I am just surprised how the industry has managed to survive for so long without putting the strategy on the forefront

Brand transformation strategist who gives clarity in today’s marketing complexity. He develops simple brand strategies that lead to greater brand distinction and relevance across the consumer journey, for global brands such as Coca-Cola, Diesel, Ferrero, Heineken, Nestlé, Pirelli, Renault and Sky. Fluent in English, German and Italian, Béla Ziemann, Head of Strategy at Publicis Italy, talked with us about creativity and strategy going hand in hand, the strategist role and how it changed during the years, but also about failure and principles in advertising.

an interview by Romanita Oprea

Have you been to Romania before or is it your first time?

It’s my second time coming here. The first time I was shooting a commercial opposite of the Palace of Parliament for Burn Energy Drink.

What does creativity mean to you?

It’s finding this really strong differentiating insight and telling beautiful stories. It’s something you need to measure in different levels. It starts with the simplicity of the idea, nailing it on the head and then you need to go all the way into how is crafted, executed. Sometimes it’s even about the time when it’s been launched. We did this commercial for Heineken in the UK, called “Worlds Apart”, where you had people of opposite opinion, coming together and having a beer in the end, after the opposite opinion have been disclosed to them and it was a great piece of work, really creative, but I think that if it wouldn’t have been for the failed Pepsi commercial two weeks before the industry wouldn’t have picked it up as much as it did. Because for them it was the perfect moment for “this is how you can get it wrong, this is how you can get it right”. Which we try to analyze and see how important it was for the success of the Heineken piece. There are many levels that go into creativity.

So you had the idea for the Heineken commercial a long time before the Pepsi commercial was screened and failed.

The whole thought behind it and the idea came to us when UK entered the Brexit. That’s when we started to think about “open your world” and how we can give it more meaning and how we can manifest it that it loads this line with even more meaning.

We decided to wait until the most sensitive period passed, because people were struggling with the situation and then coming with it. And it just happened to be the right time. It fitted perfectly with the beer and the moment of it.

Creativity it goes a lot further than just the initial idea. It needs to be in the environment. You need to see it.

How long does it take for you to get to the right insight? Does it depend only on the project or more on the people that work on the research side of it and find the data?

It defers from one time to another. We had moments when it came really quickly, by chance. You have to have a feeling for it, to know it is right. There are also more times, for example with the Heineken “The Hero”, when it took us some months to turning the point of view on its head. Feeling how women think about drunken men. We were initially thinking about continuing the line of the successful campaigns we had the previous years, but then we got stuck and took a break, stepped about and decided to re-think it.

Other projects just happen in a week or less.

How do you think that the role of the strategist has changed in the last years? Was it influenced or not by the economic crisis or just by the evolution of the industry and the technology?

I am just surprised how the industry has managed to survive for so long without putting the strategy on the forefront. We know that UK, that is famous for its strategy people, has been delivering great commercial forever, a big part of their success being thanks to strategy. But in the rest of the industry is surprising how long it survived on the “we are creatives, trust us, we are doing good stuff”. There is only in the recent years that we had to put more proof behind of this “why creativity works only when you have creativity behind it”. Now we see the shift where strategy comes right at the forefront of the process, our Global Creative Director is somebody that strongly believes in strategy like almost the most important ingredient at the beginning. We call this <<make it right>> part of the process. And, without it, we wouldn’t go anymore, anywhere, because we would look foolish if we wouldn’t have the right argument tool.

Today, the client is asking you how can you prove what you are stating, it doesn’t take your word for granted anymore. Without being able to present it you would be out of the business. It’s essential to have strategy.

I wouldn’t link it necessary to the crisis, but more with an educated market situation, where people have grown up. The “glory” days of “we are just having some fun together” are certainly over and some of it is definitely driven by the economic crisis. But I believe that a lot has to do with offering a more professional experience.

Now we are at this turning point where we have to see if we are too obsessed with the strategy and forgetting a bit about the creative bit in it or do we manage to put the two together in a way that actually something better can come out.

So did you choose the strategy or strategy chose you?

At the beginning I didn’t even know what I wanted. I grew up in Berlin and when the wall came down it was the biggest party land you can imagine on Planet Earth and I was leaving the city thinking that I have to do something with my life and went to Hamburg and entered the advertising world, by chance, and at that time planning didn’t exist.

At the beginning in this industry it was the account man’s job to also do this part. I’ve always known that I had better discussions with creatives, they trusted me more, they were seeking my advice and we were changing opinions and I managed to better sell their products. It was always this link of me helping facilitate the creative process and the way how I was thinking about the process and rationalizing around it. And from there, it came as a natural fit to go into strategy.

What do you think are the main qualities of a really good strategist?

I think it takes a lot more than just thinking strategy. You can see people that are obsessed with the strategy part, but then we almost become this nerd type of person. I believe you need to be at the same time a good sales person, to have a good feeling about the creativity. This is the part I find the hardest when doing research for members of my team, where you almost have to make a sacrifice on one end: this is a great brain, it came out with a great strategy, is a bit of a nerd and maybe like a people geek, but will that really work in a client – agency relationship? I need to pick my choices depending on the role I need to fill in the agency. In an ideal scenario, you will have somebody who will be marrying all these together. But it’s hard to come by.

Besides the obvious cultural differences what would you say that are the main differences between the advertising in Italy, Netherlands and Germany? (I know you have experience in all these countries)

You see that all of these countries are very much culturally oriented. I would have never chosen to go to Italy, because I have a history of working for award winning agencies: I worked at Springer and Jacoby in Germany – they were the ones that laid out the floor for everything that was creative in Germany, most of today’s creative agencies in Germany came out of Springer and Jacoby. The culture of Germany is very engineering, so the problem here is to convince the clients with creative work, because they follow engineering processes, it gets to analytic. The analysis process kills a lot of creativity.

In the Netherlands, it’s certainly more open, more creative. I was working there like an expert bubble (I was working for international clients only) so I cannot tell very clear what the local culture Dutch advertising is like, even I had Dutch colleagues and I saw what they were working on. They are very internationally spirited, open-minded people, very knowledgeable about the world and they have some form of creative flavor, but, at the same time, very down to earth, almost Germanic side to the game.

I think that the good work that comes out of Amsterdam and Netherlands, what you see today, is, apart from KesselsKramer is an exception, drawn by the international agencies that are there like the Wieden+Kennedys, the Sid Lees, the 180s, those were the agencies that kind of defined the Dutch creative industry.

I would have never chosen to go to Italy, because I find that the Italian advertising is not interesting at all, I find the Romanian history a lot more interesting, I think here was driven by the cultural-political background that you had and that gave this push to the creative outcome. In Italy, when you have to follow the classical Italian structure, the killer of the creativity are the clients because they have people who have been in charge for decades and they don’t give up their position for new blood to follow or to step into their shoes. The problem for that is that there is no progress. If it wouldn’t be for Publicis in Italy, which has chosen a different path because the creative director Bruno Bertelli and Cristiana Boccassini had this ambition to make it like the first international Italian agency. And they have been rewarded with businesses like Heineken, Pirelli (won at a global level), we are discussing with the French office about Renault, we are getting more traction on Nescafe, etc. If they wouldn’t exist anymore I would have no more reason to stay in Italy.

Fun for me is really putting strategy together with great creativity and if can’t manage that to drive business than I don’t want to be the kind who is staying just for the sake of being paid.

If you were to move from Italy what other countries would you want to try, for their advertising?

I’ve always had an interest of maybe going in North America, because they are working more structured, on a hierarchy and they have some very creative work, at least some shops do. And it’s also the scale that they do it at that interests me.

At the same time, one can only imagine that the culture it might be something where you may immediately feel: “this is not me”. America for me would be this try and error after which 1 year or 2 on I might realize that it is not for me and decide to go back into Europe. Or realize that I could see myself there.

I always said I would go to Asia with my wife, as well.

How do you find inspiration?

I was always somebody who was far more interested in everything else outside the industry. I was never that person obsessed with looking at Cannes Lions or other award shows. In fact, I hardly do. Most of the work that I come by is because other people rub it into my eyes and tell me I should watch them. I was always more into modern arts, modern dance. Somebody very observing while on the streets. Wherever I go I choose to take public transport, mingle with the locals, going into it, instead of hovering about it. I am embracing cultures wherever I go.

Thanks to my parents (my father was a musician and my mother was an artistic manager at a theater where they were doing mostly modern arts, in Berlin) I took a lot of cultural influence into me.

What would you say is the power of advertising today?

Sometimes I am very skeptical myself, because we live in this bubble with our industry peers and we look at this beautiful work, but I have always wonder how many people on the streets have actually seen this and fell in love with it. These viewing numbers can be deceiving, you don’t know how much of them have been paid. I think that when it gets picked up it’s when you struck gold and did something important.

Good work you cannot avoid and it travels, but it must be put in a context that is interesting enough to travel.

There is a fear of failure in the Romanian marcomm industry. What would you say to those who are feeling it?

Humanity is so forgiving and forgetting at the same time that failure cannot do any harm. Failure can hardly do any harm nowadays, I would say. The person that suffers most from failure is almost always yourself and you will learn from it. The people around you, unless you are the person that is constantly failing, you forget fast about it. Everything blows over fast these days.

In this industry, we take ourselves too seriously.