Richard Wakefield (Barcelona, 1966). Is one of those multidisciplinary minds of advertising creativity that dares to explore unconventional territories. Associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the Blanquerna University, Creative Director at Storytelling Works and Talent Works, author of the book and blog “elestereotipomemata” and founder and director of the solidarity association Publicitarios Implicados, among many other facets.
We meet him to talk about the divine and the human of the advertising world, his vision of the future in this “new normal”, about what the university should contribute with and the development of the Advertising Implicados initiative, which he created in 2006.
You have been involved in Publicitarios Implicados for 14 years. How do you keep formality and professionalism, in an environment where you are not charging?
At first it was difficult, to maintain professional dynamics … it was complicated. At the beginning they told us “what are you talking about, where are you going with this”. Even at the university they had a hard time understanding it at first. Until they developed it as a project of their own and collaborated with very small things such as providing diets. The rest were a chain of favours, with producers, etc. But the last four years have been wonderful.
How do you do it? You call agencies, individuals…
We have always been “receivers of” both clients, who are all very small, and have nothing, they are basically heroes, rare disease associations, who are marginalized, associations fighting to get money to investigate. They have always come to us, or someone saying “hey, I don’t know if we are small enough to be able to work” or professionals or students who wanted to get involved. We have never done a search.
In advertising there is sometimes a trade-off between what the sector is, which can be exciting, and then what it generates. Implicados is a way to go back to use advertising for good things? With the initiative can you compensate the lack of importance of advertising?
For me and for the team it is a kind of training so that you can maintain creative freedom. I wouldn’t be that categorical as “the lack of importance”. Now, precisely with the covid-19 issue, it has already been seen that brands want to be closer to the consumer. I don’t know if it’s a trend or interest but it doesn’t matter. All the brands that have appeared in the last few months have shown that they want to be on the consumer’s side and I believe that this will continue.
Now, the covid arrives and unmasks what is important and what is not. In times of crisis, brands have always cut in advertising, however now comes a crisis so particular that brands need to communicate the more the better, to be on the consumer’s side, as you said. What do you think is going to happen: is the crisis going to be as tough for advertisers as in the previous crisis, that advertising disappeared or are they going to keep the budgets because they know they must stay and transmit security and confidence? and what do you think should happen?
I think that what Americans call “story-doing” was already beginning, which is that many brands do positive things for society and now what they say is that “story-caring” will be achieved, brands will take care to the consumer. I believe that the brands are going to stay there, to communicate “I am there”. At the business level, for those who were already bad, I think that inevitably many will decrease.
What do you think we can contribute with as agents of communication?
One thing I’m seeing, that’s why ImprovisedPlanning caught my eye, is that there is a lot of desire to share. Advertising is a very to-the-inside sector. And when you see a project that goes beyond commenting on a campaign. That intends to share, to make reflections … I think that starts to sink in. I think we should be a business more of this type. This business has always been “each one to his own”, very competitive, little plural. And lately it is being seen that is not, there are more indications that this is not the case and I like that. For example, I have been with my blog for ten years (elestereotipomemata), in the last six months to a year the visits have skyrocketed, I am saying the same thing, the content is always direct or indirect comments… my hypothesis is that people want to share more, or so I would like to think because I have not changed the discourse.
In fact, there is a business group called Cornellà Creació Forum that invited us, during the quarantine,. People like Bassat, Manel Fuentes … to record some videos explaining how we were going to get out of this. And there I was talking about storytelling … I said that we, who are in the sector, have to sit down and share what solutions we all see, right? Because the solution that I can give you now makes no sense. And the video was the most viewed by far … so maybe there’s a message there. That we will be more open to share.
Perhaps the fact that you contribute with lateral visions, that do not explain the same. Perhaps also because you are in an intermediate territory between literature, blog…
Yes, even posts that are pure portrait of someone unknown have many readers. Or about music groups, which have a history and live from music, but are not mainstream like Lynne Martin or Verde y Delgado. Of course, the one at Pau Donés has had a lot and a half, but it was more predictable.
Going back to the topic of sharing. There are many brands that are retreating and re-centralizing. Many end relationships and cut it short with who where their agencies. Without having a previous “sitting”, with your partner, to see how the problem is tackled. And surely they have millions of alternatives and opportunities. But there is no trust in the local partner. Do you think there is an opportunity now to cement these relationships or will they continue to cool-down? Taking into account that this is going to be a trend and that many are going to withdraw or cut services or reduce them.
Yes, because it seems that the ABC tells you that marketing has to cut on advertising. But they should sit down, negotiate with the agency, reach another agreement. Find other ways.
Regarding your students, how do they perceive at the level of mood, illusion, frustration … the crisis that is coming?
They are sort of waiting, seeing what happens. But on the other hand they think, well, since we are young and we have just graduated, we can enter companies getting paid a little or nothing … I recognize that there is a space there. I see them motivated.
This takes us to another question: why in advertising do we accept to work for free when we start?
It seems fatal to me. I have never done it … but it is true that it is taken as assumed because, of course, when getting an internship you take it as an opportunity. Our business is perhaps not so buoyant and before losing an opportunity you get in there because you have to start somewhere.
In the golden age of advertising was this so?
No. We have been cutting … in the 90s the crisis began and it ended there. That has been curiously one of the great debates we have had … when at Implicados they asked us why we work for free. But we work for people who do not have any budget. If they had money we would not help them, but depending on who had a hard time understanding that we would not charge anything … maybe some production cost, but minimal, to finish the job, nothing for us. They are clients who have nothing.
In relation to the implicados campaigns, how do you assume the media part? Because you can have fantastic creativity but people have to see it.
We always think that there is no media and from there we have a partner that is a media agency that sometimes, not always, gets us things at no cost. Philip Fürst, who is a very supportive guy… and has gotten us things like spots on TV … but we don’t think about it … we think about something that works without a budget, then if we can do something else, great, but we don’t count on it. Everything is events and online … organic, share, watch…
Do the campaigns work? Is financing available? Because they are mainly fundraising campaigns, right?
The vast majority have very good results. These are fundraising campaigns, membership encouraging and money for research, which is a lost fund … because rare diseases have to be continuously investigated, so every year they need money to investigate. For example, we collaborate with an association called NEN, which investigates rare childhood cancer, which each year requires seventy thousand euro for the project to continue investigating in the hospital, so our goal with these is seventy thousand or more. Normally, these objectives have been met. We, for example, did the first Oscar Camps campaign for Proactiva Open Arms years ago, but when they grew we could no longer do anything … but at that time he did not know what to do, he had no money … so we made two videos and crowdfounding . In the videos we managed to get 23 advertisers: Segarra, Lorente, etc. And we told him to put it on his networks. In the video, Óscar had to speak, for sure, and explain what he was doing, he is a very credible guy… and the campaign went very well, because we had Segarra, Bassat, Risto Mejide saying “I am Sirian” and it spread, and in a year they raised a million euro.
Could it be the Implicados campaign of which you are more proud of?
I get more touched with rare diseases, because when you are with those affected you realize to what extent that destroys the lives of everyone, his and their families. With ALS for example, we have done many things, we have lived it very thoroughly and sometimes you wake up wishing that good news will come out and the cure for ALS has been found. We have been campaigning for ten years. Last time we made a documentary about a former Barça B player. A guy who had always been a soccer player, was about to go up to the first team, but he dedicated himself to being a coach, at forty-something ALS was diagnosed and the total fall began. He was a guy who was in spectacular shape. I knew him very well because he was my coach and when we played the game everyone wanted to go with him, because technically and physically he was amazing… and when this happened we wanted to help him and there we played the Barça card. It is a documentary that I am very proud of. It is a 15-minute documentary called The Inspiration of the 8, and where the filmmakers Artur Cruz and Oriol Rigata, and Sunomono Films with the voice-over actor for Joan Carles Gustems and the audio postpo did an extraordinary job. Since he could no longer speak, he was in a wheelchair, he had no mobility… we tried to get the documentary to express his feelings. We had to get fully into his personality, achieve consistency … we had a hard time writing it, shooting it … because he was not feeling well, his family helped us a lot. It took us 6 months to roll it to make fifteen minutes. The documentary was very well received, it has had a great journey and a few days after its premiere, approximately a month later, the Catalan Federation gave him the Extraordinary Prize. He was so excited that he had been recognized with that award … a reward after 6 months.
Has the best of advertising been given to you by Publicitarios Implicados?
Definitely. Also because of what we mentioned before regarding creative freedom. The clients we have are quite surprised that we do a campaign and then they don’t get into anything. We go with one option and normally that option is the one that is approved, perhaps with some nuance. The documentary, for example, is an absolute risk because you don’t know if they are going to like it or not, but when you see the reception and people applauding …
That makes us think that clients are actually cowards and most do not dare to risk, because when something costs you money you are immediately afraid…
Investment makes you conservative and many times you do not achieve what you wanted to achieve despite having paid. But a client who has nothing to lose is brave and bravery is the key to advertising success. The brands that dare are the ones that achieve the most results. Don’t you think that is the message to give now, that it is time to take risks?
It is time to risk, to dare and to bet on creativity because you are going to differentiate yourself. People do not realize that the decisions that marketing makes put you in the same place as twenty other brands. There is no difference. So, the moment you uncheck yourself, you get your space.
How can we bring marketing departments and agencies closer together? How to make that synchrony from the university, from the academy? We think that many marketing directors do a lot of damage to the sector. Who have no idea on how communication works. Engineers who think about product – price.
That is something that has happened for many years now. Even with the covid, a phenomenon of people saying “this speech again …” has ended up taking place. It has burned to nothing … because everyone has gone to the safe territory.
Here is the paradox of advertising, which sells differentiation by always saying the same thing.
It is true. It is a problem of not having tackled it years ago and it has become enkylated and now anyone changes it.
In the advertising golden age, did clients let you do more?
I was a Junior at that time. And it is true that the clients wanted options and so … but he paid well. People had the feeling that it was well paid… but now what happens, that on top of this, the budgets are fair, we cannot develop ourselves it’s maddening.
What does the profession lack of that the academy has and vice versa?
We should have more common spaces. Although it is true that now more and more professionals go more to the universities, in general both, and I am not saying that it is anyone’s fault, they lack of creativity. The educational plan, since childhood, has no creativity. Creativity is not given value to even since childhood years. And then, both from university and marketing, not from people because people who do creativity are always on the daring side … but we do lack of creativity, of thinking differently, of doing different things. But of course, the university inevitably becomes conservative, and marketing becomes conservative. It is the same phenomenon. Don’t get out of comfort.
And critical thinking, right?
Absolutely. The university has always been a place to “look at the stars”. To look, to think, to dream … In the university there must be critical thinking. And obviously in advertising, where at most we get into a webinar to get our heads out. There is corporate homogeneity.
Don’t you think that we are looking navel-gazing all the time and that to break that homogeneity we have to look at other areas? What subjects or subjects are you missing?
Any subject could be given more creativity. Even creativity as a subject can be given more creativity. Don’t teach me the hat technique, go crazy. But we are again in the same, what is to give?
We believe that to do advertising you have to look outside of advertising. Are the students aware of this? Are there students very involved in reading manuals, marketing books, instead of going to literature, for example…
No, they are not. We have to raise awareness. But they don’t read anything. Curiosity about general culture is lacking. For example, there are students who do not know who Toni Segarra is.
But if you are not curious in general, it is very difficult for your creativity to develop. It would be to explain, for example talking about music, what creativity means by setting Queen as an example, or to talk about Oscar Wilde in the Victorian era, because creativity and disruption depend on the context. What you do and when you do it.
Sure, that’s what I would like to do. For example, during the lockdown it occurred to me, to keep them engaged in cultural issues [the students], I organized a quizz where they competed. They were in groups of two and there were cultural and advertising questions and it forced them to look for information, and they really enjoyed it. I have always believed that the creative has to leave advertising to incorporate those things.
Is an advertising degree necessary to be an advertiser?
To the extent that in a systematic way you are acquiring knowledge and that knowledge is well structured, it is very useful, because otherwise you would come to the agency with everything to learn. But it is what we were talking about before, if the university is actually a place of thought, reflection and creativity, it is totally useful and necessary. If the university is a theory space to get a certificate, then it doesn’t. Above all, the university has to have advertising professionals, and there are more and more.
Is that scarce or abundant?
There are more and more and the students appreciate it. Because there are times that you can explain what has happened with a client, because you have been there. The experience you accumulate is a book of anecdotes and if you have not lived it you cannot explain it. It is also true that big names are more difficult to get involved, because they don’t have time. But we don’t have big names but we do have great professionals.
What do you think of the ultra specialization in advertising? Is it need or pose? Things like “Digital Planner”… There is a trend in the sector to create positions, niches … to department everything.
It depends. To be a community manager, to be all day moving the networks, you need a special profile. But then, I think that the specialties are well the ones that are: accounts, creativity, strategic planning. As a specialty I would only consider Community manager. For the rest, the planner is already digital, it is born digital. Profiling comes from multinationals. And then it is important that the teams are aware that they are part of the same and for this, internal communication is very necessary. This happens a lot also in the client side, that the teams do not know very well what they do, they bump into each other in the bar “man, you are also here!”.
Going back to what we said at the beginning about collaborations. It is really a time of great collaborations, and the macro-collaboration that we are all waiting for, and that there has never happened is the collaboration between the public sector and the private sector and shouldering everyone. But people are very scared, putting away their coins when we should join forces.
Of course, also collaborating is enriching. We should not act so “I already manage”. The other day the Anuncios people called me because they wanted to write an article about Pau Donés and I said “Ok, but also talk to Ignasi Murillo and Jose Maria Piera who is a personal friend”, and he did so. And why can’t this be done? It is time for this.
In fact that is the idea behind ImprovisedPlanning. What people surprise about it is how we unite humanities, social sciences, and advertising.
That is a no-brainer that not everyone sees.
But advertising drinks from all that. It is not a discipline in itself, it has settled by drawing from other disciplines. But it is not tangible from the outside and neither is it claimed. And it is neither explained from the university why one thing is linked to the other.
It is necessary but not well linked in the university. It is very departmental, and we are again in the same. Humanities department, creativity department, communication department … and no collaboration between audiovisual communication and journalism. There is no collaboration. We from Implicados have tried to be transversal and have explained the project in journalism, audiovisual communication, advertising and even in international relations. But the feeling is that they are different worlds, and they are not.
That is like when you are an intern and if you enter a large agency you only do “photocopies” and at a small one you do everything.
I think Blanquerna’s great value is that it does two seminars a year with a maximum of fifteen students. That is an endless conversation for a whole term. There is a space for reflection there. There is a role-playing, marketing, creativity seminar … and since there are few students, there is constant feedback. Professors are already used to answering a million questions by WhatsApp, by email … and I think they ask everything they want to ask. It is very close.
The sector does not let us do things as well as we would like. Time is lacking to develop projects and much is done in the short term. Customers order proposals within two weeks and they don’t let you build properly a brand.
Absolutely, you are very limited. And besides, they would have to get used to proactivity. We are going to enter a time when perhaps an agency detects an opportunity but there is no briefing. But depending on who you have there, he will say OK or he will say “no, because this was not in the project.”
No, they don’t improvise. Well, in fact you mentioned it in an article “the feeling of going up.”
*Picture: Associació empresarial de Publicitat.