The best advertising is non- advertising.
Together, they rank among the world’s most-awarded copywriters (Hugo) and art directors (Diego), and scooped a record 23 Lions for five different projects at the 2013 Cannes Lions Festival.
Their work for Dove Real Beauty Sketches, which garnered Latin America’s first Titanium Grand Prix, has become the most-watched branded film of all time on YouTube, with more than 165 million views. They are also the creatives behind the Don’t Look Away music video for Usher’s hit song Chains, which used facial recognition technology to demand people’s attention. In 2014, they left the São Paulo office of Ogilvy & Mather Brazil (part of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide) to join digital agency AKQA, which, like Ogilvy & Mather, is also owned by WPP. They both became creative directors at AKQA and opened the agency’s first office in Brazil (also in São Paulo) housed in a space called Casa AKQA. In the interview that follows, Hugo and Diego reply to questions put to them by Michael Weinzettl.
Hi Hugo, hi Diego, first of all, many thanks for selecting the digital works for this issue of Archive. How did you go about it? Did you agree on all the works selected 100% – or were there some that one of you liked more than the other did? We’ve never had a duo doing the selection for Digital in our magazine before.
Diego: Well, each one of us searched for 10 and then, as always, we agreed on a final shortlist. In seven years of partnership, we’ve never had an argument.
You’re the co-founders of AKQA Brazil in São Paulo. How did that come about? Please tell us a bit about where you guys come from, how you met.
Hugo: In the beginning of 2013, after the launch of the Dove Men “Hair” online video and Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Adweek included us on its Creatives You Should Know list and we started being contacted by lots of agencies and headhunters.
Ogilvy São Paulo had been a great school but, after more than four years, it was time to embrace a new challenge. Since we would never decide on a new agency based on the salary, we agreed only to talk with the agencies we had always dreamed of working at.
Diego: We were having some great conversations with creative leaders from four of the most renowned advertising agencies when we got a call from Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA founder, inviting us for lunch. We had the wrong impression – that the agency was more focused on technology and web platforms than communication and storytelling – but the lunch was a revelation. In the most humble way, Ajaz explained how the AKQA studios apply art and science to create beautiful ideas, products and services. How teams from all over the world work inside the clients to transform their businesses. For us, who worked all of our lives in traditional agencies, it was like looking up to a new and broader creative universe that we were keen to discover.
What did you do before opening the Brazilian branch of one of the most respected and successful chains of digital agencies around the world?
Hugo: Our focus has always been, and will always be, on the creation of impactful ideas. That’s what moves us every day. So we were a bit reticent about opening an agency. We didn’t want to become businessmen and lose what differentiates us. However, AKQA is giving us the opportunity to recreate the agency model tailored to the world we live and believe in.
Starting this agency from scratch gives us the autonomy to plan the ideal conditions to generate the best ideas.
Ajaz Ahmed, gave us all the autonomy to choose and brief the office architect and to mold the philosophy of the studio. We also have the network’s global support through resources, talents exchange, technical support, and mentorship for all members of the team.
At AKQA São Paulo we see the opportunity to create the ideal environment to welcome great talents, and to produce projects with ambitious clients.
Diego: Before opening in São Paulo, we went on a one-year world tour around different AKQA offices. We lived in London, Paris, and San Francisco, and also worked on projects for AKQA New York, Portland, and Tokyo. This was important to absorb AKQA DNA and meet the key talents with whom we’ve been partnering in international projects.
AKQA-SP has an integrated service model that fuses the international culture of the agency and the unique characteristics of the Brazilian market.
Within the AKQA network, our agency was born as a center of creative excellence, which supports other offices in special projects. Brazil is a creative power and AKQA São Paulo has the mission to push this energy and talent into the rest of the agency’s global offices and accounts.
The ambition is to make AKQA São Paulo an international creative center, attracting talents and clients from all over the world to produce work with universal appeal. The agency also works with Brazilian brands that want to produce innovative projects. Our workspace, AKQA Casa, was built for this purpose. It’s a stimulating environment that supports new forms of collaboration and creativity.
What can clients who come to you with their communication challenges expect from AKQA São Paulo?
Hugo: The best advertising is non-advertising. More and more brands are realizing that instead of interrupting what people are doing, they have to serve a relevant content and make them feel something. This takes more than 30 seconds.
The future of communication will be through the creation of innovative products, relevant digital platforms and social media that understand and speak the language of the consumer. And this has been the AKQA business model since it was born 23 years ago. All this expertise, culture and DNA are unique. An agency dedicated to the future in 100% of its initiatives, such as the Future Lions in Cannes, that allows it to know the next generation of creatives. An agency that views digital as a medium and not an end, which knows that on the other side of an app, a tweet … everything, there’s actually a person.
In recent years, the agency has helped transform – via digital – the business of brands like Nike, Audi, Mini, or Delta airlines. We have brought this AKQA experience in digital business transformation to São Paulo and have been working with Netflix, Google, and other brands. Nationally and internationally.
Can you give us examples? Perhaps some of the projects you’re proudest of?
Diego: One of the things that makes us prouder is the biggest conversion from ideas conceived to ideas produced. We have a slim and very efficient team that is able to make feasible all forms of projects. For every brief, we focus on creating ideas that have never been done before. That’s our biggest differential – and what brings new clients to our home.
In just three years, we launched a clothing line for Elton John and Lady Gaga that fights prejudice, a concept car for Rolls Royce, and made international award-winning projects such as:
Visa Samba of the World – Where we divided the budget of a video anthem into 32 Visa Cards and gave them to directors from the 32 World Cup qualifying countries with a narrative structure for them to follow.
Don’t Look Away for Usher – The world’s first music video to demand your attention, it used facial recognition technology to oblige people to look into the eyes and stories of victims of police brutality.
Hunt on the News – Where leading Brazilian newspapers and magazines reprinted their 1992 news about Pablo Escobar’s escape, making everyone relive the story.
Whopper Exchange – A world Christmas initiative that let anyone exchange a lousy gift for a tasty Whopper.
What is the market in Brazil like? Do you see yourself in competition with acclaimed ad agencies such as AlmapBBDO or DM9DDB, who do of course nowadays have their own digital departments?
Diego: We are the only tier 1 agency in Brazil that doesn’t buy media. That – a 100% focus on creativity – already differentiates us. But we don’t see other agencies as competitors. If more and more agencies do great work, more and more clients will ask for better work. Each agency has a shared responsibility for growing the market’s quality of work.
What has AKQA Sao Paulo been doing that is totally different?
Hugo: AKQA São Paulo is a meeting point for restless, brave, and passionate minds. Our office – which has just won the World Architecture Award – is a beautiful destination for inspiration, providing a center for the Brazilian and international artistic community to celebrate imagination. AKQA Casa is a home open to the community. It has a garden, auditorium and gallery that hosts regular events, talks, and performances with artists, musicians, and thinkers.
We also use our home talents to produce socially and culturally relevant projects. We’ve launched the second album from an indie band of two brothers (one transgender, the other hetero) that celebrates free love; hosted an art and gastronomic experience in partnership with a famous chef; created all visual communication for a festival from the suburbs that celebrates black culture, and created an art movement made by dogs called Canismo.
We also have a program called AKQA Friends, where startups are invited to work inside our space, interacting with the team and working together in client briefs. These initiatives reflect our open and co-creative approach to work.
It used to be that ad creatives in Brazil almost had a kind of superstar status. One only has to think of guys like Washington Olivetto and Nizan Guanaes, or Marcello Serpa. (Some of them even had their own TV shows, didn’t they?) Do people from – for want of a better word – the “digital arena” enjoy the same kind of recognition in Brazil – or would you say that all of this is a thing of the past, remnants from the 1980s, 1990s, and that public perception of the industry has changed over the past two decades?
Hugo: Brazil’s advertising industry still has iconic figures, but none has reached the celebrity status from previous decades.
How does the current political and economic climate in your country – which, to the outsider, seems somewhat chaotic – impact on your work? Is it more difficult to be a creative at this point in time?
Diego: This environment of uncertainty obliges us to be more accurate on the ideas and efficient in our deliverables. Every crisis opens opportunities, and our business model based on efficiency is proving to be attractive to brands that are eager to try new ways of work.
Do you have any heroes, or people you’ve admired inside the industry?
Hugo and Diego: Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA founder. He’s so humble and people-driven that we call him the Dalai Lama of advertising. His values and innovative vision were an inspiration since day one and the main reason why we joined the company.
Have you followed the Cannes Lion Festival this year, perhaps even been there? What did you think of the festival and the awards given out in the digital, experiential categories? What about the Titanium Lion Grand Prix, which you guys were the first to win in 2013 for the Dove Beauty sketches project?
Hugo: More and more ideas are adapting technology. But when we look at the top winners, we see that they’re still analog and simple at their core – Refugee Nation starts from a flag; Fearless Girl sparked all the conversation with a statue. The best ideas are above media, innovation or format, but they use modern digital tools to grow and spread. At AKQA São Paulo, we never use technology as an end. We focus on the best solution for a brief, which can be a reactively led wall, or a leaflet activation.
Between 2011 and 2013, Lürzer’s Archive chose to feature a total of 16 print campaigns you were significantly involved in as creatives, all of them from Ogilvy Brazil, one even from Ogilvy Turkey (a road safety campaign). Does print no longer play much of a role since you opened AKQA Sao Paulo?
Diego: Print has played a big role in our development as creatives and in our capacity to generate eyecatching pieces of content. Yet the communication ecosystem has changed and we’re focused on ideas that go beyond any media. For us, print must be part of something bigger, like the Cannes Lions Print GP from 2016 – a letter from Burger King to McDonald’s that sparked a world conversation.
Together, you won 23 Lions at Cannes in 2013 alone. How important are the big international festivals to you personally? Do they give you a good overview of what’s best in the industry worldwide at the moment?
Hugo: International festivals are very important to celebrate the best work and unveil directions guiding us towards the future. However, there are too many festivals in the world and trophies are becoming trivial. What can an award add that the project and the splash it makes hasn’t already given?
There are so many awards these days that people get upset if they don’t win. Just relax, guys. Do the best you can and if you don’t win, don’t mourn. Take that bitter taste and turn it into the motivation to do better next year.
What did you think of the festival this year? Were you able to add some Lions to your already quite large collection? And what were some of the highlights for you this year in terms of great new work you saw?
Diego: This year, our team won One Show, D&AD, Cannes, Andy’s and NY Festivals with four different projects, created and produced for actual briefs. Having a quality standard for daily work is the most important thing. But, of course, when we look at the great projects like Fearless Girl, Refugee Nation, Baltic Sea Project, or Boost Your Voice, we boost our motivation to evolve and create better and more impactful work. We will never be 100% satisfied with what we do.