Q&A with MullenLowe creative chief Jose Miguel Sokoloff: We’re all the same – adland needs a disruptive agency to lead change

Jose Miguel SokoloffJose Miguel Sokoloff, the global creative head of ad agency MullenLowe, was in the Philippines last week where he gave a presentation on the virtues of soft power over the hard sell at Ad Summit Pilipinas.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks in his hotel lobby in Subic, the award-winning Colombian talked about a period of disruption in adland that will expose agency “dinosaurs”, how the commodisation of the business has made outstanding work rare, and what he thinks of DDB creative chief Amir Kassaei’s call to end the “madness” of awards shows.

Two Havas executives gave their view on what’s happening in the industry right now in Subic yesterday. What’s your take the recent upheaval?

A few months ago, I was in Stockholm and I toured the offices of Spotify. I have been to Silicon Valley as well, and seen how the startups work there, but particularly Spotify reminded me of the agencies of the 70s and 80s. They have all the toys, they have all the space, they have all the young talent, they have the right energy. And it made me reflect on where our industry is.

It’s very different around the world. In Latin America, look at Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, you’ve got pockets of agencies that still have this magnetism to them. But then you go to the UK or the US, and agencies and agency creatives are not as glamorous or as cool as they were in the 50s and 60s. And I think that’s because of two things.

One, because we’ve commoditised ourselves. There is no real differentiation and almost any agency can give you anything. That’s why partly clients are pitching all the time.

So I think what’s happening in this industry is that some agencies and some people believe that this [advertising] is a price offering. So they streamline and cut, and try to become more efficient, so they compete with you on price. But I think there’s an end to that.

In what sense an end?

Sokoloff talking at Ad Summit Pilipinas last week

Sokoloff talking at Ad Summit Pilipinas last week

It ends in self-combustion. You just burn yourself out. And I think there’s a point where you go to a client, and a client pays you, say, $100 an hour for the agency and wants five people on their business, and you just can’t – it’s not going to happen.

This is a point time, in the evolution of the business, where we have become like the dinosaurs. Some agencies have warm blood in them, and will survive the ice age, and some won’t. And those who have warm blood are those who still believe in the spirit of ideas and still get excited about the work, and still think that that’s what matters.

Do you think that as the business commoditises, the work suffers?

We’re seeing parity work. Everyone can do the same work, but it’s not necessarily worse. In general it is getting better. There are more people doing better work. It’s just that outstanding work is getting rarer.

The work is more intelligent and well thought out now, but everyone is moving in the same direction. Those outstanding agencies that were the ones that made a difference are not there anymore. It used to be that agencies would peak, and every now and then produce brilliant work. But now it’s more stable. There are fewer peaks, but fewer valleys as well.

When was the last time you saw an outstanding piece of work? Which piece of work has made you wish you’d made it?

That happens to me all the time. Maybe because I’m not a very good creative! I was looking at an old presentation today. I had all the work that I wish I had made on it. One was the Guinness ‘Made of more’ campaign [by the UK’s Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO], particularly the one with the well-dressed guys in Congo.

The Super Bowl ad I thought was particularly well thought out was the Toyota Prius spot. I don’t think it’ll win any awards, but I thought it was smart.

Any in Asia that stands out from your agency?

I think our agency in India always does outstanding work, day in day out. And I think Erick [Rosa] in Singapore [he’s the ECD] is doing some pretty good work as well.

I can’t single out many individual pieces yet, but I admire the work that has been consistently coming from India, particularly on Lifebuoy [the Unilever soap brand that has won creative and effectiveness awards regionally and globally].

Sokoloff included MullenLowe Mumbai’s work for Lifebuoy in his presentation on soft power over the hard sell, in which he said: “If you’re in this business [advertising] just to sell things, go on eBay.”

I admire it because of its consistency, because of how they’ve stuck to an idea and made that brand successful by being enormously creative year in and year out.

Amir KassaeiWhat do you make of Amir Kassaei’s recent statement where he called for an end to the “madness” of advertising awards shows, and DDB would be scaling back on entering awards?

To me, so far, it’s a speech. I don’t know if it’s a decision. I don’t know how many entries they’ll submit for Cannes for instance.

But it’s not a secret to anyone that if you wanted to get rich quickly you’d start a successful awards scheme. Cannes has done it extraordinarily well. I remember when the festival was bought for $50 million and people said, wow, that’s way overpriced. But I think they make $50 million in entries and delegate passes alone these days.

I think what’s crazy is that awards are so repetitive. You need awards that have a personality and a reason to exist. So if there’s an award for advertising creativity, sure. But there can’t be five or six or seven Cannes wannabes. We need to make sure, as Amir suggests, that we decide together as an industry what are the awards that we value, and what are those that we don’t.

Which awards do you most want to win? Is it still all about Cannes?

I like Cannes a lot. I have a saying in our agency: every shortlist is a shot on goal, you do not celebrate bronzes, you’re very happy about silver and you only celebrate gold, and up. I believe in Cannes gold. I don’t believe that there’s much merit in bronzes. It’s good for your points [tally for the agency ranking at Cannes], but I’ve been to Cannes enough times to know that bronzes are… bronzes.

What do you mean by that?

Bronzes are shortlists that got pushed up or weak silvers that got pushed down in order to help other pieces… it’s a negotiation. I think there’s merit in getting bronze, but I can’t say that I’ve agreed with all bronzes [he’s seen awarded]. I can probably say that I agree with 95 per cent of the golds. Maybe at the beginning I don’t, but over time I get it.

How do you make sure that the bar is going up creatively at MullenLowe? How do you measure it? Some agencies are extremely methodical about award wins as a measure of creative progress. 

It’s about how much work we feel proud of. That’s it. If it wins, great. If it doesn’t, the juries are wrong!

Having said that, I believe if we’re going to be up there winning creative awards, we need to be doing equally well at effectiveness awards. I do not believe in agencies that are in the top 10 for creative awards, but not in the top 10 for effectiveness awards. Because that means that the work they’re entering into awards is not doing its job. It’s only doing part of it, which is creating a reputation for the agency, which is bullshit. Agencies should be creating a reputation for their client’s brands.

What for you would make a good awards show?

I hope some day someone has the balls to create an advertising awards scheme where you can’t enter your work. It has to be nominated. It’s not like you enter your work and pay $1,000 for people to see it. Does it stand out enough and is it nominatable? I’ve been trying to sell that to all the awards shows, and they all say it’s super interesting, but nobody has agreed to do it yet. But somebody will.

A perhaps mad idea that has been tabled a lot is an awards show for work that hasn’t run in the real world, to give a home to “initiative work”. What are you thoughts on that?

Well, I have a talk that I give my creatives around the world called ‘Think inside the box’. I use tennis as an example. If you watch a good tennis match, what makes a great tennis player is the brilliance of the place he makes inside the court. If you remove those boundaries, tennis becomes a stupid sport.

Why wouldn’t we want to make sure that the work we do has been seen by the client, has been approved by the client, has run and creates results. I don’t create work to hang on a museum wall. I do it to change something.

I did a presentation recently at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art. I’m an art collector, and I did a talk about collecting. One of the artists there had seen some of our work for the guerillas in Colombia. He said that is a statement of art, if I had done that it would be a work of art, and I would have sold it. I said, that’s the difference between you and me. I do it to get guerrillas out of the jungle. That is what makes me happy. What excites me is the fact that we did something – not that it could be a work of art.

Sokoloff’s agency, Bogota-based Lowe SSP3, created a campaign in for a coalition of army, government and civilian groups to persuade dissident group Farq to demobilise. It used the holiday season to literally light a path for them to follow out of the jungle.

In Asia, creatives complain that clients are conservative, and won’t let them push the envelope creatively. In Latin America, the opposite seems to be the case, or that nonsense?

No. They’re the same. Here’s the thing. I believe that doing experimental work is valid. But it’s only valid if you do something with it. Many times have I tried to prove to a client about an idea, but now we don’t need to do that. Here’s a thing that is incredible that has been happening lately. For instance, what we’ve been doing for Jet Blue in the US. We put films on the internet. If they get to a certain threshold, they go on TV. If they don’t they stay there. It’s simple.

You can do as much experimental work as you want, and put it out there and see what happens. But I think the beauty of experimental work is that it’s shared, that people talk about it, that it’s seen. And we have that power now. We didn’t used to.

What are views on programmatic, which while growing in importance and said to be the future of the business, hasn’t been associated much with creativity since its rise to prominence.

I don’t want to sound old school here, and say that humans are indispensible, but I probably think that if we’re going to do the hard sell, if we’re going to do promotions, we can let machines do that. And they’ll do it extraordinarily well. And it would be great for agencies, because we wouldn’t have to deal with that shit.

But if you’re going to do something that people talk about and remember, that touches their soul, I think you have to be human. You have to be human to talk to a human. Cars designed by the wind tunnel all look the same, they all look like a Toyota Corolla. But look at cars designed by people who love cars.

What are your thoughts on the year ahead? Do you see further consolidation in agencies? It seems a messy point in time for the ad business, how will it all unravel?

If I knew I’d tell you which shares to buy and sell.

But what I do think is going to happen for sure is that somebody in the next three to five years will come up with a formula that is completely disruptive, and then we’ll all copy them. Hopefully that somebody will be us.

I think right now there is no leader in the industry. There’s no one who is leading the charge. We don’t know who we want to be like, so we’re all scrambling to find an identity.

I think we will live in a chaos of downsizing, gobbling up others, some exploding into different units, some coming back together, but somebody is going to find a formula that works, and then the industry will know where to go.

Google, presumably? Or it could be a McKinsey or an Accenture?

It isn’t Google… yet, and it certainly isn’t Yahoo. It’s not a traditional agency for sure. It isn’t Wieden [+ Kennedy] anymore. And it isn’t BBH anymore. So who will it be, I don’t know. It could be app. Hopefully it won’t be, but it could be something like that.


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