You’ll always learn more from your failures than from your successes. And yet, to hear those involved at troubled agencies speak candidly about the issues is something of a rarity in the industry.
For Chacho Puebla, it’s a necessity. The LOLA MullenLowe Western Europe CCO has overseen great creative success over the past few years. This year, the agency was MullenLowe Group’s most awarded agency at Cannes, taking home two Gold, four Silver and three Bronze Lions across four different clients. But he’s not shy to admit he has been encountering certain problems, and believes the industry needs to hear about them. In fact, he says he’s going through: “probably my biggest task as a creative leader so far and I feel like I’m failing.”
LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Chacho about the challenges and frustrations that occupy him.
LBB> What is it that you find most frustrating about creative leadership in 2019?
Chaco> Right now I run Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, Hamburg and Paris, but my main focus is Paris, it’s where I spend the majority of my time lately and believe me, “frustrating” is the right choice of words. I understand management as organising teams to be happy, productive and perform at a world-class level, all at the same time. However, this has become more difficult, and as always, nothing is easy, so we have to act accordingly. Especially with the current industry scenario that is more and more demanding.
Because advertising per se is getting older and more boring, talent is moving to other creative industries and the talent you can get has a different mindset, especially in this market. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the younger people, I see an issue with older people that have been at the same agency so long, their only mission is just waiting for a paycheck at the end of the month. This is a common problem that nobody tackles and sometimes it’s the elephant in the room. It’s frustrating to not have viable solutions for this, because you need more players to solve it and often, as the lead creative, you are alone on this matter. It’s frustrating when you know exactly what solutions can work, but people choose another way, the usual “no change” way, which leads to a slow, painful fade.
LBB> Can you talk about some times when you’ve turned offices around? What were the key moments and, in hindsight, why do you think it worked?
Chaco> I don’t really know if I turn agencies around, but recently I was talking to a friend about how lucky I’ve been that all the agencies where I have worked have had a brilliant period while I was on board. He told me that it wasn’t luck, it was my role that made the difference. But while I really don’t believe changes are made by one person alone, I do agree that the team I put in place, or the way of working that I brought to the agency, helped the office shine for the time I was there, and sometimes after I left – and that makes me even happier.
When I was a creative director in Mendoza, at EmeEfe/McCann, the biggest and most creative agency in my hometown, we won business and all the recognition you could get at that time. When I moved to Chile and started to work at Tropa Grey, we won the first three Lions in the history of the agency, plus the first ever Gold Media Lion for Chile (it’s funny because it was the first time ever participating in Cannes, we even paid the submission ourselves because the CEO at the time didn’t believe in creativity that much). Under the leadership of Pablo Leiva, we were one of the most awarded agencies in Chile and in the Grey network. Then, with my teammate Damian Balmaceda, we moved to Leo Burnett Chile where we handled a local internet provider who saw a major spike in brand awareness during the time we worked with them. We also won the first ever Lion for Leo Burnett Chile.
LBB> Did you find yourself encountering similar problems across the agencies you’ve worked with?
Chacho> Not always. In Lisbon, for example, the challenge was different. I had to take an agency that had a very creative reputation and make it profitable while at the same time maintaining the creative reputation. Leo Burnett Lisbon doubled its size in revenue and became the most awarded agency in the history of Portugal. We created a culture of “Make It Happen” there. I used to sign off emails with “vamoooooooos” which means: let’s do it! – in order for everybody to understand that we were a tsunami of will. Miguel Simoes, my business partner, is a true believer in the power of creativity and he does business with people that believe the same. I have always said that he is the real reason why things happen.
After Portugal and Chile, Leo Burnett gave me the opportunity to lead two markets, Spain and Portugal, to create Leo Burnett Iberia, which also grew tremendously in culture and creative recognition. The key was a team of people that wanted to make things happen. You don’t make changes alone. It’s a mindset that ignites people.
After years at Leo, where we were recognised several times as the most creative agency in Spain and Iberoamérica. We moved to LOLA MullenLowe, an agency that at the time had the potential to shine but wasn’t finding its way. When we arrived (and I say we because it was a team job: Miguel Simoes, Paulo Areas, Juan Christmann, Juan Sevilla and Pancho Cassis) we came to start a revolution in the agency.
At LOLA things really grew, we opened offices in Portugal and Barcelona, making it crucial in my role to empower new leaders, like Pancho Cassis in Madrid and Nacho Oñate and Nestor García in Barcelona, as well as Sergio Lobo in Portugal. All of them are people that I worked with for many years, some even 18 years. I believe that trust is a really important factor to driving sustainable achievements and I really trust these people with my life.
LBB> What’s the most important thing about building a strong creative department?
Chacho> As always I don’t think there is one single thing, at least for me. I would say the key is trust. If you give trust, you usually get trust back. Trust is the basis for building an understanding and it’s key to understanding each other. A lot of times, people don’t trust in something and this leads to misunderstandings that lead to not getting the job done, due to mistakes caused by lack of communication.
Another key element is clarity about what the main goal is. You need to have a team focused on the same goal, for this you need to have really open and clear communication with your team. I tend to not have an office; I like to sit with the creatives, to be there for them and to share experiences and what’s my head. I know that this is also a problem sometimes, because I might transmit some of my doubts, but hey, I prefer that everybody knows I’m just a guy, not the ‘know it all guy’ which is far from the truth.
The clarity part is sometimes tricky because what is obvious for you, might not be for others, and vice versa. People assume we all know the same things and understand the same things and if you think about our work, which is dealing with ideas, the concept of an idea is not 100% clear for everybody. So imagine when things involve other non-scientific concepts. I keep saying to the Paris team: what is cool for you, may not be cool for me, or for the target, so let’s be clear, ultra-clear. This can help us to avoid misunderstandings and poor output.
Another very important key in building a strong creative department is craft. And I’m not talking about the layout, I mean the whole concept of craft. For me, craft is the love and effort that we put into making things good. Really good. International, world class good. Not just local good. And I see this working in two ways: make people think globally, which will make them aware of the planet they live in; and also understand that there are people out there who are really, really good, and you can learn from them. If you play against the best, you become better. So, if you know a really good French writer and that’s your reference, you miss an amazing and even better one from Brazil and you won’t improve. The wider your knowledge, the more you want to improve.
There are many aspects to having a strong creative team, but I’m always striving for not just a creative team, but a creative agency. The job is for everybody in the agency, not just the creative department. I try to bring creative minds into the office, later we’ll decide what role you have, but your love for creativity is crucial. Sometimes there are people who come to work in an advertising agency as if it were a law office or a petrol station, and to them it’s all the same. Well, for me, it’s not at all.
LBB> When have you found it more difficult and why?
Chacho> There were two times when I have struggled the most to build a creative environment. The first one was when we opened the LOLA Barcelona office, suddenly we were 200 people that didn’t understand why creativity was so important. We had to hire people in such a rush for the client that this led to having people just doing their jobs and not loving what they do. That was a revelation for Miguel [Simoes – CEO, MullenLowe Western Europe] and me. Fortunately, after we lost the client, we reopened the agency with the spirit we wanted and now it’s a really happy, profitable and creative place, full of people loving what they do.
The second time is actually happening right now in the Paris office. This is probably my biggest task as a creative leader so far and I feel like I’m failing. I made a huge mistake in not coming to Paris with a key team, and the agency culture was really far from where I wanted to go. The local culture and the local employee laws don’t allow you to introduce significant changes to the structure. This leads to insanely slow movements in an industry where you need to move lighting fast.
I’ve tried so many things and just a few of them worked. We launched a coworking-incubator space modelled after a successful project that we did in Barcelona. In Barcelona, from the idea to the execution it took three months, in Paris one year and three months. The good thing about working in such a different environment is that it makes you think and understand all the things you take for granted and realise that behaviours that for you are a given, for other places, are rare and exceptional situations.
LBB> Why is it so difficult, do you think?
Chacho> Speaking of Paris, my current challenge, I think it’s a mixture of culture and team. You need a team that understands you and trusts you. Without this it’s really difficult to make things happen. Change happens because a lot of people join the cause, you can’t create change alone. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been places where people don’t want change, but you can persuade them or in the worst case scenario not involve them and get new people that share your same vision, but here, the law and the culture does not give you the tools for making a turnaround in the time you would expect to make it. But hey, maybe I need more time to understand how to make it happen. So far, I feel that my hands are tied. It’s a pity because I have already done this four times and the results were great for everybody who was on board. All of them improved their lives and careers.
LBB> Are there any agency office ‘turnarounds’ that you’ve been impressed with recently?
Chacho> It’s strange, but I haven’t been focused on searching for any. Maybe that would have helped. When I saw this question I started to check what agencies we’ve seen do this, and it was difficult to see, because I couldn’t see the objective of the turnaround. I’ve seen agencies improving their creative product but without knowing if they became profitable or retain business. So it’s difficult to know for sure what was the goal they were pursuing. What I keep seeing is small shops growing in a big way, which may be a reflection of how difficult it is to turn around an office that is treated as a financial resource rather than an opportunity to generate value and growth.
This article was originally published on LBBO