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McCann Spain’s Emiliano González De Pietri on the Power of Saying ‘No’ and Madrid’s Creative Evolution
Production Services
Barcelona, Spain
The agency’s chief creative officer reflects on his experience as a reporter and how the skills he gained are invaluable to the work he does today

Nouri Films, the Barcelona-based production and service company, has partnered with Little Black Book to sponsor the site’s Spanish Edition. As part of that, over the upcoming months we will be spending time with some of the most exciting creative talent the country has to offer.

Today LBB’s Zhenya Tsenzharyk speaks to Emiliano González De Pietri, the chief creative officer at McCann Spain, who joined the company last year. With a background in journalism, Emiliano brings a sharp reporter’s eye to any problem at hand, approaching each and every one with rigour and analysis, like his writing heroes Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. He tells LBB why sometimes playing by the rules is the right first move, what he misses about life as a reporter, and why young creatives joining the industry need to know the value of saying ‘no’.

LBB> Tell us a little bit about what you were like growing up - were you always creative? 

Emiliano> I was born in Milan. My mom is Italian. My dad is Spanish. My mom was a theatre actress in the prestigious Piccolo Teatro and my dad was an artist, belonging to a studio that catered to the advertising industry. It was definitely an artistic household. I grew up watching my dad draw, and sometimes my mum would criticise his work, which wasn’t always a peaceful process. From an early age, I could see that there was an edge to anything creative, which is part of the fun. 

I wasn’t good at drawing, but it was clear from quite early on that I was good at anything verbal. I was fascinated by weird words that I’d try to use in different contexts. Eventually I thought that I could make a living that way though I wasn’t thinking about advertising specifically. I was always surrounded by books, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, after reading which I started to realise that journalism could have a literary dimension. I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in New York to get deeper into literature and non-fiction writing, to acquire an arsenal of literary and philosophical skills.


LBB> You were a reporter before joining the industry - what made you switch?

Emiliano> I really wanted to become a journalist, writing long-from pieces like the ones in The New Yorker. I ended up as part of an investigative team of a Madrid newspaper, which I loved as it meant that I wasn’t tied to the crazy daily cycle of the news. I wanted to have the opportunity and the time to dig deeper into subjects and stories. I was very young and I joined a team headed by an incredible investigative journalist, who had uncovered cases of governmental corruption and dirty wars that were being fought against terrorists - I helped him to write and structure the pieces. I witnessed a lot of stories never make it to print, get killed along the way, and I was quite heartbroken to see that journalistic independence could be undermined like that. That coincided with an offer from a friend, who worked at a local agency in Madrid, to try advertising. He got me an interview and that’s when things changed.


LBB> Is there anything you miss about your past life and do you think the skills you gained as a reporter have helped you in this industry? 

Emiliano> It was great to go to and have access to places I’ve never been to before. I remember one story that revolved around a huge Ponzi scheme in Albania, involving thousands of people who had lost their life savings, leading to civil unrest. I was put on a military vessel carrying soldiers and troops and I documented the whole process - how the troops were deployed - I took some incredible pictures. I thought it was all very cool. I thought about my heroes, like Hemingway’s coverage of The Spanish Civil War, and it made me feel like I was on a similar track. That kind of access when you’re a journalist is priceless. 

In terms of skills, as a journalist, you’re always looking for an angle. How do I make this story catchy? How do I capture the reader’s attention and maintain it throughout? How do I package it? What within this story is the most interesting part? Should I bring this to the top of the story? To capture the attention? You spend so much time strategising about that. That's an incredibly relevant skill in advertising. When we think about a case video, we have to describe in two minutes what we did for a certain brand. That video is going to be watched by jury members in the jury room, who have been watching hours and hours of case videos. How do you make yours stand out? Those are the exact same skills a good journalist would use. You apply language in a way that feels fresh, that’s not borrowed or will make people disconnect. Language needs to trigger the same dopamine receptors that all those Instagram notifications do, that’s what we’re competing with.


LBB> Thinking about the advertising scene in Spain today, how would you best describe it? What kind of ads are Spanish consumers responding to?

Emiliano> That’s a very hard question because I seldom think about markets. I like to look at pop culture, at what gains traction and what doesn’t. In Spain, we have a couple of local celebrities who are incredibly successful. A lot of the trends do transcend borders, so it’s difficult to talk about Spain in isolation. One interesting person is a guy named Ibai Llanos, a streamer, with 10 million followers on Twitch. Some of his streams get far more views than regular TV networks, he’s breaking the rules of TV communications. He has more traction than most brands and it’s interesting to see how brands are trying to catch up, trying to piggyback on his success. It makes you realise how the distribution of power has fundamentally changed if you can have one person compete with multinational giants.

LBB> If consumers are turning away from classic broadcasters and advertisers, what can be done to capture their attention and imagination? Is authenticity an important factor? 

Emiliano> I think IKEA’s ‘Trapped in the 90s’, which was a reality show first and foremost. We locked six under 25 influencers, who we called ‘IKEA natives’, meaning they always had IKEA in their lives, in this hellish house from the 90s. What’s interesting is that you don’t realise how important and useful IKEA is until you’re deprived of it. In 2013, I moved from Madrid to Lima for work and my first thought when I arrived at my empty apartment was that I’ll head to IKEA and get one of those starter boxes that has all the basics you need to begin with. But there was no IKEA! We wanted to replicate this kind of nightmare, adding a layer of inconvenience for the influencers, like rotary phones and dial-up modems. We followed all the rules of a reality show. It became incredibly relevant for younger audiences, the 20-somethings that take IKEA’s presence for granted.  Once a week we introduced a different IKEA item to the house to make the influencers’ lives easier, so they would feel the benefits of having stuff around them that was useful and actually worked. 

The show infiltrated culture and people were actually begging us for more content, asking where they could find more episodes. It struck a chord. The episodes were released across Youtube, Instagram, some were uploaded as stories from the influencers’ personal pages. I do think that, funnily enough, in order to break the status quo you have to play by the rules. You can’t just barge into a space and declare that everything is bad, or you’ll be detected as a fraud. We played by the rules of reality TV and our audience didn’t think of what we did as advertising. They thought it was incredibly fun, relevant, engaging content, while knowing that it came from the brand.


LBB> Do you think younger audiences have a different relationship to content, branded content specifically? 

Emiliano> I think that branded content is one of those expressions that we’ll all be super conscious to use in a year’s time. I can’t picture Gen Z using the phrase. They have a certain amount of time and energy and they’re incredibly selective with where it goes. I don’t think they care whether the content is coming from a Kardashian or IKEA, they’re all fighting for the same attention real estate. Content has to be attention grabbing and it has to have depth. 

LBB> In your opinion, where is the hub (or hubs) of Spanish creativity and what’s exciting about it? 

Emiliano> Madrid has entered a kind of golden era, there’s a lot going on. The city feels energised. Maybe it’s partially due to the way it handled Covid. There are huge multinational agencies, such as McCann, which lead creatively and with a global reach, not just for local or Spanish markets. There are a few global regional hubs - London, New York, Singapore, maybe Amsterdam - and Madrid is becoming that too. Look at the people based here. We have Javier Campopiano, who is the worldwide CCO of Grey Group; Pancho Cassis, global CCO at DAVID; Alejandro Di Trolio, who's just been named European creative chairman at Cheil; Felix del Valle, who just returned to Madrid from Brazil to lead MRM - all incredibly talented people, and they’re not based in London or New York, they’re here in Madrid. The city is a global talent magnet.


LBB> Which of McCann’s work are you particularly proud of and why? 

Emiliano> I think IKEA’s ‘Trapped in the 90s’ definitely shows how modern, media-agnostic work wins in our culture today. 

LBB> And is there any work from the Spanish market in general that has caught your attention recently? 

Emiliano> There’s an independent agency called China and I’m very impressed by the work they’ve done for Adolfo Dominguez, a fashion brand; I found it very inspiring. 

LBB> Finally, what piece of advice do you wish you received when you first started out in the industry that you would like other creatives to know? 

Emiliano> In school, I feel that you’re trained to become a person who always says ‘yes’. The education system trains you to not be a conflicting person, to flow with the system, and to deliver what the system requires, and become a functioning citizen. When you arrive in the advertising world, you realise that you have to evolve from that. You’re no longer required to say ‘yes’, because your first priority as a creative is to look out for yourself and your portfolio - the body of work that will accumulate under your name. It’s the capital that you’ll take from one job to another. Saying yes all the time means you end up doing work that doesn’t move the needle, which can serve against you because you’ll be known as someone who does that kind of work without complaining too much. 

For junior creatives this will be hard and they might not feel like they can change the system by asking ‘Why should I do this?’, but questioning means that those projects will start to circumnavigate you. And when a more interesting project is on the horizon, you’ll be thought of for it because you’ve been a badass, you’ve questioned, you’ve shown what kind of work you want to do. If you do a good job, then you’ll be on the right path to more quality projects. You have to be able to say ‘no’, to complain - always with emotional intelligence and sensitivity to the energy in the room, of course. There’s a lot of value in asking ‘Is this good for my career?’ from the start.