VMLY&R Turkey CEO Arzu Ünal and ECD Ayşe Aydın tell Alex Reeves how female leadership shapes their agency, how it's become a leading social hub and how its helping people do good
Turkey isn’t an advertising market that gets a lot of attention from the international community, but VMLY&R CEO Arzu Ünal assures me that as I begin to write about it more, I’ll be amazed. She fires off some interesting stats to frame things for all of those unfamiliar with adland in the continent-bridging nation: “We’re one of the top 20 markets in the world economy. We’re very young. Almost 50% of the population is under 35. And we’re among the top five nations in all social media use. But if you look at cents spent per capita on advertising we are 30th in the world. We are still a very underinvested market. It is very disappointing.”
Arzu, who has been with the Y&R network in Istanbul for 28 years since she began as an account manager, is optimistic about where things will head (perhaps after the world recovers from the pandemic - this interview took place a few weeks back) “I believe we will catch up with global trends,” she says. “Amazing things will happen in the future.”
Alex Reeves caught up with her and the agency’s ECD Ayşe Aydın, who’s been at the agency for six years, to find out where those amazing things might come from.
LBB> Both of you have been at the agency for many years. With the benefit of that perspective, what do you think are the defining features of how VMLY&R Turkey approaches creativity?
Ayşe> When we became VMLY&R Turkey we changed our point of view on all work. Firstly we are not an ATL, or digital agency anymore. We are a content agency. We produce and create content, ideas, no matter which way we do it.
Arzu> It is medium-neutral content. And that content doesn’t have to be video. It can be any means in which we can interact and make sure the brand and it’s users (I hate the word consumers, so it’s users, advocates, whatever you’d like to say) have some sort of two-way relationship between them. So any medium-neutral idea that delivers that is within our scope.
By the way, we know that millennials feel loyal to a brand if a brand listens to them. So this is one of the reasons why we have to evolve. And millennials are looking for brands that help them do good. That is one of the core reasons why people want to listen to brand advertising. How can a brand empower them? How can it help them get social currency?
Regardless of media, all of these things are content that creates engagement and value. That’s the perspective we are tied up to.
How we measure ourselves is effectiveness. In the Europe Effie Index, we are among the top 10. We are one of the biggest contributors in EMEA for VMLY&R Effie performance.
LBB> With the creation of the new network in 2018, I know that many agencies in VMLY&R have developed specialisms that other parts of the network can use. Where does the Istanbul office fit into that?
Arzu> Actually we met with VML way before the two companies came together. We acquired two companies here in Turkey that are exclusively focused on social media and digital comms. We visited and met the VML network back in 2012 and since then we’ve had a relationship.
We also serve as a video production hub for the region. And we serve as social media experts. We have 230 people and 110 of them have social media and online media skills. We give a lot of social media support. We’ve created consumer interaction centres together with Coca-Cola. So we’re integrating social media listening with their call centres and their web input and then we report back to them. We created that and now we have expanded to Turkey’s biggest beer company. We analyze 2.5-3 million conversations yearly around brand mentions, competition and category to measure brand online health, relevance and esteem. To deeper analyze and understand consumer interests and passions in order to generate valuable insights, we process and give meaning to approximately 50 million conversations per year.
And thanks to our creative edge we’ve been receiving regional briefs. We source creatively on a regional level.
LBB> In 2015 Y&R Team Red Istanbul won the country's first ever Cannes Lions Grand Prix. How did that affect the agency?
Ayşe> First of all we were very happy! It’s a kind of miracle for us because I think for only about 30 years there have been advertising agencies in Turkey. When you look at the history the first Grand Prix was won after 30 years. After that, our agency and all advertising agencies understood that geography is not our destiny. You can do it!
It’s very encouraging for us because when we won the Grand Prix as a team who had only been working for one year. We were a very young team. We understand that years are also not important if you want it enough and want to work hard for it, and work hard to sell the idea to your client, you can do it.
After that, I think in advertising agencies being a finalist became not enough for us. We have a Grand Prix and if we get shortlisted we say thank you but we have to do better. It’s a good challenge for a country.
At that time we also got covered in national newspapers. It was just a party for some time! And I hope we’re going to win other Grands Prix - our agency and other agencies. It’s very important for Turkey.
Arzu> It raised the bar! So we have to keep working at it. But thanks to technology, thanks to good ideas, when I started in this business there was always this feeling that with production limitations we cannot do it, but now I’m really proud that this agency proved that’s not true.
Ayşe> Also all the clients in Turkey started to want to win a Cannes Lion and believed that they can also win. It was a gateway and it made us very happy.
LBB> I think it’s quite rare to have an agency led by two women anywhere. I imagine that goes for Turkey as well. Do you think that affects the agency at all?
Arzu> It does have an impact and we see it. Our former VMLY&R [from before the merger] friend John Gerzema, who wrote a book called The Athena Doctrine. If you look at what the newly defined leaders should be, based on quantitative evidence, the new leadership has more ‘feminine’ adjectives, like being selfless, flexible, empathetic. These are features given to a woman by society. Ayşe and I demonstrate that in the agency. And I think that adds to how we’re perceived and how ideas emerge - expressiveness, planning for the future, patience, intuition, collaboration. These are inherently available in women leaders. I think that’s a part of the equation.
LBB> Your recent Vodafone 'This Food is on Me' campaign was really sweet and reminded me of how much Turkish people care for animals - something I noticed when I visited for the first time recently. How many animals did you feed? What were the results?
Arzu> 7,000 animals have been fed. It provoked 750,000 organic tweets. Each tweet is one portion of food. So we calculated it fed 7,000 stray animals.
Turkey, especially Istanbul, has one of the biggest communities of stray animals and it has been like that for thousands of years. The Ottomans also had a lot of stray animals.
Whatever branded content does on social media, if there’s no good in it, it only derives more negative feedback. People complain about coverage or tariffs. But when you empower them to do good just with a simple tweet, that enablement delivers miracles.
Ayşe> Pet ownership is about 20% so a lot of the population are very open to this message. They know the value of animals. That’s an interesting starting point, and coupled with the stray population it led to a great outcome.
LBB> I loved the simplicity but also innovative nature of your Sprite/WhatsApp project. Can you tell me more about that?
Arzu> The social interaction centre has very strong listening power. We knew that when the summer was coming, with the weather getting warmer, kids have certain concerns in their lives, like what the coolest thing to do is during the summer, what the conversation is like. We listened to that, took eight different proposals, branded them as ‘fresh proposals from Sprite’ as freshness is their positioning, and said “why not use a WhatsApp to get one-to-one communication. So we created the Freshness Bot, backed up by 10 people. And we had 500,000 messages through WhatsApp with our consumers.
Then the Turkish youth had to convince us why we should bring one of those eight offers to them. And that meant they had to interact with the brand even more to earn these special offers. The offer is like having a pool party when you don’t have a pool, so we started out with a plastic pool, put together a pool party that someone could enjoy.
That became a challenge between these kids and they enjoyed every second of it. You had to prove you deserved something with your own input.
I think it’s listening, knowing what your consumer is looking for in the summer, creating creative proposals and then making them feel deserved. I think that all matters.
It smashed all of our benchmarks, so we raised the bar again. And I think it was one of the first campaigns using WhatsApp to promote interaction.
LBB> What other work are you really proud of recently and why?
Ayşe> There’s our Snapchat filter about the issue of child brides. It’s a very big topic here. It’s a project that I feel in my heart deeply because it’s about women and children too. We hate the situation. The more we hate this situation we more we like this idea.
As a creative, the use of media is important. It’s not on TV, not for YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. It’s only for Snapchat. It’s not really a filter either. It’s kind of a spot, but the media is Snapchat. The creativity is coming from the media.
There’s a couple and at the beginning you see that they are both children and then later you understand that the groom is not a child. He’s a fully grown man, using a Snapchat filter to make himself look like a child. Then we talk about the numbers in Turkey related to child brides.
Arzu> I think that’s one of the biggest social problems in this community. The filter that made you younger or older was the trend at that time. So when this was on a hype, we put this film together that looks like a married couple both using the filter, going back to a childhood age, but in reality one of them is a young person and the other is a grown man.
Because that filter was popular we used that hype.
Ayşe> Also we published the film on World Daughters’ Day to say that nobody’s daughter should share such a destiny.
Arzu> Then there was the Burger King Mini campaign. We loved this idea and it won lots of awards in Turkey. The reason that the point is very real is that in Sinop there was no Burger King and the people there were very unhappy with this situation. We started to hear this from our social listening centres. So we responded to their unhappy messages by sending them mini grills, telling them not to be sad because they can barbecue forever. But now, Burger King is opening a restaurant in Sinop! After that campaign they realised Sinop loves Burger King.
It’s important for us because it’s a cool integration of social media and direct marketing, starting in social and going direct.
Lastly, we loved this Spotify work. Spotify tailors personal messages at the end of the year about what you’ve listened to over the year. We used the same look and feel and ideation and said “this is what you haven’t listened to”. Turkey has high levels of murders of women within families. So we took what you didn’t listen to, giving support to a women’s rights organisation - Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız [We Will Stop the Murder of Women]. People went to police 25 times to get support and security from their partners, but were all turned down and then were later killed by those people. So we have put together lists of what you haven’t listened to. It was a political power, reporting those who lost their lives.