A European partnership: Andrew Dimitriou (left) and Jaime Mandelbaum.
How would you describe the creative philosophy of VMLY&R today? I know you have the mantra of “Connected Brands”…
Jaime Mandelbaum: It’s helpful to any creative organization to have a philosophy, or a ‘north star’. Once we know that everything we do is about connecting people, culture and technology – however you define technology – it gives us a goal. I think advertising has sometimes suffered from being in a vacuum; but the world doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A creative idea can’t just exist in a PowerPoint. When your mantra is connection, it takes you into the outside world.
One example is a campaign for (Seville football club) Réal Betis involving pregnancy tests. We worked out that the colour of a positive pregnancy test is also the colour of the club’s arch rival. If you’re a fervent Réal Betis fan, that’s the last thing you want to see when you’re told this amazing news. So we decided to change the colour of the pregnancy test! The point is, we were connecting with people and something they cared about, but we also had to work out the technology component…
Andrew Dimitriou: We always say that connected brands are those that connect with people wherever they are, however they want to be connected with. For us as an organization, that means we need to be the most connected company. We need to be able to connect our different capabilities with our clients, across borders. We do that by having specific practice leads – social, for example, or technology – who federate talents, but also by connecting agile teams who can answer a specific client challenge. In short, our hyper-connectivity enables us to bring the right resources together, wherever in the world they may be, against a client’s needs. That’s when the magic works for us.
What are the challenges of working with different cultures across a diverse region like EMEA?
Jaime: First, I gotta say I don’t think it’s a challenge – it’s fun. I love the fact that one day I can be speaking to the CEO of a bank in Austria about products for the over-70s, because they have an older demographic, and the next a brew master at a UK beer company. I come from Brazil, and because of our ancestry, my DNA looks like the whole of Europe mixed up in a test tube. So as an outsider who’s also kind of an insider, it gives me perspective. Because of language and budgets, it’s tempting to think of the UK as central to the region. But a great idea can come from anywhere. We’ve seen terrific work from Turkey, from Poland…In fact, the perfect idea for a client in one country might come from a place where they don’t even do business. That’s another virtue of a connected network.
Andrew: Ultimately, the beauty of a region as complex as this is that people have different points of view, because they speak different languages. That’s why the ability to speak the language when you’re in another country gives you an insight into local culture. Some of the more sophisticated marketers ship their people around, to immerse them in different cultures. That way, when they take on a global or regional role, they understand many different ways of thinking. Having a global network like ours is a useful way of accelerating that process and harnessing diversity as a driver of creativity.
Please give us an example of a campaign that defines the benefits the network brings to its clients.
Jaime: There’s a campaign for one of WPP’s biggest clients, Coca-Cola, that came out of the New York and Dubai offices and took place in Saudi Arabia. It’s “I See Coke”, based on the fact that Coke as a product is present everywhere in entertainment: movies, TV, you name it. We came up with some smart responses from Alexa, so every time somebody spotted the product and said “I see Coke”, she came back with a joke and a discount code. It’s a great idea because although it started in Saudi, it can be used by Coca-Cola anywhere.
Andrew: It’s also emblematic of how we think, because it brings technology, culture and creativity together.
Plus, you have a huge client who’s willing to innovate.
Andrew: More and more, our biggest clients and their marketing leads see creativity as the last bastion of competitive advantage. Colgate, for example, which may have done more functional advertising in the past – the benefits of brushing your teeth – is now making emotional work and winning awards. Because they realize that creativity is how you break through in a competitive environment.
The network is of course a fusion of at two different groups, VML and Y&R, in 2018. What’s the legacy of that merger today?
Andrew: In short, we’re a fully connected company: we are VMLY&R, simply stated. But it’s kind of a misleading question, because it’s not the whole story. VMLY&R was the foundation, but since then, Sudler & Hennessey has come on board to fuse with Y&R Health; Scholz & Friends in Germany has joined the family, not to mention Geometry Global, the shopper marketing and commerce agency, and KingEclient, a digital transformation company…So we are a different group. We are a company that can create and curate end-to-end customer experiences. Having access to that breadth of capabilities is phenomenal.
Jaime, you once said in an interview that creativity should make people “feel slightly uncomfortable”. Can you expand on that for us?
I don’t mean uncomfortable for the audience! I mean for us. Because when you see a new idea, it’s hard to put it in a box. It’s strange, it challenges you. It bothers you, because it doesn’t seem to fit into any existing category. A great idea should be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
How has the aftermath of the pandemic affected the relationship between consumers and brands?
Jaime: I think it accelerated a trend, which was about creating seamless experiences. I spoke earlier about the vacuum effect – and clients can exist in a vacuum too, when they compare themselves purely to their competitors. But when a supermarket customer has a bad delivery experience, they don’t compare it to another supermarket. They compare it with, say, Uber, or Spotify…so I think many companies realised they had a lot of catching up to do in order to perfect the customer experience.
What about the impact on creativity and the way you work? Are you back in the office now?
Andrew: It depends on the region, but here in the UK, from Tuesday to Thursday the office is more or less at capacity. Like many organisations we realised there are benefits of working from home, but the spirit of collaboration and connectivity – the spark you get when bouncing ideas off one another – was missing. Having said that, the upside of the remote working experience was the wider usage of platforms like Teams, which enable us to connect with colleagues and capabilities around the world far more quickly and easily.
Jaime: I agree that creativity suffered a little during Covid because we were missing – and I like this English word – “happenstance”. You’re in the office, you bump into someone, they tell you something random, and it sparks an idea. That was totally missing. The conversation in the elevator with a client, where they tell you something that seems unimportant – but turns out to be the most important thing of all. The hybrid model is perfect, because you get the benefits of global connectivity, but also the right circumstances for happenstance.