Gian Carlo Lanfranco and Rolando Córdova are a team of creative directors originally hailing from Peru.
Stick with a mediocre mentor and you won’t get the best opportunities.
Gian Carlo Lanfranco and Rolando Córdova have spent the past seven to eight years roaming the world doing stints at a number of highly diverse ad agencies – from Saatchi Singapore to Wieden+Kennedy, and from BSUR Amsterdam to Fred & Farid in Paris. For the past year, they have been at Havas New York. Michael Weinzettl first met the team during the Lürzer’s Archive 30th anniversary bash at the Art Directors Club in New York, although – naturally – he had already been familiar with their work as previously featured in the pages of Archive, and was fascinated by the stories they had to tell. In the interview that follows, the pair reveal a little more about their “hejira” through the world of creative advertising.
Hi Gian Carlo, hi Rolando – you left your native Peru more than ten years ago and have been traveling the world ever since, working at a number of very different agencies in Europe, Asia, and the US. Can you tell us how this all started: Who had the idea to begin with? And was the original plan to stay away that long, or did your itinerary just evolve over the course of the journey?
Growing up in Peru is not an easy task; somehow, your opportunities are not as good as if you grew up in places like Amsterdam, London, New York, or Berlin. So you cultivate an urge to progress and you learn how to turn limitations into opportunities. When we started, we didn’t really pay that much attention to the Peruvian advertising community. There was a lot of ego and the work was standard, so the local references were not the ideal. We always tried to see further and take as reference the careers of advertising icons like Dan Wieden, Fred & Farid, PJ Pereira, etc. It was really hard to get international material like Cannes Reels or Lürzer’s Archive, so we needed to sneak into the university library – during class time – in order to read Archive interviews, which we are now so grateful and proud to be featuring in ourselves.
Added to this, we always wondered how it would be to work outside of Peru in a competitive market. We were working for Saatchi & Saatchi Peru, and at the same time studying at university, when we had the good luck to win the first Future Lions in Cannes. The year before, we proved ourselves on a regional scale winning the Ojo de Iberomarica – we were the first Peruvian students to do so – and so we thought, why not try to compete on a global scale? After receiving the great news that we had won, our families got together to provide the financial support for us to travel to Cannes to pick up the award. Luckily again, it also paid off and we got an offer from Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore, an agency we had really admired since the times of David Droga. We didn’t really think about it twice. In Peru there is a well-known saying, “The train only passes once,” so we decided to catch it. We were quite young at the time, so that actually helped us to avoid overthinking our decision. Moving from Peru to Singapore when you are in your early twenties can be a dramatic experience but at the same time enriching. We saw it more like, well, let’s go for a year and see how it goes, and the worst-case scenario was we’d come back to Peru with a unique experience. Ten years on, we’re still doing that.
Once we were settled in Singapore, the journey sort of evolved by itself. We had a common goal, which was to try to experience and learn as much as we can and to demonstrate that Peruvian talent can also form part of the global advertising community. When you think in that way, and you keep yourself humble and open, you realize there’s actually nothing to lose and a lot to win. So when we later moved to Amsterdam, Paris, and now New York, it felt more like a natural evolution than an actual plan.
What did you do before leaving Peru? When did you guys decide you wanted to work in advertising?
As in many South American countries, Peru is not the ideal place to study and work in the creative industry, whether you call it cinema, art, or advertising. The creative culture is viewed a bit suspiciously by society, the tradition being to study for other “well established” careers like economics, law, or medicine. So, in the end, you can’t access a really good educational system and you wind up working in not ideal conditions. Apparently, this is starting to change due to the economic growth as we see more people venturing into art-related careers, but there’s still a long way to go as the country continues to preserve really traditional policies. Good education hasn’t been democratized yet, just a small privileged group of society can afford it, and that’s not good for Peruvians.
We both met at university and we started doing assignments together. We realized that we were part of small group of “brave” students that wanted to become advertising creatives. This is because, as their career advanced, many students realized a sad truth of Peruvian advertising agencies: creatives were the least paid, the least respected, yet the ones who worked harder than any other. Rapidly, many decided to trade their dreams for a better living standard: they started working in other specializations like marketing, account, and production.
We always really liked the idea of doing something creative and we knew that, in other places, conditions were different. We also knew that if you do something you like, sooner or later you’ll get some recognition for your work and, most importantly, you’ll be happy every morning you go to work.
When we started to look for a job in Peru, there were only two agencies that were good, so for sure we wanted to work for one of them; it didn’t matter if we needed to work harder or if they actually didn’t pay us a cent. We just wanted the opportunity to do good work and learn from the best. Luckily, we got hired by one of these two agencies and we learned a lot from the best professionals of the market at the time. Picking the right agency at the beginning is probably the toughest task facing a creative in his whole career. If you pick a mediocre mentor and stick with him, you won’t get the best opportunities.
What kind of ads did you grow up with? What is your earliest experience of advertising in your native country?
Peru had some really interesting advertising campaigns in the 90s but, as the years passed, they got really influenced by Argentinian advertising. At some point, it seemed like they were trying to copy what Argentinians were doing, but without the Argentinian spark. So the creative identity got sort of lost at the time. However, we always tried to look for different ways of doing campaigns that were not only South American examples.
One of our favorite campaigns when we were starting in advertising was the Xbox “Life is short, play more” campaign. It was such a good insight, and at the same time so simple and visually interesting. Also Saturn’s “Sheet metal” campaign by Goodby, Silverstein was again simple and visually interesting. We really like simple visual work as it transcends any cultural barrier and becomes a global truth. Most of our work is actually visual, and I guess we developed this skill by working on different markets – and it probably came from the limitation of not being native speakers and writers, so you start playing more on the visual language.
Can you tell us a bit about the different agencies you worked at and how the experiences differed – in terms of the culture of the country you were working in as well as the different philosophies of the agencies themselves?
After leaving Peru, we started working for Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore, and for us that was a great opportunity and at the same time was a big cultural shock. It took us 26 hours by plane to reach Singapore, a country that is really organized and modern: everything is clinical to the point that it can seem fake. Completely the opposite of Lima, which has a lot of heritage but at the same time is a bit chaotic.
In Singapore, it seems like all the values from the country are translated into their advertising. Singaporean advertising is simple but really beautifully crafted. Most of the work is iconic, pure, and clean. They spend most of the creative process crafting the ad, so it is a great place to improve your craft skills for sure. Whereas in places like Peru most of the time is spent coming up with the idea, and the craft is not really taken in consideration.
After two years, we moved to Amsterdam to work for Wieden+Kennedy, a really inspiring place and also different from our previous experiences. At W+K, it was all about developing strategic global work that will endure in time: creatives knew more about strategy than planners in other agencies. Timings were different as most of the work was produced in long term so you could really work on a campaign for a long time. It was probably the first place we learned about finding the right voice of a brand, as “one-off” ideas were not that important if they didn’t really fit in with the strategy. In other agencies, “one-off” ideas were really valued for their award potential even if they didn’t really help the brand. At Wieden, it was all about doing the right work – and if you win an award with it, then great. It was definitely one of the best experiences we’ve had. Two years later, we decided to change neighborhoods and switch to BSUR Amsterdam and work exclusively on MINI global. It was a great experience in which we could express all our knowledge from our previous three stops. MINI is a really interesting brand that always looked for creative excellence, and it was also the first time an agency had handled the global brand, so the responsibilities were really big. We produced some really interesting work and we learned a lot in the process.
After almost five years in beautiful Amsterdam, we moved to Paris to work at Fred & Farid. Paris is one of the most inspiring cities in the world. There are a lot of museums, art galleries, cinemas, and the food is great. We worked mainly on the international clients of the agency (Orangina, Schweppes, Audi, etc.) as a senior team reporting directly to Fred & Farid. They are really inspiring creatives – even though they are the owners of the agency – and they put a lot of passion and hours into the actual creative work. They work really hard and it pays off, as the agency is currently one of the most important in Europe and Asia. We are really happy we spent two years working for them. We learned a lot and managed to do some cool work.
Now, since February 2014, we’ve been in NY, so actually almost a year. NY is a completely different city: it’s super dynamic compared to Europe and has a really strong personality. There are a lot of options and times flies. We both live in the West Village to still feel the European flavor we miss from places like Amsterdam and Paris. Havas Worldwide NY is also a completely different agency than the ones we’d been at before. We always wanted to try different experiences and Havas is a really big network agency compared to the creative boutiques we were working at before, so we are really happy to learn other forms of the advertising business. Havas also has an immense roster of interesting clients that allow us to create a variety of work. We are managing to do some really interesting work for RB brands that is getting picked up positively by the press. So Havas NY will also be known by great work for RB and not just for Dos Equis.
What was some of the work you guys created at the various agencies that you’re proudest of?
We are really proud of the latest “Statistics” campaign we created for Orangina working at Fred & Farid. We shot the films with The Glue Society and, as a result, the campaign ended up being truly original and played really well with the irreverent personality of the iconic French brand.
We are also really happy with all the global work we created for MINI at BSUR Amsterdam. We worked for three years exclusively on MINI global and we had the chance to develop the successful launch of the MINI Countryman “Flow,” the MINI Coupe “Another day, another adventure campaign,” and “MINI vs. Monster,” the first 3D film made for the brand.
But probably one of the projects we enjoyed working on the most was a really small one compared to the others. Last year we formed our creative collective in Peru (Lanfranco&Cordova), and Kokopelli, a well-known Peruvian backpackers hostel, asked us to promote their new location in the mountains of Cuzco, Peru. The budget was minimal (under 3K). As the city of Cuzco is located over three thousand meters above sea level, it causes altitude sickness in most of the travelers, making the journey really unpleasant. So we decided to create the first anti-altitude sickness business cards made out of coca leaf. In Peru, there is an ancient tradition in which you place a coca leaf inside your mouth and you chew it in order to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. So we gave the business cards to Kokopelli (Lima) guests. When they arrived in Cuzco, they could immediately chew a piece of the card and still keep the contact details of the hostel with them. The result was extremely positive: we gave tourists a whole new experience, and the Cuzco hostel got overbooked, so the owner ended up renting out his own room. Adding to these positive business results, the idea went viral, being showcased on different travel sites and websites like Gizmodo, Cool Hunting, etc. We even got messages from places like Chile, Austria, France, Scotland, and India, saying they wanted to implement the idea. Unfortunately, the coca leaf can only be used in Peru. It’s a shame because the leaf, when it’s not processed, has many positive effects on the human body.
What were the things that made you want to leave one agency to join another shop in a different country?
We see it more like every place, and agencies we explore provide us with a different learning and a skill we’ll need at some point in our careers. So our idea is to explore as much as we can and shape ourselves. Once you learn from the best, and you explore enough, is actually the moment when you are ready to create your own creative culture – and that’s what we’d like to do. Create a creative culture to help emerging clients to grow on a global scale.
What was the challenge of taking on the position at Havas NY and what do you aim to achieve there?
Every time we move to a different country and a new opportunity, we go with an empty mind, ready to learn from other ways of living and new ways of craft and communication. We really think that, at this stage, for us it is about absorbing as many experiences as we can to then further develop creative culture. We see it the way a chef probably does it. You first learn all types of different cuisines from the most respected chefs around the world, so the day you are finally ready, you create your own cusine. New York is really different from Paris, Amsterdam, or Lima. It’s a really dynamic city so you have to adapt – and that takes a bit of time. On the other hand, as we are not locals we are a bit more proactive than the local creatives; as we know our time in every stop is momentary, we try to make the most out of all the creative opportunities we have. We are really happy the work we produced here for RB brands, d-CON, and Old English (both campaigns have been showcased in Lürzer’s Archive), is a great way to keep the ball rolling. Of course, with the title come more responsibilities that sometimes push you away from the creative process itself, but it’s a great learning experience for what will come next. You need to be well rounded in every business, especially in advertising. So you have to learn – the conceptual side, the crafts, and also what the business is about. In a way it is like surfing: you see Kelly Slater, the eleven-times world champion, he is 42 years of age and he is still the best surfer, and people ask, why? We think because he is the most complete surfer. He surfs good in small waves, medium waves, and big waves, as a difference from a younger surfer who is probably better than Kelly in small maneuver waves, but lacks Slater’s experience to surf big waves.
Can you tell us about some of the ad creatives you have met over the past ten years that have made a lasting impression on you?
That’s probably the most interesting thing in this profession: you end up meeting great creative sources of inspiration and, most importantly, nice human beings. The list is long but, in order to to mention who we consider our mentors to be, we’d better start by country: In Peru, we were lucky enough to learn from Gustavo Asman and Oscar Tamayo, who at the time were the best mentors you could have in the Peruvian market. They gave us our first opportunity and they taught us to always try to do the best work and never give up, whatever the limitation we are facing; there’s always a chance to do something interesting. That’s probably the biggest value of being Peruvian: you never give up. In Singapore, we worked for Andy Greenaway and Juggi Ramakrishnan, and they taught us the importance of craft in advertising; Singapore has probably the best craftsmen in the industry. In Amsterdam, we really enjoyed working for Carlo Cavallone at Wieden+Kennedy, and Jason Schragger and Paulo Martins at BSUR. We learned so much from them on how to develop global campaigns, keeping them simple and true to the brand spirit. In Paris, we really enjoyed working for Fred & Farid. They were the creatives we followed when we were students, and to have the chance to work with them directly was an inspiring experience.
When you see the list, all we can say is we were really lucky to learn from these great advertising figures, and to also have them as really good friends.
With a view towards the more distant future, do you think you’ll ever be returning to Peru?
Sure. Peru has changed significantly in the past ten years, with economic growth having placed Peru in a striking position to become one of the wealthiest and most culturally interesting countries in South America. The clients are now more open to ideas and they have the means to be active participants of change. In addition to that, a few creative figures that managed to work in other South American markets have returned to Peru and are starting to build an interesting creative culture, so the new generations have good examples to learn from. We’d definitely like to contribute with our global experience at some point. We believe there are clients in Peru that have the vision and capabilities to transcend the South American barriers and become global icons, and at that point they will need partners who understand how to build their brands to a global scale.
I know you’ve also been teaching at Miami Ad School in Amsterdam. What are some of the things you were trying to instill in students? And what are some of the things you’re trying to tell young people starting out in the ad industry?
Well, we always say that your only mission as a student is to always be curious and take risks. You have to get interested in a variety of things that go beyond your circle, your career, and your country. Then you’ll have a free mind to create better work and you’ll also discover new things and, probably, new interesting hobbies.
When you understand that there is not only one way to solve a communication problem, you will realize that you have so much freedom to create and you’ll discover new tools.
Also, we like to remind them to keep their dreams alive, no matter how crazy or impossible they seem. Because a dream will be the only fuel you have to achieve it. You’ll get lots of negatives on the way but that actually means you are doing something out of the standard – and that’s always good.
What is your take on advertising awards? I’m sure you’ve been awarded at many… Are they still relevant to anyone but the creatives winning them?
We’ve been in different agency cultures in which awards were more or less important. Being awarded is always a great recognition for your hard work and creativity, but sometimes awards get in the way of doing the right work. We had colleagues whose only mission every year was to win a Lion or a Pencil, no matter if the ad was only published once in a small magazine in Siberia. They lost the perspective about what advertising is about. The best work is that which is first recognized by the public and then by the advertising industry. If you win awards with it, it’s a great feeling because you are tackling a client problem – the work is seen everywhere and the public also likes it.
We’ve been fortunate enough to be awarded at the most important ad festivals like The One Show, Cannes Lions, Clio Awards, etc. And the main conclusion we have is that awards definitely help you to get noticed but they don’t really make you a more senior creative.
How do you guys deal with the proverbial “blank sheet” of paper – which, of course, tends to be a blank computer screen these days?
We try to keep it on the paper. We don’t really like to touch the computers until we have the idea closed or semi-closed. We think the best thing you can do is relax and find inspiration in other things you like that are completely separate from ads. Creatives tend to memorize the reels of Cannes and we think this is actually a limitation. Don’t get us wrong: we think it is good to have references – but to be submerged solely in advertising will produce only predictable advertising.
If you like swimming, go swim, or if you like cooking, get some cooking lessons. We personally like to surf and practice street photography. It’s a really interesting way of relaxation – and, probably, when you are not thinking of advertising is when the best ideas come.
After having lived in so many countries, are there still places somewhere in the world you haven’t yet been where you would find it fascinating to work?
We’ve been really privileged to explore what are probably the most interesting advertising capitals. London would be an interesting place to work that we haven’t been to yet; you see so many great campaigns and agencies there. But we are probably closer to ending our exploration chapter and about to start building our own creative community.
Why are you creative?
Because we are curious. We like to think up different kind of ideas, storytelling, or just simple silly ideas. Ideas are so hard to define; it’s a subjective space in which every task is a new adventure. It’s one of the least predictable jobs in the world, and that is why it’s so appealing to us. And we also like to wear sneakers to the office. We guess a lawyer can’t do that, right?