Mihai Gongu’s creative career has seen him work in three countries with very different perspectives on the world. Beginning in his native Romania, he’s spent time as a creative leader in Berlin and Shanghai, before returning to Bucharest in 2019 to take up his current position as executive creative director at Centrade, the Cheil Worldwide hub for South-East Europe.
He’s seen advertising through the lens of big traditional networks as well as agile independent boutiques. And (true to his name) has collected gongs from major award shows wherever he’s worked for creativity and effectiveness.
Keen to hear the wisdom Mihai’s accumulated from this unique creative path, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him.
LBB> Where did you grow up in Romania and how did your upbringing shape you as a person?
Mihai> I was born in a small semi-industrial city called Buzău, close to the Carpathian Mountains, a rather dreary but charming place thanks to its warm people and their resourcefulness, typical for the Eastern Bloc.
We grew up doing completely unusual activities the likes of reading books with no pictures, playing street soccer with no gear and sometimes no soccer ball, inventing movie plots based on the posters, as we could not afford the cinema tickets, and perfecting the fine art of chatting for hours about nothing at all, which is always a solid basis for comedy. This dearth of creative resources and stimuli resulted in a grander appetite for imaginative thought, and I guess, it also prevented me from becoming a creative who is constantly whining and rather turned me into one who finds ways around budgets and restrictions.
LBB> What was your first exposure to advertising?
Mihai> It was 2003, I was a student at the Faculty of Cybernetics in Bucharest, studying hard for a wildly exciting career in Macroeconomy Statistics, when I came across the Romanian version of Campaign magazine at a news stand. It was literally covering half the kiosk, so I simply could not ignore it. There and then, I discovered there’s a thing called advertising where you get to solve problems in fun ways for a living. I knew immediately this was the job for me and my thirst for imagination.
There was no proper ad school or portfolio school in Romania back then, so the industry had attracted all sorts of wacky racers from all walks of life. Most Romanian creative directors were failed architects, geologists, philosophers, painters, engineers, actors, or camera dudes and dudettes, reinventing creativity as they went along without worrying much about the rules. Some of their films became worldwide virals long before virals were a thing. Here’s one example of such work that travelled quite a bit soon after YouTube was born, without anyone realising it’s from Romania.
LBB> How did you end up at your first agency, Leo Burnett?
Mihai> As soon as I discovered my new favourite playground, I started to participate in all the contests and competitions I could lay my hands on, as I needed exposure fast, so that I could hope to land an internship in an actual agency. I entered two consecutive creative contests advertised at Marcă Înregistrată (funny how you were able to immediately decode that for Registered Mark, without speaking a word of Romanian, isn’t it?), the only TV Show in Romania dedicated to adland, and won both rounds. I found myself in the surreal position of having to decide between an internship at the hot rising star Leo Burnett and another one at the established D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, probably the best Romanian agency of the time. As you know from Mr. Anselmo Ramos, the best decisions are based on gut, so I naturally chose the agency which welcomed its interns with free pizza and went, thus, for Leo Burnett.
Two months later, D’Arcy suddenly went bankrupt in the most shocking turn of events for the local ad industry. And I went on to win my first Campaign of the Year trophy with Leo in my first year in the game and my first Epica trophy for this poster
LBB> What were some of the defining projects you worked on early in your career and how did they shape you?
Mihai> As I entered the industry almost entirely by accident, I have always been much more open to work on the categories and brands that were not so sexy to other young creatives. I was so grateful for getting the chance to do something that I truly loved, I would never refuse a brief or a brand. At Leo Burnett, I worked for Philip Morris and Connex Business while everyone was running after the cool energy drink or entertainment briefs. At BBDO, the agency I moved to a couple of years later, I welcomed working for Whiskas despite never owning a cat. My work on petcare allowed me to meet some fantastic professionals the likes of creative director Keith Lewin from CLM BBDO and account director Carmen Vasile at AMV BBDO and taught me that nobody knows patience like a cat film director. I have even written a commercial inspired by this, produced entirely from failed takes which made views all over the world.
But the most interesting thing that came out of it was that during a Whiskas photo session in Berlin, I fell in love with the city and met my next ECD – Jan Leube, one of the most respected German creatives.
LBB> What was your move to Berlin like and how did that change your outlook?
Mihai> I moved first to Berlin in 2009 which marked the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Wall, so the city was bustling with all sorts of exciting events almost every day. Me and my wife Melania, who became a strategist, had joined the Global Allianz Team in BBDO and we had a fantastic year away in a truly multicultural unit. It was among the few English-language teams in Germany at that time, and it offered us the chance to broaden both our skills and our view of the world. I was extra lucky to be teamed there with a legendary art director, none other than Gold-Lion-winning young gun director Joakim Reveman from The Vikings, who freelanced for BBDO Berlin at that time.
LBB> Tell us about the work you did for Pepsi that won the first Effie Awards and the ADC Awards Grands Prix. What was special about that campaign?
Mihai> I was recruited back by BBDO Bucharest and offered the ECD role for one of the biggest agencies in Romania and the oldest – established in 1991. Their founding client Pepsi which was the first American soft drink to enter the local market during communist times, relaunched their vintage bottle from the ‘60s. So, we created a campaign which built an emotional arc across time, using actual photos and footage from the albums and VHS tapes from back in the day, belonging to the parents and relatives of folks in the agency. The work caused such a stir across both generations that the retro bottle sold like hotcakes, and we landed two back-to-back Grands Prix at both ADC Awards and Effies, a premiere for the local market proving creativity does indeed drive effectiveness.
LBB> Then you worked at some indie agencies. What were the lasting impressions that working in that world left on you?
Mihai> Starting 2013, I moved to an independent agency for the first time. GMP was the biggest local independent handling some important accounts of the likes of Telekom, Volkswagen, and Timișoreana, the oldest beer in the region. As soon as I joined, a late brainstorm at home with my wife turned in one of the biggest image campaigns for Romania, a real-time response to an insulting initiative from David Cameron who planned a “You Won’t Like It Here!” campaign urging the latest nations to join the European Union – Romanians and Bulgarians - to not come to the UK. So, in true Romanian tongue-in-cheek spirit, we invited the British to come over to Romania instead, in a campaign entitled “Why Don’t You Come Over?” which went on to win the Eurobest Grand Prix in PR.
The campaign helped GMP win their first CEE Independent Agency of the Year title at Golden Drum. And two years later we repeated the performance, and we eventually became the local partner of the most famous German indie network. So, it was only a matter of time until in 2017 I moved to Berlin again as I joined Jung von Matt Spree. This time it was not just me and my wife, but also our daughter Clara who started school in Berlin.
Herr Jean-Remy von Matt has coined for his shop one of the most uncompromising slogans in adland - “We remain dissatisfied.” - and I can confirm that everyone in the dark green Trojan Horse lives by it day in and day out. It was a truckload of work hours on MINI, BMW, Reporters Without Borders, Thomas Cook Airlines, and OhYouWomen, among others, always pushing for that illusive “besonders'' [special] as Till Eckel, my ECD, used to say, but it did pay off. It was a huge honour for me to contribute to JvM’s best awards year ever as they swept virtually all the major Global Independent Agency of the Year titles in the business in 2018, from NYF to D&AD, and from Cannes Lions to Lovie.
LBB> This is turning into an interview about global travel! But I need to hear about your time in Shanghai, too. What was it like to work as a creative from the West in China?
Mihai> I had received an invite from Rogier Bikker the very ambitious leader of then Swedish-owned shop TOMORROW to become their ECD and I just knew I could not miss the chance to work in the most fast-paced market in the world and, more importantly, learn more about Asian culture. Ironically, China is in some respects very similar to Romania, with which it shares not just the unorthodox body temperature cooling solution called The Beijing Bikini (I trust the readers will waste no time in looking that up on Google Images), a love of meat-based cuisine and singing together in the family, but also a very rich culture mixing the traditional and the modern, and most essentially a can-do attitude that Western rules and regulations will never fully accommodate. The agency was a refreshing cultural melting pot with folks springing from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and all the corners of China.
It was an epic adventure. I dived straight into all the quirks of China’s unique social media and influencers ecosystem and managed next to Rogier and the team to help steer the agency from doing mostly social to creating more strategically-driven branded content and experiential work. I have worked on Absolut Vodka and shot a commercial with award-winning Korean actor Yoo Ah-In featuring an actual party with his close friends in his actual garage in Seoul, on Ballentine’s and shot a pop-up concert of Chinese hip-hop sensation band Higher Brothers in a wet market in Chengdu, on AirAsia and shot a new pan-Southeast Asian brand film across Thailand, Indonesia, and The Philippines, and on New Balance for which we have created an immersive story in CGI featuring a series of running robot athletes for the new Fresh Foam series. All this body of work landed TOMORROW a Campaign Asia Greater China Independent Agency of the Year title and caught the attention of MediaMonks whom they successfully merged with last year.
LBB> And now you work back in Bucharest, but across the South-East Europe region in an agency network that was born out of Korea. How do those layers of culture play into the way you approach creative problems?
Mihai> Shanghai was a blast, but I wanted to find something a bit closer to my family who was still based in Berlin and Bucharest, so I returned to the region and joined Centrade, the Cheil Worldwide Hub for South-East Europe. Cheil is a fairly young network which is all about advancing new technologies, leveraging gaming, and crafting amazing user experiences and branded content. ‘Truly, The Network Built for Now’ as Malcolm Poynton, our global CCO, puts it.
The Korean know-how and work ethic and the local appetite for doing things differently with plenty of courage, have been a very fortunate marriage. Malcolm has also been a tremendous inspiration for us at Centrade and helped us punch above our weight. Under his guidance, we have scored our best performance at London International Awards, won our first D&AD trophy last year and the best ranking in Top FICE, and managed to keep Samsung for four consecutive years as number one in the local Top Social Media Brands.
LBB> Your work with the ANAIS Association has found unique, artful ways to remind people of the extent of domestic violence. What were you most proud of about that work?
Mihai> ANAIS is a very dear friend of ours here at Centrade. They are an NGO spearheading the fight against domestic violence in Romania, which is a major challenge especially after the pandemic hit and more and more women and girls found themselves confined in the same space with abusers. The ensuing economic crisis did not help either, as hardships turned up the aggressivity, as well as the lack of tolerance and empathy. Each year, the team lead by our creative director Roxana Niță, puts enormous amounts of heart and effort into crafting a new campaign to attract awareness and funds for the cause. And the latest one, entitled The Guilt Gifts Puppetry, an experiential theatre series featuring actual toys donated by real victims, is, we believe, the most stirring and most effective to date.
LBB> What else are your major priorities at Cheil Centrade now?
Growing the capabilities of the team and adding relevant talent is one of my key focuses as an ECD, as I think we can only be as good as the people who drive us forward. I have been a teacher of integrated communication at Miami Ad School in Berlin and I try to bring here the thirst for mad skillz that I saw at some of the students there and the dedication to constantly upgrade one’s craft game. With this can-do mentality, we were able to produce internally campaigns developed in the shortest of time, that lived up to our mantra of ‘Doing Good With Data’. See Beyond the ICU, our work for Hospice Casa Speranței in which we recreated hospital rooms in CGI to raise awareness about the criminal lack of available beds for cancer patients, is a case in point.
Another key focus is, obviously, growing the business. To be able to afford the best resources, we need to attract the strongest brands in the market. We have managed to win several important tenders, both globally – Pfizer Rare Diseases, and locally - ENGIE, First Bank, NN Insurance, Hochland, and more to be revealed soon. For each of them, we have leveraged our strategic and creative resources to build strong brand new communication platforms. At the latest edition of Effie Awards, most of our new platforms were recognised by the jury, giving us a lot of trust in what the future will bring, despite the challenging times.
The leadership in Centrade is also keen on expanding our offer across new types of relevant services for our clients and the network. The most important example is big data. Centrade has launched in 2018 a division called DIA (Digital Intelligence and Analytics) which now services the e-commerce needs of Samsung across the entire European market, straight from Bucharest. Very recently, the Romanian capital city has also become a regional hub for CYLNDR, the creative production company and full-service studio that sits at the heart of BMB in London, in order to leverage the wealth in film and 3D production talent available in the region.