Advertising With Social Value: Interview with José Miguel Sokoloff Posted on

Chairman of MullenLowe Group Global Creative Council and CCO of MullenLowe SSP3, the Colombian José Miguel Sokoloff argues that advertising is one of the most important tools to improve the world, but only if “you do it in the right way.” Although the market seems ready for this change, he says there is still a long way to go. Sokoloff is founder of MullenLowe/SSP3, and won a Titanium Lion at Cannes 2012, with the case “Rivers of Light”, for a Colombian government action which helped to demobilize about 17.000 FARC guerrillas

Advertising with social value
Nowadays, Jose Miguel Sokoloff is the leading name in the hierarchy of the creative department at MullenLowe Group. He assumed the role of MullenLowe Group Global Creative Council Chairman, and he is also CCO of MullenLowe SSP3 Colombia. The agency launched 18 years ago and it was the first Latin American company to win a Titanium Lion at Cannes 2012 with “Rivers of Light” – a project to demobilize FARC’s guerrilla, undertaken by the Colombian Defence Ministry. One of the few Latin people in a position of global leadership in advertising, Sokoloff was in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month to give a speech at TED Global, where he presented his work on the guerrilla conflict. On this occasion, he spoke with Meio & Mensagem about the importance of advertising as a tool for change. In his opinion, the market has woken up to this essential function, but there is still a long way to go.

Meio & Mensagem – The case “Rivers of Light”, which aimed to raise awareness of Farc`s guerrillas is your best-known project. How was the idea built and implemented?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff – The Colombian Government approached us and asked us to help them create a strategy of communication to demobilize as many fighters as possible. They briefed us in a traditional way, and the project started just like any other in the agency, but with a steeper learning curve. We spoke with many former guerrillas trying to figure out their frustrations, why they joined the FARC and the main reason they left the guerrillas. All this information led us to think about a subliminal idea for ​​the campaign: the guerrilla group is like a prison, an organization which keeps prisoners hostage. This idea started to grow when we were talking with the former guerrillas and we were studying what really worked or what didn’t. So in 2010, we realized there were moments of demobilization at Christmas time. And there was a concept that should be emphasized in the campaign: the focus was not soldiers, but human beings. And we shouldn’t think of them in the role of guerrillas or members of an organization, but only as people.

M&M – What were the results?

Sokoloff – At this time there have been over 17,000 demobilizations. But I would never dare to say that this was only because of our work. It was part of it, of course, probably a big part, and I’d like to believe that. But there were many other factors, like the military pressure, the peace agreement, and many, many other things which happened at the same time.

M&M – In this specific case, an advertising action was used for something that went beyond the sale of products and generated effective results in the life of a country. Advertising can go beyond the business?

Sokoloff – Yes, it can go beyond business all the time. The advertising industry has changed dramatically, because the world has also changed dramatically. There was a time when all we needed to say was: “Drink Coca-Cola”. But now you can drink Coca-Cola, or a lot of other things that are equally good. We must go beyond education; the initial settlement of an elementary problem, in that case it is to drink. Smart brands have found that giving something else on top of a product is a good idea, and even more profitable, because it also contributes to making the world a better place. This is social value.

M&M – Advertising can be a tool for change?

Sokoloff – It is one of the most powerful tools for change that we still have in our very own hands. If you do it in the right way, it can change so many things. But if you do it incorrectly, you can also cause a lot of damage.

M&M – Brands are looking to get even more involved. An example is the Unilever sustainable development plan until 2020. How about the agencies? Do they have also real projects or do they just make pro-bono campaign to be admired?

Sokoloff – Pro-bono campaigns came to be popular because they are easy to create and this kind of communication started in the 1990’s. Nowadays, we know when a brand is really worried and when an organization is doing something right. It is not as simple as it was in the past. It is something much more serious, and analysed in great detail. Because it has become something really important and the power of advertising started to be used to go beyond the traditional. Good causes began to have amazing, wonderful results. So it became something really serious.

M&M – The consumer is more present and brands are changing their strategies. It is usual to have more dialogue and sharing between them. Regarding the advertising essence: Do you think agencies and advertisers are going in the right direction when they decide to release a brand or sell a product do the consumers?

Sokoloff – Yes, there is a dialogue. But it is usually not spontaneous; it is initiated by something or some reason. And the beginning of this dialogue is usually made by the brand. The brand can start the dialogue doing something stupid or really clever. Our responsibility as advertisers and marketers is to get acquainted with the brand’s identity and thereafter participate in the conversation.

M&M – What do people expect today? What do they look for in choosing a brand? Is it the same thing existing consumers seek, or do they consider other things in order to decide?

Sokoloff – People tend to be more rigorous and selective. They want brands and products that work exclusively for them. They aren’t looking for a generic or simple solution. They know there is a huge variety of options available. If you have a specific need, if you like the color blue more than red, why would you buy a red jacket if you could find a blue one somewhere? We become more specialized as consumers, as we become more specialized as marketers, and industry is also much more specialized. I believe that generic consumption will gradually be left behind. For example, a giant beer brand, which everyone drinks, won’t be dominant for so long. Ah! I prefer the beer more bitter, or dark, or red, and I can find it easily.

M&M – Talking about the FARC`s case again.  You had used tools that were far beyond the conventional media. We can say that it didn’t use media (in the literal sense of the word). How much should advertising look at these possibilities to stray from the conventional media plan?

Sokoloff– Always, and all the time. The mainstream media is part of what we do, but we always have to look beyond it. Honestly, I think we have to find different ways to communicate. Advertising has changed; the creative vision is not the same. We left the “we can do something different in this media, for we can do something really different”. The unexpected is what we expect.

M&M – We have high rates of violence and drug dealing here in Brazil. Do you believe that advertising could be used to change this situation?

Sokoloff – Yes, but it won’t solve the problem. Advertising can assist the changes, but won’t be the solution. Problems are complex, and it won’t be enough to solve it by only creating an advertising campaign. I believe that is one of the biggest misconceptions we have. Come on, let’s create a campaign and all violence will stop. Of course it won’t. It may help to decrease rates of violence. But what is causing the violence in the first place? That is what we must aim to think about.

M&M – You chair the MullenLowe Group Global Creative Council. What is your role like?

Sokoloff– My role is bringing the network together, helping agencies, and being a facilitator for agencies working together as a group. We always want to develop better work and do a better job for our clients. My challenges are putting this into practice. If it were easy, I would have no need to do this. Or at least I have to convince everyone that it is not that simple and then keep my job safe…(laughs)

M&M– You are one of the few Latin people to lead the global creative team of one of the largest agency networks in the world – and also someone who built a career in a region that is no longer considered a hub for creativity. How does belonging to the Latin region contribute to your job performance?

Sokoloff– People do not expect anything and when I say something really interesting they say, “Wow!” No, I’m joking, that’s not it. One of the most overanalyzed concepts is the world’s geography. Actually it should be left in the past, it is something from the Middle Ages. I’m happy and proud to be Colombian, but I think it doesn’t matter at all where you’re from.

M&M – Since you took the global position at MullenLowe, what have you been able to change and what do you still need to improve on your team?

Sokoloff – We work together in a better way. We have better projects and lot of work we can be proud to have created. For the first time in a long time, we were among the best agencies and networks in the world at Cannes this year. What needs to be done now? We just need to continue like this. It’s easier getting into a place but difficult to keep that momentum.

M&M – One of the main challenges of the agencies seems to hire, be attractive and retain creative talent, who are nowadays even more interested in other areas, such as content or digital. How do you evaluate and face this kind of problem?

Sokoloff– This is a challenge in any industry, anywhere in the world, everyone has the same problem. I would say that a good carpenter, a good painter, is very difficult to hire. Talented people need to be nurtured. We compete with all agencies in the world to have these talents. What can we offer? Opportunities. Having talented people has less to do about money and more about opportunities. We must bring those talents together, promote new campaigns jobs and have fun. If we can achieve this, we will probably stay successful.

M&M – The big network agencies like MullenLowe Group always follow the increasingly financial holdings logic of their controllers. How do you maintain the relevance of creativity in a market that is motivated by other interests and even more dominated by CFOs?

Sokoloff – This is a situation which everyone is facing. Since the world now consists of more public companies and pension funds, people are getting older and demanding that these companies make more money. It’s the same in Apple, Samsung, or in any other company you can remember. We have to live in this world. I wish we had more money, but we do not. I wanted to be stronger, but I’m not. Wish I had better teeth, but I don’t. We must work with what we have in our hands. This is the true value of creativity. I always used to say to my creative team that they need to learn how to think inside the box. That’s where it’s good. You can imagine a tennis match, and it is full of court boundaries. It would be easier to play tennis without the grid and limits. But it would be really stupid. The beauty of the tennis game is its rules and limitations. And if you shine within those limitations, no one can beat you. And that is exactly what we have to do.

M&M – Social media and the largest mobilization of society have imposed increasingly stringent limits (and even new laws) for advertising; with angry reactions about displeasing campaigns. How can you be innovative and creative with so many strings attached?

Sokoloff – Our responsibilities are getting smart and having positive conversations. You can blame anything on social media when it is too late. And then you try to control the situation. But if you are careful from the beginning, this should not be a threat.