Lowe's Sokoloff: Moving from 'what we do' to 'what we do it for'

Jose Miguel Sokoloff.
Jose Miguel Sokoloff.

The chairman of Lowe's global creative council underlines the power of advertising to effect change and reflects on rising creativity and recognition for work from different parts of the world

Jose Miguel Sokoloff, chairman, global creative council, Lowe and Partners, was among the speakers at the Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity 2015. He discussed a project called "Rivers of Light": Bogota-based Lowe SSP3 has been working with the Colombian government for several years to persuade fighters from groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, to "demobilize."

This interview was first published in Campaign Middle East. It was edited and republished in the April 3 issue of Campaign India.

A lot of the work you have done in Colombia is truly inspirational for the rest of the world. Advertising (and marketing) for good and for change — we are seeing a lot of it from brands. Is it a corporate reality today?

Today, it has become a corporate reality. It has become a reality, not necessarily because corporations or brands want that, but because a lot of the people who are buying things care about it. We saw the birth of what was called Fairtrade years ago. Today if you have Fairtrade on your label, it is a preferred thing because you are being fair, you are helping people, you are cutting out the middleman.

In this world, success is not really measured by money anymore. It is measured by what you achieve. Brands need to understand that and reflect that, and help people achieve and become better.

(Brands for good) is already very, very big. And I think it is going to become bigger.

You are the creative head of Lowe globally. How do you view the rise of South America as a creative powerhouse, and the emergence of other regional hubs?

It is very telling of what is happening around us. When you look at the Oscars, for example … They have a category for "foreign language" films. That is very strange, because to most of the world, English is a foreign language. But they tend to call everything else "foreign," and the only thing that matters is American.

But the world has come to a realization that the center of the world is not Europe or the United States anymore. China, the Middle East, India and Brazil have had a fundamental role … there are a lot of interesting things coming from different parts of the world.

The rise of creativity in Asia or South America … it’s not any different than it used to be. I just think that now it’s a lot more visible. It used to be that the United States and Europe sucked everything in. So all the great writers, thinkers and professors went there — not necessarily anymore. They can stay in India or Dubai and create wonderful things from there.

Is this manifest in the recognition at award shows?

Definitely. More awards are given to a more diverse mix of countries now. This is not only because their creativity is better, but also because the juries are more diverse. For many years, it used to be that the juries at Cannes were basically Anglo-Saxon or European. Now, the mix is completely different. The world is completely different.

Having said that, the United States and the UK still lead the awards table.

What explains that, even after so many years?

I think it has to do with the ‘newness’. There are a lot of new products in the US or Europe because they create so many things; they invented Google, Facebook, Twitter. Because they invent so many things, they have to communicate things that previously didn’t exist. That generates a sort of mindset that does not make it admissible to allow the creative to find a reference on YouTube. They have to find it somewhere else.

When Apple creates a new product, it cannot do advertising that looks like anything else. It needs to create a whole new language.

We in the rest of the world tend to look at YouTube and advertising from the rest of the world and say that is how we want our advertising to look like. We’re a little bit ‘followers’. When we don’t do that, we break the mould and break the rule. But a lot of our advertising is still based on what they are doing there (in the US/Europe).

Which are the creative hubs we need to watch out for within the Lowe network?

Definitely Brazil … India … I think Sweden is going to be very good. The traditional markets like the US and UK are getting better and better. The rising stars around our network are some of the South American countries, India for sure, and some of Asia as well. We’re seeing very interesting ideas coming (now) from all sorts of different places.

Awards are important for the industry. Are there targets you have for Lowe?

As long as people care about awards we have to care about them. There are some awards people care about and some that people don’t. By people, I mean people I consult, clients and even creatives. If you are an agency that gets awards, you can get better talent, you get invited into more pitches because you are famous, the work becomes famous and people want famous work.

Should agencies work towards awards? The obvious answer is they shouldn’t. Should we do award-winning work? Yes, but that should not be what it’s about. All of our work should be award-winning, but unfortunately it isn’t, for many reasons – mostly because we can’t think of so many good ideas. And if there was no bad advertising you wouldn’t recognise a good one.

Corporates and brands doing good, and promising the same in advertising – is there a case of too many brands doing that, and of promises seeming shallow?

I agree with you (but not fully). I don’t think the promises tend to be shallow but we tend to repeat ourselves. We tend to be very generic. It’s either that, or people are finding the most obscure of causes to try to champion.

The secret to success is to do something that you really care about, that you passionately believe in. It’s about understanding that problem and really trying to solve it, even if a lot of people are on it. This has to be about believing truly in what you are doing, not about doing things to look good by paying lip service.

If you believe in conserving water, who cares how many people are doing it? Go ahead and do it. Let your passion come through.

There are some ongoing campaigns (for social good). But agencies or even brands seem to often associate with one cause one year and another the next. Isn’t that true?

That’s a trap. It used to be that you got a lot of easy awards by doing social causes. That’s not the case anymore. Now we have a lot of serious people, planners and agencies getting behind social causes. So now it’s not an easy shot.

It used to be that you have this great idea, and then set about finding somebody to do it for. Not anymore.

That’s why I insist that it is something you have to believe in. If you love a cause and believe in it, you are not going to do it once. If you don’t, you do it once and you abandon it.

The client or whoever commissions the work usually feels very passionate about it. I have never seen anybody who runs an NGO who is not passionately involved in it. But sometimes an agency sees it as just an opportunity (for awards). They should get the people who actually believe in that (cause) to work on it. When that happens, you build a long-term relationship of trust, and you can go on and on.

One of the reasons for young people to get into the industry could be its power to create change. That said, for young people to work on earth-changing campaigns doesn’t happen from day one. How would you see the ideal incubation for new talent that is coming in?

The ideal thing is for talent to realise the power of the tools they have at hand. Once they have the ability to use the tools, they will have the power to do something big.

If you get to work on some promotion (or whatever) in the first year, you learn the tools of the trade. You learn the process of how to do it, how people respond, how to be more effective.

And then, you have to teach them that every single brief is an opportunity for doing great work. If not, every single brief is an opportunity for doing good work. There is always an opportunity of finding an angle, which is good.

We have heard for many years that some good regional work does not get recognition at global awards. Has this changed? What is your view on the subject?

There are different kinds of awards. You need to have regional and local awards, because those are about the nuances and the cultural things. Global awards are global in their nature.

The more diverse the jury, the more interesting the discussion is because some of them will get it and some will not. Those who get it need to be able to explain to those who don’t. Some of the things that win at regional and local awards will carry through. Some won’t.

Is advertising in need of talent from other industries? Is the lack of it a worry?

Definitely (we need talent from other industries). We are an industry that is completely redefined. I know that we are not attracting (enough) talent (from other industries); but I don’t know why sometimes we are not even looking for the type of talent that we are going to need.

We are not looking for engineers, but we should be. We should be looking for doctors, since healthcare has become such a big piece of the business. We need to have a much broader talent base.

Even for creatives?

Especially for creatives. Because, we will start repeating ourselves. We will start coming up with the same answers. I wish that in our promotions department, we have more architects, so that we could build more beautiful things. I wish we had more people who can build things in our digital practice. I wish that in our creative department, we had more musicians.

When we interviewed one of our very successful creative directors from Spain, he told us that he was in a (music) band. We hired him and he is doing extremely well. We try to keep an open mind.

In some markets, you are losing people to film, in others to digital. How do you address that?

The problem is that there is not enough talent anyway, to go around. We are all competing for a limited pool of people. Some people who are passionate about cinema will go on to write cinema. Some will go into television. Some will stay in the short format.

That is why our shift needs to be from what we do, to what we do it for. If you hire talent to do advertising, there is a certain talent that you will attract. If you hire talent to change the world, there is a different talent that you will attract.

Is there enough of a pipeline for talent?

This industry is shrinking. We get a lot more people, particularly in my part of the world (South America), applying for jobs than the jobs we have. What we need to do, is get paid better and pay better. And to get paid better, we have to attract better talent.

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