5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Catalin Dobre

Advertising Agency
London, UK
An exclusive interview with the freshly-minted Creative Director of McCann Central Eastern Europe
2017 was an incredibly strong year for McCann Romania. When it came to consistently surprising creative, the agency quite frankly smashed it. From Rombot, the AI ambassador, to ‘Live. From a different World’, which used live streaming to connect urban-living youngsters with elders living traditional lives back in the countryside, via Super Hero fruit and veg and a Taco Bell launch campaign that basically trolled Romania’s neighbours, the agency’s work is characterized by a resourceful, lateral thinking approach that isn’t limited by traditional media.

Credit goes to the whole team, but leading the charge and rallying the troops has been McCann Romania’s CCO Catalin Dobre. And his leadership has not gone unnoticed – Catalin has just been named Creative Director of McCann Central Eastern Europe, a role he will carry out alongside his existing position.

So just as Catalin prepares to jump into a new challenge for 2018, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to pick his brain about growing ambition across the Romanian industry, CEE’s self-confidence and why it’s so important for the region to retain its brilliant minds and attract talent from around the world.

LBB> You’ve just been named Creative Director of McCann Central Eastern Europe – congratulations! What are your hopes and ambitions for the role?

CD> Thank you, exciting times. I’m proud to have the opportunity to get more and more involved in a region that has amazing talent and potential.

What we want to achieve is to build a creative culture with the strongest values and the highest ambitions. A culture that will manage to stop New Europe’s brain drain and, more than this, to attract creatives from all around the world. A culture that will take the relationship with our clients to the next level and will generate famous work. Work that makes a difference. Work that travels, that people around the world know and admire. 

I think it’s an up-and-coming region, with highly enthusiastic creatives and clients that are eager to put up the effort to do amazing work. It’s a region that has a very interesting mix of opportunities that allows us to do work for local clients, but also do regional and global projects. 

People are in the middle of everything. We are building a very collaborative and ambitious creative community and we constantly need to attract the best talent from Europe and from across the world so we become stronger and stronger. We need to be, without a doubt, the network where ambitious people know that they need to come in order to have the best chances to do great work. 

LBB> The Central Eastern Europe region seems to be going from strength to strength creatively and there’s also amazing digital talent in the region too – why do you think this is?

CD> The region, in general, is becoming more self confident. Ten years ago, maybe winning big in international festivals like Cannes was seen by creatives as a fairy tale. Now, the fairy tale is real. They see it happening more and more and people start thinking, “Hey, I need to step up my game, this is real now.” Everybody is becoming more and more ambitious.

Back in 2011, when we won in Romania the first two Cannes Grand Prix and Titanium Lion in the region, it proved that it was possible to come from the underdog position and to create a big surprise in the international festivals. 

There is a very unique type of creativity in this part of the world and it comes from the school of life. People have been forced to be flexible, to adapt and to find innovative solutions to problems in their everyday life ever since they were kids. Creatives were forced to think outside of the box from back when they were very young and this training came in handy when dealing, later on, with advertising briefs. This can be one of the reasons why we see a lot of non-traditional work coming from the region. If we add to the equation the huge amount of digital talent, it explains the cool innovative/digital work.

For us, as a network, constant results brought a lot of confidence. We have a reputation in the region, we’ve just been named Network of the Year at Golden Drum for the second time in a row and for the fourth time in total, over the past five years. Also, we deliver great results year after year in the most important international festivals. This pumps up the energy and creates a reputation that attracts more and more talent. 

LBB> To date you’ve worked in Romania – looking at the rest of the region, which countries are looking forward to working with – or rather which countries in particular are doing exciting things creatively? 

CD> I’m proud to call a lot of the creative directors in the region my friends. We constantly do meetings to share and grow work and push our creative limits. There is a great energy developing.

Also we are very collaborative when it comes to approaching regional or global briefs and this makes us very powerful as a creative community. 

In the last period we saw work from Prague, Belgrade, Milan, Tel Aviv and Bucharest getting some big distinctions in festivals and I want to congratulate everybody for the effort. Also, I saw a lot of ambition and very interesting ideas from across the region and it’s just a matter of time until we see famous work coming from more and more countries.

LBB> You’ve been with McCann since you started your career. How did you first come across McCann and get the job? Were you looking to get into advertising or was it more accidental?

CD> I got hired very young, during my university years. I was a bit bored and I felt the need to do also something that makes me more excited. I finished [in] the Philosophy Faculty, but I needed to spice up the experience along the way.

The story starts back in high school. We were three friends who were really passionate about advertising. We would mock the ads on TV and think that we could do so much better. One of my best friends and I would ride the bus from high school and we would always pass by the office of an ad agency located in this beautiful villa. We were always saying laughing, “This would be a nice place to work someday.” It wasn’t McCann’s office, the story is not that cheesy, but after a period we all got hired in advertising. I grew here; he [Catalin’s friend] moved to NY and opened a creative boutique, RXM.

Back then, it was a bit harder. All you got was some websites and some e-mail addresses - and you didn’t even know if somebody would actually read the emails you sent. We were just sending our ideas to these addresses and hoping somebody would pick up. Now it’s easier, you can follow all the creative directors on Facebook or on Instagram. It’s easier to get in contact, You only need to figure out a smart way to attract their attention, because there are so many people doing it. 

LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got when you were starting out?

CD> I remember someone telling me when I was an intern: “Listen, please say the stupidest things…this is where the disruptive ideas start from. And now, you are in the position when nobody can judge you for it. What can they say? That you don’t know what you are talking about? How could you? You are an intern”.

I still try to say stupid things and to pass on the advice. I think if the title on your business card changes and you think you only need to say smart things, you have a problem.

LBB> One of the projects that we really enjoyed from the past year was Rombot. There’s so much debate right now about AI and how it will impact the advertising industry and how it will change the way we work. Having got hands-on with the technology for Rombot, how did that shape your views of AI?

CD> I think we’ll need a lot of human intelligence to make the most of the artificial one.

What I mean by that is technology is progressing in an amazing way and it’s opening up a world of possibilities. But we need to find the best ideas about how to use it. The smart insights, the creative breakthroughs won’t come from AI. So we will still need to be our focus. But different forms of AI will give us the possibility to express that in amazing different ways. 

So no worries, the AI Don Draper won’t take our jobs. Yet. 

LBB> ‘Live. From a Different World’ for Vodafone was another campaign that has done well. It took a Grand Prix at Golden Drum and a couple of Lions at Cannes this summer. What was the response to the campaign within Romania? And have you seen any knock on effects? 

CD> ‘Live. From a Different World’ is a campaign that shows how new technology can bridge the two worlds: the modern one in the big cities and the rural one, filled with traditions. It shows us that these two very different worlds have so much to learn one from another. They compete with each other. The response was amazing, a lot of people asked questions and created a very interesting conversation online. 

I think, in general, the new generation in Romania is more open to re-connecting to their roots and to their traditions. They want to re-discover their national identity and to be proud of that. Probably this trend is also one of the reasons the campaign has such a great response.

LBB> Actually, looking back over the past year you’ve had a really consistent output of clever work that goes way beyond traditional advertising – Veggie Heroes, Taco Bell, Rom, Vodafone (I also had a chuckle at the KFC Transylvanian garlic sauce at Halloween). What’s the key to maintaining these high standards and encouraging the team to constantly push for new ways of doing things?

CD> What is interesting is that these campaigns are not the results of the last year. They are the result of the last 10 years. They are the effect of a creative process and a creative culture that appreciates a lot the “new”, the unconventional. 

We start thinking about the big ideas first and about the deliverables later. We don’t approach briefs thinking, “Ok, we need to do a film, or we need to do a website”. We focus on the lateral ideas first. 

LBB> Romanian advertising is known for being clever and thinking outside of the box –  is that a view you share and if so, why do you think that is?

CD> I love seeing smart work coming from Romania, every piece contributes to the positive PR for the country’s creativity level. 

I think the industry is becoming more competitive, the smaller agencies are struggling to produce smart work and this pushes everybody’s ambition. I see a good mentality from the new generation of creative directors. This helps a lot. 

LBB> I’ve read a few news stories that say that many Romanians are fairly pessimistic about the country’s future, despite having one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. Is that pessimism felt in the creative industries? 

CD> Without getting too much into politics, I would say this is not helping the brain drain I was talking about earlier at all. A lot of creative people (not only from advertising) are part of the protests people are reading about in the news. Probably that’s why the expression of those protests is a very creative one. People are using their creativity as a weapon. A good Romanian friend living in NY, Mara Danila, created a collection of the most creative posters from last year.

In terms of effects, I struggle to have a more optimistic view. The talent needs to stay in the country because that’s the only way to make a change.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?

CD> Even if I admire a lot of creatives working in advertising, I tend to find my inspiration in models outside the industry. I love what is happening now in entertainment and in the tech industry. I love what artists like Pharrell or even Lady Gaga are doing to create music and promote their content. I love Larry David, his cynical humour and his insights. I love how people are using creativity to express themselves through cooking and I love watching and reading about chefs like Massimo Bottura and the way they reinterpret food. I follow designers and tech people, it’s interesting to see how everybody uses creativity in a different way. I often try to deconstruct their way of thinking and apply it in what I do. 

LBB> Outside of the work of advertising, what are your passions?

CD> I live the modern dilemma: juggling work with socialising/partying and sport. So my passions are around that and the result, besides the fun, of course, is being dead tired at the end of the day or early in the morning (depends when it all ends!) and having the constant impression of “not enough time”.

Around work, I love to write and I would love to get - or make - the time to write a book sometime soon.

I love to travel, to play with local experiences. Just came back from Lapland and I fell in love with the husky rides; they are amazing. I also love the warmer water experiences like manta ray seeking or just floating and watching the amazing underwater life. Around sports I love to play football from time to time, squash and (really bad) tennis. I hate the gym, but I feel it’s necessary. So sometimes I pay the subscription just like a contribution to a Foundation: meaning I pay, but I never go.

LBB> What’s Bucharest like as a creative city to live and work in? And what are your favourite spots in the city?

CD> I love Bucharest, I think it’s a city with a good energy.

In terms of work, creatives can make the most of that because you can enjoy proximity to the office. The rents in the city centre are not overwhelming and you reach your work destination with a 10-minute Uber ride or even enjoy the luxury of walking to work, if you make it your objective. This is something people here tend to take for granted and it’s something you appreciate only when you don’t have it anymore.

It’s not an expensive city, so creative people can afford the “Monocle” lifestyle. They can enjoy the original coffee places that keep popping up, eat out when they feel like it, get beers and cocktails in the posher or in the hipster-ish industrial-designed places that you find all over the city.

Me, I spend a lot of time out. My girlfriend owns a restaurant, Animaletto, a very cool place in the city centre. So this also contributes to my hours of drinking and eating out. 
To give you a top-of-mind tour: I get my coffee at Orygyns, it’s a cool place right next to the agency. In the weekend at Steam or T-Zero, they are some of the best places in town, but also close to my home. 

I drink cocktails at Linea or Fix and after, I usually party at Control, Gaia, Expirat or join one of the events from Nuit Sociale, Brunch Affair or Vinyl Rum Tapas and Wine. They are part of the events community and they are doing a great job organising parties in locations across the city. So I invite all the creatives from all over the world to come and experiment for themselves. They will want to stay.