I hope you've all arrived in the New Year invigorated by the holiday season (or at least not completely depleted from all the revelry). For our first Editor's Blog of 2020, our colleague Cora Bundur has prepared an interview with Adrian Boțan, the new CCO of McCann Worldgroup, Europe. Enjoy!
Cora Bundur: Back in 2013, when asked what the challenge is for Southeast Europe, you said that the biggest challenge would be learning how to be free and how to compete in a free market. What’s the mark these past 6 years have left on those growing societies? Have they learned to build a competitive and creative class?
Adrian Boțan: Yes, I think I was referring to the challenge of being able to compete outside of this arbitrary space of Eastern Europe. Look, I believe this region is an anomaly. It exists just because someone drew a line on the map and decided to do one of the most senseless social experiments in history. Being free meant believing the Iron Curtain shouldn’t exist, and that you can compete anywhere and with anyone in this world. You know, advertising literally started in the CEE region in the 90s and we came with a huge knowledge gap, so we had a lot of catching up to do. But the digital revolution in the early 2000s opened a window of opportunity. Suddenly advertising was all about attention and not reach and frequency anymore. It wasn’t about craft and big budgets as well. This gave a chance to a different type of champions who could compete from an inferior position. And it was our historical moment.
That was us at McCann and few others around the region, around 2005-2007 and we literally took the decision to shake things up and stop competing in film, print, and traditional media and to do activations, and direct campaigns which will drive media coverage and shape culture. Attention and engagement were the new currency in a world swamped with information. That’s how we came up with stuff like American Rom and Sunday Grannies or later Bihor Couture. To come back to your question, I believe the past 5 years have been the best for this region, and if you look at Cannes, which is the biggest stage, CEE has become a constant presence on stage, winning even Grand Prix and Titanium. New Moment in Macedonia, Voshkod and BBDO in Russia, VMLY&R in Poland. But I feel that now this window is slowly closing, you see that even the biggest agencies in the US are doing stunts and activations. Burger King became one of the most famous brands in the world by manipulating media attention with what are basically sales promotions, a perfectly executed challenger strategy. But they are doing those over the Super Bowl. They have the scale. It’s almost unbeatable. So, now we have to take being the challenger to a whole new level if we want to beat that.
What else can you tell us about the creative renaissance of the Balkans? How has it developed, or rather continued to do so, over the past years?
The main challenge in this region is consistency. You know they say (I think I’m paraphrasing James Bond) “winning once is luck, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a method”. And this lack of consistency has partially to do with lack of experience, partly with the brain drain in the region, as people are leaving towards bigger markets, bigger budgets, etc. What they don’t know is bigger budgets mean more people with the power to say no (but not necessarily to say yes), so ideas are much harder to make and success looks different. But, I think this has to happen: people have to leave and learn the hard way and they might come back once to create a second creative renaissance of the region.
A few years ago, you described Balkan creativity to be “a huge melting pot”. How do you manage to sustain such a high-quality standard across a region that is so big and characterized by so many differences as Europe?
You see, Europe is this… not huge, but gigantic melting pot. It’s also the biggest common market for talent. And with talent able to move around these days with essentially zero red tape (and not only from around Europe, but Latin America or, you name it, Israel, South Africa, lots of them have European ancestry and passports) you get the best global market for creativity.
You have so many cultures and each market brings a unique POV, and at the same time, now that almost everyone speaks English, a lingua franca of advertising. I remember when we had to queue for a Visa at the British or Dutch, or Greek embassies in the 90s and I realize we came a long way to today and this is not to be taken for granted.
Maybe I’m a delusional optimist, but I think the future is towards more integration, towards more cultural diversity, and talent collaboration is a huge opportunity in Europe. So, all you have to do is make these people travel, do some creative cross-pollination and with the right culture, boom! You have great ideas! Of course, it is not that simple, haha! You also need good tools and processes, but that’s happening anyway.
My dream is to have multicultural teams pretty much everywhere around Europe. You won’t be surprised it’s already happening in London or Paris. But also in Frankfurt, Madrid, Prague or Bucharest.
And if you look at our agencies we deliver almost everywhere. We’re diversified and we’re consistent across. In the past three years, we have managed to work with the existing talent to turn around massive markets like France, Germany, Italy, and Israel. Every year we won a Cannes Lions Grand Prix but each time with a different office: Madrid, London, Tel Aviv. And a tribute to collaboration is that some of the most awarded campaigns this year are multi-office efforts: L’Oréal Non-Issue, with London and Paris or IKEA’s This Ables, Tel Aviv, and London.
What is the biggest challenge you face now as Creative Chief Officer of McCann Worldgroup?
Hmmm... tough one. The biggest challenge is being there when our clients need us, especially now that some of them are going through digital transformation. Being nimbler, more agile. Reinventing the classical agency process. We’re already doing this with some of our clients, for specific tasks. It’s intense, but we like intense when it’s producing results.
Do you see diversity as a challenge or rather as an advantage that everybody should profit on? How do you cope with this diversity in the position you’re in?
Diversity is definitely THE opportunity, but you can’t just preach diversity, you need to have an inclusive culture. You can’t create great ideas without being exposed to different points of view. I was talking about cultural diversity, but there are so many dimensions to diversity. Look for instance at our IKEA campaign from Tel Aviv, it’s exactly our diversity and inclusion mantra in action. Eldar Yousupov, the copywriter of the campaign, has been assigned to work on IKEA, but was frustrated with the limited usability of the products. One day it dawned on him that with small hacks the most iconic products could be adapted for anyone like him. The rest is history. Design history. They are now in the Design Museum in London among others.
In the almost 25 years of experience you have gathered in your portfolio, what are the major changes you can identify in this industry? What trends have emerged in the past years?
I think the world has changed a lot. But the one essential change is that mediocre ideas don’t work anymore. No matter how much media you’d put behind them and how targeted they’d be. Of course, there’s still a space for end-of-funnel campaigns, but this is getting increasingly automated, freeing creatives for creative tasks.
So, it’s all good news for creativity. I actually believe it's the best time to be in this industry. Period. Everything is up for grabs, platforms to be hijacked, disciplines blurring, and the world is your playground. Every brief is an opportunity to innovate, you’re not confined to a 30 seconds film or a poster. But at the same time you still have those 30-second ads or posters as tools to advance your idea. It’s so liberating!!!
Where do you get your entrepreneurial knowledge from? Where and how did you manage to develop it?
In communism, everyone had to become an entrepreneur. You get the irony. You cannot suppress the competitive spirit, that’s what Lenin and Stalin didn’t get. Or did they? I reckon they eliminated quite a few of their competitors, haha! In communism, nothing worked and you needed to hack the system to make it work. You were actually incentivized to hack the system. You were also forced to diversify: queuing in three lines - beef, chicken and salami - or take risks, like riding a tram hanging from outside through the open doors. And it got worse through the 90s because still nothing worked, but there was no one to enforce rules. That’s my theory, that this is the unique thing we’re bringing to the table. Subversive creativity. Plus the belief that systems are there to be challenged.
How have briefs developed over the past years? Do clients give creatives more freedom in solving their problems? Do they finally have more faith?
Trust is earned and that’s what separates great agencies from average ones. They don’t have to beg their clients to be creative. Clients choose them because they’re creative. Plus, no client is a Medici to give you a free hand to express yourself. So, blaming clients is ridiculous. We have to get better at partnering with our clients, at understanding what keeps them awake at night and become problem solvers and help them grow their business.
Do you choose the clients you work with or does it work the other way around? Would you like to have more freedom in this sense?
I think every agency has the clients it deserves. So, yes, clients choose you. But if your work and your vision are the reason, then this could be a match made in heaven. And if you really care and listen to your clients nothing is impossible. And until now, thank God, we’ve been blessed with great clients.
In a prior interview, you said that a few years ago you turned down Rosia Montana (an environmental campaign from Romania involving foreign companies) because you didn’t believe in the solution they found for the crisis, but you would like to get more involved in social causes in the future. Did you get a chance to do that? Do you plan on including social causes in the brand’s talk in the future?
Oh, yes! I remember we discussed internally and decided to pass on that brief. And I don’t regret it ever since. We might have lost some money in the short term, but we didn’t compromise on our values and our reputation. We believe in brands that play a meaningful role in people’s lives and there was nothing meaningful in poisoning lakes and forests in exchange for a few tons of gold. So, having a moral compass helps in the long run, I guess…I believe this is the Zeitgeist: capitalism needs to reinvent itself, and I think putting purpose at the core of business is the only way forward. This is not just marketing. It’s good for business and for society. Without that, we won’t have a future.
In another interview, I read you said that being a Romanian taught you how to be more resourceful and to use this subversive spirit in order to hack the system. How have you used this quality over the years and how do you think you can make the best out of it?
Hey, I spoke about this earlier. My former planner (Diana Ceausu, now in Detroit, global planning lead for GM) is bugging me to write together a book on this subject. How Romanianess plus communism created an explosive combination. I believe we have an interesting cultural heritage that collided with communism in a very unique way. You see, Romanians are natural-born hackers. Even the very existence of the first Romanian state was a hack: back in 1859 two smaller Romanian states elected the same leader making the Union a fact. Well, communism was the catalyst for this hacker spirit. You might say this is confirmation bias, but I like to believe this narrative will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You mentioned in the past that McCann Bucharest is combining the Argentinian and Israeli style in developing creativity, a combination of very entrepreneurial creativity and one based on technology. Do you plan to do the same for the development of McCann Worldgroup in Europe? What else do you have in mind?
Well, at the time I was looking for models. Challengers are not ashamed to copy, so I said: “let’s copy with pride”! I love the Argentinian storytelling and the Israeli tech and entrepreneurial focus. In the meantime, I’ve worked with Argentinean teams (Hetu and Juan) and an Israeli ECD (Roy Cohen) to make a tool for early-stage dementia patients for our client Alzheimer Society and I’m really proud of that tool. But, beyond that, I hope you can see this spirit all throughout our work.
Your golden rule is never to be a lone wolf and to learn how to work as a team. How does the new position, that of Chief Creative Officer, compliment your most basic rule?
I like to joke I’m a Chief Creative Cheerleader. Of course, I’d like to keep that title on the back of my business card, as this new position is a position of influence, not command and control. I believe you have to make yourself useful and sought after, so that’s why I’m cheerleading now more than ever: traveling and assembling teams.
What does the future hold for McCann Worldgroup, at least in Europe?
That’s an interesting one. We have just had our best year ever - #1 in every Tier 1 major regional award across Creativity and Effectiveness in the industry. And, of course, it’s impossible to beat that (as Rob Reilly kindly says, no pressure!!!). But I know the future in Europe is all about doing collaborative, multi-disciplinary work. And I believe that if we keep caring about our clients and our people, the results will come in time.