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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Rod Sobral

OLIVER’s global chief creative officer on the glamour of Brazilian advertising, building the Beats brand in the same room as Dr. Dre and how his views on in-house advertising have evolved

5 Minutes with… Rod Sobral

Rod Sobral has spent the last two decades working at some of the most pioneering creative companies, creating global campaigns, products and services for some of the world’s top brands - including Google, Nike, Beats By Dr.Dre and Unilever, to name a few.

Growing up in Brazil he became captivated by the glamour of advertising, and began working in the industry as a teenager, soon working at JWT and Y&R before opening his boutique creative agency Loo/SP. He then moved to the UK in 2005 to become unit9’s creative director, leaving in 2007 to work on Nike at AKQA.

His work with R/GA London for Beats by Dr. Dre attracted international press attention and laid the foundations for the brand’s voice, including some of the most famous sports ads in the last decade.

Since 2019, he’s been global chief creative officer for OLIVER, building dedicated agencies inside the worlds of its clients, from the Guardian to Unilever to PG Tips.

Fascinated by his career spent at the cutting edge of advertising business models, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Rod to hear his story.



LBB> What was your upbringing like in Brazil?


Rod> Coming from a poor part of São Paolo, I'd say you're forced to mature very quickly, because you're exposed to struggle. You want to break the cycle, to get out of that. I did grow up with a really large dose of violence around me. I've seen some stuff that probably a kid should never see. But you just get used to it when you come from that community. 

As is the reality for the absolute majority of kids in Brazil, I came from a very simple family. My dad was a salesman. He would knock on doors around town to sell stuff. And thank God he was selling stuff that people needed. He was in the FMCG business. 



LBB> What first got you interested in advertising?


Rod> In Brazil when I was growing up, advertising was a very glamorous profession, like being a football player. The guy that used to present The Apprentice in Brazil is called Roberto Justus. He used to run Y&R. Then you have Washington Olivetto and Nizan Guanaes - amazing figures that write for newspapers or magazines, they'll be on TV the whole time commenting on the economy or politics. It was very glamorous. So that is what helped me to get excited about it.

A big driver for me was my dad loved advertising so much even though he never worked a single day in advertising. There was a variety show that would be on telly every Friday after midnight. They would show the winners of Cannes Lions. And I would watch that with my dad. He recorded it, so I actually have eight years of that show, so eight years of Cannes Lions winners, on VHS. 

Like most of my friends, I started working at 14. I was lucky that my dad had a friend from church who was a great director in a small agency, and he gave me a shot. I knew how to do CorelDRAW [a graphic design program]. I was already trying to sell posters for local businesses. I was just about to turn 16 when I went to my first job as a junior.

When I made it to university, I was an advertising encyclopedia. I knew the agencies, which accounts every agency had, who was winning awards. 


 

LBB> Wow, that's a really early start in advertising! In the first few years of your career as a creative, what were some of the big moments where you learnt important lessons?


Rod> Firstly, understanding the importance of craft. I came from an advertising culture where to become an art director, you probably first became the best designer in the agency, and then you learn how to do conceptual thinking. The idea of being a thinker and a maker was the first big learning for me. In Brazil back in the day, if you couldn't make what you thought, you'd have no respect. That made me work twice as hard to want to learn all the craft, and then learn how to think. 

The other big moment for me was when I won my first Cannes Lion. I was very young - 21. I had already opened my own shop. And one of my clients was the São Paulo Zoo. We came up with this campaign for night tourism at the zoo. It ended up winning several shortlists and two Silver Lions. 

At the end of the festival we always have lists of the most awarded agencies in Brazil. We were in the top 10, actually in front of some of the biggest agencies in Brazil, but no one knew what the hell the company was. It was called Loo/ SP. That was a very big moment because I got to share it with my dad. There was a small ceremony in Brazil where he went on stage to pick up the Lions and we celebrated together. I think that was the moment where things started to turn - people started to see I can do the work as well as build an agency.



LBB> Eventually you moved to the UK. How did that change feel?


Rod> From a personal point of view, it was at once the most exciting and most terrifying change. By then, I'd built a good reputation in Brazil as a creative, as a creative leader and as an entrepreneur. The UK was always somewhere that I'd loved. In particular because of the culture, all the British bands that I'd grown up listening to. 

The creative director at unit9 had left for maternity leave and they asked if I wanted the job. I threw everything at it, got married in four weeks, so I could bring my wife with me and move to London with six bags. And I realised on the plane I couldn't speak in English when I couldn't understand the flight attendant asking me if I wanted chicken or beef. It was scary.



LBB> Wow. And so I guess you had to learn English pretty quickly!


Rod> I did. I really learned English properly when I was at AKQA. I met Daniel Bonner (global CCO for Wunderman Thompson), who is still one of my mentors to this day. He gave me a shot. I changed my job from creative director to be an art director on Nike Football because I needed to learn English.

I was looking for a personal English teacher. I Googled, found a few guys and I really liked this kid, Marcus Efstratiou. He had an English Literature BA from Oxford. But what really interested me was that Marcus was the drummer from a band called Pyschid. He taught me English for two years. But then he came with all his Oxford methodology and said "Fuck that. We're gonna work together. I want to create with you. I want to present to you." And a few years later, Marcus won freelance creative copywriter of the year.



LBB> You touched on Nike there. It's a brand that you've kind of worked with over the years all from different angles. What have you learnt from that brand?


Rod> Nike is very dear to me, firstly because of the people it introduced me to. One guy I've learned so much from is Jesse Stollak, who was my Nike client. There was also Omar Johnson, who was one of my Nike clients and ended up becoming the CMO of Beats by Dre. He was my partner for nearly five years to build the voice of the Beats by Dre brand.

Alongside Unilever, I think Nike is one of the biggest marketing and advertising schools in the world. They have some of the best marketers in the world. Nike really understands the value of creating not just a brand voice but a brand ecosystem. It understands owned and paid media, building communities, developing products and services like Nike+, FuelBand - you build a service, you create a new behaviour with a community around it. And then you advertise about it. 

I remember I launched the Nike Football Facebook page, back in the day. And honestly, what we were doing back then was much better than what many brands are doing today on Instagram. I was fortunate to help Nike to build their own ecosystem, working with these amazing guys. That really helped me to shape the way I think as a hybrid thinker. 

That's probably why, if I look at my career, I was labelled either the digital creative director helping a traditional agency to be more innovative, or I was the TV guy in a digital agency, helping a digital agency to learn storytelling, to learn how to connect emotionally with people. That's partially because of Nike because I had to work with all the sides of it, thinking about emotion, thinking about reason and connecting the ecosystem.



LBB> That makes a lot of sense. You've worked at digital shops and more traditional shops. And now you're at OLIVER, which is a completely different model. You're obviously intrigued by the various ways of approaching a brand.


Rod> Creatives exist to challenge the status quo. We always try to find a different way of doing things. Creatives are traditionally really bad when they have to follow orders.

One of the things that drove me to want to do it differently is the idea that a lot of people have which is “You can either do this well, or that well.” You have the people on one side, pointing, saying "You guys don't know how to tell stories. You don't know how to build a brand," and then the people on the digital side: "You don't understand behaviour, you don't know how to build communities, you don't understand how technology works." I always had a passion for technology as well as culture so I want to do all of it. But not as a generalist. Generalists are not great creatives, because you need depth. Hopefully I can prove that it's possible to have depth in both creative brand storytelling as well as digital and technical application..



LBB> That leads into the work that you do at OLIVER because obviously depth is key to that, in the sense that you're creating teams that are working just with one brand, sometimes within that brand. Before you came to OLIVER, how did you think about in-house agencies?


Rod> My relationship with in-house agencies goes way beyond OLIVER, all the way back to Nike and Beats by Dre [when he was at R/GA]. At Nike Jesse Stollak was a mentor, but he was also the client. The relationship that we had was always full-on collaboration. A lot of the time there are agencies where clients are not treated as your friend and you're not therefore creating a healthy relationship with them. But I never believed that because we became mates and always worked really closely. 

Nike taught me to partner with clients and see their business through their eyes, but when things really shifted for me was when I got to work at Beats by Dre with Omar Johnson, it was a whole different level. I started working with them early, when it wasn't big in Europe. Their marketing team was around 20 people. He needed someone with a start-up mentality that could build a brand through digital, but also through emotion and advertising - and on a budget. Some big agencies said no to Beats at first.. 

With Beats, it wasn't like just working with our client. It was like building a business with them. Bob Greenberg, obviously believing in the relationship, let us open an office in LA, because I'd worked with Beats for a year and a half from London. We rented two or three rooms in this glass building in Santa Monica. But they were mostly accounting companies and lawyers and it felt like an office from the '80s. I didn't use that office for an entire year. It did get to a point where I thought that I would get in trouble. 

I actually moved to the Beats office. I moved my team with me and that's how we built some of the most iconic sports ads of the last decade. We were working with Dre and Jimmy [Iovine] as one, understanding them and transforming the brand into a platform to tell their stories instead of coming up with big metaphors from afar. They have a really family-driven way of working. So the Beats by Dre voice was built out of working as one big in-house company.

Eventually we got a big office in LA because the company grew. But I never went to that office either. I kept working with the client at their office. 

By the time I left R/GA, I was convinced that there was a better way of working, particularly if you want to do both sides. And that's when I opened my company to work in-house, to assemble a team based on the client's needs or challenges. That's when I met Simon Martin [founder and chief executive of OLIVER], the pioneer of in-housing. We agreed to join forces, so here we are.



LBB> Since you've joined OLIVER, how has your philosophy on in-house agencies evolved?


Rod> When I joined OLIVER, 50% of people said I was taking a massive risk, and the other 50% said I'd got the best gig in town. The latter were right because, the way I see it, it’s about the evolution of marketing. In-housing is not a trend. It's a behaviour and a mindset that is staying. It's the biggest evolution of our industry. 

I think what in-house is showing now is that brands can evolve faster than advertising networks when they invest in their own thing. It's like buying instead of renting. Every time you change agency, you lose so much knowledge. With in-housing, the brands are evolving faster because they're buying - they're investing their own infrastructure, retaining that knowledge. 

I think in this decade we've had a big shift. OLIVER is one of the companies responsible for this shift in my opinion, along with companies like Apple, Nike, Beats and adidas, that really invested in in-housing, took it to a whole new level and made it work. This shift happened when these big players realised that there's a better way of working. They started to make work that won awards in Cannes, and they grabbed people's attention.

The majority of the top talent I know are either on the brand side or consulting directly with brands. The latent idea that you can't create great work in-house, the idea that creatives don't want to work in-house, is dead because the thing is happening. Creatives now see that if you're working on the brand side, you can do more long-term meaningful work, you can really help to build a brand, you can see a brand through all the different lenses of the business.

But I don't think that traditional agencies will ever disappear. The industry still needs someone to challenge and test the thinking of your business. I learned everything I know from these agencies. However, the agencies that are not evolving are in trouble, and the ones that are, particularly the ones that understand how technology changes behaviour - will become the biggest players.



LBB> What sort of work have you done recently that you've been really proud of?


Rod> The big thing for me is not just the pure advertising work. On the social landscape we are having a lot of fun. I call it the Trinity; social, strategy and creative are one. 

At OLIVER, he the community management department, the strategy department and the creative department, we work as one joint unit. And when you do that, it is pretty explosive. Your social and content community management team have incredible access to zero-party data, first-party data. They're measuring and listening on the day-to-day what the community is saying about the brand and all these interrelationships between what happens in culture, how people react, the conversations that you create from it. So it's possibly one of the most stimulating things for creatives, because you're getting so much emotional, personal, cultural data that you can recycle and transform into work. 

We're helping a lot of brands to create a more meaningful role in culture because of their presence in the world, and particularly in social. We community manage a lot of the brands that we work with, so that gives us not just the responsibility but their opportunity to represent our clients in real-time and in the best way. 

I believe the community manager is one of the new rock stars of our industry, because the community manager is the last person right between brands and people. They need to understand the brand voice, behaviour, principles and purpose. And it's quite amazing what you can do when you plug that community manager in with strategy and creative and you react to what's happening in the world, getting work out in hours not in days or weeks. 

We've won a lot of awards in this space. Recently, for PG Tips, 'Solidaritea', where the brand stood up against racism, became an activist and joined forces with all its competitors.



LBB? Are there any big questions that you're trying to answer at the moment at OLIVER?


Rodr> One of the biggest questions is: How do you create a good creative culture in-house? I think it's proven now that creative culture doesn't rely on having a headquarters anymore. It doesn't rely on the ping-pong tables, it doesn't rely on the fancy office with a coffee shop in Soho. These things help, but the pandemic proved that creative culture is now mobile - you bring it with you in your backpack.. I'm spending a lot of my time helping to drive a behaviour change and getting excited by how you create creative culture in-house. 

What is also exciting is there is a new model of creative leader. If you look at 10 years ago, everyone was talking about being a hybrid. I took that very seriously, of course, because I wanted to have as much depth as I could on both sides. But guess what? Everyone is a hybrid now. Most of the creative leaders coming - the new generation - don't know the world without the internet, without social media and technology. The new thing now for me is being a commercial creative, which means creatives that are interested in going beyond advertising, understanding the business challenges and needs, and applying creativity to something that is broader than a TV commercial, the manifesto and the tagline. 

I've been blown away by some of the people that I've been working with. This new era of creative leaders look at our industry and they don't see just the advertising. They see the opportunity to connect emotionally and rationally with people in any shape or form, from ecommerce to storytelling with data. To be a commercial creative doesn't mean that you're less creative - it just means that you want to drive bigger change and bigger impact. This is awesome and it's the reinvention of our profession.


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