BBH New York’s new chief creative officer speaks to Addison Capper about the importance of humility, lessons learned from running his own agency, and the beauty of random happenings during his career
During the formative years of Rafael Rizuto's career as an art director, he had never before left his home country of Brazil. But by some kind of unexplained coincidence - a prominent presence throughout his career - the opportunity arose to live and work in Bahrain, a country he hadn't even heard of before. But the move proved to be both life- and career-changing. After his stint in Bahrain he hopped on a plane to nearby Dubai, played a formative role in Ogilvy Dubai becoming Agency of the Year at Dubai Lynx and went on to represent the United Arab Emirates at the Young Lions. He's worked with Anselmo Ramos while the founder of GUT was the CCO at Ogilvy Brazil, worked closely with PJ Pereira at Pereira O'Dell and sparked life into the LA outpost of 180 as the agency's first ever ECD.
Eventually he went on to launch his own shop, San Francisco agency TBD, which he launched with business partner Jordan Warren and worked with the likes of Nokia and the Ad Council. Launching his own business, he believes, has taught him lessons that he never could have learned at any other agency. But an opportunity came along at the beginning of this year that Rafael couldn't say no to. BBH New York was looking for a new CCO and had Rafa and its sights. Meanwhile, Rafa is a long-time fan of BBH and the fact that Sir John Hegarty is an art director - like himself - while so many agency founders are writers by trade.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Rafael to find out more about his whirlwind career, the importance of humility as a creative, and his plans for BBH.
LBB> You've moved from TBD, your own baby, to a big, vintage brand like BBH. Why? What was it about the opportunity that appealed to you?
Rafael> As you said, TBD was my baby. I had the agency for about two-and-a-half years. Right out of the gates when we launched in 2017 we won a global pitch for Nokia’s digital health products. In 2018 we became the AOR for Evernote and we beat some big agencies on a pitch for StubHub. We did really well. 2019 wasn’t as good of a year. The industry is shifting so much, there are so many variables right now. At the end of 2018 a client took everything in house. So there were a series of factors that didn’t make 2019 as good. Gearing up towards the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, Covid really began looming around.
When BBH reached out to me in January, it was completely out of the blue. But I have this thing. Things happen to me that feel so random but they end up being the crossroads of my life, even if you go years back to Brazil when I started my career in 2000. I’m from the north east of Brazil and started my career as a designer / art director. In 2006 I got this weird offer to move to the Middle East, to Bahrain. I had never left Brazil, I didn’t speak any English, I didn’t even have a passport. It was a month from knowing a country called Bahrain existed to my first day there. Looking back now I still can’t comprehend why I took that decision. It was so random but it was the thing that changed my career forever.
Looping back to the beginning of this year, it was very rare that people reached out to me for new gigs because I had my own agency. So it was weird already when a recruiter got in touch. But it made me think about the fact that they’d reached out while we were in some kind of crossroads at TBD. At first I said no but the recruiter asked me to consider because she felt that the opportunity was right for me and I was right for them. So we started talking. It was the most thorough interview process I’ve ever been a part of but I began feeling like I wasn’t in the driving seat for the decision - it was just taking me. But every time I spoke to them I felt this excitement, a kind that I don’t know when I last felt.
LBB> Where did that excitement come from?
Rafael> First of all, BBH was always a very special place for me. I think every creative always dreams to work there - just think of all the legacy work for Audi, Levi’s, Johnny Walker. When I got the gig I sent a message to Sir John Hegarty to tell this story to him and he was so gentle and nice to me in his response.
Another thing that was special to me was that this is an agency where presentation matters. If you look at all the big agencies, the lead founders are often all copywriters. David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett to more recent ones like David Droga, they are all writers. The thing that always drew me to BBH was that Sir John Hegarty was an art director, like myself. I always thought that it was interesting to have such a powerful agency with an art director at the helm. I actually have a presentation about craft that I do that uses his quote, “it’s only great if it looks great”.
Another very important part of my career was back in 2016 when I won the Grand Prix for Good for Unicef while I was at 180 LA. Guess who handed me the trophy? Sir John Hegarty. So I have always had this serendipity with BBH. If it was any other agency that had reached out at that moment, I would have shut them down but because it was BBH I opened the door. The agency has the DNA, tons of great work and is such a powerhouse but the New York office needed a bit of a reboot. That excited me.
LBB> What lessons did you learn from working in a smaller shop that was your own that you can take to this role at BBH that you couldn’t before?
Rafael> I’ve learnt so much. TBD was the best thing that happened to me in my career. I stopped being just a creative guy to knowing inside-out how an agency works. Especially during such disruptive times like now, I was in the trenches, I was also a new business guy. I wasn’t just the head of creative, I was touching all parts of the agency and serving the clients in the best way possible - hearing their pain and learning a lot of humility too. You can see where they are coming from whereas sometimes it can be easy to be stuck in your creative bubble. If you align your ambitions with the clients’ ambitions, that’s when you can do the great work. A client who doesn’t want creativity to serve them is a bad one - but they don’t want creativity for creativity’s sake to please an agency. They want it to work for their business. That sounds so obvious but agencies don’t do that, they have different agendas. I truly believe that if you put the clients’ agenda at your core, you can do great work.
The one thing that really does come to mind is humility. I’ve worked for all kinds of agencies and there is this arrogance and lack of empathy in some of them for the client. Even the way you work is very siloed and ego-driven. TBD gave me a humility and business acumen that I didn’t have before. I was dealing with clients on the good and bad, seeing where they’re coming from. The agency was just 15 people so we needed to use every single brain, and this is something I’m bringing to BBH. The output is not the responsibility of the creative department, the output is the responsibility of the whole agency. And this is easier said than done but we need every single brain. It’s not about getting a brief from the client, going to get some data, account people taking the brief, the brief going to the planners, strategy giving it to the creatives. That’s so old in etiquette. There are so many smart people at BBH. I’m blown away by it, the talent is insane. Let’s use them all!
LBB> Tell me about your trip to Bahrain - you ended up staying in the Middle East for a while and went to Dubai for a stint.
Rafael> As I mentioned before, it was completely random. A friend of a friend told me about this creative director in Bahrain from a small shop that had Ritz Carlton and Audi as clients. Do you remember Google Earth? I looked up Bahrain on there and then I went. To this day I can’t explain why or how I accepted that but I was there for about nine months. The experience wasn’t that good work wise, there was a very abusive boss. So I was at another crossroads, should I go back to Brazil or should I keep going with this? And another thing that you cannot explain happened. A guy called Till Hohmann, who was a creative director at Jung von Matt, had just taken a position as ECD at Ogilvy Dubai. He got hold of my portfolio somehow, got in touch, told me he really liked my work and the fact that he was building a new team at Ogilvy Dubai. At that point my English was still very bad because in Bahrain I was hired by a Brazilian creative director. I was relying on him but three months later he resigned. I’m lucky that I was an art director because I could get away with that doing my art thing! So I was nervous about having a call with Till because what if I couldn’t understand him? I did the call and didn’t understand anything that he said and I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand anything I said. When I finished the call I thought, fuck that was a disaster. I’m never going to hear from this guy again.
LBB> But you did?
Rafael> He wrote me a very long and beautiful email about how things happen to you for a reason and that he likes my work. He said he wanted to hire me but on one condition: I needed to allow him to pay for me to have English classes. How generous is that? He saw a talent and he was willing to invest. The rest is history. I started at Ogilvy Dubai at the end of 2007, in 2008 I won the Cannes Young Lions competition. I went to Cannes for the first time in 2008 representing the whole region. I was a Brazilian representing the United Arab Emirates. But that was a very important moment in my career that I’m super proud of.
I stayed at Ogilvy Dubai until 2010, which is the year we won agency of the year for the region at Dubai Lynx. Me and my partner played a big role in that because we picked up a lot of awards. Till ended up leaving due to personal problems and the agency just wasn’t as great anymore without him so I decided to leave for Leo Burnett Dubai where I was for about a year.
I was in the Middle East for about five years when, at the end of 2011, Anselmo Ramos reached out to me through my dear friend and brother from another mother, Eduardo Marques, AKA Dudu. At the time Anselmo was the CCO at Ogilvy Brazil. He told me that they were doing something special there and he would like me to be a part of it. So I went back to Brazil. And for the first time ever Ogilvy Brazil was the third placed agency in Cannes, and I remember we won 16 Lions - eight of them were me and Dudu. But this was back in the day when Lions were difficult to win. Back then, 16 Lions? Holy shit.
But after working outside of Brazil for a long time and coming back, the work life there is insane. I remember going to the agency for a pitch on Thursday morning and leaving on Friday night - I wasn’t used to that anymore and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it forever. I decided that I wanted to go abroad again and thanks to doing well in Cannes we had offers from some cool places. But there was one place - and this is another of those circumstances that you can’t explain.
LBB> You went to Pereira O’Dell, right?
Rafael> Yeah. PJ Pereira was in San Francisco, which wasn’t a usual suspect for ad towns, and his agency was doing this interesting mix of branded entertainment and digital. And it was smaller - I felt like we could really make an impact on some really interesting work. We went to Pereira O’Dell at the end of 2012 and stayed there until the end of 2015. We won Airbnb and launched its first ever global campaign. We did the biggest campaign for Coca-Cola in Latin America - that’s a bit of work that I’m really proud of. It was amazing, and to this day PJ Pereira is one of my best friends and a mentor. It’s my favorite agency that I’ve worked for in my career.
But then 180LA reached out to us. They’d never had an ECD before but they wanted one to take over the whole department. 180 had a history of success in Amsterdam with adidas ‘Impossible Is Nothing’ for example, but the office in LA needed some new energy. We went there and eventually turned 180LA into the most awarded agency in all of TBWA’s network worldwide for two years in a row (2016/2017).
LBB> So how did TBD happen after all of that? How did you get to know Jordan?
Rafael> That was another random thing. Starting an agency was never my ambition just like I never intended to work abroad. But a recruiter told me about an entrepreneur that had started some agencies and wanted to start a new one, and my profile apparently fit. The first time I spoke to him I liked his vibe and everything about him, but I asked him, why does this industry need another agency? But that’s where the name TBD sprouted from - ‘to be determined’. Often there’s an arrogance with new agencies, they have grand messaging about bridging consultants with creatives and stuff. You’re just starting, have some humility. That was the TBD philosophy. We don’t know the answer but we and the client will find it out.
LBB> Boost Your Voice is a piece of work that did very well and something that I wanted to ask you about. What are your thoughts on that campaign, given the presidency now, the election this year, and the climate we're in? Should brands get involved in that conversation more?
Rafael> There’s a phrase I use - it’s not mine, I must have heard it somewhere - “an idea never gives up on you, you give up on them”. This idea died so many times. Having that idea wasn’t that difficult. It was obvious. Boost Mobile is a low-income part of Sprint, and back in 2016 we were discussing the state of things, like Trump running for election, saying Mexicans are rapists, all that bullshit. He was saying that about Boost’s user base which is largely Latino and immigrants.
Vote suppression is so appalling to me. The country that prides itself on being the poster child of democracy is not democratic at all. They intentionally block people from voting. But Boost stores are everywhere and people have difficulties voting from certain neighbourhoods. Someone in the team said, what if we turn Boost stores into polling places? That was an easy one, an obvious idea. But making that happen was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career. There’s a certain force to block those people from voting. But the team had this epiphany, which stayed with me through TBD and now to BBH. We shouldn’t always approach things like an ad agency. At first we approached it like we were doing an activation or something like that and it didn’t work out at all. We hit a wall so many times. The whole thing was unlocked when we brought in someone from the inside, it was someone that worked on the presidential primary of that year. It was also a proper collaboration between client and agency - we both worked on calling different counties offering Boost stores as polling places. It was so intense and so well orchestrated. Boost stores became part of the voting form in those places. It made a change in the process.
But one thing stuck out for me. It again comes back to humility. We had that idea because we wanted to beat Trump. When he won, everyone was so sad. We did everything we could to impact the outcome but it would have been much better if we didn't lose. I was bummed out for a couple of days. But then I started watching the numbers. 33% of Latin males voted for Trump. 27% of Latin females voted for Trump. That for me was such an awakening. Who am I to assume because I’m in my Democratic bubble? Our job is to give people a voice, whatever that voice is. That idea became so much bigger for me after that because it wasn’t coming from a personal agenda. It was a bigger point of view. That brand literally gives people a voice - it sells phones. Regardless of what people’s voice is, we gave it to them.
Back to your question, I wish more brands would participate somehow and facilitate helping people to vote. It’s the most important thing you can do as a citizen.
LBB> How are you keeping busy during lockdown outside of work? Have you picked up any new hobbies or is more a case of just keeping busy and sane?
Rafael> I have a two-and-a-half year old boy and a one-year-old boy. There is not much space for leisure or anything! When I’m not working I’m with my boys. Having said that, I’m cycling a lot. After all of the morning calls, I go out, listen to a podcast and cycle for 45 minutes to an hour. I’m really trying to keep to that to keep me sane. And because we’re locked in the house, we tend to eat more - so it’s to keep some level of health too!