Thiago De Moraes - on writing children’s books and finding what you care about

Thiago de Moraes was famous at the last advertising agency he worked at for two things. 

He was one of the kindest members of the senior team and, despite being Brazilian, he could talk for England. Five years on, it appears nothing has changed. He’s just as charming, and just as loquacious. 

But in fact, something has changed. 

Thiago has switched his corner office for a shed, his multinational clients for children’s books, and instead of managing a huge team he now works fully by himself. He’s gone from being a creative partner in the biggest advertising agency in the UK, to writing and illustrating his own children’s books full time. 

His latest book is Myth Atlas. It’s a beautiful and magical exploration of the myths and legends of the world. It was published in September 2018 and sold out by christmas. It’s now available in 16 or 17 countries and available to buy in at least twenty countries. 

We talk about how to get published, how to find a job you love and why you should start on the side. 

“I think it was Neil Gaiman that said art is a verb not a noun”, he says drinking a sip of a cappuccino and wearing a bright sweater with ‘Yosemite’ written in rainbow colours, “it’s not what you’re doing, but the fact that you’re doing it that matters.” 

“When I left university, I was working as a graphic designer. I liked typography, so I worked for magazines and newspapers, and I started getting paid to do it at 16. And then, later, I became creative director. My thing was always making stuff. I never stopped designing my own ads, and I always felt that everything else was a distraction”. 

Part of Thiago’s approachability comes from the fact that he believes that everyone can be creative. Unlike the hierarchical nature of some senior creative execs, he believes that good ideas come from anywhere. 

“A big problem with job titles that involve “creative” is that you’re assuming that only those people will have creative initiative. But it’s how you approach stuff, it’s not necessarily what you’re producing. You can do something in a very banal way - but still produce illustrations. Or you can do something in a very creative way that is not traditionally considered “art”. 

Finding work that aligns with you

Thiago has a common sense approach to work, which recognises how stratified the corporate system is. “You have to find a job where you don’t feel like you’re doing them a favour, and they don’t feel like they’re doing you a favour by employing you. But even if you get there you’re never going to be able to fulfil all your personal ambitions and desires in any job that has been created by somebody else for a slightly generic person.”

“You can’t be reduced to that. And if you work for an industry that asks for 10-12 hours a day, and a lot of what you do is not driven by you, it becomes more frustrating. Especially when you’re very young, it feels like they’re finding something to fill your time. After all, if you were irreplaceable, the place wouldn’t work. They have to rely on the machine.”

In advertising, even at the highest rungs, he found the repetition difficult after some time. “The amount of duplication and compartmentalisation means I did the same task maybe 40 times. It’s a matter of getting to know which things you’ll willingly endure.”

He went down to two days a week, before contracting before going more or less full time on writing children’s books.  He shows me his latest book, Myth Atlas,  an exploration of the myths and legends of the world, for children - and points at the tiny details on the figures on the page. There is a map of the dynasty in China.  He’s sketched it, drawn it in ink, scanned it, then painted it. and his done this scape eight times. 

“It’s really good fun to research, it’s really good fun to imagine, it’s really good fun to draw. but then I have to paint 60 mini characters, and by the time I get to the 40th one I’m like ‘jeez, I kind of know what they look like’ I get tired of it!

“Now, I get to make things and other people purchase them. That’s brilliant. But there are still bits where I say ‘oh god I can’t believe I have to do this today’ - some bits are very mechanic.”

“It’s a bit like having a kid. They might poo themselves, or have a tantrum, you’re still going to have to deal with it - it’s your kid. Work’s always going to have unpleasant difficult moments. If you stop looking at them like that, they become less hard”

How to find something you want to do 

Finding a ‘passion’ or something you care about can be difficult, but Thiago offers some simple but profound wisdom: “It needs to be relevant to at least someone else”.

“The difficult thing is finding out how to tune your abilities and your interests, so that it’s valid for people other than you. Otherwise it just becomes a vanity project.”

He doesn’t discriminate on what makes meaningful work, it doesn’t have to be drawing, painting or singing - “it can be building cabinets, it can be climbing. That’s the thing that gives a friend of mine happiness. And he’s now started helping out with tourists - and working for this company a few days a year.”

“Find something that gives you pleasure and do it for a little time every day. Everyone’s different, but I always found more pleasure doing stuff than consuming stuff - I like watching TV but there’s only so much I can do that.

At AMV BBDO, when he was creative partner, he was running big multinational campaigns, but would still make his own press ads. “I took a week off and did some Guinness rugby ads and painted them all myself. I wasn’t particularly concerned with what I was making, I just wanted to make some stuff. It was an outlet.”

He had done very well formally in advertising and had a really good title in a very good agency, but still lacked a sense of professional fulfilment. “I had thought it was very hard to do kids books and I wouldn’t be able to do that for a living. But the reality is people do, there are books authors around. And the reality is maybe you do something on the side too. Lots of skills are transferrable.”

“The thing that moved me over was the enthusiasm of doing it while I started doing it. When I did it I was like ‘oh this is good’: I could do it, it wasn’t a total disaster. I thought ‘this is on me to try to find a way to make this work from a practical financial view’. It might be doing another job at the same time, or spending less money on other stuff. My red line was that it couldn’t affect my family or kids.”

Why you should start on the side (and not worry too much)

Thiago started by going down to three days a week in advertising, freeing up some time to think about his book.

“I think what helped the most was not doing a sudden change. There was a point where I just thought ‘man this isn’t going to work’ I’d been trying to sell my new books for ages, and nobody was interested, and I thought “maybe this just isn’t for me”.

“If I had just stopped one day, and gone full time to working in my shed and spent three years trying to sell books no-one wanted to buy by myself, I would have been very miserable and I would have gone back to advertising straight away.”

You don’t have to hate a job, to love a side project. 

“I didn’t neglect what I was doing” Thiago states frankly, “It wasn’t dissatisfaction with advertising, it was more satisfaction with writing and illustrating.

It was more that I would leave the office broken, then work on my book until 2am and go to bed actually feeling really energised. I thought to myself why does this make me feel like this, and something else makes me feel so tired? 

Why side projects don’t need to be permanent 

One barrier that seems to stop people progressing side projects is the sense that they have to really commit to them, but Thiago disagrees. “Maybe you don’t have to do them for the rest of your life. There’s the sense of “oh I’ve invested so much time in it, but maybe you do it for a few years and then go and do something else. Maybe you do yoga for a few years, and then you get bored and do spinning, and then boxing. It doesn’t really matter.”

“I think sometimes you can be quite utilitarian about it. Sometimes you’re doing something out of conviction but sometimes you need a release.”

“There is this kind of flip when it goes from self betterment to entrepreneurship.  That happens a lot these days because you have so many tools to make stuff and put things out in the world.  It’s much easier to start a business or a movement.”

“It’s a combination of knowing enough what’s ahead so that you know how to prepare for it, but not worrying about it so much that you stop getting it done. You’re never gonna know everything, and a lot of stuff - the unknown problems - that sorts itself out before you get there. 

“There’s loads of examples of people who have done extraordinary things because they feel motivated”

I return home and buy his book that week. It arrives soon after, a delight of colours, detail and imagination. I had agreed with myself I’d give it as a gift to a friend’s child, but it evokes so much inspiration that I am already planning to buy my own copy. It’s certainly evidence that the motivated really can create extraordinary things. 

Thiago’s books can be found here