5 Minutes with… Jose Miguel Sokoloff
President and Chief Creative Officer, SSP3Lowe, Colombia
President of Lowe Creative Council
Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott
LBB > Tell me a little bit more about Lowe SSP3. You set up with your partners (Francisco Samper and Humberto Polar in 1996) and you’ve had incredible success ever since. Your achievements so far have been extraordinary, the awards and accolades you’ve collected have been outstanding. Tell us, what is it about you guys that make you so successful?
JMS > Me (laughter)… No honestly, we started this agency 15, almost 16 years ago. We had a good party last year to celebrate our 15 years – it’s a monumental birthday for a girl in Colombia, so we celebrated as an agency. When we started, I was the creative vice president of Leo Burnett, Colombia and my two partners were the managing director and the creative director of McCann Erickson, Colombia. At the time those were the two most creative agencies in the country, so when we came together it was truly special. We wanted to put the message out that we were going to be an agency that was 100% about creativity. We did not want to be the biggest, we just wanted to be different and the best in what we do. Kind of like parents with their children in that they want to do everything perfectly, everything that they learnt that their own parents did correctly and everything that they did wrong, to do it right. That was the kind of agency that we wanted to have and that’s what we’ve been all the time – there has never been a formula. We really love the work and we love good work. We envy good work and we want to do good work. We occasionally do good work and more often than not, we admire good work. We exist in a permanent sense of awe.
LBB > Talking about good work – ‘Operation Christmas’. It won three Grand Prix at IPA, Jay Chiat Awards and APG in 2011. Can you talk to us a little bit more about the campaign and the inspiration behind it?
JMS > Yes. We started this many years ago. The government of Colombia has a military strategy in place. There is also a legal strategy in place, because at the end of this war many people will have to go through the justice system.
LBB > This is the war with the FARC guerrillas…
JMS > Yes, we’ve had a guerrilla war going on for 60 years. There hasn’t been a day in my life where my country has not been at war. The government started, as of 2002, to have a very structured approach to the guerrillas and the only thing that they realised that they didn’t have in 2005/6 was a structured communications approach. That is definitely part of what you have to do to win a war. You have a military strategy, you have an exit strategy and you talk to your enemy and you talk to your people. We were hired years ago to start doing this and they granted us unprecedented access to the guerrillas as they leave the jungle. So as soon as a guerrilla leaves the jungle, not one by one, but every time there are demobilisations we get a chance to go and talk to them. This enables us to understand what is happening, what has changed and what kind of media they are looking at right now. It used to be that the TV was very effective, but it is not anymore because they’ve moved further out into the jungle and do not have these very strong, very big base camps with satellite TV that they once had. It turns out that it’s better to communicate via radio. We get all of that information, and more than that, we get a feeling of the shifting emotions. The campaign started by telling their stories, with their own words and why they had gotten out and that led to the work.
The guerrillas started 60 years ago. It got very influenced by drug trafficking and that’s really what they do. At the peak of their power, there were 30,000 armed soldiers in a country that they controlled that was twice the size of Switzerland. And then, in November 2010, two major things happened in the same month. The leader of the guerrillas, the number one guy, was killed by the army, and an ex-guerrilla was voted Mayor of Bogota. So two very different things happened, with two different outcomes, but with, I believe, the same message, which is, violence does not pay. ‘Operation Christmas’, this is a little bit of the story.
We photographed people as they were demobilised, to show how those who have got out look no different to the Colombian army that surrounds them. We filmed little testimonials where women guerrillas told us their stories. They are not very ‘creative’. Not very amazing but they are honest and true. Women are not allowed to have children when they are in FARC because, of course, maternity leave is not a thing that you do with soldiers. They are not allowed to fall in love. They are not allowed to do a lot of stuff. We captured a lot of stories, we did a lot of radio. A lot of the stories were from anonymous sources and we realised that this was a weakness, so we started getting high ranking FARC officials out and we asked them if they wanted to talk to the guerrillas, to their soldiers. We found that the former FARC soldiers wanted to hear from these ‘celebrities’, their own celebrities.
In 2009, there was a march against FARC. We had nothing to do with it, it began on Facebook and millions of people in the country, everywhere, marched against them.
LBB > Look at them. It’s amazing. It’s like a sea of ants. It’s beautiful.
JMS > It’s amazing, right? Yes, it’s a beautiful picture as well. We learnt from the guerrillas that the protest had really touched them, that they realised that people really don’t want this war and so, we took advantage. Instead of them talking to themselves, we hired spokespeople to talk to them. A lady who was kidnapped for seven years, she came out, she talked. We had Shakira, the singer, and we even had other brands
LBB > What an amazing campaign to be involved in. This isn’t just about selling products or making profit, this is about changing thoughts and perceptions within your own country, to influence politics. Must be incredibly inspiring for you, it must be incredible?
JMS > Yes, it is very inspiring. It makes me love what I do more. It makes me fall in love with my profession more because I can do something, I can do a lot of things… I can make my country a better place.
Let me show you something that highlights the emotion of this campaign. We started getting other brands to talk to the guerrillas and we created a commercial for Christmas 2009, which showed the liberation of a prisoner, an MP/Senator (Sigifredo Serrano) that they had kidnapped for seven years and they set him free shortly after Christmas. We ran the commercial throughout the festive period (Here JMS shows the film to LBB http://bit.ly/FStTGW
LBB > Oh God, are they his sons? How long was he in prison for?
JMS > Seven years
LBB > So, when they took him, they were children, and here they are…young adults.
JMS > Yes, they are 16 and 17 now.
LBB > That’s… yeah. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
JMS > So that commercial got huge press coverage.
LBB > It’s so simple and yet so powerful.
JMS > And so that’s when we discovered, when the guerrillas came back and they talked. That commercial, that liberation of Mr. Lopez, that really touched them and we said, ‘It has to be human. We have to capture humanity’. And that is how ‘Operation Christmas’ came about (see if here: http://bit.ly/jt5zh6
). We decorated trees with tags that said ‘If Christmas can come to the jungle… You can come home’. After all, at Christmas, anything is possible.
LBB > Amazing. Absolutely amazing. The rest of my questions seem pretty weak and silly to ask now, but I’ve got to ask them… How did you get into advertising?
JMS > It was very random. I went to business school and before you graduate from business school you have to work at a company. You have to do an internship for six months. I was doing an internship in a place that was very far away from where I lived and I had a very unreliable car (laughter). A friend of mine was doing an internship at Leo Burnett and it was one block away from my house. So I said, ‘I’d like to get a job there,’ and he said, ‘come in for an interview’. I went in and I had my interviews and I said, ‘this is great. I’m going to be here for a year. I want to be everywhere in the agency and I want to learn about advertising that is going to be fundamental for my life as a business man’, and I never left.
LBB > Your agency has won a lot of awards. How important are awards to you as an agency? What is more important, creativity or effectiveness?
JMS > I’m sorry if my answer seems very standardised, but creative awards are very important to us for several fundamental reasons. One - because they create pride and only people that are proud of their work are constantly striving to get better. As soon as you lose pride, even if you’re a brick layer…you must have pride in your work. Architects are king at that. They build great buildings and they get progressively better. To us, awards are about pride and pride for the people that do the work… I don’t actually do any of the work. It is a big motivational thing. Number two - winning awards is a joyful moment and I think agencies have to be happy and be full of joy because there is more death than life Ideas get killed off more often than they see the light of day. So, there is happiness in that. Thirdly - I firmly believe that good advertising is advertising that does get noticed. I grew up in a world where advertising was like throwing a bowling ball down a bowling lane. You had your idea and your commercial and you just sent it and if you had done the right thing you would knock down all the pins. I think advertising today is more like pinball, like a pinball machine. You have an idea and you have to put it out there. You don’t know where it is going to go, whether it is going to bounce and whether it is going to be on Twitter, on facebook, if people are going to talk about it and your job is to keep it in play. I think you can only keep it in play if the idea has some weight of its own. If it’s a little plastic ball, it won’t make the impact, it won’t hit the pegs, it won’t make the counter move. So you need to have ideas and ideas that are noticed… And those usually get awards.
LBB > How do you find and select creative talent for your agency?
JMS > We are very lucky. People come to us. We don’t really have to go out finding people. Most of our staff are Colombian. I personally select people who have a passion about anything: skateboarding, skiing, writing, poetry, photography, calligraphy or…something. Because if they have a really strong passion, that will translate into their work. A person who is passionate about something can be passionate about another thing. As I’ve said, this is a hard business and we need love, passion and emotions. I’ve always said that boring advertising, comes from boring agencies and we certainly don’t want to be boring. You don’t want boring people.
LBB > Talk to me about Lowe + Partners global creative council, of which you are chairman?
JMS > This has been in place for years, in different forms. I think what I am trying to do is to have a great creative meeting, with great creative people and talk about work and constantly focus on that. There was a question at the first meeting, which I believe has been quoted many times, throughout the agency, which was, ‘Can we vote for our own work?’ To which I said, ‘What do you mean? Everything here is your own work, everything that you are seeing. This is not Brazil vs Argentina. This is all our work’. If we approach it that way, we can work it better. We can have really constructive discussions and there is a lot of work that we are seeing, that we are getting from the network, that is incredible, that makes me, certainly, very proud to be associated with it.
LBB > And your role?
JMS > Is to chair the meeting. I’m a little bit like you are, a little bit like an editor. People talk about the work, I try to get the ideas that I think are the most relevant and the most rewarding.
LBB > You’ll have to tell me how to do it…I’m pretty crap at it! (laughter)
JMS > Well, we’ll have a look at the work. We’ll look at how well we do and if the work is really good, you might be lucky and I’ll tell you how I did it (laughter). Let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am! But it’s that, and getting the people together, and getting the discussion going, and eventually making some tough decisions of who not to bring and who to bring.
LBB > What has been your favourite work in the last 12 months?
JMS > From my agency? I think for me, my favourite is the volume of work that we’ve done for the demobilisation because I think it is extremely important. Having said that, I would also like to mention Droga5's work for Jay Z and Bing, that showed us the way a lot of things that should be done, and can be done with advertising and I think that that is as inspiring and as important. It’s about the future of our business. It’s about discovery. It shows us that there is a future, where it can be and where we should and could be looking, what we can do and I think that is where I got my analogy of the pinball.
LBB > Do you still enjoy advertising?
JMS > I love it. I really love it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. I love it because of the power it has to change our country, in the way that ‘Operation Christmas’ has, the way it makes people appreciate wide smiles more or how it has changed the way we take care of ourselves. I think it does a lot of things and most of them good.