Geoffrey Hantson (Happiness): “I believe creativity will come from unexpected places”

Geoffrey Hantson, 46, is the Chief Creative Officer of Happiness, an FCB Alliance, in Brussels and Saigon; he is also part of the creative council of the FCB global network. Geoffrey took his first steps as a creative director at Duval Guillaume in 2006. In 2010, he was named Creative of the Year. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, Duval Guillaume was named Creative Agency of the Year in Belgium. Geoffrey has won 38 Cannes Lions — 14 of which were Gold. At Eurobest, he has won an astonishing 89 awards, including three Grand Prix and 14 Gold. In 2012, Geoffrey was named to Business Insider’s list of the 25 Most Creative People in Advertising; in 2013, he made it to the top of that list, with his work lauded as “amongst the best advertising ever seen.” Geoffrey believes in the power of creativity and humanity — and in Happiness, which fuels both. 

He was a speaker at IAA Global Conference in Bucharest, 2019.

by Romanita Oprea

What does happiness in advertising mean to you and how did the idea of Happiness come to happen?

I think that the name Happiness came from one of the most underestimated values on the Universe– the happiness. It’s a fact that happiness is actually an economical leger– in the happiness index we see each year the country with the biggest happiness level has the strongest economy. The logical thing would be to believe that they are happy because they have a strong economy, but, actually, it’s the other way around. Therefore, that is the reason we called our agency Happiness: because we want to spread happiness for our brands and not in the fluffy way. I believe that if brands manage to be that meaningful that they actually make their customer happy, they will have great economic growth.

I have to catch a plane in a few hours. If they send me a text to tell me that there’s a half an hour delay and I should relax, it’s not going to make me happy, but I will understand it. But, in the same situation, if they send a me a text to tell me that I’ve been upgraded because I travel so often with that company, that is something that will make me happy.

In the last 5 years our world has changed so drastically, it became so hateful and polarized. The ones with the biggest hate speeches win the elections everywhere. And happiness it becomes an act of rebellion. You have to try it and you will see how people are cynical towards you. React with constructive positive feedback and they would look at you as if you are mad. But this is the basics of what we should do. And this is why we are called Happiness, because we are trying to keep people happy.

That is also related to humanity? As you said that you believe in the power of humanity.

I just believe that most of the humans are good. There is just a small minority that is not. The same applies in the agency. Vicious circles take you down and I think that happiness is a circle that takes you up. Especially on creativity. Creative people are addicted people. Any creative wants to make great work and want it to be seen out there. For people to love it. That is where they get their shot. The thing is that when you are happy, you are relaxed and able to do what you do best, you have hardly any concerns apart from the ones that you need to come up with the ideas in a certain amount of time and, therefore, you make greater work.

We try to continuously get people into this circle up of being happy. And I know it sounds extremely fluffy and people think that we are hippies, but we absolutely aren’t. You should come to the agency and see it’s tough. It’s hard work, because we want to be the best. If you are not extremely talented, you won’t make it. If you can’t handle the stress of having to deliver the best ideas always, you will not make it. If you don’t understand that we have to find the best creative solutions to be business problems of our clients (because we believe in the creative promise we make), you will not make it.

But, at the same time, when you make it and you are part of it, we do everything we possibly can to make sure that you are happy. We have plans for that.

So, what it’s your approach to creativity then? How hard is it not to get stressed out by the fact that you have to be creative every day and remain at that standard?

You have to be able to deal with the pressure. We started Playground. With three people. And every three weeks somebody else flies in. We are 85in Brussels and 80 in Saigon, so 60 creatives and only 2 of those 60 fly every week. You don’t have the stress of time, people don’t have schedule. You work from where you want, when you want. You just need to be there for the reviews, but even those we do them sometimes via Skype or FaceTime.

But, on the other hand, the pressure of the creative having to find the best idea, is something you cannot change. When people ask me how much time I need, I always have the same answer: 3 seconds. It’s proven scientifically that is the amount of time you need for the great idea. The problem is I don’t know when those 3 seconds will be there. A carpenter knows what he needs to do to make a closet and if he needs to finish 3 closets he will know he has a lot to work that night. But he knows, more or less, the time when he will finish. As a creative, you just don’t know.

What do you do to ignite the creativity?

The worst thing you can do is worry. For the young people is hard to make them understand that you don’t have to search the idea to find it. If the idea doesn’t want to come, it doesn’t. I am mostly letting them try to find a way to get there. It’s very different for everybody.

I do a lot of sports and for me it helps, then my head it’s processing. I have creatives that run for miles and it helps them. I also have a very strange creative that when he gets blocked and has no idea, he goes to the toilet and another who likes to shower when he needs an idea. For the young creatives, I try to tease them a little bit, to help them find their way of finding the ideas, without searching for them.

People tend to look in the same directions for solutions, but it helps if you change the perspective on the problem.

What were the best pieces of advice you think you received in your career and what advice would you give to people who try to make it in the creative world of today?

The most impressive advice I received when I was a young creative was <<you have to hear everybody, but listen to nobody>>.  And yes, I would give the same one.

How do you see the world of advertising in the next years?

It becomes more interesting, but I am afraid that a lot of the industry is still stuck in the past, still struggling with what is happening out there. I think the wind of change blows, you don’t have to build walls, you have to build a windmill. I am trying to think all the time what is the windmill we have to build, how can we be positive and constructive? We try to reinvent the agency every six months.

What was the last thing you did to change it?

It seems like everybody in advertising is saying that it’s more about performance, but I believe it’s more about creativity. Because machines and programmatic will never be creative. You have to be creative first and then use machines and programmatic to get to the performance you need. Don’t go competing in this hard, competitive environment! That’s why we started Playground. To be even more creative then we are right now.

I also believe that it will all come back again into one roof. If companies were used to give different briefs to different agencies and freelancers, if clients believed is better and cheaper to work with 10 different parties, I don’t believe it is. We, as small as we are, have everything we need. We cannot make it at scale, but we have everything internal. A client doesn’t have to talk to 10 different people continuously, explaining what the brand stands for.

Can you give us some trends for the next years?

I am afraid that we will keep on talking about data and people will misunderstand. They believe that data is THE THING. But it’s not. You can only make a brand different by putting your emphasize and creative part on it and use the data to get to the best insight, the best idea. It’s before and after, but not the thing.

My prediction is that the networks will continue to go down and there will be more room for smaller entities which are hugely creative. And I also believe that this is a big pro for Romania and for my country, Belgium. I believe creativity will come from unexpected places that are more interesting. Not from Paris, New York or London.

Therefore, today, advertising is not about becoming global, but about being more different locally and just impressing the world with that?

Yes. But at the same time, is global, because when you do something in Bucharest and you put it on the Internet it becomes global. The local doesn’t exist anymore