Matei Curtasu is the new Lead Creative for the Infinit agency in Bucharest. Infinit is one of the fastest growing independent digital groups in Europe. Matei has worked for clients such as Nike, Google, adidas, Hornbach, AT&T and CNN. Michael Weinzettl queried the top creative about his background and career so far.
Hi Matei, how did you get started in advertising, what is your background?
I come from a family of economists, engineers and army officers. As a child, I fondly remember reading books on Greek mythology, and my grandfather teaching me military strategies over games of chess. Later on, I went to the highest-ranked school for mathematics in Romania. I studied economics in high school and got accepted into Harvard. So far nothing would ever recommend me for a career in advertising, right? But I somehow ended up in Copenhagen studying marketing management – and there I was, one night at a bar, when I met someone in a suit who offered me an internship at Publicis/Reputation. I got to work under Alexander Peitersen, the agency CEO, and figured out what advertising was from working in the account and planning departments. A few months later, there was a copy of Lürzer’s Archive in the agency, and that’s how I found out about Miami Ad School Europe.
When did you start to get interested in digital media and what were your first projects in this direction. Did this happen in Romania?
I was curious about everything – typography, 3D, copywriting, product design, photography. Technology came naturally to me, I was fascinated about internal mechanisms and how things work but not necessarily how they look, which is something that I tried applying to the projects I was working on in school. Looking back now, it’s amusing to reminisce that building websites in my teens and setting up LAN parties would represent the blueprint for working in digital. Regardless, I evaluated every possible alternative, which led me to intern at Saatchi & Saatchi Moscow as a typographer, at BBDO New York as a conceptual copywriter, and at Hi-ReS! NY as a creative producer. I didn’t necessarily have a plan with what I wanted to end up doing, so I let confusion guide me. I tried things out and asked the right questions, which gave me leeway into experimenting with technologies and ways to hack it – be it a Raspberry Pi or Kinect or digital screens. Even years later, after I moved back to NY, I was working at Havas primarily with the R&D unit called MadSci Lab, as a Senior Creative & Technologist. Nowadays, I don’t believe there should be a distinction between digital and traditional, it’s all interchangeable.
Can you tell us about your time at Heimat in Germany? How was it to work for them and how did you learn about them in the first place?
Heimat Berlin was my first job out of school. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a specific agency, or even a location, I was more interested in finding the right momentum and great mentors. And I found them there. I had Kai Heuser and Gün Aydemir as my creative leaders, and Guido Heffels and Myles Lord as the creative chiefs. We had a small but tight-knit unit called Vertikal, and got to produce award-winning work for Hornbach, Google, CNN, Fanta, adidas, and many more. It came as no surprise when we were awarded Independent Agency of the Year at Eurobest, and Agency of the Year in Werben & Verkaufen.
You have also taught at Miami Ad School. How did that come about and what did you yourself learn from this experience?
After spending a couple of years in NY at Havas Worldwide, I decided to move back to Berlin and go freelance. I wrote to Niklas Frings-Rupp, my mentor and the co-founder of Miami Ad School Europe, and told him that I was in town. After hearing that I was in charge of the N8TIVE creative incubator at Havas he suggested I should start teaching at the school. For me it was a humbling experience to give something back to the next generation and share my know-ledge, as well as to learn from my students. I taught Ad Concepts and Typography, and learned patience, dedication and overall how to be a better creative leader. To quote the Tao of Wu, “the best leader is somebody who’s able to serve. If you’re truly able to serve, you’re able to lead.”
What can you say about the next generation of creatives coming up?
There’s a new wave coming up, and they’re tremendously interested in personal development, questioning what they want from life and from the people they interact with. They grew up in the financial crisis era, are very hostile to mainstream media, and a lot of them are more absorbed in facts than feelings. I notice a lot of morality, ethics and empathy in them. I like that.
It will be interesting to see how advertising will be able to draw them in. Advertising can’t advertise itself as a prospective career anymore, especially in the decade of live-streaming and becoming your own creator for your own personal brand.
Young people understand the media like no one else. TikTok, Twitch, even as I’m writing this, a lot of them are getting on Firework. By the time this interview gets published, who knows, maybe it will have gone under, maybe it becomes the social platform of 2020.
Who were your idols in or outside the world of advertising when you grew up?
A lot of factors shaped my views on life. Off the top of my head, my references came from Buñuel and Fellini’s films; Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard’s philosophies; Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams’ novels; Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mike Patton’s music.
Of course I’ve read all the advertising books, and even met some of the legends, from David Lubars to Jacques Séguéla to Stefan Sagmeister – but come to think about it, the strongest impact for me came visually from the works of commercial directors such as Ridley Scott, Frank Budgen, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. My only idol is my grandfather.
You’ve worked in many places, New York, Berlin, Moscow, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and of course, Bucharest, where you are now. Did you find any differences in style/mentality or has the world in your field of work become a very homogenous one?
The West feels very predictable at this point. There’s no real difference between London, New York, Paris, etc. However, when I look at Eastern Europe and further out towards Asia, there’s a lot of exciting potential here, both in terms of creativity and mentality. I had to travel to 45 countries to realize that Romania is one of the best countries to be in right now in terms of lifestyle. I honestly believe that the Wild Wild East of Romania, Montenegro and Slovenia will become the next big thing. Obviously, we have colonies to form on distant planets, but in the meantime I’m happy to be back home.
You’ve recently become lead creative at Stefanini Infinit in Bucharest. Can you tell us about them and the challenges facing you there and also what drew you to take this position?
Infinit initially called me up for a freelance project. I met the owners Alex Cernatescu & Andrei Cernatescu and they told me about their upcoming partnership with Stefanini and their plans to expand globally. Stefanini is one of the biggest IT players in the industry, servicing clients in over 40 countries with innovative consulting, automation, cloud, IoT, AI and mobility. The joint venture is leading the current global trend of adding creative power to IT, and pushing digital transformation through global campaigns. They wanted a Global Creative Director with an international experience able to build and lead a creative unit, first in Romania and starting off next year in additional markets.
If you want to change any industry, it’s never going to come within the traditional structure. We grew the creative team three times within two months. At the same time, we’ve already started developing campaigns and projects in Spain, Brazil, US, UK and so forth, while servicing our local clients.
Why are you creative?
Creativity is honoring the human potential with which we are all endowed. Being creative is just another skill a leader has to craft, alongside consistency, personality, integrity and drive. I am creative because I just am.
Some work you did that you’re particularly proud of?
I’ve been blessed to work on some incredible projects together with some extremely talented teammates and brave clients. We created the Hornbach Hammer where we took a tank, melted it and produced a limited edition of 7,000 hammers; worked with Google to launch campaigns for Maps, Assistant and Stadia; created a TV show for Mercedes-Benz called the AutoAutoShowShow and also organized wedding proposals using the Mercedes EQC A.I. system in Las Vegas; and a bunch of other fun projects for Nike, Amazon, and Coca-Cola.
Who are some of your heroes in advertising and communication now?
Jordan Peterson, Chip Conley, Mark Manson, James Clear, Nir Eyal, Ken Robinson, Augusto Cury, Lawrence Krauss. There’s probably a lot more I omitted; and from the advertising realm, what really stood out for me lately is the news of Steve Vranakis becoming the Chief Creative Officer of Greece (yes, the country) – this is what gives me hope in creativity for the future.
But overall, I believe our society got tired of heroes and are looking for something new.
What are the things that inspire you, in your work but also in the rest of your life, or is there no separation anymore in your position?
Work inspires me. I constantly need to do something that is extremely difficult or extremely stressful or I end up in a perpetual state of crippling boredom. Now, of course, this transcends advertising and extends into other endeavors, but I never felt the need to relax. I don’t know what relaxing is. I spend as much time as possible outside of screens, meeting people and exploring new places. I invest my time in tribes of like-minded individuals – be it motorbikes, sports, planes or businesses that unite us.
What recently seen/read film/book made an impression on you?
James Clear – Atomic Habits & Jordan Peterson – 12 Rules For Life have been exceptionally beneficial and were my biggest discoveries this year.
I listen to a lot podcasts when I’m either flying or working out – Tim Ferriss Show, Rubin Report, Unregistered with Thaddeus Russell, Tony Robbins’ podcast to name a few. Paolo Sorrentino’s “Young Pope” and “Loro” are visual masterpieces; the same with Nicolas Refn’s “Too Old to Die Young” mini-series. But I also adore the El Dorado and Spaghetti Western aesthetic, I recently saw Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and was blown away. I’m writing this while listening to Gucci Mane’s Woptober II.
If you had to start over again, perhaps in a pre-digital era, what do you think you’d be doing?
I recently started flight school and am getting my Private Pilot License. It’s fun.
What is your vision for the future?
Aside from advances in technology, I don’t see the immediate future being any more different than what we see today. I do however believe transhumanism will become a thing in our lifetime and we’ll be able to upload our consciousness to a “cloud”. Simultaneously, I believe we’ll be expanding outward into our solar system and colonize the moons of Jupiter and maybe asteroid belts further out. It will be interesting to see ads for distant colonies.
I do honestly regret not being alive 100 years from now and experiencing a greater change in the human condition. Imagine uploading a conscious mind to a deep space vessel and downloading it into an android on a newly-discovered resourceful planet to continue a life there, reborn. Or maybe everything will be gone in the next five years, who knows. Science is great, but it’s nice to have some mystery and wonder left in the Universe too.