Alan Cerutti speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about bringing home the first ever Grand Prix to Vietnam and what that means for the agency as it looks to the future
“We don’t believe in creativity for the sake of creativity,” expresses Happiness Saigon’s CEO Alan Cerutti as he reflects on the agency winning a Grand Prix at this year’s Ad Stars. Not only is the win a feat in itself, but it’s also the first ever Grand Prix to come home to Vietnam.
The campaign that won the agency the honour was Lay’s Crispy Subtitles, which, as the title suggests helps decipher crisp sounds when watching YouTube. The Google Chrome extension began with recorded crisp sounds from around the world, compiled into a database. The AI works when a viewer watches a clip on YouTube while munching and crunching, to automatically turn subtitles on.
The campaign and the accolade given to both Happiness Saigon and Vietnam are a source of huge pride, though Alan is keen to reiterate that ‘awards are part of the journey, they’re not the destination’. Looking at his own journey up until this point may explain why - the now-CEO was once a ‘suit guy’ working for Happiness Brussels on the accounting side of their company. He then transitioned over to Ogilvy in London before co-founding Happiness Saigon in 2014. In the past seven years much has changed in the creative world, not least in the past 18 months, but as an agency, Happiness Saigon has had to pivot to weather the many storms that were thrown at them.
Last year the agency’s ECD Greg Titeca sadly passed away in a car accident and the leadership team were tasked with rebuilding the creative department. Alan explains: “It was a bit of a gamble after seven years for me because I had to decide to either elevate people from within or to bring in a new creative leader, which might have consequences in culture. I decided to actually promote from within and now have two very young, co-creative directors. Together with them in the past year, we have built an agency that is more foundational on creative than before.”
It’s no surprise that Alan calls the Grand Prix win a huge personal achievement and also a ‘great milestone’ for the world to see what exactly Vietnam can do. He compares Vietnam to Thailand in the sense that the country seems to be finding its own identity when it comes to advertising, slowly carving out its niche.
“As a nation, they are building their identity through the past and the community sense is very important. For the industry and advertising, and the importance of creativity, there wasn't this ‘before wars’ and then ‘after the war’, it had to be rebuilt. A lot of brands came in and it was quite easy to gain market share. So, when the market is quite open, you don't need to differentiate, the only thing you need is a bit of money, and then you can go for it. You can have a good share of voice, and it will take you a long way.”
With an open market and an ease to gain market share, many brands were looking at short-term tactics as opposed to long-term. The sudden shock that Covid brought with it changed that and Alan believes that now brands should be looking at building deep-roots and brand foundations instead of short-term tactics. In particular, he is fond of the ‘commercial creativity’ thinking, which to him means ‘applying creativity for the sake of driving commercial success’.
As a business, Happiness Saigon are more committed to driving success for their clients than anything else. They make sure that each campaign ‘drives some level of positive effect’ towards sales as a way of measuring just how good a campaign is. Sometimes along with this, as with the Ad Stars win, comes awards. Alan believes that the agency wants to make work that is ‘fundamental’ and sometimes industry recognition comes with that, though he is keen to stress that that is ‘part of the journey, not the destination’.
As the agency works towards being the best it can be, the conversation turns towards diversity and inclusion – something that is a big topic in much of the Western world. In Vietnam and for Happiness Saigon this comes down to the company’s culture. Alan explains: “There is no boss, I'm not the boss, I am the one that is coordinating and facilitating as an agent of creativity. I have really come to believe that the most important thing at the company is our people, it's not the awards. Everyone has a side project and actually two weeks ago, someone came and said, ‘I built the office in a virtual space’, which is now something that we are using to do interviews.”
One only has to look at the company name to understand how much employee happiness is valued. “It's very much ingrained in Happiness, we do everything to make people happy, happy people make great work, and work is what makes people happy, so that's the cycle,” explains Alan. He adds that at the moment 60% of the staff in the agency is female - though this is not by design, it’s just something that happened.
As Alan looks to the future, one of his plans is to make the agency one of the first in Southeast Asia to achieve B Corp status to ‘demonstrate that its possible to combine purpose and profit’. “We're only as good as our last work, and we also want to make sure that our ecosystem of companies is becoming known to be the most remarkable one out of Vietnam from a creative perspective. I think that B Corp ambition is something that I personally would love to have achieved in the next two to three years.”