Global CCO Bruno Bertelli and Publicis Italy creative director Mihnea Gheorghiou reflect on a relentless stream of attention-grabbing campaigns that are changing everything for them, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves and Laura Swinton
Around two years ago, Publicis Italy was pitching for the global account of an Italian-born fashion brand that held the potential for monumental change - within the agency, the fashion category and possibly the country’s whole creative landscape. Knowing the magic they could work with DIESEL, the team looked back to what they’d once loved about the brand. Global chief creative officer Bruno Bertelli was a huge fan of DIESEL’s ‘90s communication, as he tells us at between judging sessions at the London International Awards in Las Vegas. “It was really challenging conformity,” he remembers. It was mischievous, even shocking at times, taking on themes like authoritarianism, climate change and global inequality.
Mihnea Gheorghiou, creative director at Publicis Italy, loved this work while growing up in Romania. “What they were doing was something else,” he says. “It was intriguing. It was scary. It made me think of what I would be able to come up with if I ever had the chance to work for a brand like that.”
The central thread of Publicis’ pitch was clear. “Our idea was to bring DIESEL back to [being] a lifestyle brand more than a fashion brand,” says Bruno. But underlying this idea were some key societal observations.
For example, while the brand had the idea of challenging conformity built into its DNA, what conformity looks like in the age of social media is very different. “Challenging conformity today is very different to 20 years ago,” says Bruno. “What is different today is that we are living in a very free world but at the same time we are falling into the trap of conformity much more than in the past. Look at us. On social media, we always show our best vacations, our best food.”
Bruno knew the brand could communicate a more inspiring message than that. “‘Who gives a shit? Be yourself.’ That’s where the campaign Go with the Flaw came from. But in a way it was simply to bring back what Diesel was about.”
When work started, it was time to get working on realigning the brand with these ideals of nonconformity. “Diesel has always been a challenger of conformity on every level, from philosophy, to communication, to product”, says Mihnea. “It was already a ‘lovebrand’ with global firepower. It’s just that it had gotten a bit quiet. So, we set out to give a fun and irreverent alternative to fashion and lifestyle conformities. You know, those things we got tired of seeing or doing, or didn’t even realize yet that we’d got tired of.”
One level Publicis wanted to achieve this was structural - by facing up to the conformity of the fashion system itself. “What’s interesting about the fashion system is that all the brands talk about freedom but actually they are so conservative in a way,” says Bruno. “We did everything we could possibly do to break the fashion rules. So, for example, fashion brands hate knock-offs, we did the opposite, we embraced them. All the fashion brands are about beauty and perfection, we did the opposite.”
This even extended to the structure of a brand’s communications. Where brands in the fashion category tend to organise themselves around discrete seasons, DIESEL has been talking to its audience throughout the year. “Now it’s time to get back to lifestyle,” says Bruno. “Fashion brands are like, ‘I’m up here. If you’re interested in me, then fine… but otherwise I don’t care’. Lifestyle brands are more about being relevant, being close to the target, opening up to a bigger audience.”
Mihnea remembers the moment when he first encountered the ‘go with the flaw’ line as creative director on the newly-won account: “It was the middle of the night. “Bliiing!” goes the email alarm. It was probably the 37th PowerPoint with ideas from the teams working on the launch campaign,” he says. “This time, the email came from a team in Rome. In the second slide, I saw the line ‘go with the flaw’ and I fell in love with it. We all love a good pun, but this time it meant so much more: in a world trying too hard to keep appearances and pressured to spend incredible amounts of energy on trying to be something they’re not, we wanted to celebrate the opposite: the physical and character flaws, the mistakes we try so hard to avoid, the ‘oh, fuck’ moments. That sounded like a fun way to challenge the world’s obsession with perfection and give an alternative for what successful living means. I might’ve also been a bit influenced by the fact that I have strabismus [crossed eyes] and it’s been my best (and only) party trick over the years.”
In September 2017, this train of thought resulted in a massive launch campaign with a visual feast of a film directed by François Rousselet at its head, accompanied by dozens of local market activations, art projects, posters, networks of hundreds of influencers creating content, lots of digital and hyper-targeted content. “We even ran ads made specifically for Tinder,” says Mihnea. “It was a huge effort that wouldn’t have been possible without all the team involved. The film was the main content everyone saw, as it had to introduce the world to ‘Go with the Flaw’.”
Mihnea remembers entrusting the idea to the director, hoping the film would ultimately embody everything the agency was trying to do taking DIESEL in a new direction. “There was a clear idea and message. There was a script,” he says. “The rest was ping-pong, chaos, panic attacks, fighting and – happily - drunk karaoke in an obscure bar in Kiev. I think no one knew it would turn out the way it did the moment we went into pre-production.” The way it did turn out was magnificent, a lush, invigorating slice of attitude of a film.
Just weeks after the campaign launch, the agency was suddenly hit with a surprise turn of events to react to.
“What do you do when you find out that the CEO has quit?” asks Mihnea. “A normal company would’ve swept it under the carpet and hired a new person quietly. Not DIESEL. [The brand’s founder] Renzo Rosso wanted to make the news. He saw this as an opportunity to give people a glimpse of what the company’s like on the inside.”
With a vacant CEO’s chair at DIESEL HQ in Breganze, Italy, Publicis proposed a Facebook competition to fill it. Anyone could apply. Only one person could occupy it. All they had to do was prove how good they were at sitting in a chair. “Thousands and thousands applied,” says Mihnea. “One guy from Belgium went to Italy for a week and took over the brand’s Twitter account, acting as the company’s first ‘Chair Executive Officer’. It was fun”
For the festive season the DIESEL team at Publicis took aim at one of the cornerstones of winter comfort - the cosy jumper. “We picked on one of holiday season’s most beloved conformities: ugly wool sweaters,” says Mihnea. And for that added cute factor they found a fitting animal ambassador to front the campaign. The former artistic director of DIESEL – Nicola Formichetti – thought the idea was fun and agreed to appear in a mockumentary telling the story of how and why DIESEL said ‘no to uncool wool’ that holiday season. “We put the denim on the sheep in post production, but she was really OK with wearing the leather jacket,” remembers the creative director.
The next campaign returned to the main ‘Go with the Flaw’ thread of DIESEL’s new positioning, continuing to encourage people to embrace their imperfections. “The idea started from creating places where people could go and perpetuate flaws, IRL and digitally,” says Mihnea. “Then, in an internal meeting, the question appeared: what happens if two people, who’ve hidden their flaws from each other, have a baby?”
The resulting film - another sumptuous treat from François Rousselet - answered that question with wit and style. It was also loaded with multiple layers of storytelling, hiding clues that led viewers to different places that, as Mihnea puts it “help keep the world flawed”: Instagram accounts where influencers inspired people to mix and match and buy unpaired socks. The film included a fictitious restaurant where, in partnership with Buzzfeed’s Tasty, you could find recipes to cure hangovers, satisfy the munchies or complement your lazy weekends. Publicis also created a real travel agency service that showed flights with the largest number of layovers.
Keeping their tongues firmly in their cheeks, DIESEL and Publicis’ next stunt was to take on elitism at New York Fashion Week. “Fashion weeks are fancy. It’s that time of the year when people get a bit too pretentious and praise logos and chase hype,” says Mihnea. “Everything’s ‘fab’. You know what’s not fab? Knock-offs and the unsung heroes who don’t give a damn about all that fancy mambo-jambo. At the same time, we were running a global campaign that celebrated exactly that. So, it seemed like the right time to show that the alternative to big brand logos can also be fab.” The DEISEL store (note the spelling) was a hit.
By the spring people were getting used to DIESEL’s newly rediscovered irreverence, so the proposal of a new product - Joggjeans, jeans you could run in - fitted perfectly. “Joggjeans are comfy. You can run in them. But that’s what any other elastic jeans brand would say,” says Mihnea. “What if they were the perfect jeans to run away from something? The online dating world seemed like a good place to start. Why sit through and endure an awkward date when you have so many options? Run.”
There was still plenty of DIESEL’s character to dig into and Publicis followed the cheeky Joggjeans product launch with an unexpected innovation project - The Capsule - that went beyond fashion and into lifestyle. “Work influences a huge chunk of our lives,” says Mihnea. “Dario [Gargiulo, DIESEL’s CMO] wanted to show internally that challenging conformity shouldn’t be limited to just the way we do communication. The brand DNA and the direction we decided to take together should apply to everything we do, even to the way they approach meetings internally. He did get the inspiration from Renzo’s way of making decisions very quickly, but he wanted to share that in a more practical and modern way with the rest of company (and the world). So, we built a fully functional meeting room. It may have not been related to fashion, but I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned from that experience.”
The next brief that came to Mihnea and his DIESEL team was: “‘We need to do something at the Bread&&Butter festival in Berlin.’” It was the brand’s chance to have some fun with streetwear culture’s particular flavour of conformity. “You don’t have to spend too much time analysing the streetwear culture to see that collaborations are hype AF. But are really Supreme and Off White the only coolest brands you can associate with to make your brand cooler? There has be an alternative out there, a brand popular only to the true connoisseurs of the urban culture. Like a kebab stand. The lines for Mustafa’s Gemuese Kebap on a regular day could make even Supreme’s lines jealous.”
This September marked a year since DIESEL first invited the world to ‘Go with the Flaw’. Its latest campaign has an even more potent message: embrace and own the hateful language that people throw at you. But the brief for Ha(u)te Couture was more of a situation than an idea, as Mihnea reveals: “‘We’re in advanced talks with a super celebrity who will endorse us and create a capsule collection.’”
Thinking about how DIESEL’s attitude could fit with a celebrity endorsement and the trend for social influencers, the agency focused on the hateful comments that certain figures receive every day online. “Instead of pretending the hate was not there, we decided to turn it around and build the entire campaign around it,” says Mihnea. “Our concept didn’t really click with the first celebrity that started it all, so we shook hands, exchanged amicabilities and continued our search. First, we had to find the people with the right attitude. Then, we had to make sure they wanted to be a part of it and willing to expose and wear real hate comments they received. Next, we had to approve the designs with them. All this while trying to keep a diverse mix of hate comments. The timings were almost impossible, but thanks to this team of wonderful people, we managed to lock down the current cast.
“Shooting with 10 celebrities in LA sounds exciting. And it was the most exciting and intense shoot that I’ve ever been on. Problem is, we had to make the production work and adapt it to their schedules. Schedules which, in some cases, happened to fluctuate. So, we had to change the shooting date three times. That caused certain characters to not be able to make it anymore. Changing them led to changing the hate comments and collection items, which led to changing the scenes. I think we knew exactly who and what we were going to shoot a week before the actual shoot. It was madness. Panic attacks were as ordinary as hiccups. But looking at it now, I wouldn’t change a thing. We were lucky to work with such a dynamic and collaborative crew. Jovan [Todorovic the director] was a hero. And a true celebrity whisperer.”
Bruno’s grateful for the raw materials Publicis had to work with in this journey. “What was great about DIESEL in the past was that there was a lot of consistency between the brand communication and the product. So we always wanted to link what we were claiming with the products. The most recent Ha(u)te Couture campaign is really about a big concept, but it lands on product.”
DIESEL’s made a lot of noise over this past year or so and Mihnea’s barely had time to reflect on what the agency has achieved. “Truth is, this interview is one of the very few times I stopped and thought about the work we did in a year,” he says. “We never stop to look back and enjoy. We barely finish with one campaign and start with the next three. DIESEL was a ‘lovebrand’ long before we took over, with a history of amazing and inspiring work, so it wouldn’t be fair to claim all of the positive sentiment around it. In our little industry bubble, it seems like we’re doing a good job. The results we’ve seen for the past year are pretty good but there’s always room for better.”
He’s also positive about the way working on such a massive global account has changed the way Publicis Italy functions. He notes that it’s drastically boosted collaboration between departments within the Groupe and with the client itself. “There’s no more of ‘here’s the collection, now promote it’. We manage to meet up, talk, understand where each of us is coming from. We understood what it takes to bring a collection to life and we work together to make sure the product and the communication go hand in hand. And we worked better. It happened on DEISEL, on Mustafa and it got to a whole new level on Ha(u)te Couture.”
Thanks to its work on accounts like DIESEL, Publicis Italy is changing and growing in interesting ways. “We got bigger but at the same time I didn’t want to get too big,” says Bruno. “I promised myself it wouldn’t get bigger than 200 people; it was more about the selection of people. It’s much more international for sure, from all over the world. There are very good copywriters coming from different areas – screenwriters and so on. At the same time, there’s a lot of planning. We’re trying to balance those two things: storytelling and strategy. Those are the two things that are most important for me.”
And while the DIESEL brand has been on a journey, as has Publicis, the campaign has also come at a time when the local ad scene in Italy has started to wake up and pursue greater creative ambition. If Publicis Italy stays on this trajectory, Bruno believes it could have a powerful effect on his home country’s ad industry. “I think in the past Italy was too closed and too provincial and instead of trying to come out with our own creativity we were trying to copycat England or the big countries,” he says. “The big difference is when creatives from all over the world want to come to the country. Italy is becoming more and more appealing now; it’s a trend.”