Everyone needs a Brazilian: the South American creative invasion

Blazing a trail with his rock-star status and acting as an inspiration to following generations, Brazilian Washington Olivetto is among a cohort of South American creative leaders who, attracted by London's openness and diversity and the quality of advertising, have taken the helm at UK agencies.

In the summer of 1992, Brazil's dance floors were heaving to a hit song named after an ad agency. The track reignited the career of pop star Jorge Ben Jor, who had written the lyrics after performing at one of the agency's parties: Alô alô, W / Brasil [Hello hello, W / Brasil].

The inspiration for that song came from W / Brasil’s president and creative director, a man so influential and famous that he was kidnapped in 2001 and held for nearly two months before being rescued in a police raid. Washington Olivetto (pictured, above) is the godfather of Brazilian advertising, a pioneer who elevated the country’s creativity to the international stage.

As one of the most awarded advertising professionals in the world, he inspired a generation of creatives in Brazil, and greater South America, to follow him into the industry.

"He was an inspiration to most of us," Jose Miguel Sokoloff, chief creative officer of MullenLowe Group UK and a native Colombian, says.

Two years ago, Olivetto left his home country and moved to London, where he serves as a consultant at McCann Worldgroup. He lives in a Georgian townhouse near Sloane Square, with a Japanese garden and walls lined with an eclectic collection of paintings, including a piece by German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Despite spending most of his life in Brazil, Olivetto professes his love for London and calls UK advertising the "best in the world".

Though nearing the end of his career, Olivetto is a beacon for other South American creatives making their home in the UK. London has long been a destination for ambitious South American talent, but there is a new wave of creative leaders from the continent who have taken the helm at agencies here.

"In my generation, moving to work abroad was an exception. Today it’s normal," Olivetto says. "The great dream of creative people in Brazil is to work outside [the country]."

But when Olivetto was forging his career, he had a different dream. He turned down job offers in New York, preferring to create work in his native Portuguese language. He harboured ambitions to help make Brazilian advertising a global player.

At the age of 19, Olivetto wrote his first commercial, which won a bronze Lion at Cannes. By the age of 22, he had won his first gold Lion. He went on to become one of the most-awarded admen of all time, with more than 50 Cannes Lions, and is in the top three most-awarded people when it comes to Film Lions wins. His achievements helped put Brazil on the industry map, changing the game so that "the real competition in Cannes was among the US, UK and Brazil", he says.

"Winning in Cannes made [Brazilian] advertising an export product. It was catapulted to a mainstream profession that people know, cherish and root for," Hermeti Balarin, a partner at Mother London, who is also from Brazil, says. "These people then became superstars and reached celebrity status."

At the height of his fame, a São Paulo restaurant named a dish after Olivetto, and in 2011 the Brazilian post office produced a stamp with his name printed on the side. Olivetto says he achieved success by creating popular campaigns that grew businesses but also "put the consumer first". Those included work for Nestlé, The Salvation Army and cleaning brand Bombril, which was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the campaign longest on air with the same lead character, Bombril’s Boy.

The agency Olivetto founded in 1986, W / Brasil, became one of the biggest and most awarded shops in the country for more than two decades. In 2010, McCann bought W / Brasil, merging the agencies to form W / McCann.

"Brazilians are very receptive to advertising," Olivetto says. "A mix of races produces people with a good sense of humour, who are musical, sensual and very receptive to communications."

In some ways, Brazilian and British people are kindred spirits – they share a similar sense of humour, love of music and irony, Olivetto says. While advertising is not the rock-star profession in the UK that it is in Brazil, in both countries it has a strong tradition of craft and plays an important role in culture.

But things are changing in Brazil, and its advertising has become a victim of its own success. "Today it is not the same," Olivetto says. "As [Brazilian advertising] becomes more international, it has lost a bit of colour. People are trying to do something more ‘translated’ than local."

Many creatives have also gone into the industry for the wrong reasons, with a hunger for awards and fame that dilutes the work, Olivetto adds. "This kind of obsession produces advertising that is brilliant for one week, not for one year. In advertising, the great pleasure is to be considered good long term," he says.

There are also bigger forces at play that are driving some creative talent out of the country. Brazil has been grappling with economic crises, high unemployment, corruption scandals and a rise in violent crime. Last year, the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the "Trump of the Tropics", was elected as the country’s president, despite having made racist, sexist and homophobic comments during his election campaign.

"I would describe it as a bit of an exodus [of talent from Brazil]," Balarin says. "A lot of people with the chance to do it there are leaving."

Brazil’s political climate is symptomatic of the rise of nationalism around the world. But for the South American leaders interviewed by Campaign, London has been an exception to that. As foreigners learning a new way of working, they have found the UK capital to be an open place that fosters world-class creativity.

"We’ve never felt foreign," Balarin says of himself and his wife and creative partner Ana. "London is so much better for welcoming different cultures. They do it without blinking."

Yet trading cultures and working abroad should not mean losing the flavour of your origins, Olivetto insists. He has stuck to the principle that "the best way to be very international is to be very local. If you are local you are more interesting," he says.

Well after reaching the world stage, he has never forgotten his home.

'The opportunity to mix two cultures is absolutely mesmerising'

Ana and Hermeti Balarin

Partners, Mother London

Ana and Hermeti Balarin, partners in both work and marriage, got their first big break in the UK. However, it could have gone a very different way.

Both initially went into advertising in Brazil but Ana left the industry after becoming disillusioned with its fixation on money and fame. "It was a very glamorous profession, and people were in it for the wrong reasons," she says.

By the time Ana and Hermeti had started their careers, Brazilian agencies’ obsession with winning awards had reached a fever pitch. "If you are in advertising [in Brazil], you are in the business of winning awards. That’s often your brief," Ana says. "The average person on the street here [in the UK] has no idea what Cannes Lions is. In Brazil, many people will know the weight it carries."

Hermeti was also put off by what he saw as a distortion of the profession when he was on a placement at W / Brasil. He was meant to be there for six months, but after two months his stint was cut short to give his place to the niece of a celebrity. "I just picked up and said, ‘I’m leaving’," he says.

In Brazil, advertising is also seen as "a way to get out, a ticket to other places", he adds. Inspired by a former colleague who had gone to the UK, Hermeti moved here in 2003. Ana followed the next year, and got a job as a physiotherapist in the NHS.

After splitting with his creative partner, Hermeti persuaded Ana to return to advertising and work with him as a team. The two started on placement at Mother London in 2007. They rose through the ranks, and in 2015 the agency promoted them to be its first executive creative directors.

Ana says it took them longer to succeed after moving countries because "we had to relearn everything". "It was about rewiring my brain entirely," Hermeti says. "I came in with an immaculately put-together book, that was printed and bound, but I had to throw it in the bin. The agencies I wanted to work for were after the next chapter, and my work was more formulaic."

He recalls an incident when he presented an ad to a creative director that was painstakingly crafted and coloured in with marker pens. When they discovered how long it had taken Hermeti to make it, he reprimanded him: "That’s time you should have spent trying to have another idea."

That experience taught Hermeti that the idea and strategy should come before the craft. "If you’re not amazing at finishing or artworking, you’re a nobody in Brazil – it’s five jobs in one," he says. "The feedback I got here showed me to put my brain first. If they like your ideas, you can Photoshop them."

Early in their London careers, Ana and Hermeti referred often to a book called Watching the English to give them shortcuts to British cultural references. They even used it when working with Mother’s former client Boots on a brief to tap into the pulse of the nation.

Over time, they have overseen some of the most lauded British ad campaigns in recent years – from Moneysupermarket.com’s "You’re so Moneysupermarket", named Campaign’s Campaign of the Year in 2015, to last year’s "FCK" for KFC.

"Advertising in this country has always been spectacularly smart, because it has a place at the business table," Hermeti says.

Hermeti says he brings "a big dose of Brazilian sunshine and optimism" to his leadership style, while Ana is more measured. "There’s scepticism in the British public that pushes you to go further – like ‘you need to outsmart me’, not just wrap it in pretty paper," she says.

Optimism blended with scepticism might be "the perfect recipe", Hermeti says. "You can use the best of two cultures to have a better result, dialling up and down both sides. The opportunity to mix two cultures is absolutely mesmerising."

'I've adopted this culture as strong as I have my own'

Andre (Dede) Laurentino

Chief creative officer, Ogilvy UK

It wasn’t the rock star-like Washington Olivetto who inspired Dede Laurentino to go into this profession – it was late-1980s British advertising.

While growing up in Olinda, Brazil, Laurentino studied English and started teaching at his school at the age of 15. As part of a teacher-training course, he spent six months in Edinburgh. That’s where he saw British ads for the first time and began recording them to use as teaching material in his classroom.

"I still know some of those ads by heart," he says, quoting an old radio ad for a Scottish car dealership. "They played with language – it was fun. So I came back home and said I want to do advertising."

So Laurentino went on to find work at ad agencies. Although he no longer needed to use English in a professional capacity, his passion for the language endured, and he read works by Shakespeare and Graham Greene, copying down the words he didn’t know. "I would walk along the beach, memorising all the bits of Shakespeare," he says. "I was a proper Anglophile, drinking tea at 28 degrees Celsius."

Even so, he never tried to move to the UK: "I wouldn’t even apply for jobs there; it’s like not playing the lottery, because I know I won’t win."

Laurentino’s career in Brazil skyrocketed. He worked as an art director and copywriter, creating campaigns for brands including Banco Real and Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM). He won 30 Cannes Lions and seven D&AD Pencils. Outside advertising, Laurentino published a novel.

Then, in 2007, the agency where Laurentino was working, LewLara, was acquired by TBWA. For the first time in his career, his English came in handy. A few years later, he was offered an interview for the executive creative director role at TBWA\London.

"I nearly said no," he says. Burnt out by his job, the prospect of starting from scratch in a new country seemed exhausting. At the end of 2010, he called his father to tell him he wasn’t going for the interview. "His line was: you have been preparing for this your whole life, and when it finally comes you’re going to say no? You will regret this for the rest of your life," Laurentino recalls. "He made so much sense that I immediately hung up and said we’re going."

Laurentino got the job and moved to London in 2011. Three years later, he became global ECD for Unilever at Ogilvy, and in 2018 the agency promoted him to UK chief creative officer. At first, working in the UK was an adjustment, and many nuances in communication were lost on him. "What took me the longest to understand was that ‘perhaps’ isn’t perhaps. ‘Perhaps we should try something else’ means, ‘let’s do something else’," Laurentino says.

He, on the other hand, has "all of that typical Latin, over-the-top passion". He says: "I would communicate things probably in too direct a way when I got here at first, which might have unintentionally upset some of my team." Now, he adds, he "can tune in better".

With Brazil’s current economic and political situation, Laurentino has noted a spike in creatives from his home country trying to move to the UK. The assets they offer are passion and "an absolute can-do attitude", he says. As MullenLowe’s Sokoloff notes: "Everyone needs a Brazilian in the building."

"Brazil hasn’t got the luxury of money, so you do it yourself," Laurentino says. "A Brazilian art director knows everything, from how to work with a print shop to how to operate Adobe Illustrator. He’s the designer, the retoucher and the art director."

The downside to that way of working is "you don’t go deep enough", he continues. "Here, you can go deep, because you think a lot."

In 2017, Laurentino became a British citizen, and says that "when we move abroad, we bring everything else that’s us". He says: "I’m in love with where I come from culturally." Yet he adds that, here in the UK, he identifies "with everything from the brickwork to the tea". It’s an interesting parallel that Laurentino’s aforementioned novel is about three characters with identity crises. Laurentino can relate to these splintering identities.

"I’ve adopted this culture as strongly as I have my own. I can’t say I’m more one than the other," he says. "How can two such different things co-exist? I’m either/and instead of either/or."

'I see elements of every country here'

Guillermo Vega

Chief creative officer, Saatchi & Saatchi London 

Guillermo Vega arrived only recently in the UK, having moved here in October to join Saatchi & Saatchi London. But adapting to a different culture is nothing new for him. The UK is his fourth country of residence, having previously worked in his home city of Buenos Aires, as well as São Paulo and New York. "Home is confusing right now. I feel at home in multiple places," he says.

Earlier in his career, Vega spent more than 13 years at Young & Rubicam, rising from a creative director in Buenos Aires to overseeing the Latin America region from the New York office. Lured by the prospect of entrepreneurship, he helped found the São Paulo branch of Wieden & Kennedy and 72andSunny’s New York office.

In his home country, the ads that made Vega’s career included work for MTV and condom brand Tulipán. He says there are surprising parallels between Argentinian and British styles of advertising, from the behaviour of creative departments to the presentation of ideas. "Teams in the UK and Argentina start with a clear concept. It’s all about concepts and how it applies to the idea. That felt like coming home," he explains.

Vega’s varied experience means he is able to adopt elements from the advertising scenes in every country he has known. In Brazil, he was put off by the celebrity status of creative leaders but loved the craft. The US was more systematic and organised, while Argentina embraced lateral thinking.

But the UK, he says, is special, because "it is the place where advertising was created". "I see elements of every country here – it has a little bit of everything. The UK is metaphorical, smart, emotional, and the craft is amazing."

It is also the most diverse place Vega has worked, he says, pointing to the creative teams at Saatchi & Saatchi who come from all over the world. "In that way, I find the country very open," he adds.

Vega is determined to keep an open mind as he settles in. "When I’m new to a country, I try to say what I think but also ask a lot of things. I like to come fresh. I can add a new perspective but also learn," he says. "If you want to make the same thing everywhere you go, you will die pretty quickly."

Recently, Vega watched McQueen, a documentary about fashion designer Alexander McQueen, for the first time. Seeing it while in London gave the film a deeper resonance that left him bright-eyed and full of wonder about his new home.

"You gain something when you move. You lose things also – my friends and co-workers. But you meet a bunch of people, and you can watch the Alexander McQueen documentary and understand it," he says. "Every time something like this happens to me, I feel grateful. It’s a gift that living in other countries gives you."

'When you work in Colombia, you have to show where things have worked before. Here, you're inventing this shit'

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Chief creative officer, MullenLowe Group UK

Drug lord Pablo Escobar was among the forces that took Jose Miguel Sokoloff home. Amid an exodus of foreign talent at the height of the Colombian conflict, Leo Burnett recruited Sokoloff to move back to his native country from Canada and take the chief creative officer role in Bogotá. Years later, he was a persuasive voice in making peace.

With his agency Lowe SSP3, Sokoloff created ad campaigns on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to end the guerrilla war in Colombia. They included "Operation Christmas", which lit up trees in the jungle with a banner reading "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise"; and "River of light", which floated a raft of glowing balls, filled with gifts and messages from family members, down the rivers that the revolutionaries travelled. These savvy marketing tactics helped convince thousands of guerrillas to put down their weapons and return home.

Sokoloff gained international recognition for these efforts, delivering a TED talk about them in 2014. Before that, he built a successful career in Colombia creating campaigns for brands including Renault, Shell and Postobón, the country’s largest beverage company.

Such work sets an example of South American creatives’ "fighting spirit" he says. With smaller budgets, creative departments are used to "thinking locally and nimbly" to get things done. "Most of our creative development has been in the fringes, through print, radio, activations or stunts," he explains. "Over time, that’s become the rule and what we admire. South American creatives got a head start."

In 2011, Sokoloff widened his scope as president of MullenLowe Group’s global creative council. That set the stage for his big move to London two years ago, when he took over as the agency’s UK creative chief (while retaining his creative council role). Since being here, Sokoloff has found that creatives "have to push a lot more" to get good work made.

"In the UK, there’s less of a ‘let’s just do this’ attitude. There’s a stronger culture of ‘no’ than ‘yes’. People are always telling you why you shouldn’t do things as opposed to just doing them," he observes. "I miss a little bit of the hustling."

Sokoloff is optimistic that the "fighting spirit" in his blood will carry through here. "I hope that’s something I’ve brought – the joy of saying: ‘Damn, we can get around it. We found a way of doing it within the restrictions.’"

Finding his feet in the UK, a more sophisticated market, pushes Sokoloff to raise his game, because "when you work in Colombia or a country removed from the centre of the galaxy, you have to show where things have worked before. Here, you’re inventing this shit."

He says he has also been "amazed" by the diversity of the UK ad industry and greater gender equality compared with Colombian agencies.

"In our department, we have people from six continents, speaking 16 languages. That’s so fucking cool," he says. "We all come together around the work and if it matters. This is the ultimate filter."

'I always start with a human truth. It's a little dirty, and you can't clean it'

Rodrigo Sobral

Global chief creative officer, Oliver

Rodrigo Sobral got his start in advertising at an early age, landing a job at a Brazilian ad agency at just 15.

"I was making the shittest print ads and TV spots you could possibly hope for – about car wholesalers – filmed with a shaky camera, and the owner of the shop would normally be in the frame," he recalls. "But I fucking loved it."

The glamour of the Brazilian ad industry attracted him at the beginning of his career. Like many others, he was inspired by figures such as Washington Olivetto and his agency W / Brasil – "one of the places every boy would dream of working".

"It was like you were a filmmaker," Sobral says of the role’s status in the 1990s. "It was the only job that if it was 10pm and you were still working late, there was something cool about it."

After a decade in Brazil, the chance to move abroad "came out of the blue", he says. It started when the boutique agency he had opened at the age of 24, Loo/SP, won several Cannes Lions in 2004 for AOL and the São Paulo Zoo. Within a year, Sobral went from relative anonymity to a hot creative leader, ranked as one of the Top 20 Creative Players by Brazilian publication Meio & Mensagem. Loo started working with international clients, and in 2005 Sobral moved to London as creative director at Unit9.

The enormous challenge of his decision presented itself as soon as he got on the plane from São Paulo to London. "The flight attendant asked me something and I didn’t understand a bloody word of what she said. She kept repeating herself until I finally understood that all she was asking was whether I wanted beef or chicken for dinner," Sobral says. "That was the moment I realised I was in trouble. I was terrified."

His first year in the UK was frustrating because he struggled to articulate his ideas clearly in another language, Sobral admits. He had gone from being "an accomplished creative director running a successful agency, to swallowing my pride and starting again", he says.

He was helped by an English tutor who came into the agency, and later decided to change professions and become a copywriter like Sobral.

"It took me a good three years to get comfortable in my English," Sobral says. "When I did, everything changed. It was like I got my mojo back."

Aside from this hurdle, Sobral says he has found similarities between Brazil and the UK’s creative cultures. But the benefit of growing up in Brazil, which tends to have smaller budgets, is it "forces you to think outside the box", he says. "It’s easier to break the rules because you don’t have money."

His nigh-on 15 years in London have included five as executive creative director at R/GA, during which the agency tripled in size and won more than 200 creative awards internationally. For example, work for Beats by Dre became some of the most renowned sports ads in the past decade. With Beats’ "The game before the game", Sobral drew on experiences from his own childhood in Brazil.

"Tapping into culture is such an essential part of what I do. I draw references for my work from everywhere – entertainment and music to politics or anything in between," he says. "However, I always start with a human truth, because it keeps you grounded. The truth is not always perfect. It’s a little dirty and uncomfortable, and you can’t clean it."

Cultura

South American leaders share cultural recommendations from their homelands

Dede Laurentino: The Brothers by Milton Hatoum, a novel about a Lebanese family living in the Amazon, shows how unexpected Brazil can be. To go back further in literature’s history, author Clarice Lispector is the Virginia Woolf of Brazil.

Ana and Hermeti Balarin: The Mechanism, a drama series about police who uncover a widespread corruption scheme involving the Brazilian government, should be your next Netflix binge-watch.

Guillermo Vega: Literature is really good in Argentina, exemplified by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. There are a lot of good movies, too – two of my favourites are El Bonarense and Nueve Reinas.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: Colombia has become to music what Argentina is to football. Since Shakira it’s become a crazy thing. Carlos Vives is representative of Colombian musicians’ joyful spirit.

Rodrigo Sobral: Anitta is breaking new ground in Brazil’s music scene. She’s working with producers who also work with top US pop stars and have helped to elevate the quality of production.

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