Balancing the Grind with Zeina Khodr, Chief Spark & Founder at Paper+Spark

Zeina Khodr is the Chief Spark & Founder at Paper+Spark, a strategic digital communications and marketing tech agency.

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To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I started my career as a radio journalist at the ABC and a side hustle as a dance music DJ in community radio. 

The dot com boom came calling so I shifted into tech and multimedia. While music and radio was my first love I was excited with what the possibilities of the digital world

My career has traversed digital, media, ecommerce, publishing and advertising. A few years ago I was asked to set up an emerging content agency for J.Walter Thompson – at the time one of the world’s oldest advertising agencies.

Having come out of digital publishing, and halfway through my maternity leave with my second child, and with zero agency experience I decided it was time to get uncomfortable again and take up a challenge.

I launched Colloquial in 2015, and after finding, minding and grinding for a global company for almost 4 years and all the intensity and long hours that comes with it, I decided to hit the pause button and re-evaluate how I wanted to work, live and play.

I’m now the founder and Chief Spark of Paper + Spark – a creative digital marketing and comms agency. We help brands navigate the ever-changing digital media landscape, crafting powerful stories that elicit emotion, drive engagement and spark action in an always-on world.

What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My power hour is in the late afternoon/evening. I’m typically the most creative and focused when emails slow down, meetings stop and the family routine is done.

Before day end I compile a punch list – the top 4 things I need to get done the next day and share it with the team. Everything else goes on another list and is prioritised.

I read for 15 mins (right now it is August in Kabul: America’s last days in Afghanistan by Andrew Quilty who I recently heard speak at TEdX) and usually hit the sack at 11.30am.

I’m up around 7.30am where it’s a quick morning routine – 5min stillness time, resist my phone for until 8.00am, make my bed (extremely important), sort out my two kids, scan the news, prep a takeaway tea and usually hit the gym or power walk the dog to clear my head and visualise what I want to get done that day.

I don’t sit at my desk or do formal meetings before 9.30am but there’s plenty of morning team memes shared on WhatsApp to make us all laugh, several phone calls and I clear out my inbox. We’ve always worked remotely so staying in touch is important.

Our physical office is CBD based for people who want a break from working from home. We all gather physically or virtually for our Spark Wednesday wellbeing check-in and make it as fun as possible.

I wear multiple hats a day and this includes virtual meetings, creative ideation, problem solving, mentoring, being client side, on a creative shoot, finance and operations and a side of administrivia.

We work on a range of categories and clients which can sometimes be overwhelming but hugely rewarding. The pandemic and being always on has meant that the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred.

Friday morning is where my un-routine kicks in. It’s our official no meetings, creative day to download and process the week. It’s an active wear, school drop off, pop into the local café and then hit the tennis court for 2 hours of competitive ball smashing morning. I then spend the afternoon solving creative challenges.

What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Paper + Spark was designed to challenge the working status quo and approach work (specific agency life differently).

This year and only 3.5 years old we made the AFR Boss Best Places to work (media and marketing) which I’m hugely proud of.

Creative agencies are relentless and can be unforgiving places to work. I wanted to give people more autonomy of how and when they work. Our philosophy is about work/life flexibility rather than work/life balance – making a small tweak (from balance to flexibility) suddenly has a big impact and having autonomy is hugely empowering.

For example, The Sparks can adjust their work hours to life’s needs, including family and recreation, as long as the work is covered and no one is disadvantaged. If you need to start at midday or be at your daughter’s school event or take your dog to the Vet then it’s up to you to arrange your day. And instead of sick days we have well-being days which can be used as needed.

Another example is our summer Fridays where people can take 4 x Friday’s off to enjoy a long weekend and make the most of the weather and unwind.

I’m a life maximiser so it’s making the most of opportunities to do and try different things in the hours that I have. Work/life flexibility is that feeling of satisfaction and autonomy. I guest lecture in Digital Media because I enjoy teaching and I do industry volunteer work and mentor emerging marketers. I’m also the NSW Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute.

At least twice a year I shift work locations where I combine work and family break time. I’ve always believed you can have your cake and eat it, but maybe not all at once.

In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

We live in an age of digital distraction, we’re constantly swiping, scrolling and engaging with content. And while I love all my gadgets I like to use them for efficiency. I always set my Apple watch’s do not disturb function from 9.30pm to 8am, I have all notifications turned off on social media apps and am trying to use the Sent Later email function.

I also started walking meetings with clients and staff to avoid screen fatigue and that’s been a hugely satisfying change.

My husband is an amazing cook and takes meal making seriously so I’ve stopped cooking but still make all the school lunches!

Our 6 month old poodle Dixie Beyonce has transformed the house. We’re on a regular family schedule of dog walking, poop cleaning and more focused family time where devices are off and we hang out.

My interests and hobbies have evolved and I’ve made more time for this. This year I got my boat licence (where I also plan to use the boat as a workspace) and am about to renew my motorcycle licence.

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Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I’m a massive consumer of content and every morning I set aside 20 mins to catch up on world and local news, read the trade press, and do a quick social scan for the clients we manage.

I listen to Prof G Pod with Scott Galloway, the WARC podcasts and subscribe to Atomic Habits weekly eNews.

I love Monocle magazine for insights, cultural trends, politics and long reads. I’ve been reading the print copy since 2010 because it’s premium, tangible and has a lot of love and thought that goes into it. And it’s still cutting-edge journalism

Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Balance is always relative to what you’re doing at the moment. And if you love the work you do then it feels less like work. Life is about priorities and I make sure I’m laser focused on what’s important.

I love the sentiment shared by the then CEO of Coke, Bryan Dyson. I often remind myself of his 5 balls analogy and like most people I’m constantly juggling many balls…some are made of rubber and some are made of glass.

If I drop a rubber ball (work) I know it will bounce back, on the other hand the glass balls (family, health, friends) are easy to damage and hard to put back together.

I strive to work efficiently so I can spend time on what’s truly important, but it’s a constant work in progress!

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.