Unlike most people, especially in the chop-and-change environment of the advertising industry, Carlos Andrés Rodríguez has spent his entire career within one business. Nowadays, the Colombian creative is the chief creative officer at MullenLowe SSP3, the most awarded Colombian agency in history and the company that he started his working life at. His career has also taken him to London for a stint at DLKW Lowe (today MullenLowe London) before he headed back to Colombia to take up his first ever executive creative director position at SSP3. Carlos is also winner of more than 270 awards including the first Latin American Titanium Lion at Cannes, the only Latin American Innovation Grand Prix at Cannes, and the only Latin American Black Pencil at D&AD. That Black Pencil was recently named Black Pencil of the Decade. He’s also a juror of this year’s Immortal Awards.
In the wake of his Black Pencil of the Decade Award, LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Carlos to find out the three reasons he’s stuck around at MullenLowe, why he changed from a copywriter to an art director, and launching a burger restaurant as a side gig.
LBB> You've been part of the MullenLowe Group network your entire career! That's quite amazing, especially in the advertising industry. What is it about the company that has made you stick around so long?
Carlos> I think there are three main reasons for this. The first reason is that MullenLowe Group has always allowed me to make mistakes. This isn’t something that many companies do so willingly, but I have made mistakes (and lots of them!) in every stage of my career – as a junior, as a senior, as an ECD and now as a CCO. We work in an industry where mistakes are often harshly punished but I’ve been given the freedom to learn from mine and overcome them, which has been one of the most significant steps in both my personal and professional growth.
The second reason is that MullenLowe SSP3 has always been the sexiest agency to work for in Colombia. We have not always been #1 in business or #1 in creativity (although we have been many times!), and we’re not one of the oldest agencies, but the agency is (and always has been) the place where every creative wants to work. It’s an inspiring place that has been doing inspiring work since the very first day it opened its doors. José Miguel Sokoloff and Francisco Samper (the founders) are the most respected advertising personalities in the country, and I have been lucky enough to have their wisdom and knowledge just metres away. When I can learn from two of the best, I often ask myself: “Why in the world would I move to another agency?”
Last, but certainly not least, is that all of the best creative people in the country worked at MullenLowe SSP3, or Lowe as it used to be, at some point during their careers, and I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside them as a co-worker, have them as a boss, and now, fortunately, as members of my team. MullenLowe SSP3 has given me the opportunity to work with Juan Pablo García (the COO) for a number of years now. JP has become my ‘partner in crime’ in the office and is one of the professionals I respect and admire the most.
LBB> How did you end up in advertising initially? Was it always a plan of yours or more a happy accident?
Carlos> It was definitely more of a happy accident. I studied social communications at university, but with no idea what I would do with the degree once I left. I have always been interested in movies, music, art and brands, and along the way at university, I found something called advertising: a career which encompassed these four areas while allowing me to have fun and make some money. It sounded perfect and I fell in love with the idea and the industry immediately.
LBB> You were a trainee copywriter but eventually became an art director! How did that happen?
Carlos> I think that happened because of my obsession with detail and execution. I remember my early days – when I was thinking about taglines, opening Microsoft Word, writing them down and sending them to my partner – that was amazing, but I always wanted to be part of the execution process. Sometimes I even fought with my partner over layouts, fonts and colours. Those fights became more and more frequent over time which made me professionally very insecure. One day, when I was completely doubting my future in advertising, I decided to talk to my boss about becoming an art director. They were very surprised and took a couple of months to make their decision, but finally let me do it. It was undoubtedly the best decision I’ve ever made. I still get chills over a well-crafted copy, though… Droga5 style.
LBB> You spent some time in London at DLKW Lowe before heading back to Colombia. Firstly, what lessons did you learn in London that you could bring back to SSP3? And what tempted you back to Colombia from a business point of view?
Carlos> London is my second favorite city in the world (after Bogota, of course!). For me, living and working there was such an enriching experience. No matter what you’re interested in, whether its music, food or art, there’s always somewhere in London that offers you those experiences in the best way possible. I learnt many valuable lessons, but I also had some amazing experiences, met amazing clients, collaborated on exciting projects, and most importantly, worked with extraordinary people. My bosses there, Richard Denney and Dave Henderson, and creative directors such as Alex Okada, played an integral role in everything I learnt at DLKW Lowe, while allowing me to have a good time.
I went back to Colombia because something bigger was waiting for me back home: the opportunity to become the next executive creative director of the agency. This was something I had been dreaming about every night since starting out, so, although I loved my time in London, it was such an exciting next step in my career.
LBB> How do you see Colombian advertising today? MullenLowe SSP3 does incredibly creative work - is that partly thanks to the clients and opportunity to be creative in Colombia? Or are those opportunities actually quite small?
Carlos> I’m convinced that Colombia has the capacity and the ability to creatively compete against any country in the world. Historically, South American countries like ours have been living in poor economic conditions, with a lot of problems that need solving. As a result, agencies in Colombia often have to work with limited resources and must have the ability to solve problems in unexpected ways, but as a result, this problem solving and hard work is the spirit of the Colombian creativity. Some of the best creatives that I’ve ever met are Colombians or South Americans. It’s no coincidence that many leading agencies around the world are full of Latin creatives, we have ‘something’ that no other creative has.
However, and this might sound a little obvious, the Colombian creative industry is very small and often our work isn’t relevant outside of our market, compared to the US and the UK, or even markets closer to home such as Brazil and Mexico. This means that despite the enormous amount of talent that exists around here, the Colombian industry is still far behind the global standard. We have the spirit but unfortunately not the relevance to compete on a global scale.
LBB> With that in mind, how do you retain your best talent at MullenLowe SSP3? Is it a struggle to get them to stay in Colombia?
Carlos> The best you can do for a young creative is to help them make their ideas a reality and allow them to become the best version of themselves. Whether it’s by encouraging them to create, art direct, edit, write or even share their ideas, we must help them discover a talent they didn’t know they had.
When I identify talent that is beyond Colombia’s league, I try to show them this and help them grow within our agency. When we both think they’re ready, I don’t let them go to another agency in Colombia, but I encourage them to fly around the world and explore bigger markets. Lots of young creatives from MullenLowe SSP3 have flown the nest, and I feel 100% satisfied that I have worked alongside them for some of the best years in their careers.
LBB> Do you think advertising is seen as an attractive career choice for young people in Colombia?
Carlos> Every day, I hope that we are inspiring new generations of talent to come and work with us and be a positive force for change in the industry, as the young creatives in my team are going to be the ones who are changing the industry (and the world!) for good.
Advertising is still seen as a ‘sexy’ career option, but in a different way to how it used to be. Firstly, these young people aren’t thinking about spending hours and hours poring over headlines and layouts or working day and night in an agency waiting for a big idea to come. They’re doing EVERYTHING by themselves, from writing, designing and filming to approving, uploading and sharing far and wide. They’re also no longer thinking about working in a multinational corporation with the dream of becoming global chief creative officers (luckily for me!). They’re just thinking about becoming the best version of themselves, traveling the world, starting a company, riding a bike, having a cat and at the same time, solving the brief that’s on the table. As I said, advertising is still ‘sexy’ for this generation, but the reasons they’re attracted to it as a career are different.
LBB> MullenLowe SSP3 has won lots of awards, especially on a global level. How important are awards, especially international ones, to you and the agency and why?
Carlos> Awards are very important for many reasons. They raise the bar for both what can be creatively developed for a brand and set the benchmark for what creatives can aspire to do. This prevents the industry from the mediocrity to which it can so easily fall, and inspires people from around the world to do things better. It’s also a great way of recognising the effort of tons of people who work in a business where frustration and ideas being turned down are rife. Last but not least, awards are helpful in connecting us to a new generation, allowing us to identify new talent that’s doing great work while trying to attract them to our agency. For MullenLowe SSP3, awards are a consequence of doing good work, but not the goal. The goal is doing good work that makes people talk and grows the business so if we do this in the best possible way, awards will come.
LBB> Over the course of your career, which piece of work are you most proud of and why?
Carlos> We just won the D&AD Advertising Black Pencil of the Decade (2010-2020) for our 2012 ‘Rivers of Light’ campaign for the Colombian Ministry of Defense. The campaign aimed to demobilise guerrilla fighters in the jungle, by sending them messages of hope in floating and lighting balls. To be part of a project that promoted peace in a country that has been living at war for more than 50 years allowed me to be part of the history of my country in some way and gives my career a very meaningful purpose.
LBB> What keeps you busy when you're not working? Have you discovered any weird or wonderful hobbies during lockdown?
Carlos> Not precisely weird hobbies. I’m not much of a reader – I have a lot of books at home, many of them unread. However, I’ve promised myself that I will read every single one of them by the end of lockdown, and I think I’m getting there. Apart from that, I’m writing songs to maybe release a trap album next year, and I founded a burger restaurant with my brother. Lockdown has been weird but busy.