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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes With… Juan Carlos Ortiz

Creative Chairman of DDB Americas and President of DDB Latina on guerrilla threats, writing books and revamping creative structure

5 Minutes With… Juan Carlos Ortiz

Juan Carlos Ortiz is all about storytelling, and boy, does he have some stories to tell. After winning Colombia’s first Gold Film Lion at Cannes for an anti-cocaine ad, he received death threats from guerrilla drug dealers and was recruited by the government to devise a creative way to reach hostages held by the FARC. Since then he’s been President of Leo Burnett Latina and USA and seven years ago he moved to DBB where he helped found DDB Latina, pulling together Spain, Portugal, Latin America and relevant offices in North America too. Oh, and in the time he’s spent flying between all of the various countries that fall under his leadership he’s also managed to write a book. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Juan Carlos to find out more. 

LBB> What first led you to advertising? You studied, among other places, at the international film school in Cuba. Was advertising something that you deliberately sought out or was it more of a happy accident?

JCO> Ever since I was a young boy of 10 or 11, I’ve always loved  history and telling stories. I have a huge collection of toy soldiers. You cannot imagine my collection, it’s beautiful. I even have William Wallace. So as a boy I was always playing with lead toy soldiers and reading stories about them, so I was always preparing myself to tell stories. And that’s why I liked movies and studied at film school in Cuba. I decided that I wanted to tell stories by doing TV spots, so it wasn’t an accident. It’s always been in my DNA.

Two years ago I wrote a book of short stories. It was important to me because for the past ten or fifteen years I’ve been working around the world and I really had a lot of stories that I wanted to tell to my wife and kids. It was like telling stories with my toy soldiers all those years ago. I released the book and the response was amazing. It was featured on CNN, the Washington Post. Forbes Magazine called it ‘the first post-modern book’ because it was written on my smartphone while I was flying 30,000 feet above the ground. It took me three or four years to write it.

So storytelling has always been in my DNA and TV spots are a great way to tell stories – only these days I don’t say ‘TV spots’, I say ‘content’.

LBB> And all these years later you’re the President of DDB Latina and Creative Chairman of DDB Americas, including North America. How did you get to this point?

JCO> I worked in the Leo Burnett office in Colombia, then I went to run Leo Burnett Latin America. After that I moved to Chicago and then I started to run Leo Burnett USA and then from Leo Burnett I moved to DDB. Now I’ve been in DDB for six or seven years and I’ve put together this concept of ‘DDB Latina’, bringing all the Latin countries together. Everything is a story and DDB Latina was a new story to tell. We put together Spain with Latin America and all of the multicultural USA business in one block. Doing that has been a big success for DDB, it’s the region with the most growth within the DDB network worldwide and we’ve won a lot of awards. There’s been a nice momentum with the DDB Latina system, and it’s been fresh. Different. New.

And then in November last year I started as the Creative Chairman for North America too.

LBB> The Latina concept is quite an interesting one because you’re pulling places together that have a cultural continuity, but within that there’s still a lot of diversity between countries or language groups. 

JCO> Absolutely. We have offices in the US, offices in Europe, because we have Barcelona and Madrid, and we have all of Latin America. It’s a region that’s been built on shared cultures, not geographies. People are not limited to geographies right now, they’re behaving within cultures. What do we have in common? What do we share? That’s been key to the evolution of the system. I’ve heard that there are other agencies trying to move into this system but we’ve been pioneering it since four or five years ago and it’s been huge. It’s been about creative reputation, new business, clients’ needs and, of course, growth for the company.

LBB> You were the first person in Colombia to bring home a gold Film Lion from Cannes and your success was really celebrated when you returned, but at the same time it drew a lot of attention from the FARC guerrillas and drug dealers. What was that experience like? 

JCO> It wasn’t such a nice experience but it was a long time ago. The importance of that spot was that it was in 2000 and it was historic as it was the first time ever that the country had won a Gold Film lion at Cannes. It was a big success in the country – I remember that the First Lady even came to my office. It was a huge celebration. It was a campaign against cocaine and at that time Colombia had a big problem with drugs. It was absolutely lovely and I was happy and proud but it was such a big press event that it drew a lot of attention and sometime after I won the award I got threats from the Colombian guerrillas. That really changed my life. Sometimes something that’s good can become really bad, but that’s life. I learned a lot from it. And then, thanks to a great opportunity, I left the country and started my life outside of Colombia. But that was a tough moment. Still it’s the only Gold Lion that Colombia has won in the Film Category at Cannes. The country has got lots more Lions in press and radio and other agencies are winning now as well.

LBB> We’ve spoken quite a bit with Jose Miguel Sokoloff at SSP3 Lowe about Project Christmas. With that and your Morse Code campaign [messages to hostages were hidden within pop songs which were played on the radio] it looks like the advertising industry in the country is quite unique as it has such direct involvement with very serious social and political issues. Compared with that, the PSA campaigns in other markets like Europe or the US really seem to pale.

JCO> But I have to tell you why. There’s a big difference in the impact that kind of campaign can make in the UK or the US compared with Colombia because the problem in Colombia is real. It’s deeper. And everybody is part of the problem so that means that the drug issue or the guerrillas have an impact on every person’s life. It’s been there for a long time, touching people’s lives. That’s the big difference. It’s like a real movie. And you can talk to anyone in Colombia and they will have someone close or will know someone who has been kidnapped or threatened. It’s tough. The situation has been getting a little bit better but the guerrilla problem and the drug problem is still there.

At least you have people committed to using creativity to solve the problems of the country. They’re using a creative product not just to sell things but to solve the problems of the country, so it’s a nice case. I started to understand the impact of Morse Code not just from winning at Cannes but what happened when it was written about by The Verge. The view is different. Just to let you know, I’ve had a call from some producers in Hollywood and they think that the story could make a good movie. I suppose when you’re so deep in Colombia you can’t see how important it is, but when you have an outside perspective looking in, you go ‘wow’.

LBB> I’d like to talk to you about your current position within DDB Latina and DDB generally. I’ve been really curious about your implementation of a different kind of creative team, the ‘trios’, where you put a creative, a planner and a digital person together. How did that come about?

JCO> Some years ago we observed that whenever an agency goes to visit a client everyone talks the language of change. Everything is changing, the world is changing; you know the sort of thing. But after talking to their clients about change, they go back to their agencies and start working like they did in the ‘50s or ‘70s.

The idea of creative teams, of putting art directors and copywriters together, is so influential in the world. That concept was devised by Bill Bernbach in the ‘50s and now everyone is doing it. But today with everything that is happening – with social media and the digital expansion – you can’t keep doing the same thing. It needs a different kind of solution. Just a print ad on its own is not going to solve a problem for a client like it might have 30 years ago. 

Clients needs are different now and that’s why we put together the trios. It’s a creative person (I don’t care if it’s an art director or a copywriter, we need someone who can think conceptually), a planner (because I truly believe today strategy and analytics are so important) and a tech person because the digital expansion is absolutely important. If you think neutral you can’t just go straight to a print ad, you have to think about the solution and idea before you think about the execution. We started that in DDB Latina and now the network has started to put it into practice in different regions and countries. It’s been extremely successful because it’s a new way of thinking. They all get the brief from the client and start working on it from scratch. It’s been part of our success, not just in terms of growing our business but helping our clients’ business, winning new business. When you look at Cannes as one benchmark, DDB Latina has been one of the most awarded regions in the world. Last year we won 24 Lions and that different approach has been a driver of that. 

Which sounds, by the way, very sexy. From duo to trio! At least it’s exciting.

LBB> Following on from that… most threesomes are quite tricky to negotiate, so I’ve heard. How difficult was it to persuade people that they’d be up for it?

JCO> To follow your thought, it would be easier to work as individuals because then you wouldn’t have to deal with anybody! But really, I think that dialectics are so important in the business. The only way to grow an idea is to have discussions. A leader always emerges within the trios but at least you have space to get feedback, to have controversy, to have conversations. For me conversation is a source of nutrition for the ideas.

LBB> How has that system changed the creative, planners or tech guys that you’ve seen go through it? Does it lead to creatives thinking more analytically, do the planners think more creatively?

JCO> Yeah it’s true but at the end of the day it’s important that everyone has strong expertise. Everything is represented in that conversation. The planner brings the analytics and also the voice of the consumer. The creative brings the driver of the idea and the tech brings the power of the expansion. I think in that conversation, everybody starts to build the idea with their own expertise and that brings a lot of power to the client. They can build a total case, not just one piece of it, and that makes a big difference.

LBB> In your current roles you’re working with DDB Latina and North America. That’s a pretty large and diverse remit. How do you keep on top of it?

JCO> I think that there’s a big scope, especially with North America. Pulling in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto into the game, of course the range is bigger. But I truly believe what is important and interesting about this business is the focus on the idea. It’s very easy to forget that and when you forget it, that’s when you start to have problems. 

In today’s world technology is so important but technology without an idea is nothing. Technology with an idea is everything. I don’t think it’s about the geography it’s about inspiration. The big role is connecting people, inspiration and ideas. Then you get the work and the teams and everybody working hard behind it. That’s the key. I can’t say that everything is easy because in life there is no perfection and there never will be but it’s very important to get on the right path.

The DNA of DDB is creative. It’s Bill Bernbach. Every office has its own heritage, but DDB is about ideas. In today’s world, with everything that is important it’s easy to forget that. It’s really important to have a network that’s really powerful in every part of the world and to keep it powerful. Our objective is to be the most influential creative company in the world. I’m not saying that we are but we fight to be that every day. 

LBB> Focusing on Latin America, it’s been really interesting for us to watch because traditionally the creative heavy-hitters have been Argentina and Brazil, but now we’re seeing other countries like Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru and of course Colombia coming up with some really exciting work. 

JCO>  There are a lot of emerging markets –and ‘emerging’ and ‘interesting’ are synonyms for me right now. In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina have always been very strong in the creative arena but now there are emerging markets that are also. Peru and Colombia. And another market that’s working hard to get out there is Puerto Rica. And Mexico is not as strong as they could be but they have real potential to be very, very good. 

LBB> And what are your thoughts about Brazil? They’ve just had the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics are not far away…

JCO> Brazil is a really important market for us. It’s a country that allows innovation without so many paradigms. 

They’re living such a great moment. But the problem when you go to Brazil is that everything is ‘el más grande del mundo’, the ‘biggest in the world’. It’s like, ‘oh look at the traffic it’s el más grande in the world’, ‘that stadium is the biggest in the world’, ‘the advertising and the awards are the largest in the world’, oh but also ‘the corruption is the biggest in the world’. Everything is huge.

LBB> And I wanted to speak to you about DDB Latina in North America. The Spanish-speaking population is growing and its place in the culture is changing and the industry, from agencies to production companies and even edit houses, is changing to accommodate and embrace that. That’s got to be an interesting challenge too.

JCO> Absolutely. When something is changing, it requires a great amount of innovation. You either have to do it… or you have to do it. At the end of the day the real trend in our business is people and if people start having new behaviours we need to change to embrace these new behaviours. Not just in terms of the way we work or the kind of product that we do but the speed of everything. 

Today in the US the most important trend is real-time. ‘Real-time’ content is more important even than good content! It’s really interesting what is happening right now. It’s about being in the right moment, at the right time, with the right people and the right message. It’s like Elvis Presley said 50 years ago in a vision ‘you have to take care of business in a flash’. 

LBB> The concept of real-time is so full-on, though! You’ve got to monitor and respond to everything instantaneously… how do you do that without it becoming too stressful for those involved?

JCO> It’s a good question. I think that working in real-time is a real pleasure. If you get an idea in your mind, you get real time feedback in your guts. When you see that idea one or two weeks later it’s still exciting but you don’t get quite the same feeling. Real-time is one of the strongest ways to connect with people that I have ever seen. That’s why, of course, the way of working is changing. We need the tools to do that. In every operation, we use something called the ‘right rooms’, so all the trios are working in these Wall Street-like places. They can see all the trends, all the conversations, all the blogs on the screens so they can work and get feedback as it happens. And that’s really inspiring. 

LBB> And finally, what are your current personal goals for DDB Latina and North America?

JCO> We want to be absolutely the most influential region and creative powerhouse of the DDB network worldwide. That is our goal and it’s our goal inside a creative company, so that’s a big big challenge.

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