Romanian creatives in the UK | Mihai Coliban: “The UK advertising is a vibrant, cluttered, dog-eat-dog industry”

Newsroom 26/01/2017 | 16:25

Nine years of advertising on the complex and adventurous Russian market, preceded by ten other in the self-ironic, creatively brave Romania and the ever emerging Eastern Europe, building world class and local brands for major advertising networks and top global clients.

Romanita Oprea

Once an Architect, Mihai Coliban started advertising as an Illustrator, then Art Director and Creative Director. Awarded in all major European, regional and local festivals – Cannes Lions, New York Festivals, Epica, Eurobest, Golden Drum, Red Apple, AdPrint, he moved four months ago to London, UK and he shared with us his experience on the markets he worked on so far as well as his London journey.

This interview continues the exclusive series “Romanian marcomm successful people in UK” started with Maria Nazdravan and followed by Bogdana ButnarStefan LiuteAndreea NastaseAlina PirvuMihnea MiculescuRaluca Voinea, Dragos & Anda Teglas and Diana Vasilescu.

What would you say were the most important decisions you took in your professional life. Why?

Deciding I shall be an architect, in 1987, at 17. Quitting architecture and jumping on the advertising train full time, in 1997, at 27. Moving to Russia, in 2007, at 37. Moving to London in 2016, and becoming a student at 47. As you may notice, I work in 10-year cycles. Only last year was the exception, as I could not stay one more year in BBDO Russia, in spite of my superhuman efforts. Mentally, or, better put, emotionally, I wasn’t there anymore, for a few years already. Well, and, strangely enough, it seems that number 7 wouldn’t miss any of the turning points of my career.

Would you say that you chose the advertising or did it chose you?

Advertising came into my life as a phone call from the girlfriend of a then architect friend (well, all my friends were architects, back then), who connected me to Mircea Staiculescu, then Creative Director with a company named Contrapunto, which went on to become Tempo, where Mircea, again, hired me as a full-time Art Director, more than a year later. And that was probably the biggest leap of faith someone ever made for me, as I really had no formal skills nor education to be trusted with that position. And also the first time I chose advertising, instead of advertising choosing me.

The second time I chose advertising came a few years later, in D’Arcy, in 2002, when I realized that I won’t progress enough if I wouldn’t let go of the high esteem I held for architecture, and start taking advertising seriously, invest some sweat, blood and tears or so. And the effects of that decision started to show up not long after, I think.

What are the projects that you are most proud of while in Romania and why?

Definitely Timisoreana, where, together with the Golden Team, as Mihai Bonca used to call ourselves, years after we split (a rather lame yet endearingly sentimental name), we managed to bring that local beer from the 10th place, in 2002, to the 1st, in 2006, a place where it still stands, on the same creative platform devised by a handful of good people whom fate brought together, on the agency and client side alike. A deep bow to all involved, with a hat-tip to Mihai Barsan, the emotional and marketing artisan of Timisoreana.

The second one is Dakino – Anything but Hollywood campaign, which is the most awarded campaign I was part of (not counting my Russian work), it marks my debut as a director, and also as a slogan writer.

What made you leave Romania and choose Russia?

Isn’t it the desire of every Romanian of my generation to leave that “God forsaken place”? Well, I thought I’ll never have the chance again, so I took it. Russia was my fourth attempt to leave Romania through advertising – there were some talks with a Ukrainian agency in 2004, a Slovenian and a Czech one in 2006, but somewhat Russians fell in love with me. I guess I just said all the right things at the interview and was honest and straight, as I am most of the times at work (not as much in my personal life, unfortunately). I doubt it was my portfolio. I was shocked to find out months later that the big bosses haven’t even seen it, at the time of the interview. My feeling that Russians are sentimental even (or mostly) in business, and take decisions based on whether they like someone or not, no matter how crap they are, was confirmed along the years to come. Of course, after they hired me, it was half luck and half hard work that kept me there, as you can bet I would have had my ass kicked out quite fast in case I turned out to be a disappointment.

What were your expectations prior to arriving there and how were they met and / or proved to be different?

I had absolutely no expectations, I came set to do my job the best I knew. Therefore, in my first years in Russia, I was living one positive surprise after another – big budgets, shooting on the Red Square, in New York, Los Angeles, Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa, shooting with lots of celebrities, a good salary, not the joke money I was earning in Romania, a team of 20 people who respected me, a bucket of awards. What can I say? It was Heaven on Earth. Bliss.

I was never disappointed, precisely because I came with no expectations and no special requirements, an expat-virgin who just truly came to work not for the money nor the girls, and the good things just kept coming and coming.

Although in the second half of my time in Russia things weren’t so great at work anymore, I can say that anyway the company was always growing (500 employees when I arrived, 1200 when I left), while Moscow and Russia were growing and changing too.

It’s such a pity I left when I left, as Moscow is now more beautiful than ever, full of nice, cool places and things to do. I’m still envious of all those people who only now start their Russian adventure.

How would you characterize the Russian advertising industry? How is it different from the Romanian one, in terms of creativity?

Creatives are more or less the same in Russia and Romania, with a plus for the talented ones in Russia, who in many cases, have the ambition to make it on their own, so they would squeeze all useful knowledge out of an expat or anybody, actually, and go on to build their own careers and business, which is something I admire. Three of the most successful, maybe even THE most successful, agencies in Moscow established during the past 5 years are owned by people who were on my teams for years. I got to become friends with most of them. That never happened in Romania, for example, most likely because of me, I do admit I was a lot more difficult to deal with in Romania.

In terms of creativity, it’s quite similar, there are very good creatives in Russia, too, and the proof is that the best do get to work outside of Russia – there are two copywriters under 30 from Russia, one in Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, Evgeniy Primachenko, and the other one is Polina Zabrodskaya, she is a Creative Group Head in Publicis Milan, and works on Global Heineken campaigns. They are both regular winners in Cannes, so they have global creative value, beyond any doubt. That, from what I know, is more than Romanian creatives not in managing positions achieved, so far.

To balance things out, it appears that we have more successful Creative Leaders: Adi Botan, the absolute champion, doing a tremendous global job from London for McCann, Gabi Lungu, in the past – also London, and more recently Razvan Capanescu, in McCann Prague (so Romanian mafia does exist, he he). Not that many Cannes Lions between them in their current jobs but there is still time.

There is though, one thing that makes, overall, Romanian advertising, at times, better than the Russian one – slightly braver clients. That’s both the blessing and the curse of this industry: clients will always make the difference. I say “at times” because the bravery of all clients – or maybe of only the not-so-visionary-ones – is strongly influenced by the state of the economy and of the company they work for.

The two markets are also considerably different in terms of size, hence the general approach to advertising in Russia, which is strangely similar to the German one, would be information and conformity, based on extended reach, with the general goal of including as many audiences as possible. In Romania, besides advertising being perceived more as part of the entertainment category than an annoying break in one’s favorite TV show, the market is also more cluttered, so contenders, and even the leaders, most of the times, in order to properly fight for tiny bits of market share, have to make some noise in order to stand out, so they would generally go for content with bigger word-of-mouth potential.

How hard was to adapt to the new conditions there?

It was very easy, except for the language, but even that was alright after a while, I just had to dig out my eight years of Russian (my 2nd foreign language, after English) from the twenty years hole where time dumped them. Otherwise, mentalities were quite similar, especially among people of my age, 44 years of common communist history left a mark. Plus, as a kid, as my family from my father’s side were admirers of anything Russian, I was exposed to the power and depth of its culture and history early on in my life. So I always had a good set of surprises up my sleeves for my Russian colleagues, who were constantly shocked by how much I knew about their country and culture, as opposed to the more ignorant typical Western expats.

In general, the adaptation was very smooth, especially because the agency took care of all the paperwork – visas, permits, finding a flat (I always paid my own rent) – so until at least 5 years into my Russian adventure I did not have to deal with any formalities, legal issues, etc.

What can you tell us about the time spent at BBDO and Proximity Russia? What are the main things you learnt and helped you in your career?

Proximity is a truly digital agency, I was initially shocked by how much is still there to learn, not necessarily by how little I know, about digital, when I came there. That’s what pushed me into doing the part-time MA in Digital Media Management with Hyper Island, while still on the job in Proximity – eternally grateful to Proximity Russia’s CEO, Julia Bogdanovich for letting me do that MA and my job.

BBDO was, and I would say that it still is, globally, very Big Idea and ATL focused, and on film/video, as type of content. It will take years to change that and it will probably be easier done through the incorporation of Proximity. Although, in 5-10 years, when it will happen, I’m afraid it will be the other way around.

In principle, I would say that Proximity is globally a much more modern company than BBDO. Yes, the best works, the cherry on the cake and the huge, billion dollar accounts are still with BBDO but Proximity will be there when the media money will fully shift to digital, ready to take the lead. I would say that the “Data Driven Creativity” mantra of Proximity is absolutely in line with what is going on in advertising, communication and entertainment, in general, nowadays.

To sum up, BBDO gave me a taste of power and world-class advertising, while Proximity gave me a taste of how the future might look like. BBDO was hard work yet too much comfort and too much of the same old, same old, while Proximity gave me a healthy scare, and a kick in the butt – a step forward, as the millenary wisdom of our Romanian folklore wants us to believe.

How different are BBDO and Proximity Russia from their Romanian headquarters?

To be honest, my interactions with BBDO or Proximity Romania were close to zero. During my 9 years in Russia, I never had anything to do with Proximity at all, and I only interacted with BBDO twice – first time was when I asked for them to be briefed for the global Tuborg pitch we were doing, back in 2010 (we managed to bring Adi Docea over after that project, where they did a very good job, by the way), and the second time was when I was moderating the output of the creative teams from various BBDO offices, for Lay’s and Pepsi, during my year as Regional Creative Director for the aforementioned brands (there were many good ideas coming from Romania), case which unfortunately again ended with the abduction of workforce from the ranks of BBDO Romania – a Romanian creative pair was hired after a regional workout, yet this time fortunately not on my watch, as I already was in Proximity. Oh, and there is a third time, actually this was chronologically the first – I was in a bar in Bucharest, in 2008, with a British guy from BBDO Russia – we were shooting a project for Redd’s beer with Gabi Hirit – when a lady approached me, introducing herself as being from BBDO Romania, and asking whether I am Mihai Coliban or not, which I enthusiastically confirmed, preparing my pen for an autograph, but then she asked me to introduce her and her friends (waving from a distance) to my friend, as they found him quite cute. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.

What were the most important projects you worked on? What about the most spectacular ones?

OMG, everything was important, the level of stress I dealt with on the Russian market was unprecedented. But you know, what doesn’t kill you… makes you go to London.

The important ones – there was a global Lay’s workout in Paris, a global workout on Exxon in New York, the global pitch for Tuborg I mentioned earlier, which we presented in the old Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, a pitch for a Unilever tea brand they wanted to launch in Russia, which we presented at the impressive Unilever central headquarters in London – we won but, funny enough, then lost, because apparently they were not allowed to work with us on tea brands, DDB had exclusivity and they appealed. And a bunch of big, local pitches, too.

To make it more clear, there aren’t a lot of projects in BBDO which require international creative input, as the various power centers of the network operate more independently than other or smaller networks do. While Saatchi, Grey, Ogilvy and DDB would have lots of global, regional and local hothouses, tribes or whatever they call them, where lucky creatives from star offices would go around Europe/the World and take part in all of them, for anything from a global pitch for a global brand to a major pitch of a 25 people agency in Montenegro, BBDO would build strong local offices on big markets which operate locally and sometimes regionally, with no help from the “center”.

Spectacular were shooting with Bruce Willis, in LA, 5 years ago, with Milla Jovovich in 2010, also in LA, shooting with once famous director Tarsem my first video with a budget over 1 million dollars, in Barcelona.

Also winning dozens of awards with my first and real (and I want to underline the word “real”) print campaign for Gillette, produced in my first 6 months with BBDO Russia. That was a weirdly perfect mix of luck, hard work, right people, right timing – everything fell into place with that one. I guess that was my ticket to a long term relationship with my employers.

It was nice to be Regional (Eastern Europe) Creative Director twice, for Lay’s and Pepsi, and for Visa (EER and MENA, too).

And it was quite cool to lose a pitch for Tuborg to Ok Go.

It wasn’t bad either to contribute to a project (Post-it) which went on to win a few Cannes Lions, D&AD, Clio, Webby and just about any award you might think of.

What made you decide to leave the Russian advertising industry and move to London?

I could not stay in BBDO any longer. Most people I liked were long gone or fired, the people who liked me or whom I liked I could count on one hand, unfortunately. Therefore, little management support, except for my direct boss and a few colleagues, hence a lack of enthusiasm on my side. Besides, that was the best place to be in Russian advertising, so there weren’t many other options. I did interview, until the last second, I was offered a good job with Grey Moscow, but after the acceptance from the Central Saint Martins came, I declined it, and I also quit my job in Proximity, the next day. No matter how much I loved Moscow, and how easy for me it I was there, there wasn’t much else for me to do on the Russian advertising market, so I broke free from my comfort zone.

London is the place to be. Almost as much as New York. Yes, I agree, it seems there may be a bit of a bad timing with Brexit, but hey, I’ll one day look back and say “I lived in London for a couple of years”, how cool is that? Of course, I am trying to get a job here, not very intensively, yet I have started to apply. So I have great hopes from London.

What made you enroll at the University of Arts in London, after all your experience?

I needed to put my leg in the door, that’s the way I see it. It seemed to me a quite legitimate reason to move to London, and also to be part of a world-class, extremely advanced education system. I’m glad that you ask this, actually. I believe I shall always have something to learn, no matter how much I know and irrespective of my age. Stay away from people who think they know everything or hold all the answers.

What are your goals from this point of view?

To read, practice and learn as much as possible. To get a glimpse of London life. To understand all the different English accents, and maybe to acquire one (I’ve been told that I have an American accent, for years). To make some friends, maybe a network. In case I’ll leave after these two years, to have the name of the best arts university in the world attached to my CV and some good memories.

What are your expectations and plans for the first year?

Well, this question comes a bit late, as I’m already half way through the 1st year. Anyway, I do have mixed feelings about the course (Innovation Management), I find it too theoretical to my taste, yet the course leaders are truly exceptional, I’m learning so much every day, and, most of all, the university itself is an immense reservoir of knowledge – there are so many things going on at the same time that I barely manage to see 30 percent of all the things I would like to.

How does a day of your life look like right now?

Pretty bland, in principle. I wake up whenever I want, except on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which are my course days, when we start at 10:30. In case I go to school, I’ll get on a long bus ride from my home in North London to King’s Cross, then take notes or record a lecture, have lunch at the Uni’s canteen (the best in London), then an afternoon lecture, maybe some time in the library, alone or with my teammates, working on our project. Another long bus ride back home, then dinner (I think I’m becoming a pretty good cook) or straight to the pub (did I tell you that, in my opinion, ale is the best beer, and that the British make the best ale in the world?). When I don’t go to school, I’ll read (we have a lot of material to read), research the topic of my essay or group project, watch something on Netflix or – the illegal, much better and cheaper Russian version of Netflix, specialized in TV series – or work on my portfolio and dig for jobs. Maybe a tiny bit of freelance. On weekends we might meet some friends or just go see what’s on display at the White Cube or Tate Modern.

How is London treating you so far?

I might say that London has been pretty mean to me. As opposed to Moscow, where everything has been done for me by the agency, here I had to start over and do everything by myself, with minimal advice from some acquaintances or friends. But that turned out to be a valuable life lesson. Because when I got my flat, after two months through 5 Airbnb flats (some of them gorgeous and with really nice hosts, it’s true), and then my bank account, I almost cried. Went then straight to the pub to celebrate, to get my self-esteem back, of course.

I am planning, and I will do it, to write an article on Medium about my real estate adventures and my list of Dos and Don’ts in London. I really believe in the power of shared experiences.

Otherwise, many of the people I already knew in London proved to be very nice and welcoming, so I can’t complain here. And most of my colleagues at school as well. That was a nice surprise.

Over-all, I can say that I had to deal with the geographically as well as culturally less nice parts of London, and I am very grateful for that. It’s easy to come to London and just stay in the center, strolling around Big Ben, London Bridge (keep calm, it’s not falling down) or Hyde Park and Shoreditch, with all the tourists, while real life is actually somewhere else.

One big surprise – English / British cuisine, which I find extremely rich, diverse and simply tasty. Also, I got a good glimpse of the different London boroughs, as I lived in 5 different ones during these 4 months, plus the year I was in and out of London, doing my part time MA with Hyper Island.

I still need Google Maps to go to most places, though, don’t worry.

How would you characterize the UK advertising scene?

Since I have actually not met many people who work in advertising, I can’t give an exhaustive opinion. I can though judge the advertising I see around – that’s the one that counts, right? – and I can say that the visual and graphic quality is very high, while the concepts are rather light. I keep seeing a lot of double meanings, and plays of words, mostly paraphrases of famous phrases – proverbs and movie/song/book quotes seem to be very popular.

I’ve seen a lot of conventional advertising, so far, lots of ATL, and a really dense and annoying presence of brands online – the amounts of banners and videos on an ordinary web page is simply astonishing.

Bottom line – from a creative/content point of view, I’ve seen nothing special, so far.

Yes, most work is correct and nicely art directed, yet no sign of any creative brilliance whatsoever, at least not during the 4 months I’ve been here. Maybe, since Cannes is getting closer, creativity will start pouring in, so I have higher hopes from April and May.

I have to mention, though, that I do follow a few advertising people from London online and, judging by their Happy Hour group pics, it looks like they are really enjoying themselves.

On the serious side of the answer, it’s very clear to me that the whole CEE and EER markets are controlled, especially on the agency side, by the London offices of most networks. From my experience as an interviewee, the European Creative Director, always based in London, almost always British, does all the hiring, firing and evaluations of the creative leaders in the abovementioned markets, also being responsible for the planning and the business or award-related achievements, as well as the failures, of his people.

Judging by the job announcements on the market, the advertising industry in London is extremely alive, even booming, the number of applications for the good jobs being nearly in the three-digit area. When I was interviewing with the Head of the Global Recruitment at Grey, I was told, in order to scare me into taking the Moscow job, like it would have made a difference, that they had more than 600 applicants for a few trainee positions, and the academic backgrounds of the applicants featured Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge, so, at 47, and with my lousy Hyper Island or Saint Martins, I would not stand a chance in London. So I guess it’s tough out there.

A vibrant, cluttered, dog-eat-dog industry, as far as I can tell. Kind of like anything else in London, where being polite is, I start to think, more of an excuse to, either metaphorically or literally, punch you in the face at the slightest breach of an etiquette which no one bothers to fill you in on. Think of it as a boxing game where your opponent is also the referee and only he knows the rules of the game. Here, you learn everything the hard way, but you’ll be thankful for that, when you expect it less.

What do you believe that are the Romanians main assets that bring them success on the UK’s advertising industry?

I really doubt we have too many assets to bring to the table, and it’s a pity. People like Adi Botan or Gabi Lungu are exceptions. I did meet a few Romanians working in advertising in London, some in big agencies (Ogilvy, Proximity), they were all under or around 30, yet none of them was creative and one of them, who was in London for 6 or 8 years, had never heard of Botan. I was openly outraged. Brits, in the rare cases when they hire foreign creatives or planners, they are obviously looking for awards, as any other agency ready to hire expats would, so they go for the exotic Brazilians and Argentinians, or they look for native speakers, so here Australians and Americans have the upper hand.

I really doubt anybody is looking for Romanians in the UK. I might say that, when 90% of your fellow citizens have menial or, at the best, blue collar jobs, our nation’s PR is close to, if not below, zero. Hence, it’s not so easy to pass the first impression – the stigma on one’s CV that is the Romanian nationality.

But again, I might be here for too little time and not really entitled to have an opinion, my research has been rather superficial, in spite of the ethnographic approach.

What do you miss from your professional life in Romania? (If you miss anything)

When I was in Russia, I did miss the fact that we, Romanians, can make fun of just about anything, including God, the Church, the President, our history, you name it. I always took it as an expression of creative bravery. I missed it all the time I was in Russia, because Russians take themselves very seriously, sometimes too much. There are a lot of taboos in the Russian society and the censorship – meaning the legal regulations regarding advertising, don’t think of anything else – is quite well enforced and very strict.

Responsible for that are the broadcasting companies (websites, TV stations, on-offline publications, etc), who can send back any finished or in-progress work which they think it breaks the regulations. Therefore, before anything goes on air, no matter the medium, a whole army of lawyers, on the agency, client and broadcaster side, check the work, in its different stages, to make sure it complies with the law. They check everything – idea, story, wording, images, sounds, music. A few examples – you can’t instigate to anything illegal through communication, even as a joke, no dirty words, no jokes about dirty words, no violence unless it’s a campaign against violence, don’t make fun of the sacred national values or personalities (like Gagarin and Pushkin), and so on. There are things that simply can’t and shouldn’t be done in advertising in Russia, period. I did have a few slogans changed, scripts modified, a full finished campaign entirely scrapped and a couple of others which ignited public outrage (luckily, they were partially fake, so they only aired a couple of times in a provincial newspaper, hence the damage was minimal).

What advice would you give to an advertising professional wanting to move to London? But to someone who is just at the beginning of its advertising career, with minimum experience in Romania?

It’s rather simple: you have to become one of them. In case you’re just out of high school or in your early twenties and you’re into advertising, go to the UK, do your studies there or do an MA, get a small job in the mailroom (joking), I mean as an account or social media manager, get the good accent (Brits hate all accents other than their own – i.e. “proper English”), learn history and football, and the history of football, choose your football team (yeah, it’s a lot about football in this country), choose a newspaper, hence a political side, and you’re good to go. Slowly climb up the corporate ladder, acquire rights, prove your good will and abide by the laws of The Crown. Well, honestly, that may not work in case things get ugly with Brexit. So maybe reconsider. Moscow, anyone?

What are the main learnings you gathered in your long career so far that you would pass on to your fellow less experienced advertising colleagues?

Stay true to your values, to what you believe is good, never compromise on your creative nor human integrity. This I learnt the hard way, after years of compromises which finally made me very unhappy and, worst of all, made me question whether I still “got it”.

As a tip to ease the way into the previous learning, never (and I mean never ever) show the “safe option”, even if you know they (client, your boss, etc) will instantly buy it.

Don’t listen to the fools, listen to people who are way better than you.

Never have the arrogance to think that you have all the answers.

Listen, reflect, than speak. In general, take time for reflection, and reflect on anything, both pre and post factum.

Anticipate, predict, do what makes no sense to others, because that’s where innovation comes from. And then either fame or a good life will follow.

Always learn, stay a few steps ahead of the competition – your colleagues and pub mates – as, in the words of the great Dave Trott, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you”.

In spite of staying competitive, share, be a giver, not a taker and, most of all, don’t be an asshole.

Finally, tell the truth to the ones you care about you (or the truth) and hide it from the ones that may hurt you, by using that truth against you.

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