The sweet spot for a hit ad is often a shared human emotion, or what a planner might call “a universal human truth”. Call it what you wish – but popular, heartfelt advertising is the kind of work that Pedro Bexiga and Marcelo Lourenço, creative directors of Lisbon agency Fuel, do best.
Marcelo says: “We like making ads that people talk about. Before Facebook or YouTube, that was the main way of judging the impact of a campaign. If you put a good story or idea on TV, it would become part of the water cooler conversation. Awards are important, and it’s nice to be appreciated by the creative community; but what we really want to do is touch people.”
One of their best-known clients is Continente, Portugal’s largest supermarket chain, which enables them to make ads that enter popular culture. Or as Pedro puts it: “Big, fun, accessible commercials.”
This accessibility crops up in unlikely places. Take for instance their work for the Queer Lisboa film festival, which treats a potentially provocative subject with levity and empathy. The duo clearly relish finding new ways of expressing the festival’s “straight friendly” message while keeping viewers hooked right up to the punch line.
Pedro says: “The brief was to turn a niche festival into a more mainstream one. What we’ve found is that humour connects better than emotion. On social media, viewers have to get the joke instantly. Then the trick is to keep their attention.”
One of their most famous spots, for a very different cause, is still punching its weight over 15 years later. “Despicable” features a woman on a plane complaining about being seated next to a “negro”. After checking with the pilot, the stewardess agrees that some passengers are unbearable. Then she invites the young black guy to enjoy the flight in first class.
“That ad never goes away,” says Marcelo. “We put it on social media about five years ago and I still get at least one email or Facebook message a week about it. There’s a copywriter here at the agency who said it inspired him to go into advertising.”
Marcelo and Pedro admit to being one of those creative duos who’ve worked together for so long that they’re like an old married couple. Marcelo says: “Sometimes I’ll be talking to my wife and I’ll refer to a conversation we had a few days ago. But then I’ll think, ‘No, that was with Pedro!’.”
They met in 1999 when Marcelo (the copywriter of the duo) was invited to come to Lisbon from his native Brazil to work at Lowe, where Pedro was based. The cross-fertilisation of talent from Brazil had already been instrumental in injecting new life into the Portuguese ad scene, resulting in an explosion of vivid and entertaining work.
Pedro says: “Advertising in Portugal had been very factual and square. Then there was a boom period in the 80s and 90s when a lot of Brazilian creatives came here. Suddenly there was humour and fun, combined with insights about how real people behaved. By the time I began my career, that revolution was in place.”
After stints at TBWA and Leo Burnett, the pair were working at Euro RSCG in 2006 when its parent, Havas, decided to create a second agency called Fuel. “They had to create another agency because they couldn’t grow any bigger. They already had everything: supermarkets, beer, automotive, everything.” Pedro and Marcelo pitched for the Volvo account and it became Fuel’s founding client.
Fuel is now one of the biggest agencies in the country in terms of revenue, but it remains streamlined. Marcelo says: “We were founded at a time of economic crisis so we had to be a really tight operation. And we stayed that way. When people visit the agency, they can’t believe we’re still only 80 people.”
They operate, they say, “like a start-up”, with a relatively flat hierarchy and a “never give up” approach to creating and pushing through great work. “We’ve also been naturally very integrated from the beginning,” Marcelo adds. “The sixth person we hired was a creative with a digital background. We’ve grown as an integrated agency in a very organic way.”
“That gives us an advantage in pitches,” says Pedro. “Because our work is always very complete, covering lots of different elements. But we’re also very proud of the fact that, when we win clients, we keep them.”
They did upset someone recently, though. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France, they created a direct mail piece in the form of red pencils bound together like a stick of dynamite. The idea was that words and pictures could be weapons in the fight for freedom of speech. They sent it to several major newspapers around the globe. It caused a bomb scare at one of them, which promptly contacted the Havas network.
“And Havas called us,” says Marcelo. “We’re grateful that we’ve won awards with this piece, because it almost got us fired!”
The pair often work pro bono for causes that concern them – they recently made a spot about domestic violence against women. “Thanks to social media, you can spread such messages much more efficiently now.”
But Pedro observes that it’s much harder to get people to share a campaign for a mainstream brand (like a supermarket) on their Facebook page. “Which makes it a worthwhile challenge!”
Marcelo says: “There was a kind of golden age when advertising became so funny, so entertaining, that it connected with people and made them talk about it. That’s the kind of work we try to do every single day at Fuel.”
By Mark Tungate, editorial director, Epica