Buenos Aires' Hottest Agency on Staying That Way

Santo's Founders Speak Out on Talent, Creativity and the Downturn

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Santo is one of Argentina's most-acclaimed creative agencies. "The best agency in the country," as said to me over lunch with the CEO of one of Argentina's three biggest shops one year ago, part in jealousy, part in admiration. But, as you'll see, Santo struggles with certain issues just like any other agency: a gritty economic reality, for one, and an influx of young workers who puzzle the founders, for another.

First the myth. There are a lot of stories about working at Santo. To some, it's a place of unbelievable creative energy, an almost Cirque du Soleil-like scene. To others, it's an obscure bunker, where ideas are worked on in the most absolute secrecy, as in a secret lab.

In reality, it is neither. Contrary to common belief, Santo is one of the quietest, most eclectic and relaxed atmospheres one can find in the creative arena nowadays.

It's housed in a high-ceilinged former warehouse that features two Japanese manga paintings depicting two naked and armed Japanese girls. There's also a life-size sculpture of a black horse with a lamp on its forehead, and a life-size sculpture of a white cow, an authentic work from a Buenos Aires cow parade.

Sitting in another room are Santo's chief executives: Maxi Anselmo and Sebastian Wilhem. They talk calmly about 2008, a year that gave the agency some of its best work (campaigns for ISP broadband Arnet, and new clients such as Isenbeck beer). It was also a year of consolidation with some of their clients, such as the Telecom group (one of Argentina's two largest telecommunications operators).

Keeping calm
There is a relaxed atmosphere in the agency. "I try to keep [my team] as calm and isolated from the outside troubles as I can," Mr. Anselmo said. It is not a matter of disconnecting people from reality, but of making sure that reality does not invade people's capacity of imagining, playing and enjoying.

This kind of innocent thinking brought the agency to produce one of the finest pieces of advertising creative, the "One Million Clients" spot for Arnet in 2008.

The ad is one of the most extreme pieces of meta advertising out there, advertising whose subject is advertising, with the brand laughing at itself and executing a hilarious piece of self-deprecating humor.

The spot is an amalgam of cliches from technology-brand advertisements, such as people smiling on camera, 3-D trips in fiber-optic cable lines, fireworks, space-exploration pictures and, of course, suit-wearing executives.

"The logo will enter floating in space and rotating with computer-generated effects, a total novelty," says the spot in its first five seconds, and then carries on as any low-ranking ad executive would in any ad agency, trying to persuade the client. It goes on and on with the cliches, depicting an old lady jumping in the air and saying, "We see the mother of Arnet's receptionist jumping in the air out of happiness, a truly emotional moment"; and trying to sell the image of a businessman jumping with a Fred Astaire move, saying, "We find this image mostly interesting. ..."

Finding new talent
The people at Santo's office are mostly in their 20s, and the founders are quite concerned about finding new talent, a task that is proving pretty difficult, Mr. Wilhem said.

"We are concerned about the randomness of young professionals, about their somewhat lack of interest for self-improvement and dedication to hard work," he said. They feel responsible for breeding and bringing into the light a new generation of ad creatives, just as their former employers and teachers did with them in the early nineties.

"We need to learn from the new kids as much as we need to work with them," the executives said.

They are still learning from their forefathers, they said, and are trying to apply that experience in these harsh times. "One of the things I learned from them," said Mr. Anselmo, "is that in times of crisis, you need to lower your economic expectations and bring them to a realistic level. If last year you earned, say, $10, and this year you're going to earn $8, then so be it. Don't destroy your structure, don't fire your best people, don't expose your clients to worse service, and don't ever bring down the quality of your work." He's seen some of the people he admired the most do it, and it doesn't pay.

The industry's double standard
"What sickens me most is the double-standard speak in most companies, what they say against the reality of what they do," said Mr. Wilhem. What he means is the growing tendency in corporations -- by advertisers and ad agencies alike -- to settle their financial problems by firing people, and thus diminishing their crop of talent, the force they need most to cope with troubled times.

"We are very conservative and prudent in our financial management in the agency. We can carry on with tranquility, because of the way we behave with our money," Messrs. Wilhem and Anselmo said.

Prudence, anyway, doesn't mean greed in Santo's lexicon. "It seems that greed is a central value in the economic system," said Mr. Wilhem, "and society keeps being moved by fear rather than hope and the wish of success. The current crisis is ultimately a produce of that greed, and no matter how it is solved, if the core values remain the same, nothing will change, abroad and here. Ours seems to be a very adolescent country in that sense."

According to the two men, change is happening in the new generation, who don't believe the messages they receive from politicians, advertisers or even their own parents, and who question the status quo in general. "They are individualistic as never before. Only as an example: If we are to ask for food at night at work, some years ago we would just call an order for some pizzas. Now we gotta go from one to one and ask them what pizza flavor they like."

The financial crisis and Argentina
To enforce his message of goodwill, nearly two years ago Mr. Wilhem directed a short film called "Estado de Israel y Palestina" ("State of Israel and Palestine"), in which he explores the ever-conflicted relationship between both nations. The film is based on a strange coincidence: the fact that the streets State of Israel and Palestine cross each other in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Almagro. "I think that should be called the corner of peace," said Mr. Wilhem of the place.

But even though both Palestinian and Jewish communities live in harmony in Argentina, the country is not immune to other troubles around the planet -- especially the economic ones.

"The crisis is something awful, but it is not [unnatural.] Life is like that: ups and downs. I don't feel this is a tragedy," said Mr. Anselmo. But contrary to common belief, Mr. Anselmo said he doesn't think the crisis will be good for creativity. It was not good, he said, for Argentina's creativity in 2001.

"Where did that idea come from? The 2001 crisis was terrible. There were no ideas, people were afraid of losing their job and their houses, nobody was thinking about creating, only about surviving. The only good thing that came from the crisis, is that it shakes up the hangover of the good times. But that's it."

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