Co-president and Chief Creative Officer of Brazilian agency Africa on why advertising is like a boat and how the industry’s soul is disappearing
Sergio Gordilho’s childhood was drenched in creativity. He was born in Salvador da Bahia, a Brazilian city he proudly declares to be the “perfect nest for creativity”, and is the son and grandson of architects - a practice that he studied prior to life in advertising. He took part in various forms of martial arts, soccer, basketball, beach volleyball, surfing, football and street soccer - all things he claims to have not been any good at but did shape him as a person.
His life as an architect was short-lived. In a bid to make some extra cash, he began designing personalised stickers for different colleges, a venture that eventually won him an internship at an advertising agency. He was soon hooked by the quick turnaround of campaigns and the effect that communications could have on people.
Since then, he’s worked at a series of Brazilian agencies including DM9DDB and Bates Brasil (which is now Y&R). But in December 2002 he, with partners Nizan Guanaes, Marcio Santoro, Luiz Fernando Vieira and Olivia Machado, launched Africa, an agency that has transformed into one of Brazil’s most successful and respected.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with him to find out more.
LBB> Your way into advertising was a bit circuitous; you studied architecture and also explored being a cartoonist, illustrator and graphic designer. But one thing that’s clear throughout is that it’s all rooted in creativity. Were you creative as a kid? Did you grow up in a creative household?
SG> Definitely, I was lucky to be born and raised in a creative environment like Salvador, a beautiful city in the northeast part of Brazil. It’s well known as the birthplace of several Brazilian rhythms such as bossa nova, samba and axé music. It was full of European, African and American influences and the homeland of some of the most iconic pioneers of Brazilian photography, writing and cinema. Google ‘Salvador da Bahia’ and check it out.
But it isn’t only the water that makes Salvador a perfect nest for creativity. It is a kind of contagious creativity that you only find in spots where you’re surrounded by different people, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, with different interests but linked by a totally steady disengagement from truism. So, since I was a kid I’ve always been exposed and provoked to understand that world from a different perspective.
I did karate, capoeira [an Afro-Brazilian martial art], judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I played soccer, basketball, beach volleyball, surfing, football, street soccer. Although not being good at any of these things, having the opportunity to do them all gave me a better understanding of a bit of everything. And I am grateful for this.
LBB> You’re a trained architect, which takes a long time to complete - how did you end up in advertising after that?
SG> I was still wearing diapers when I first entered an architect studio. My father was a good one just like my grandpa. So, as a natural route, I spent most of my hours, days and weeks during vacation helping them – of course, mostly cleaning tables. I stuck to my DNA. Following family tradition.
At that time, architecture was not only my first choice but also the only one – until I started college. Everything was going well for the first three years but I had to make some extra money, so I started drawing and printing stickers for other colleges and selling them. They were not ordinary stickers but stickers with mascots exclusively designed for each college. I did them for 37 different schools, for each one a different story was told.
That was a huge success that earned me a lot of money and an invitation for an internship at a very successful ad agency. Everything changed. When I started working part-time I realised that designing a building would take me forever but doing a campaign would only take me few weeks from the brief to air date. And it could also impact a lot more people – the power of communication.
I know it is a very straightforward thought, but I was a little bit anxious, like any other young creative smelling the breeze of a pre-Zuckerberg/Larry Page revolution about to come. So I decided to move from architecture to advertising only to learn. And I still am.
LBB> Architecture, cartoons, illustration, graphic design – these are all very visual mediums. Do you identify more as an art director than a copywriter?
SG> Throughout my childhood I was strongly attracted by drawings, colours, pencils and brushes, more than to words. I also like to write, but I’ve always felt more confident to express myself through pictures. So, there was no option but art direction.
LBB> You studied at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership – when did you do this and why was it something you were keen to do? What lessons did you learn from the experience?
SG> One of the greatest paradoxes we face in our industry is that at some point in our career we have to decide to stay as a creative or be a creative leader. In other words, be led or lead. This is a huge bridge we have to cross – otherwise our work will not be in our hands – so I decided to hold my breath and jump in.
Following my instincts and just after launching my agency, I enrolled in Berlin. I had the objective of learning from the errors of past creative generations – it is faster and cheaper to learn from others’ mistakes. But I found a lot more under Michael Conrad’s classes. Berlin School was my parachute. I wasn’t confident in how to lead an agency, had no clue what to do.
They taught me that I could. So, I did it. Or at least I’m trying to do it. Sometimes you need a push to jump off the cliff. It will hurt anyway but it is a liberator.
LBB> You launched Africa in 2002 – under what ethos did you launch it and why did you want to have your own agency?
SG> I didn’t want to be a passenger forever. I’ve always had that desire to hit the road on my own. Driving my own car, to stop having to catch a ride. Having my own shop. That’s a breaking point in every creative career. A very uncomfortable decision. That takes you away from the comfort zone. It was something I wasn’t ready for, it just happened. But who is ready anyway? In some extraordinary way, destiny knocks on our door. It knocked on mine and I opened it.
LBB> One thing I must ask and that I’ve always wondered – why is the agency called Africa?
SG> There are enough agencies already named after their founders’ initials so instead of doing as usual we decided to pay homage to a continent that has influenced like no other the Brazilian culture: Africa. Samba, ‘ginga’, cuisine, religion…everything in Brazil has African roots. Why not advertising? Why not have another example of this influence?
LBB> You designed the logo for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – considering the importance of football in Brazil, that must have been quite an honour! How was that experience for you? Where did you look for inspiration for the design?
SG> Brazilians learn to kick before they walk. Soccer shaped our self-esteem. It is not foolish to say we calendar our life every four years. It explains how soccer is important to understand our personality. Designing the logo for the World Cup was an honour that me and my team, especially Eduardo Martins and Fabiano Pinel, had and no other Brazilian team will have for the next 64 years – the same amount of time that it took for Brazil to host another World Cup after the time before. The first was in 1950.
LBB> Which pieces of recent work from Africa are you particularly proud of and why?
SG> I believe quality and quantity come alongside each other. You need to have both in your agency to be prepared for the future, so I’ll mention four. We are very proud of helping one of Brazil’s legends in basketball, Oscar Schmidt, to fulfil his dream of playing in the NBA. That was a story most Brazilians didn’t know. We partnered with Budweiser to introduce this magnificent, untold story to everyone. If you didn’t watch the doc, please do so. It’s worth it.
The second was for MTV. The amount of plastic waste found in the ocean is a real threat to marine life, but people just don’t really care. We needed to speak directly to millennials in a powerful and fun way that wouldn’t go unnoticed. So, we created a line of dildos made from plastic removed from the sea and an irreverent campaign under the motto “Don’t f*ck the ocean. Do it with yourself.” A great success.
The third one was for espnW, ESPN’s platform dedicated to women’s sports. In order to show the brand as a powerful tool for women’s sports and create awareness for the importance of equality between female and male athletes, we made use of the natural divisions found in each sports court by painting them mostly blue and the smaller spaces pink, and placing messages in them that highlighted gender inequality in sports. It wasn’t only on televised matches but also in real courts.
And the last example I’d like to highlight is the creation of a Facebook webstore for The Nature Conservancy that included products created from a realistic picture of the future on Earth. A simple yet very sensorial message to touch people by something they value a lot: their own lives. The products' design took ordinary products to the luxury universe, highlighting the imminent crisis we will pass through the next few decades, creating awareness for the consequences of global warming.
LBB> Brazil has had a tough time recently with regards to corruption at quite high levels of government. How has this affected life in the country? And is it affected the advertising industry in any way?
SG> Sure it did. It always does. Advertising is like a boat. Economy is our sea.
If the sea is flat, we sail faster. If it has high waves, we struggle not to sink down. But we are Latinos. If there is one common characteristic that represents us mostly it is the capacity to adapt to any situation. And that is a characteristic that the world is seeking. This was not our first crisis and it won’t be the last. We learned that, as we can’t stop the waves, we have to learn how to sail them. Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors. That’s our motto.
LBB> Do you think advertising is still an attractive career to young people, compared to when you started?
SG> You say young people don’t feel attracted to work in advertising – I don’t think so. I believe young people reject that boring, no soul, unattractive thing that advertising has become.
Looking back to the foundations of our industry, we found very intuitive people who believed in their guts and made huge achievements in the way people communicate. But it is very important to say that since then, we do not only do advertising. We are in the business of creating relevance. This is our job today. That was our job in the past. Our core strength has always been around creating relevance.
And that’s the reason that during the decades our industry has attracted so many young people – making a difference to a brand’s business and people’s lives. But somehow, we started to focus on seeking the new and forgot to do what our job description says. We started to use formulas and do clichés. Safer. We stopped seeing consumers as a friend and started to treat them as numbers. We stopped to focus on what is good and preferring what is new. So, mediocrity won.
Now I see a light at the end of tunnel, after so much water passed under the bridge. Data is becoming a very important tool for bringing powerful insights to our creative people. Data is becoming our new oil. Oil that will not let our creative machine get rusty again. But we have to combine data with guts because only data will keep bringing the NEW. But a mix of data and guts will bring the GOOD back.
LBB> Looking back, what advice do you wish you’d had when you started out?
SG> 1. Be simple. “Complicated things seem clever only to stupid people.” Reduce things to a minimum because you never know which tool you will have to do them.
2. Stay relevant. Never lose the perspective of what your work is about – adding value to the business of your clients, understanding technology and using all the available tools to create relevance.
3. Always look for the high ceiling. Never work below someone that is not better than you.
4. Keep your eyes curious. It will make everything possible.
LBB> Africa has an absolute slew of awards under its belt, as do you individually. How important are awards to you and the agency?
SG> Awards are not our final objective, they’re a means to rescue something more important that is missing in our industry: GUTS. If you want to win an award you cannot hide behind your fear or your clients’. You have to do it, full of courage, full of guts. Thinking of something breakthrough.
You have to rethink processes, dig for an incredible insight, focus on a tension and deliver outstanding craft. You have to control the overall picture. And it doesn’t matter if you achieve them or not, because that will change your work, your career, your agency and our industry.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
SG> Defining hero: a person who goes against the status quo, setting new standards in other people’s lives, bringing improvement.
Steve Jobs, Bill Bernbach, Steven Spielberg.
LBB> Outside of the work of advertising, what are your passions?
SG> Family, sea, design.
Simple as that.