The best campaign of an adman is his agency.
When it comes to top-notch creative advertising, 34-year-old Karpat Polat, President / Executive Creative Director of DDB&Co., Istanbul is the man who has almost singlehandedly put Turkey on the ad industry map. Karpat started his career in 1998 at JWT in Istanbul, spending several years there before moving on to Medina Turgul DDB for a further year. He then continued his career at a local agency called Rafineri, where he won the first of many international awards. In 2004, he moved to São Paulo to work at DM9DDB. In 2006, he was back in Istanbul to lead the newly established DDB office, DDB&Co., Istanbul. Since Karpat took over, DDB&Co., Istanbul came in third as global "Agency of the Year" in Cannes in 2009, a first for a Turkish agency. In 2010, DDB&Co. was again one of the globally most awarded agencies at Cannes, this time finishing in fourth place, and Karpat Polat was, for the second straight year, ranked among the world's top ten most awarded creative directors. The total haul of Lions in the DDB&Co. trophy cabinet has since risen to 19, Including the first Lion and first ever Gold Lion for Turkey. He is also, according to our very own Lürzer's Archive online ranking, one of the top ten copywriters in the world. Michael Weinzettl talked to Karpat, who lives in Istanbul with his wife Ebru and baby daughter Elis, about his awe-inspiring career and his role as the frontrunner of creative advertising in Turkey.
L.A.: Hi Karpat, where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
Karpat Polat: I grew up in Istanbul and studied Mass Communication at Marmara University in Istanbul.
L.A.: You are 34 now and President as well as Creative Director of DDB&Co., Istanbul. How did you get there so fast?
Karpat Polat: You may think it is fast. I think I just started early. Almost as a kid.
L.A.: Was advertising a career field you wanted to get into when you were growing up?
Karpat Polat: My story is a bit like Elvis's. I guess it all goes back to my 14th birthday. My father bought me one of the very first Apple Macintosh SE/30s of the time. Instead of playing video games, I started to design things for no apparent reason. Stuff like graphics, posters, cartoons, etc. Time went by and I grew up. After university, I applied as an art director to some of the most prominent ad agencies in Istanbul. Then, during one interview, the owner of JWT convinced me to become a copywriter instead of an art director. Since he had worked on Madison Avenue, advertising for him was all about copywriting. I found copywriters very convincing. I thought I needed this skill to be an adman and so accepted his offer. That's how it all started. I was 20 years old at that time.
L.A.: Turkey is a democratic, secular republic. Still, the vast majority of people who live there are Muslim. In your opinion and experience, does this have an influence on Turkish advertising? Are there things you can't say or show? Does advertising in Turkey differ from region to region? Do people in Istanbul see the same ads as those in the rest of the country?
Karpat Polat: We don't change our advertising from region to region, even though it is one big country of 75 million people. Most of our media, TV channels and dailies are national; local media is not that strong yet. On the other hand, there is massive internal immigration to the cities in Turkey. So we are not really in a position to say one region will accept this and another won't. You know, every country has its own advertising objective. And we do have a unique objective here as well. Beyond that, religion for me is mostly about culture. Turkey was not a massive technology-producing and art-consuming country in the past, and this remains true today. So that means people believe in whatever they see on TV for real. They don't differentiate so much between fiction and fact. Here's a story about that: Some years ago, in one of most highly rated Turkish TV series, the protagonist had a car accident and his face got completely burnt. Then a wizard was found who made a remedy cream for his face. This cream turned his skin completely back to normal. It was purely fictional, yet the producer of the series got 700 properly written letters after this episode, asking for the contact info of this wizard. So, here, most people believe whatever they see on TV; as a result, they also take advertising seriously. They don't see it as just a simple advertisement. It is a very common thing for people to take offence easily and protest some advertising campaigns.
L.A.: Were there any international "ad men" that you admired when you were very young? Had you heard about people such as Bill Bernbach, etc.?
Karpat Polat: Yes, I was very much aware of all the figures and their styles. But I admired their work more than their personalities. And, today, I still recommend the same thing to my teams: "Don't pay attention to the players. Pay attention to the ball." At that time, two ads shaped my perspective towards advertising most. One of them was an all-type Mother's Day ad for Aspirin: "If your mother had had a headache that day, you wouldn't exist." And the other one was Nike's "Tag" commercial.
L.A.: What about your parents? Did they encourage you to take the direction you took? Or would they have liked their son to choose a different career path?
Karpat Polat: Yes, they have always been my biggest supporters. After I began spending some nights of the week at the agency, they thought, like, "Oh my God, we've created a monster." But they got used to it quickly.
L.A.: Quite early in your career, you went abroad and joined DDB in Brazil. Why Brazil?
Karpat Polat: Actually, at that time I was supposed to go to the USA and work for the Martin Agency. But a very close friend from Argentina introduced me to the DM9DDB people. DM9 had been my dream agency when I started advertising, so it seemed quite attractive and sparked a brilliant idea: What if I spend three months in São Paulo, and then go to Martin? I ended up not going to Martin, though.
L.A.: What was your time at DM9DDB like? What did you learn in the two years you spent there?
Karpat Polat: The creative department alone was larger than entire agencies that I've worked for in Istanbul. There was an amazing energy and tremendous will to do something great, something smart, unseen and beautiful. I embraced this sprit at DM9. I'm happy to say we did some great work and won many awards. And, most importantly, I learned a secret at DM9 that nobody suspected I knew – that this business is the same everywhere.
L.A.: What about the language? You're a copywriter and I assume you didn't speak much Portuguese when you first arrived in São Paulo …
Karpat Polat: True, I didn't know a single word of Portuguese when I arrived but, luckily, things went very well. In my second week in São Paulo, one of the clients of the agency, Diario de S. Paulo, approved a TV commercial of mine. And it took off from there. I discovered there are more similarities than differences between cultures. That's being human. Everybody falls in love, families matter, the men watch soccer, the women go shopping, nobody wants to grow old, etc. So, basically, humans behave more or less in the same way everywhere. It took millions of years for man's instincts to evolve, and they wouldn't be changed that much in the last 1,000 years. Focusing on human behavior not just helps you to keep up your expectations in a completely different environment but can be very rewarding in your own country, too. The best campaigns in the history of advertising were based on simple insights and truths.
L.A.: When you started winning international awards, you must have been one of the very first Turkish creatives ever to do so. What did that feel like and how did that come about?
Karpat Polat: Remembering the day we won the very first Cannes Lion of the country, it was just surreal. Back in those days, winning at Cannes was so far away from Turkey that it was not even considered a possibility. You even had to convince many people in your agency just to submit work to Cannes. Then we won. And with a local brand: the oldest national bank in Turkey. So this showed us not only that winning Lions was possible but, also, that great ideas knew no boundaries. I believe we overcame a certain inferior feeling. And it convinced me that I must follow my own instincts.
L.A.: In recent years, your agency has been one of the most awarded at Cannes. How did you feel about that?
Karpat Polat: Great. Being nominated Agency of The Year at Cannes was amazing. Because it is more than just winning a couple of Lions. It is a definition of what kind of an agency you have and what it stands for. Doing great work for every single client. Not only for the blue-chip ones but also for the large and conservative ones. In the last two years, almost every team from our agency – including rookies – has won a Lion. It is all about setting up the right attitude and building the momentum rather than having a star team in the agency. I reject the status quo. I respect every client's, and every single individual's, potential. For me, anyone can do great work for any brand, given the right direction.
L.A.: What effect did you winning these awards have on the Turkish ad scene?
Karpat Polat: Certainly many things have changed since then. In one word, we see more consistently creative agencies, agencies that are creative not just on a specific medium or with only some brands. This change is an ongoing process. And, perhaps, today Istanbul has become one of the most admired cities in terms of advertising in the region. This year, I'm chairing our national advertising competition and the work quality has improved dramatically. I am more than happy to see this improvement. I predict a bright future for Turkish advertising.
L.A.: What is the work that you're proudest of? Which campaigns would you single out? Can you describe them a bit?
Karpat Polat: I believe the best campaign of an adman is his agency. When I look at DDB&Co., Istanbul, I see it as my best work. From zero to here. It's one of the most cre-ative places nationwide and worldwide. I can say I'm proud of that so far.
L.A.: How is working with clients in Turkey? Are they open to creative approaches?
Karpat Polat: I think an adman is as good as his clients. We are the best supporting actors. We are the sherpas who guide them to the peak. We are the cream in the coffee, not the coffee itself. You simply can't do outstanding work for obtuse clients. We are very fortunate with the clients we have. We had chances to show them that highly creative work can bring great results – better than mediocrity can ever produce. Today, they settle for nothing less than brilliant work. Sometimes, not often thankfully, our clients say: "Is this striking enough?" I'd like to thank our clients for looking through the windows of opportunity we present them and for making some brilliant campaigns happen.
L.A.: Can you give us an example of what you did for them?
Karpat Polat: Since the very first day of my career, I've been working with banks. Recently, we did a campaign for our bank client's debit card brand, CardFinans Nakit. The campaign was against the high-interest overdraft accounts of all credit cards. This issue was a big concern at the time, and even had a cultural aspect. It's almost as if mothers would caution their children before they go out: "Take your jacket," and, "By the way, don't draw cash advances from your credit card." Our debit card enabled a reasonably priced overdraft instead. So we put the message boldly out there that "you have to be crazy to draw cash advance from your credit card." We built the whole campaign on insanity, basically. In the TV spot, a guy was being dragged off to a mental institution after drawing some cash advance from the ATM. Our client sold more than one million cards in one year.
L.A.: Your time in advertising coincides with the digital revolution. How important is digital to you – or is it just another channel to build up a brand and talk to consumers with?
Karpat Polat: In our agency nowadays, more than half of our daily briefs are related to digital. So digital is in our daily routine now. I think viewing digital as just another medium is severely underestimating it. Digital has become much more than that. Let me put it this way: After the web, almost all content in the world has become available for free. And people are not so keen to pay for content since they are already paying their monthly dial-up or broadband fees. Or they love to pretend all is inclusive. This is an opportunity for brands to pay for this content on behalf of the consumer and develop a conversation with them. This playground also allows you to create your own brand content or user-generated content, which is probably better than sponsoring some generic content. Today, as a brand you do favors for your consumer: you let them listen to a good song, tell them a great story, chat with them, interact with them … Finally, brands can now turn into real friends or approach that role more than they did before, just like the way it's supposed to be as written in our old advertising books.
L.A.: You yourself have – almost single-handedly – brought Turkish advertising into the 21st century and are responsible for the high standard of a lot of Turkish advertising today. What is your own opinion of the standard of print and TV work coming out of Turkish ad agencies nowadays?
Karpat Polat: Thank you. I won't believe it unless Archive prints it! Joke aside, nowadays Turkish advertising is doing great. But I think it can get a little bit better. The use of celebrity is mostly kept as a shortcut to instant fame. On the other hand, you see most of the ads don't have an idea deeper than showing a famous face as their key visuals. This reminds me of many watch and whisky ads in the in-flight mags – they catch your attention for a moment, but then you somehow hardly remember them. For me, that's like writing on ice: it's bound to melt away. Because if you don't develop your talk with the consumer beyond just having a celeb, you cannot keep a sustainable engagement with them. When the celebrity shifts to another brand, you lose all your investment. This is just wasting money to save the day. Since we live in the age of extremely diverse media, ongoing conversations are more important than just grabbing attention indifferently.
L.A.: What are some of your favorite campaigns internationally at the moment? Which ads do you admire in particular?
Karpat Polat: I loved Lego's "Builders of the Future" campaign most recently.
L.A.: What does an average day spent at DDB&Co., Istanbul look like for you?
Karpat Polat: Joyfully hectic. I'm busy with thousands of things at the same time every day. But I'm always trying to spend most of my time with my creatives. Sitting along them and working together basically. I never wanted to be one of those CDs trapped in his room saying yes or no to people.
L.A.: Have you seen any signs of the economic crisis in Turkey having an effect on creativity in advertising?
Karpat Polat: We've had our share of crises before so they've actually become kind of routine for us. It is perhaps similar to having one of those bad rainstorms in Istanbul. It jams the traffic, it gets huge coverage on TV, everybody tries to take precautions, and then things go back to normal eventually, with some inevitable damages. We learned how to survive them. Of course, extravagant media spending is not the case anymore, but Turkish advertisers have also learned they shouldn't be completely cutting off their advertising budgets during economic crises, either. On the other hand, it‘s true that crisis has affected clients' advertising gusto. During the crises, clients turned to price-based communications and discovered they work well, since people are more careful with their spending. Once the crisis was over, the price tags and splashes stayed with us. They are firmly established as the second most important thing after the client's logo. You'd better not forget to put them in your ad. To give you an example: today, over 60 percent of our ads are for promotion campaigns. And many Turkish creatives complain about there remaining no room for creativity because of the starbursts. I don't agree with the notion that you can't create a talk with your consumer while communicating your price. Some of our most noticed work is price-based, like Dank!, which are campaigns for second-hand furniture stores.
L.A.: Where does the inspiration for your work come from?
Karpat Polat: From big empty drawing sheets lying on my table.
L.A: What advice would you give a young ad creative starting out?
Karpat Polat: The biggest obstacle in the way of creativity is fear. And whatever anybody else says, fear comes from experience in advertising. That's why some creatives become boring and more resistant to new things when they get older. Don't be like that. Don't be the guy who knows everything. Don't be the guy who fights with demons in his past. Stay as a kid.
L.A.: Why are you creative?
Karpat Polat: I have no idea.