon as I started school in Canada…hopefully that balances out my anime street-cred.”
This inclination to enjoy life sans regret has always served Aisling well. It’s also been something that her experience in the advertising industry has reinforced. In fact, one of the most memorable early lessons she received was being told the importance of self-belief and the need to “keep showing up for yourself.” But even from a young age, Aisling always knew her passions and fervently pursued them, albeit usually in a quiet fashion.
“My passion was escapism: swimming, drawing a lot and writing my original cringe comic book,” she says. “I was a quiet, queer kid in a very Catholic upbringing in Trinidad. I was always scribbling or drawing into my notebook and not into my textbook at all (sorry mom).”
Despite Aisling’s creative inclination, she never had an overarching plan to one day find work as a copywriter. As she puts it, “There was no inkling that I would be doing anything in this field because I didn’t know it existed.”
That changed when Aisling opted to attend university. Although she started with visual arts, she moved into general advertising, where she was both shocked to learn that it wasn’t a linear experience, and also discovered the existence of copywriting.
“I went into advertising thinking I would want to be an art director, but only knew traditional art, paint, charcoal, and a little photography,” she says. “I had no idea about the Adobe suite. I went to a free portfolio review, and someone told me my writing wasn’t half bad. So, I cried that night, gave up on my art director dream and moved on because I just wanted to start making and creating. Then I enrolled in a copywriting course. I learnt how to accept criticism: the good, the bad, the weird. My biggest lesson, that I accidentally taught myself, was to go with the flow.”
In Aisling’s case, ‘going with the flow’ meant making the far more deliberate move of getting into the industry. Following the completion of her copywriting course, she attended a portfolio night where alumni would check out the class’ books and, if impressed, potentially offer opportunities for professional work. “It felt like that business card scene in American Psycho mixed with a school dance,” Aisling adds. “Students would stand up against the wall as we watched industry professionals ponder if they would want to take your business card back to their agency. Hopefully you got an email and then from there an interview. I was lucky and I did!”
It was around this time when Aisling worked on her very first professional project - an advertising campaign for the Vancouver Aquarium. Taking several different forms including a billboard ad and a radio spot, she says that it was a really cool experience and that she loved watching people react to it. However, the piece which really changed Aisling’s career came shortly after she started working at Leo Burnett Toronto. At the time, Metrolinx was doing heavy construction in the city, which gave Aisling the chance to try out a ‘back pocket’ idea.
“Construction is awkward, Metrolinx was doing a lot of it and everyone knows what it’s like to go through an awkward phase: braces, acne, weird peach-fuzz,” she says. “I always wanted to work with teens in some capacity and this ended up being the perfect pairing for that. The outtakes were hilarious and some so awkward it borderlines cringe. You really see yourself in these moments and it makes you relate to a brand that you might have hated before.
The campaign was a success. According to Aisling, a lot of people in the industry loved it, and it would go on to win several awards, including a Silver from the Advertising and Design Club of Canada and a Bronze from the Marketing Awards.
Yet despite her achievements and the willingness to live regret-free, Aisling admits that she doesn’t always find it easy to work. “I have imposter syndrome,” she says. “[I feel like] I’m not good enough. I’m not fast enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not whatever enough. I’m definitely not cool enough for this feature.” It’s at times like these when it becomes crucial for Aisling to keep showing up for herself - taking heed of that all-important first lesson.
Aisling adds that the support of her partner also helps her get through difficult, doubt-filled periods. “She believes in me when I don’t or when other people don’t. She’s an honest critic and doesn’t laugh at all my jokes. It really helps to have someone in your corner at all times.”
But, while Aisling may sometimes struggle with showing up for herself, she never struggles when it comes to showing up for others. Specifically, she’s not afraid to speak out about what the industry could be doing better. “Even though we are keen to solve a lot of problems, I think advertising professionals and marketing professionals need to step back and realise what can be solved through the platform that they have,” Aisling says. “We will never solve racism with a Pepsi can
Additionally, Aisling wants to see greater gender diversity within the business. “We should have more women in advertising, more people of colour, more diverse thoughts and experiences. I’ve had maybe three female creative directors? I know we’re getting there, but I’d like more!”
With that said, Aisling adds that the industry’s ability to adapt is something she finds exciting. She’s passionate about advertising’s consistent drive to find life's solutions and solve problems - whether they work out or not. As she says, “I just love that we keep trying. We throw more ideas on the wall and we push ourselves to achieve what others haven’t.”
In Aisling’s case, this appreciation of adaptability proved useful when she was working on the ‘Gender Creative Kids - Genderless Poster’ campaign. Although the team had originally intended to use Troxler’s fading technique (an optical illusion that happens when someone fixates on a particular focus point) which would showcase blue and pink (colours often associated with gender stereotypes) fading into the background, the effect on the screen was totally different from the printed out posters, meaning the experience was being lost.
The only solution was to adapt the plan. Although the final product wasn’t the result of the first approach taken by the creative team, through hard work and some long nights of tinkering, an award-winning
piece was created nonetheless. “We printed at least 50 different posters, hung them up in the office and had people react to them sort of like the optometrist,” she adds. “Eventually we found the right balance which gave us some amazing results.”
And while the accolades are nice, it’s seeing hard work pay off that Aisling says is her favourite part of the job. “I like the rush of having to find that idea. I just want people to smile and maybe think a little. Good ideas are focused on life and life is short. An ancient philosopher once said ‘Live, Laugh, Love’, right?”