DDB Colombia’s President and CCO on his drive to show the world Colombia's creative prowess
John Raúl Forero is passionate about advertising – and more specifically, he’s passionate about Colombian advertising. It’s a local industry that emerged from incredible hardship and challenges to be one of Latin America’s creative hothouses, buzzing with ideas and talent. Over 28 years, he’s seen the creative scene flourish and he sees growing the country’s creative reputation as a responsibility he shares with other agency leaders.
There’s more progress that he’d like to see in the industry – innovation and channelling creative firepower towards clients’ deep problems, for example. He’s a creative leader with strong opinions – don’t get him started on the ‘advertising awards debate’! - and as a network guy, he says the blossoming indie scene fills him with excitement.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with John Raúl to find out more.
LBB> What kind of kid were you and was there any inkling that you would end up in your current career?
John Raúl> I was an ordinary middle-class boy. My father was a doctor and my mother a psychologist. I have an older sister and I always grew up in a healthy environment. The truth is, I never thought about studying advertising until only a few months before I had to enroll in university. My mother, who was a career counsellor, suggested that I study advertising because I liked to draw. I thought “advertising? Oh, I like that. And I can also appear in TV spots!” I'm not a model or handsome, but I had confidence!
I loved to play soccer all day and at night I liked to play blackjack with my friends. That is why when I go to the casinos I do well. This is why I love Las Vegas.
LBB> How would you describe your cultural background and what impact does that have on your outlook?
John Raúl> I grew up in a country badly hit by violence and drug trafficking. But at the same time a wonderful country full of talented and passionate people. Colombia has athletes, artists, singers, writers and entrepreneurs recognised throughout the world. At the beginning of my career, I was surprised that it wasn't like that in advertising. Our industry was far behind 28 years ago and had no global impact. And that encouraged me and a few professionals of my generation to put Colombia on the world map of advertising. Today, Colombia is a benchmark for advertising in Latin America and a country that exports very good talent to the world.
LBB> How would you describe your personality?
John Raúl> The truth is I am very outgoing, passionate, very demanding and a perfectionist. I am a very ambitious person who always seeks to give the best in everything he does since each project bears the name of my agency, my team, my client and me.
LBB> Where are you currently based and how have you found the lockdown experience?
John Raúl> I am based in Bogotá, Colombia and I have been here all my life despite many offers that I have received from abroad. I love my country. Here are my family, my friends and my roots. I have always believed that you can succeed from here. I believe too much in the talent of Colombians.
On the other hand, with the pandemic, it has been very hard since I assumed the presidency of a large agency such as DDB Colombia with almost 400 employees just a little before the pandemic began. I had to do Zoom management and the truth is, I hate it. I love personal contact, being by my team's side, through thick and thin. And being like this makes it more difficult, more impersonal and the learning process slows down. I hope it ends soon. I want to be with the team working face to face, having a coffee or a beer with them.
LBB> How did you get started in the industry?
John Raúl> I studied advertising at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University and I loved my profession from the first time I started studying. I love it so much that 31 years later, I have the same or even more passion than back then.
I did my internship at Young & Rubicam for two months. I worked for free, until I was hired as a junior copywriter. I think it was one of the happiest days of my life.
I wanted my work to shine in whatever agency it was, then in my country, then in Latin America and then in the world. Although to be honest, at that time the world for us was to compete against Brazil and Argentina, the benchmarks of the region. It was only about 10 years ago that Colombia began to appear in the advertisement world.
LBB> Where did you hone your craft?
John Raúl> I worked in big agencies like Y&R, JWT, McCann, BBDO, Ogilvy and now in DDB. There I had the opportunity to meet great professionals from whom I learned a lot. I particularly had great teachers in these agencies such as Bere Mitchel, Hector Santagostino, Gaston Bigio, Cesar Carreño, Mauricio Barriga, Borja de la Plaza and my mother (she doesn´t work in any agency), to name just a few.
LBB> What was the most useful lesson you learned in the early days of your career?
John Raúl> That I must fly high and not be a seagull in the sea, because people shoot to kill when we fly very low.
LBB> What was your first professional project and what are your memories of that?
John Raúl> It was a commercial for a mattress brand. It was terrible but I was very happy! That was almost three decades ago. It was about a young man who counted sheep to sleep and then the sheep came out of the cloud to sleep with him, I remember it perfectly. And to complete it, the production was horrible. But, like any parent, I loved my son even if he was very ugly.
LBB> And what was the project or piece of work that you felt really changed your career?
John Raúl> I think there have been several. The first was the outdoor ¨Loop¨ for Hotwheels. It was the first work that had a global impact, even Harvard asked us to use it as study material. Later, the Ice Bottle and the Coca-Cola Bow Bottle, because they were ideas that became global brand assets that have been used in more than 150 countries and even today, nine years later, they are still being used. Kingo won a Grand Prix at Cannes and of course DNA Discounts for Aeromexico were campaigns with an impressive global impact.
LBB> What’s your favourite part of what you do?
John Raúl> When great ideas are on the air. I love seeing when they have an impact on clients' business, industry and culture.
LBB> You’ve done so much, but what ambitions do you aspire to achieve in your work?
John Raúl> To be a global benchmark, let the world see what Colombians are capable of doing.
I would love to do a TV spot for the Super Bowl one day.
LBB> What are the industry debates and discussions that get you really riled up?
John Raúl> There is a debate that I have listened to during my 28 years of career, and it seems stupid and boring to me, and it is the subject of advertising awards. I'm already tired of seeing entire generations debating the importance of them.
Awards are simply a recognition of a good job and an inspiration engine to take the industry further, to explore new areas and permanently reinvent ourselves. The ones who criticise them are usually those who don't earn them. They always say, "I don't work to win awards, I work for my clients" to which I always answer them "and what are those great ideas that you have made for your clients that all the people out there are talking about?" And they usually have no answer. It's a stupid debate.
LBB> And looking at the broader industry, what gets you really excited?
John Raúl> I like to see good independent agencies grow and generate very good ideas. It seems to me that good competition makes us all better. I have always worked in large multinationals and these new contenders drive us to be better.
LBB> And what frustrates you and why?
John Raúl> Financiers without imagination. They are a cancer in our industry. Those who believe that the only way to achieve financial goals is by cutting people. They only see an Excel, but they have no idea that talent is the engine of our industry and what generates the most money.
LBB> What could the industry be doing better, in your view?
John Raúl> I think our industry in general needs to develop innovation processes. It is still very anchored in only offering creative communication solutions. The creativity that we have can be used in the development of products and services that have a strong impact on the business of our clients. But it is not just an agency issue, it is a client issue as well. They are afraid to innovate, because obviously there are slower processes, with cost and there is no certainty if in the end it will be successful. But if we don't innovate, if we aren't brave, someone else will be.
LBB> Are you involved in any groups or movements within your place of work or the wider industry?
John Raúl> We are in a new group of agencies in Colombia that is being formed and that intends to be more united as an industry in Colombia. The idea is to have good industry practices, such as something that has never been achieved here in Colombia and that is for clients to pay each agency when they call for pitches for their account. That, among many other things.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh?
John Raúl> I like to ski with my daughter, travel and barbecue with my wife, my friends and my family. I am very sociable and we love to go to our country house to disconnect and have some good vodkas on weekends.
What motivates me the most are my daughters, my wife and my family. Seeing their achievements, seeing them grow up happily and grow old with my beloved wife, are those kinds of things that motivate me every day. And a house facing the sea when I retire.