José Miguel Sokoloff considers how advertising is both a flower attracting a bee and the smell of rotting food.
José Miguel Sokoloff, 50, is president of MullenLowe Group’s global creative council and chairman of MullenLowe SSP3 Colombia. He tells Diana Goodman about the rewards of persuading rebel fighters to live in peace and how advertising is both a flower attracting a bee and the smell of rotting food
I live in my home city of Bogotá. I have lived here for as long as I can remember, and this is where I feel I belong. My children go to the same school that I went to; I live 10 blocks away from where I grew up.
I walk to work and wake up early every day to have breakfast with my children before they go to school. I travel quite a lot, but I try to return for weekends and special dates. My wife holds our family together and is my confidant. She is the rock on which I stand.
When I look in the mirror I see a man who looks older than me, but stronger. Usually there are kids jumping around playing or fighting about some small toy. The guy in the mirror is a dad, a home cook and a husband. Not a global creative director. Just a human being.
In my childhood, I was a privileged child who had everything. Love, family, toys, space, freedom, discipline, candy, pets, a room of my own, a good education and no soft drinks at home.
My mum ran the cultural programmes of a large bank and my father was a chemical engineer who had his own consulting firm. Most of the time I got on with them very well. I was, however, punished regularly for the usual reasons children get punished.
My parents have been divorced for more than 30 years and are very different. My father lives in Bogotá and has long lunches with his friends. He is a gourmand who enjoys his life, his wine and his dog. He has a great sense of humour and is a moral beacon for me.
My mother lives in New York. She remarried about 27 years ago, so her husband has been with her longer than my dad was. She is an extremely cultured woman who loves the arts. She loves her family, too and has been a great influence on my sister and myself.
My first memory is of being in my father’s arms and seeing my baby sister for the first time when she was first brought home from the hospital.
I had a bilingual, bi-cultural education at school; whereas at home it was a little less clear cut. My father was a second-generation European, my mother had been educated at boarding school in America, and my neighbourhood was very Colombian.
My father’s father was Russian, but he came from Paris to Colombia. Why? I can’t imagine, but the good news is that he arrived in the 20s and married a Colombian (in Paris).
My mother belonged to a traditional family from the coffee-growing area and her parents wanted to make sure their children got the best education possible. That seemed to be a Catholic boarding school in Texas. So, unusual as it was at the time, that’s where she and her two sisters wound up.
At school, I was generally quiet and kept a low profile, so I was not really teased very much. I got good grades and was good at sports, so I fitted right in.
I got into advertising by chance. I went to business school and needed an internship. Leo Burnett’s office was very close to where I lived and a friend worked there, so it seemed convenient.It was a glamorous profession and there were Walkmans on every desk (it turned out that the Walkmans belonged to the research department and were used to listen to the recorded focus groups, not for music).
The first campaign I worked on was for Burroughs computers. I had to present a campaign to the creative review committee in order to ‘graduate’ from the training program. The creative director I worked under for this project was Stanley Gonzanski, an Argentinian who had a profound impact on TV advertising at the time. He had asked me to work on a specific idea but I worked on my own idea, not his. I presented my little commercial at the end of the meeting and to everyone’s surprise, my idea was chosen to take to the client. Stanley took me to one side and I thought he was going to kill me, but instead he congratulated me and told me I should be a creative instead of an account executive. I listened.
After 10 years with Leo Burnett I decided to start my own agency with Francisco Samper and Humberto Polar, who at the time were president and CCO, respectively, of McCann Erickson. We wanted to apply everything we had learned about agencies at our previous jobs that was good and made sense, and change everything that was not and did not.
We wanted to be very focused on the work, not on the numbers. We wanted to be flexible and not hampered by rules and regulations; we wanted to be entrepreneurs and not employees; we wanted our names on the door and not someone’s who was dead.
Next thing we knew, we were the second most-awarded agency in Colombia in six months and we had jumped from 39th place the first month to 15th by the end of the year in terms of billings.
The amalgamation with MullenLowe came about because we were one of the original agencies that Frank Lowe bought. MullenLowe did not want control or majority, it wanted partners. We wanted just that. It was 1997 and MullenLowe was the sexiest network we could think of. We have been enjoying a great partnership since.
I see my role as president of MullenLowe’s global creative council as a resource. I think the creative council exists to support the agencies, help them make their work better and help them if they need us. Otherwise we should stay out of the way. We need more good, strong local agencies, and they can only develop if they are free to do so. So we stimulate them, set the standards and make them feel part of a team.
I do believe there are great national differences in advertising – as there are differences in languages, accents, weather and visa requirements. People communicate differently and care about different things everywhere.
In Colombia, we are very particular because we were so isolated for so long – basically for our bad reputation. On Bogotá’s streets you still don’t find the standard brands that are in every other major city. The restaurant chains are mainly local: we eat our hamburgers at El Corral, our pizza at Archie’s, our fried chicken at Frisby. We never had significant waves of immigrants and we did not have many foreigners in business for years, so we developed our own models, our own best practices and our own identity. We basically missed out on the globalisation of the 80s.
Have I ever considered leaving Colombia? As I was renewing my US visa the official said something that stuck. He said: “I see you could live anywhere and you live here, so I don’t know what to ask you.” I could have pursued living outside Colombia, but I never did. I can’t say I would not, but for now I’m very happy here.
The advertising industry is doing better than we think at adapting to the current changes in technology. We’re quicker and more efficient. At MullenLowe SSP3, we adapt well and hire good young people – what is new to us is the norm for them. They make change happen because to them it is not change.
My worst experience in advertising was when I once presented a very good campaign to a rude client who was not paying attention. He stormed out of the room because he did not understand what we had just said. He came back later and listened, but I have never forgiven him. He is not a client now. We were pitching in Peru and I never saw him again.
The best experience was when a demobilised guerrilla commander congratulated us for the effect our communications had had on his men. We have been involved in the demobilisation efforts for years [with campaigns Operation Christmas, Rivers of Light and Operation Bethlehem]. We usually speak to demobilised guerrillas very soon after they leave the jungle in order to find out what has changed, what resonated, what worked and how the guerrillas have adapted to counter our efforts.
At one of these meetings we sat down with a commander/ideologist who listened and said very little. Suddenly, in a very soft voice, he said he had seen the campaigns and that he wanted to congratulate us for them, that they were very effective. He said that he had attended many meetings to counter the effect of our communications efforts. When the meeting was over he came over and shook my hand and offered to help in any way he could. I hugged him, and now we consult him regularly.
I believe work should have a soul. Our work is universal because it is human, but relevant at home because it is local. That is why we believe in being the network that we are, with a strong culture and standards, but with strong local flavour and knowledge.
I am proud of a few campaigns because they were quietly revolutionary in our market. Some were ahead of their time, like the Bob Harris campaign for Renault, which used social media before it was cool. Others were behind globally but firsts here, and moved our industry forward.
What advice would I give to young people entering advertising today? This is a marathon, not a sprint.
I do watch some TV outside work, but annoyingly for others I watch the commercials more than I do the shows.
As a consumer, I love advertising when it’s good, listen to it when it’s informative and hate it when it’s bad. Sadly, good advertising is not as common as it should be, despite the fact that there are lot of us out there who want to do it.
I mostly use the internet for communicating, research and music. I listen to everything, in moderation. From the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys, Mozart to Philip Glass, Son Cubano to tango, disco to country, Miles Davis to Michael Franks, and so on. I have been buying music forever. I do not know how to play any instrument except for the medium difficulty in Guitar Hero.
To relax, I cook. I buy ingredients and read about cooking. And then I eat. On airplanes I read. But mostly, when I need to relax I sleep.
The people I most admire are my children’s teachers. They have an enormous responsibility and also infinite patience.
I most despise mediocrity disguised as indecision.
I love awards because they tell you what others think of your work. But I do not take them too seriously because what wins is not necessarily what I think is best. As a judge, I look to be surprised and engaged.
I think advertising is a part of nature. Flowers advertise with smell and colour to attract bees and get pollination; animals advertise their presence to protect their territory or to defend their lives; the smell of rotting food warns ‘I can kill you’. And we can’t ignore that message. I think we have a lot to learn from the way advertising happens in the natural world.
It is indispensable to believe in the product you’re working on. You can tell otherwise.
I don’t know if there are any products I would never work on, but I would not lie. So if a product asks me to lie, I would not work for it.
I do feel that there is a stigma attached to working in advertising, but that is true of every profession. Lawyers are generally disliked, bankers are mistrusted, fashion designers are seen as shallow, artists are strange, politicians are corrupt, taxi drivers are reckless, engineers are boring, Etc.
My greatest achievement is my family. I failed the first time, but got it right the second time. My view of marriage is that it’s lots of work but has great rewards.
My biggest disappointment is my golf score.
What makes me really angry is loud, monophonic, distorted sound.
I care enough about what others think of me not to be stupid and reckless.
Am I ashamed at the amount of money that is spent/earned in the advertising industry? Earned by who? Certainly not me. Seriously, though, no money that’s well earned is to be ashamed of.
I think money is important, but I think unlimited money is not good. I have never seen amazing things done with an infinite budget; I think humans are at their best when there are limits, and money is one of them.
My enemies would describe me as dangerous. I am not an enemy you want to have. I don’t have many enemies, though, or at least I don’t have declared enemies.
I judge people slowly, because I know we are all better than we seem, and sometimes worse. Judging a person requires time and many elements of judgement. Not just a first impression, a good portfolio or an easy smile.
Politically, I stand right-centre.
My greatest weakness is tunnel vision.
My greatest regret is having said ‘yes’ when I wanted to say ‘no’. It happens now and then, and learning to say ‘no’ when you mean it is not easy. Usually, you regret not having said ‘no’, and have to spend a lot of time either living up to your word or repairing the damage.
I believe that what children need most is a good education.
I do not believe in God. I was brought up Roman Catholic but neither of my parents were religious. I later read a lot about religions and reached the conclusion that the gods are all man-made.
I am not afraid of dying. I would admit I’m afraid of dying painfully, but not of death itself.
If I could change the world, I would give peace a chance.
If I could relive my life, I would do it all over again.
What gives me real pleasure is food, conversation and birdies.
At the end of the day, what really matters is that you are able to sleep at night without experiencing any fears or regrets