Creative Focus

A Young But Eager Advertising Industry Struggles To Find Its Creative Voice.
By Daniel Tilles
Must the words “advertising” and “creativity” play the roles of oil and water? Of course not. But during a week of staring at almost 900 TV and print ads from Eastern and Central Europe at the fourth-annual Golden Drum Awards in Portoroz, Slovenia, the question is inevitable.
In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “New Europe” is struggling to find its creative resonance. In a world where advertising was previously limited to ominous billboards of Lenin urging his toiling minions forward, the advertising business finds itself at a creative crossroads. The question is: Will it choose the path less traveled?
Examining the work coming out of markets such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Georgia, Macedonia, Russia, Czech Republic and the Ukraine (roughly half of the countries that participated in Golden Drum ’97), Stephen Mangham, director of Central and Eastern Europe for Bates Saatchi & Saatchi in Budapest, says, “It’s coming along.”
“The very best advertising is of an international standard, but it’s leaving the rest behind,” adds the British expatriate. “The overall body of TV and press advertising is still pretty low.”
Mere language barriers cannot stop good work from effortlessly making its presence felt. Indeed, as Mangham points out, some of the winners of silver or golden Drumsticks, as well as the golden Drum recipients themselves (for Best of Show in press and television), would stand a fair chance for a Lion at Cannes, an Epica, a Clio or One Show Pencil in the U.S.
The top prize in the press category, a golden Drum, went to a subway campaign for Borsodi Bilagos Beer produced by Young & Rubicam, Budapest. The ads, shaped like bottle openers, were hung in steamy metro cars during the summer. An ad for Mare Filipac hair salon from Slovenia’s Grobovsek & Kamerad, which took home a golden Drumstick, features a photo of a woman whose upswept hair is pictured in front of a circular saw. Another golden Drumstick winner in the press category, a promotional item for Arthromed laxative from Video International Advertising in Moscow, shows the product printed on a roll of toilet paper.
“I think the average quality of print is improving very much,” says jury member Knut Georg Andresen, managing director and copywriter for New Deal DDB Needham in Oslo, Norway. “The first year [of the festival], I wasn’t happy at all about the print.”
A commercial from the Czech Republic won the top golden Drum honors in film, a spot for Fit M†sli bar produced by Mark/BBDO Prague, a $30 million shop that also took home Agency of the Year laurels. In the ad, a man, eating nothing but carrots for a month during a lab experiment, turns into a rabbit.
A golden Drumstick film winner from Yugoslavia for a Rolling Stones book relies on brightly colored art direction and the comedy of seeing a man singing Rolling Stones’ songs in the shower. Produced by Publicis Virgo Beograd, the spot ends with the man sticking out his tongue at the camera.
A silver Drumstick film winner from Georgia, by Gudauri Studio, depends on unexpected humor to tout Orbeli Aftershave. Titled “Kiss,” a stern Soviet-era-type general reviews a platoon of troops frozen at attention. Proceeding slowly down the ranks, he is horrified that one soldier has tucked a cigarette behind his ear. Confronted with a cold, threatening stare mere inches from his face, the hapless infantryman suddenly bends down and kisses the general on the cheek. Troops and officers break down laughing as the logo flashes onscreen.
Simple, strong conceptual ideas and top-notch executions carried the winners of the show, a style that one jury member says has developed, in part, from the influence of neighboring regions. “For us, the market that is very dear to our hearts is Scandinavia. We feel many links with their sense of humor,” says jury member Leszek Stafiej, chairman and creative director of Diskau & Stafiej in Warsaw. “This is the direction I think many countries in this region will follow. Because it’s simple, straightforward, clever and it doesn’t try to be too sophisticated.”
While the best work of the show effortlessly stood tall, the same deadened feeling felt during the early screening days at Cannes was evident by the reddened eyes of the more than 1,200 attendees along Portoroz’s own Croisette, this time hugging not the Mediterranean but the Adriatic coast.
Yet attendees and jurors are cautious not to criticize the region’s creative sensibility too quickly. “Our industry is less than 10 years old. What was the West like at that point?” asks Ivan Chimburov, creative director at Video International in Moscow and chairman of this year’s jury.
That said, mostly all the jurors and attendees recognize that much needs improvement, with the overall quality of the press and poster entries causing significant concern. “In spite of [the fact that the work is improving], I think more time needs to be spent working on print,” says Andresen. “Most of it appears as though it was done in a hurry.”
“There isn’t enough appreciation for the importance of typography,” Mangham adds by way of example.
The situation with the quality of the films–both television and cinema–is more complicated. Overall, the problem is not low production values. “It’s quite obvious you can no longer tell if a commercial was made in the East or the West,” says Leon Sverdlin, creative director at Ark J. Walter Thompson in Prague.
While in some cases that may be true, production costs are much cheaper than in Western Europe or the U.S. “A good budget here is $100,000,” he explains. “The next step lies in developing strong ideas. That’s where there’s still a lot of work to do.”
In fact, the disparity between production values and the creative ideas behind them is relatively easy to explain. Whereas several years ago multinational clients were simply adapting Western ads for Eastern and Central Europe, today more commercials than ever are being produced by local talent, and the rich history of filmmaking in the region makes it easy to find talent both on the screen and behind the scenes. “Countries with strong film industries adapt to the ad world a lot better,” Sverdlin says.
Alex Morritt, client services director for JWT/Budapest, notes that award-winning feature-film directors in the region are eager for the chance to work in advertising. “In Hungary, we use Timar Peter, who won the Hungarian Film Award for Csinibaba [a spoof on life in Hungary during Communism],” he says. “He directs most of the spots we’ve shot in the country for Unilever and Kraft.”
While the body of work represented by the show indicates that the region still has a long way to go to match its Western counterparts, one juror observes that strong ideas were visible in some of the ads but they fell flat in the execution. “I was disappointed with the number of ideas–good, original, memorable, absorbing–that are not stopped at the right time,” says Stafiej. “It’s as though there was not enough discipline in creating an ad, as though the people did not believe in their strength. There were quite a few very good ideas that either were done too long and became boring or were stopped before telling us what the idea is.”
Part of the problem lies in the lack of general experience. “Consumer advertising in the Western sense didn’t exist here pre-1989,” Morritt says.
But the British, French and American networks, such as Cordiant, Publicis and Omnicom, which raced headlong into the region after the Berlin Wall’s demise, have generally eschewed formal training of junior creatives, largely due to the cost. “We’re trying to organize exchanges with offices in the West,” says Sverdlin, though he admits the program has yet to really take off.
Jury members offered additional market insights, though all said they believe most of the problems should diminish with time. “It’s a craft. It needs work, discipline and experience,” says Mangham, who notes that creative briefs need to become stronger before the work will improve. “It’s not possible to get good ideas out of a bad brief,” he says. “That’s the starting point.”
Other more insidious reasons remain. The first is a general lack of money circulating through the industry as compared to the West. After several years of heavy investment in the region, Western networks have begun looking for a return, cutting budgets and scaling back agency staff after realizing certain markets just didn’t justify staffs of 90 to 100.
Another explanation is arguably more disturbing still: that most multinational clients are as guilty of imposing a banal view of creativity in the East as they are everywhere else. “This means agencies are probably giving way to the sort of globalized, international style,” laments Stafiej. “They are putting more effort into the execution, with the ideas being more international instead of local and, in a way, crude.”
Mangham says it’s critical that small, independent creative boutiques begin to emerge in the region to put positive pressure on overall creative standards. He adds, however, that circumstances do not favor such a phenomenon taking root anytime soon. “Will there be boutiques in the future? I think so,” he says.
Finally, as the quality of creative work improves, is it fair to expect a regional tone of voice to develop the same way it has in Asia, Latin America or the U.S.? Jury members are divided. “What Eastern Europeans have in common is living under communism all these years,” observes Mangham. “But that’s all. The difference between someone living in the Baltics and in the Balkans is as big as people who are British or Italian. So I’ve yet to see a flavor.”
Other jury members predict, however, that a regional style will eventually emerge, especially as clients and agencies slowly replace expatriates in top creative slots with local talent, a trend that has been developing for the past several years. “Commercials that have strong cultural references do exist, but they are not entered here because they are so local they would never be understood,” notes Chimburov.
“The markets have to mature; they have to believe in their real self,” concludes Stafiej. “Then I expect the ideas will be as readable and executed as clearly as everywhere else, but they will not lose their originality. They certainly will not try to be Western.”