Romanian creatives in the UK | Teodor Cucu (BAT & TheCell): “Moving to London was a life changing experience”

Newsroom 02/02/2017 | 11:12

Award winning senior strategist and creative director with a visual twist. Experienced developing integrated creative solutions for various blue chip clients including SAB Miller, Unilever and, Teodor Cucu has 15 years in the advertising industry, developing brands at a local and regional level, with over 8 years of strategic and creative leadership at board level. More than 10 years’ experience in digital and content. 5 years’ experience directing video content and commercials. 

Last year he moved to London, UK and is working at the same time as digital strategy consultant at British American Tobacco and creative director and Filmmaker at TheCell.

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 VoineaDragos & Anda Teglas, Diana Vasilescu and Mihai Coliban.

Romanita Oprea

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

I fell in love with advertising about 18 years ago, during The Night of the AdEaters. Following that night, I decided this is what I’d like to do for a living. Looking back, I’d say I chose advertising.

How were your first steps into the industry?

Tough. I wanted in and I didn’t know exactly how to do it. I started working for Ringier Romania in advertising sales, moved to ProFM and then to Spotlight, my first agency job as an Account Manager. Only I wanted to be a copywriter. In Spotlight I discovered planning, which, at the time, was a new thing on the Romanian advertising scene. After I moved to GMP, I decided to switch to planning and I was lucky enough to have Mirela and Felix support the idea. This was also the birth of GMP’s planning department, in the meantime the most awarded independent agency at the Romanian Effies.

You are both a creative and a strategist. How hard it is to balance those two departments and how would you say that they work hand in hand?

Strategy is a creative process. To be able to look at data, trends, patterns and reinterpret them in a way which makes sense for a business, but also inspires other people to come up with ideas, is a creative process. The only difference is that it uses different parts of the brain, compared to creative development.

When working as a planner, I always thought of a creative route to support the brief I was working on. If the idea was rubbish or wouldn’t work across different channels, then the brief needed a bit more work. When I started working as a Creative Director, it was a little hard in the beginning, as I needed to take a leap and stay away from that first idea that came while doing the brief. I’d also say this made me a better manager, as I didn’t feel the need to impose my ideas on the team, we weren’t in a competition as it sometimes happens, my job was to get the best out of them and it worked.

Still, what do you think you are closer to, do you feel more like a creative or a strategist?

It’s more of a hybrid. But for the fun of the game, let’s call it a creative strategist.

You worked some years in independent projects, on CSR (Autism Romania and “Plantam fapte bune in Romania”). What were the main challenges you faced then and what do you believe you’ve succeed in changing and making better?

The main challenge is working with people who don’t know or don’t understand marketing. They have a cause and they feel the need to tell everybody, everything about it. Convincing them otherwise isn’t always an easy job.

Looking back at Plantam fapte bune, for instance, I think we did manage to structure their communication, which helped them win grants from both the UK and US embassies. And this enabled them to further develop their initiatives.

Your first passion was the press, working for the print and the radio. What made you decide and switch to advertising?

I wouldn’t say press, but I did love radio and ProFM in special. When I was in high school I used to get up earlier just to listen to the morning show with Razvan Exarhu. Or stayed up late at night for Midnight Killer. Years later, I got to work there and yeah, it was fun. Andrei Gheorghe was also the first to steer my writing and although initially he was scaring the shit out of me, it made me a better writer, for which I am thankful.

Do you miss anything from that period of time?

There was a time when people were having more fun doing their jobs, experimented more which meant better work. There was a sense of competition that made things happen and helped the whole advertising scene evolve faster than it was supposed to. Sadly this changed starting 2009, with a few exceptions.

In 2011 you opened your own agency, TheCell. What were your main goals with the agency and how much did you succeed in achieving until now?

When we started TheCell, it was me, Ionut Popescu and Alex Galmeanu, joined a couple of years later by Stefan Tenovici. We started it because we wanted to escape briefs that had more or less the same outcome. And we wanted to do content at a time when most people thought the best solution to any brief was a tvc. And to a certain point we succeeded, projects like The Library Wanderers, Live in TheCell or Artisan support that. But content wasn’t, and to be honest, still isn’t given the value it deserves in Romania. So we ended up doing more of what we didn’t want to do in the first place. This has changed over the past year and a half or so, and we are now back in the game. In the past year, for instance, we’ve been working on a series of nice projects for Fashion Days.

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

I am lucky to have quite a few of them and it would be too much to go through each of them, but if I have to choose, I would name Timisoreana, especially the football related campaigns, where we went against the flow and talked about true sportsmanship and what makes football great. Another one is the “Why we love Bucharest” campaign for Apa Nova, which started a shift in the way people perceived the city and, out of the GMP period, there’s also “Cooked chicken doesn’t harm you” which was a very disruptive way to help end the avian flu crisis, back in 2006.

Then there’s the already mentioned Library Wanderers campaign, the first campaign made for public libraries in Romania and one of the best we did at TheCell, for which we worked in partnership with GMP PR. The rebranding and re-launch of Cemacon, a crazy project done in about 3 months by a handful of people is another one.

Artisan is another one of my dearest projects, one that proved good storytelling has the power to break the so called 3 minute rule.

Last, but not least, there’s the ad for Johnnie Walker I did with Ionut to commemorate 25 years since the Romanian revolution. It’s one of those things that sticks with you forever.

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

Listen more, talk less. Don’t hurry to be the first who speaks in a meeting, sometimes it pays to be the last. Experiment and escape the desk. You can’t understand people on a construction yard or a suburban pub if you never set foot there.

Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of your manager. He’s there to challenge you and make you better. If not, find another one.

Don’t be lazy, write down ideas, illustrate how they work, scribble if you have to. An idea is only as good as your ability to sell it.

Never stop learning, the moment you think there’s nothing more to learn, you’re dead.

What made you leave Romania and choose London?

It’s a long story, but in the end, it was a question of “why not?”

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

London is a beautiful city, but it’s also a harsh one. And you don’t realize that when you’re a tourist. Moving over was a total reset, you have to start everything all over again, from the most mundane things like where to find the best bread or get a decent haircut, to more complicated ones like adapting to a very different culture. Some of the hardest things were finding a place to call home and setting up a bank account, which took ages compared to back home, not to mention the amount of paperwork. Renting for the first time in London is almost as complicated as applying for a job at NASA.

Life has a different rhythm here and it was a bit of a shock to realize it takes 3 weeks for somebody to come over and plug in 2 cables just so you have internet. Or that it takes another 3 weeks to have furniture delivered. On the plus side, interacting with the authorities is a much leaner process than back home.

Still, the most important thing is that we were lucky enough to make new friends and while it wasn’t always easy, moving to London was a life changing experience.

You still have TheCell, your Romanian agency, even moving abroad. How are you operating from the UK and how has your life changed according to that?

Luckily, technology solves this, there are many ways of staying in touch, as long as you have an internet connection. So the only thing that can be a bit of a problem is the timezone difference. And I can always jump on a plane, if I’m needed there.

How would you say the agency differentiates itself on the Romanian market?

As I said, when we started, one of our main goals was to create smart, engaging content. While we lost focus at some point, we are now concentrating more on this and we have reasons to believe it’s the right way for us. We are not so much an agency, but more of a creative studio, run by senior professionals, with the intention to become a go to solution for content creation and production. Especially video content, as we have all the capabilities in-house and the background that helps us understand both brands and agencies.

What is your goal for TheCell this year? Do you plan to attract client from the UK and the rest of the Europe as well?

The intention is to grow the business, with video content at its core. Attracting clients from the UK and the rest of Europe is one way of achieving that, but not the only one. Our main focus remains the Romanian market.

Recently, you are also Digital Strategy Consultant for BAT. What are your main tasks from this role and what are your expectations and plans for the first year?

As the title says, I am working on developing the Digital Strategy for the e-cigarettes portfolio, in the UK. Since most of it is still work in progress, I can’t say much about it. What I can say is that it’s my first time on the client side and so far it proved to be a very meaningful experience.

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

I wake up around 7.30, make breakfast for me and my son, take him to nursery, work, lunch, more work, stop working around 6 PM, quality time with family and friends, Netflix or a book, sleep, repeat. Sometimes, to break the routine, I grab my camera and explore the neighborhood. Once a week I shoot some hoops.

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

Resilience, versatility and creativity would be my top picks. The UK market is a very specialized one so having a broader experience might prove to be quite useful. It can also be a challenge as most people here don’t necessarily feel that way. But, if you think about it, doing just one thing restricts your ability to come up with fresh, disruptive ideas.

How is London treating you so far?

It’s good, but I do miss the summertime. You only get 5-6 hours of daylight during winter and it feels strange. On the other hand, during summer, it goes up to 18 hours of daylight in June. So looking forward to it.

How would you characterize the UK advertising scene?

Since I didn’t meet too many people working in advertising here, I can’t really play the insider. But, from an observation point of view, I would say it is a very competitive market, overly specialized some times and very active on the digital side of things. Creative work tends to have very good art direction and production values, while concept and copy are a little light and centered on puns, rhymes or word plays. Not that it’s necessarily wrong, but from a planning perspective, they seem to target more ad awareness than brand building. And while it is the right approach for a brand like Money Supermarket, for instance, it doesn’t apply to anything that moves.

There are, of course, exceptions, like Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Lurpak or Rekorderlig Cider, to name a few. Call me old school, but I do believe good storytelling beats any pun.

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

I miss my friends and family, being there when important things happen. From a professional point of view, I’m still absorbing and processing a lot of information, so can’t say I miss something.

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?

Moving to London is a tough experience, especially if you don’t have help from an employer or friends. Brits are not too good at foreign languages, so they tend to be reserved when it comes to hiring non-natives. Be prepared to work hard(er), you will have to prove yourself. Try and understand the culture as much as you can, football, rugby, chitchat, rules of engagement. Learn the differences between English and American English, never use a “z” instead of an “s” and, as a rule, if there are two ways of spelling a word, the more complicated one is the right one: Google Maps, Citymapper and Uber are must haves.

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