Text Jānis ‘Pikaso’ Lipšāns, edited by Will Mawhood (exclusively for LADC and Veto Magazine) Photos Dace Plinka
I go to pick brazilian creative director Roberto Fernandez up from the hotel lobby after a night out with fellow advertising professionals from Latvia. When it came to a game of table football at one of Riga’s night locals, what seemed to be a sure win by the Brazilian native, turned out to prove me wrong, with the women getting the upper hand in a series of friendly match-ups. Laces out. I know… Anyway, you get the point.
It’s only a short walk to reach our chosen destination for the sit-down conversation, “Robert’s Books” – a cosy second hand book-store in the heart of Riga. There’s not much to observe on our way, yet I get a chance to listen to Beto sharing his views on architecture, for in comparison to Riga, his native city of Curitiba lacks the continuity of the architectural sights one can appreciate during a city tour here. Its face has been shaped by far too many distinctive egos and lacks the guidance of a single person in charge to direct the picture.
Diversity is welcome (to make sense), and it is my pleasure to sit down for a conversation with a legend in the field of advertising whose body of work has won countless awards and given the world a reason to invest themselves in actually watching advertising. I don’t mean to brag, but hey – the most watched advertising campaign ever. Period. I mean, who is this guy? Diverting.
Along came Beto
I was thinking to myself when it suddenly brought a smile on my face for the way it sounds when pronounced with a Latino accent (goes on to impersonate an imaginary character when addressing by name) but, nevertheless, on a truly serious and sincere note, could you give me a sense of how little Betito was brought up, and as you grew older, what the surroundings were which played a crucial role in shaping how you look at the world and made you the man you are today?
[Laughing] I was born in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state. I have five siblings and I myself have a twin brother, so that right there already made my life a little bit different, and attracted attention from others – we are identical twins, people would often come up to us for a chat. I come from a poor family, but I think that the very thing that defined me the most when I was growing up was the fact of being a twin. From a very young age, I pushed my twin brother and he pushed me to go beyond. We’re very competitive in a good way – I don’t want him to lose, I just want to beat him. I want him to do well and I want him to do even better. Even in school, when we were in Math class and, let’s say, I received a very good grade, I was not happy until I saw his grade and I knew if I had beaten him or not. Eventually, this sense of competitiveness had me and my twin brother to be the first-ones from our family to land in a university.
I can imagine that was a huge thing – it must have made your parents proud…
Yes, of course, and after us my other brothers came along to achieve the same. Anyhow, at one point me and my twin brother, when we were still little, we started drawing cartoons. That became like my first job and my twin brother was like my first boss, constantly pushing and directing me in a way. So, in that sense, it got me thinking about – if you wanna be good at anything, you gotta dedicate yourself to it, for many hours, then you will evolve.
So, working on your craft, pushing the limits…
Yes, and that was sort of the starting point of becoming an art director. I started to dedicate a lot of hours to studying art – the history of art, any kind of cartoon art, comic books. I have a collection so big that it wouldn’t fit on that shelf [points to a large bookshelf at Robert’s Books], but of course that’s all at my father’s place in Curitiba now. I read all of them, so through that I developed a passion for reading and got into more serious books later on, becoming more analytical. For example, looking at ways that some guys designed characters, how they used wordplay; where to put the title, how they were made to fit in, the overall look of cartoons and comic books. I studied it because I wanted to be good at it. And again, this is a lesson of art direction, so I guess my career started there.
So, does that make you genuinely self-made in terms of studying your craft, or…
No, I studied advertising, but by the time I went to university I was pretty sure already that I wanted to work in advertising. Cartoons had opened some doors for me – I was present at art exhibitions and my drawings would end up in the local newspapers. I got some sort of authority, giving interviews to local TV stations at the age of fifteen, appearing in the news and being on the cover of a newspaper – things like that. Eventually, people started calling us to offer jobs, like, things to do…
Freelancing through your teenage years, if you will.
Yes, and all the things ended up being somehow related to design and linked to advertising. So, naturally I started doing advertising… For instance, OK – there’s this shopping mall and they like your sketches – can you do a poster for us for Father’s Day? So, that was that. And I loved the fact of getting paid well for advertising. It is not the case with drawing cartoons. So, you could say that we decided to go into advertising to have a life and to have money in order to fund ideas of our cartoons. That was the plan. But we started to fall in love with advertising, to fulfill our creative quest through advertising, and we’ve never come back to cartoons since.
Right. On another note, music is a huge thing in Brazil as well…
Playlist by Elvis Zants – Elvi Soulsystems. Never been to Corcovado.
So has it influenced and inspired you to some extent?
Music affects most Brazilians, and I learned to play guitar along with my twin brother. Of course, music has a huge influence on how I think, because the way they write music is a lesson in copywriting. It is very smart, especially the great musicians, like the bossa nova musician Vinícius de Moraes who is a poet, or Chico Buarque. You learn a lot from them about how to take a topic and have a clever take on it. For instance, during the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964 – 1985) it was forbidden to protest against the government, but they would disguise the protest in the lyrics, so that it would sound like a love song unless you knew what it really meant.
It does remind me of the Soviet occupation years in Latvia and the Baltic states – artistic ways of wicked roundabouts how to trick the system, push one’s message through and get your point across to reach the masses – a creative way of spreading your message without being compromised.
Exactly so! So, you have a problem – just like in advertising – you have to find a solution to it, and you have to crop so it does the job. And music does that beautifully. Apart from the intelligent side of it, people are also very passionate about music. As a matter of a fact, people in Brazil are very passionate in general. I get this a lot of times, say: why are you so passionate about it? But I just think I am normal. People from Brazil, we talk like that – and that naturally translates into our music. You go for what you feel and believe in. That loose spirit is good for creativity. So, I guess all of this has had some influence on me.
In relation to advertising, I figure that a lot of times the client would put you in a certain frame and challenge that creative spirit within you. Imagine proposed an interesting way of looking at the problem, but you end up having your ideas blocked.
I don’t really think that they don’t want us to be inventive or to make something cool. The thing is, several clients at the very beginning of their businesses behave like a different animal. There’s a point of view, ambitions, and when there’s job to be done, they are so afraid of the problem that they start putting up some limitations and barriers – sometimes even without perceiving it. It’s not that they want you to do exactly what they are asking for. Remember when (Henry) Ford said: ‘‘You can have any color you want as long as it’s black’.’ So, I think I’m giving you freedom, but I’m not. Often enough, clients don’t think they are limiting, and very often it is that I show them this on the briefing day. I usually take the brief, work for some days, and when we come back together for a session they are very, very, very picky about almost every single part of it. Now, this is not fair. I took the brief with my open heart, trying to come up with ideas and now you are being very picky with me. So, I learned to be very picky myself on the briefing session. I am not saying I’m not doing what they ask for, but I make them understand. Like – I wanna make a campaign that will go viral; I want the whole world to talk about it, it’s for a shampoo brand and you can do anything you like, you have freedom. But don’t forget that it’s a global campaign, so we have to have a TVC script and the storyboard approved. We have to start with… we have an expert, and the expert needs to identify a hair problem and give an insight into the problem which leads to the expert using that ingredient in this product… and we have to mention the product, show the product… to show before and after, and… that’s it. But you are free to do whatever you want.
[Laughing] Why bother?
I say “that’s OK, but let’s just get rid of the global, viral campaign.” Because it will never happen with this. So, don’t even go for it. Define expectations. Don’t expect big things out of your brief, because you simply will never get there. – No, but that’s what I want. – OK, so then we have to compromise something on this brief. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. There are times when I see the client wants to go for something basic. And I go for it. But when I deliver it to them, the client complains that the agency is cheating, it is not being creative. But it is so often when I would give you ten crazy ideas, we’d have several sessions where we would fight over them, but in the end we would agree on doing the same shit we had on Day Three. So, why waste time?
Sounds like you have to do a lot of educating for the clients.
We have to have clever, intelligent people on both sides. Several times the client has taught me a lot of things. And I teach a lot of things to them. It is about defining our common ambition for the project. In the end, when you talk about the brand, it is not about ten, twenty executions – you don’t need that; you need only one idea. Like, the REI #OptOutside campaign in America, closing all stores during Black Friday, including online.
This reminds me of another one – Patagonia with their “Don’t buy this jacket” case also during Black Friday, and the notion of sustainability through their Common Threads Initiative.
This is good!
Yes, indeed! OK, so let’s go back to your example…
Yes, so… They closed all the stores so that everybody would spend time outdoors, have their customers and employees – everybody goes outdoors – ‘cause we believe in it. The whole world spoke about it, and it generated massive amounts of PR. And as far as I’m concerned, that was the only idea I heard from them. I didn’t hear any other idea. That idea put that brand… I had never heard about this brand before, but now I got to know the brand because of one idea. So, all it takes is one good idea per year. But you have to challenge your work to get better and better. You have to do two things at a time – you have to make your work go from shit to average to good, but in the meantime, you have to do one piece of work that will put you on the map, make you stand out. The best brands do that. One piece of work that is outstanding. The thing is, consumers are struggling to find time for brands in their lives. They are trying to erase them, get rid of them, to avoid them.
Let me ask you then – why do we need advertising at all?
Advertising, if you really think about it, at the very start was about educating people, because of the Industrial Revolution, given than before that it was all rather simple, it became more and more sophisticated. A hairdryer – what is this shit for and how do you use it?! So, you had to educate all people. Say, this is a computer and it can do this and this for you. The ad had to educate you to make you understand what is it for and that it can do the job. Now, today everybody knows about 95-98% of the products that are around them, I don’t have to tell you what it is for. Nowadays, advertising campaigns are about the brand. We used to have one option for every product, but now there are several, so you have to make a choice and that choice can be made out of several reasons. For the last twenty years it was about showing brand excellence or creating a notion of excellence. Take NIKE for an example – they create a sensation about their product to give you an idea that their product is better, and that it is not the case with the others. Now we have come to a point when you can’t really tell the difference between the brands, because they copy each other and have become kind of the same.
Nobody stands out.
Exactly. So, you have to find a new reason to choose one! That’s why brands started to take a stand – let’s say, I stand for LGBT community causes.
OK, so something I can associate with…
Yes! OK, so let’s say – you hate gay people. But you love the fact that people have rights. This is why advertising is very important, you have to make sense of it all and differentiate. Like, what’s the best camera – all of them do amazing things, they are kind of similar. So, what’s the best brand? You have to find an emotional connection – 90% of ads are still trying to present why my product is better than the competition and consumers are not willing to listen to that.
The Dove campaign, which, as far as I understand, is the most watched advertising campaign ever – I was just blown away, my sincere compliments!
Oh, thank you!
What the campaign really stands for, it’s just beautiful! I am not even thinking about the product. It gets me to think about the underlying message. But you got me emotionally engaged with the brand.
Right, exactly! So, just think about this – you see a person in the street, you don’t know that person, you don’t know what he/she stands for or what he/she does, you don’t know if you can trust the person. You don’t know! Now, think about an uncle who you see once a year, but who your parents always tell great stories about. You develop a relationship with a person whom you barely see. So, if you compare your uncle with a stranger in the street, you have an emotion, you already have empathy towards your uncle. I like you!
I almost know you!
Right! So, if you think about Coca-Cola… Just think about that – you buy a liquid that is black. You give your kids a liquid that is black. Just think about that! Try to launch a brand today – a soda for kids that is black. You’re gonna go like – oh my God, no way! For kids you ought to have somewhat a fruity colour, black means bad for a liquid. But over a period of time they create something that you don’t even think about it. It’s a natural thing for Coca-Cola to be black, you don’t even think about it. You don’t think. But what other liquid there is that you are drinking and it’s black? There is none. (To be fair, as I transcribe this, some do come to my mind – for example, coffee or Riga Black Balsam, but it doesn’t constitute the point – J.L.)
Purity, transparency… brands that advertise being healthy go for fruity colours, and Coca-Cola is the most consumed beverage in the world and it’s black. You don’t judge. You trust. What do they put in it? You don’t know. But you trust.
Well, there have been a lot of examples presented to show how it is bad for you…
I know, I know, but bear with me for a second – it is still the most consumed beverage in the world and it is black. You may be able to prove that it is bad, and they should be out of business, yet they are not. Because they create a connection. It’s like your uncle who has some issues, but you love him. You trust him. Advertising does that. One thing I am thinking about though… if you want to do something for good, just like, for instance with Dove – it’s not just a superficial thing at one end. That’s the problem with a lot of brands these days, they are doing superficial things. They go like – oh, OK, everybody is talking about the Mexicans and the border…
The wall… and I’m gonna do something about it. So, how many Mexicans have you hired for your company? You have to commit to the topic. Just doing an ad is superficial. Dove changed the whole company based on the campaign – starting from hiring staff to creating a foundation and raising money for the cause – they took that shit seriously and it’s good. There are huge opportunities for us to do meaningful things. But also, I think ads should entertain you. We used to have an amazing joke that during the commercial break, you used to laugh more during the break than during the show. Now, when was the last time you laughed off during a commercial break?
Man, I am sick and tired of them, I just want to change the channel.
Because they look all the same and they keep talking about the same things – how their lip gloss is the shit to have – but you don’t want to talk about that. Going back to my example about the uncle, he is coming up with jokes and you wanna be around him. I can’t wait for him to show up and tell the best jokes, and a brand can be like that. Why not?
Why do you think brands are afraid of that?
I think the whole industry became concerned with saving their jobs. They invented rules to save their jobs and started following them.
And everybody takes it seriously…
Say, a chemical company which is polluting it out there says that they are changing their ways to become green and environment friendly. So if I was that company and said that, everybody would look at me and say: “Are you serious?!?” You are nothing but a bullshitter! You’ve been fucking up the environment for 30 years and now you come to say that you are green”. It’s like if Hitler in the last year of the war went like: “enough with the Jew killings. I love them; I am a nice guy.” Nobody would believe you!
So, that is the challenge that most of the creatives don’t work with – they just take the brief and do it. If you were thinking like a kid, you would probably say: it doesn’t make sense! You wanna say you’re being friendly, but at the same time you have been polluting the environment for thirty years. It’s contradictory. So, that is a good start for a great idea! Now, they would say that they are doing something good. So, what can we talk about? We pollute the environment just like all the others, but we are the only ones changing what we’re doning. So, maybe the idea is there. There is something different about us comparing to others. Aaaah, here’s the difference – we hate the fact that we are polluting. We do it, but we hate it. Hmm, that’s clever! And when you hate something, you change something. And that ended up being the core idea of the campaign.
So, you hate something so much that you wanna change it.
Exactly! And that was the campaign – they created a very catchy song and built it in animation. But the whole point of the campaign is – we hate the way we’ve gone about things, and we are committed to changing it. And that was one of the best campaigns I had ever seen. It starts with a very good observation of the issue – and don’t take the brief for granted. A normal creative would go like – OK, think green, environment friendly. Forest, trees, people breathing and trucks. They are going to try to put those two words together and come up with something. So, imagine a huge tree in the streets of New York and there’s a guy driving the tree.
[Laughing my ass off]
And everybody is looking at it… and then – the tree gets parked…
In Central Park!
And the guy presses the ignition key you use to start or stop the engine, and suddenly it is a car – a Honda. This is just bullshit! But that’s the way we normally think. So, when I see an ad like that, it teaches me a lesson. Oh, shit! That’s the way we should see the challenges and always think from a different angle. Don’t lose that child in us – restless, ambitious to understand. No, really – make me understand why are we doing this because otherwise…
It doesn’t make sense at all.
Now, from Brazil to London – do you feel like there’s a difference in how it works depending on where you’re from vs where you’re at? Did you yourself feel there were any obstacles in bringing your ideas across the ocean and planting them in the UK, or is it simply a universal thing?
I think that advertising is a global business, no matter if I’m working in Latvia, São Paulo or London – thanks to the internet you know all the references these days. But i think when you come from a known and traditional country, like the USA or the UK, you bring some sort of richness as a set of tools, because you have more elements and more tools than perhaps other countries do. More cultural references. I mean, you have to know the history of the USA and the UK even here in Latvia. If you don’t know who the President of the USA is you are a dumb person. If you don’t know who the President of Latvia is – it’s O.K. Do you understand? So, you can think of it as being unfair, because I know almost everything about them, so why is that they don’t have to know anything about me? But then again, it’s unfair also the other way around, because I have more than one reference point.
As in – why is it OK for me to know English vs. how come you don’t pick up Latvian.
But the fact that you know Latvian and you know the culture gives you a different starting point. So, should you find yourself in London, you are gonna have more starting points. Anybody can pick up a reference, like, for example – to Elton John. Even you! But only you can start an idea off of a character who happens to be a famous Latvian artist who’s done something amazing, you know! So, just as you know what’s happening here, one is to know what is happening in the big centers, like New York, London and so on. So, if you know what’s going on there and you know what’s going on in Latvia, you have something extra to offer, and that’s an advantage.
That’s an advantage right there!
It is an advantage, yes. So, I like what I got from Brazil and now that I have been in London – it’s very held back, they don’t ever compliment themselves, they are self-conscious. So, an amazing, brilliant idea in London for them is going to be “not bad”.
You can do better!
No, no, no – not bad! You present an idea – “not bad”. So, how was your holiday? “Not bad”. Like, “I went to the Caribbean islands and got crazy dizzy – not bad.“ Not bad? What are you talking about?! It must’ve been crazy awesome! That’s why i think being, for example, a Brazilian who is very passionate and outspoken about it is an advantage in London. Because you lose yourself, creativity is not used be held back, you are holding back your creative potential.
Coming back to that favorite uncle of ours, and if we are to have a take on a sense of humor, British humor does have a rather unique quality. Given that you come from a different background, did you manage to get a sense of it?
It is totally different, totally different…
But can you appreciate it?
Yes, I prefer British humor to American, but I like both. I think that as a cultural reference you have much more fun and joy, and we used to have so much joy and fun in the ads and shows. Now you don’t. I remember this one character in a Hamlet Cigars ad with his hair falling out of place while he was trying to take a photo.
It was an ad for cigars, but every ad was a joke and funny. It was so fun to watch, it’s just like watching Mr. Bean. And now you don’t see that anymore. I really long for that and I think sometimes in advertising we take ourselves too seriously. We should have more fun! Because if you want to win time in people’s lives, you have to become something that people want to see. And people want to have fun!
Right, have them engaged. Like, what’s the best pick-up line? Say something funny!
Yeah, of course! Exactly, but it should be global – I can’t use the Brazilian sense of humor because nobody will understand it.
Have you worked with China or North Korea?
No, I don’t get their sense of humor [laughing]. In Thailand they have a crazy sense of humor, but sometimes it’s fun due to that it is so not fun. [both laughing] It’s like two guys staring at each other for four minutes, and you don’t get the idea, but you still start laughing.
[Can’t stop laughing]
For them this is humor, and it works anyway, they play with some universal codes that we recognise. But people don’t recognize the Brazilian code though. The joke is about the insight. So, if I make a joke about buses that are not red, you don’t have to live in London to know that the buses in London are red. So, then you get the joke. But if I make a joke about buses that are not green – because in my hometown buses are green – you don’t get the joke; you don’t understand what I am talking about. There’s a lack of cultural connection. Or even think about Brazilian music or Brazilian humor shows – you don’t know it, you don’t get.
Right, I don’t have the insight, I am missing out on the background to understand the joke.
Exactly, so the thing I was talking about is the umbrella, it is true universally. And I guess because we are forced to be aware of American and British culture – whenever they come up with a joke you kind of recognize it. When Monty Python made a joke about Camelot you know the story, but if I tell you a joke about Saci Pererê from Brazil you wouldn’t have any idea what the fuck I am talking about. Or if I make a joke about the Queen of England – oh, yeah, I know – you understand the context of what royalty is about. Brazil is aware of the concept, having had royalty introduced during the Portuguese time, but it ended right after, so…
But perhaps humor is in misunderstanding, so if I was a guy who has no knowledge of your heritage and culture, and you made a joke, one might go and die laughing after hearing it, but I’d perhaps still would still find it funny by misunderstanding it. Like a conflict that would resolve the matter and take a funny twist.
I understand, but I am talking about real examples, so the most successful examples of jokes in Brazil never made it out of there. In Brazil they are amazing, but they never won over anyone elsewhere. Sometimes your humor resonates outside the country, like the Thai commercial or Argentinian jokes – everybody gets them – they are very much like the Brits, they diminish themselves, they are very self-deprecating and they have a line in depressive humor that everybody likes. And you relate to that feeling. You might not be like them, but you relate to that feeling – it’s universal, you know. So, that’s why, for instance, Argentinian humor is more universal than Brazilian humor.
It seems that as far as your body of work goes, you are interested in creating an emotional edge to appeal to the public with some kind of a social sustainability calling or perhaps even at the level of human nurturing with a legacy to be left behind, so that at the end of the day the very idea of selling the product is not even the point. Could you tell me what is the most troubling problem that you would like to address and solve in the world today?
I’m not trying to focus on social causes; it just so happens that the most part of my work that has had an impact has something to do with a social cause.
Say, the refugee crisis carrying a burden…
I’d love to do something on the refugee crisis and I think it’s a very, very complicated topic. Refugees need a bigger commitment. Using a refugee and telling something about it won’t solve their problem. As in, how can I really change things. I was thinking: when the UK was against taking in refugees, I had an idea of making a public poll that would basically serve as a manifesto and show their willingness to take them in, so we could see how people actually felt about it. So, in my mind, that would be something that could really help! I wasn’t planning to do it, but… umm… I’d say that my qualities are: if you want to make me laugh, tell me a great joke. If you want to help the refugees, don’t use them as a topic. Instead, find something that would help them. That’s my goal, you know.
Then again, it comes down to the fear and hatred we are fed by the mass media and politicians. Can we help people to get rid of that?
Yeah, I don’t know… I think the biggest problem nowadays is a lack of empathy. If everybody would try on the shoes of the man next to you, 90% of the problems we have today wouldn’t exist. When you think of the refugees, for instance, you think about them from your perspective. They are invading; they might bring some terrorists; I don’t want that shit around me; I just want my life to go on. But they never ask themselves: what if I was one of them, trying to get here? How would I feel? Why are they leaving their own country? Were they forced to do so? One thing though – I left Brazil because I wanted to and I can go back any time. But imagine you are forced to leave your country because…
…there are circumstances.
Exactly! Or like, umm, when they fight against LGBT and gay marriage. I mean, they don’t want the right to get married to you. They want to get married. As if you‘re going to be forced to marry a gay guy if this legislation get passed. Then I would understand your fight, but that’s not the case! Oh, no – they are going to influence our kids. Come on! You do much more shitty things that influence the kids – anytime you let your kid see a violent film, you are much worse. Gays are born with that orientation; it’s not that one learns how to become gay.
Mama, I’ve decided what I want to do after school – I will hand in my papers and go to the university and study to be gay! [laughing]
Or go study how to not become gay! [both laughing]. But this is what I’m talking about – lack of empathy, just like with the Brexit referendum. It starts by me, so we were in shock when those who wanted out won. We were in shock because of the lack of empathy – we don’t put ourselves into the shoes of those guys in the countryside who are suffering a lot because of the globalization. For them it is an enemy, destroying their lives, stealing their jobs – it brings no good. If you live in London, it has brought a lot of good things to you and it hasn’t really affected your life in a bad way. So, the lack of understanding each other led to an immature conversation about the topic. So, people in London wouldn’t take it seriously, but the guys who were suffering were fighting for good, so that’s why they won. So, the smart people didn’t give a shit about the others and had a lack of empathy. It’s the same thing what happened in America. If you compare Hillary to Trump – Hillary is fake. What does she believe in? I don’t know. She’s always saying what is right to be said. I feel like everything what she says has been written by someone else. So, it’s not the real thing. She is just like most of the brands today. Whereas Trump – even though I don’t agree with 95% of what he says, he was something true. Like, you hate Mexicans. He was saying that! Hillary could not afford to do that. So for voters, a lot of whom, are fed up with politicians, suddenly one guy is saying what he wants and truly thinks! He has courage. I mean, I hate the way he has treated women, but a lot of people see the real thing.
Well, in a way, he is not bullshitting.
He’s not bullshitting. What you see is what you get. So, that’s a lesson to take away from that case study – brands need to be more real. Do what you believe in and people will follow you. Most brands are hypocritical, though. So, if I could, I would make a massive campaign about empathy. We need more empathy in the world.
This also reminds me of a campaign in London where a hairdresser would give free haircuts to homeless people, so their appearance would change and then encourage them to go get a job/
Ah, that’s nice! I haven’t seen it, but I like it!