The first condition for the beginning of your creative career in the Balkans is, naturally, that you live there. That this part of the world is considered unsuitable for normal life is no hindrance; on the contrary, it is a chivalrous challenge that even the great Lord Byron found impossible to resist. However, that was a long time ago, so that the picturesque experience of living an advertising life in picturesque Yugoslavia is at the moment still the exclusive privilege of the local population. That's me.
I was born in Belgrade, and Serbian is my native language, but the fact that you don't speak Serbian is no obstacle to your success as a copywriter in Yugoslavia. If it presents no difficulty for much more important people, such as TV anchors and politicians, then it will not for you, a mere copywriter, either.
Do not try to get by on related languages, such as Macedonian, Slovenian, Bulgarian or some other. I can't speak a word of any of them. You can consider my nodding my head every time I talk to Macedonians, Slovenians and Bulgarians in their languages as pure acting, and the fact that I even write slogans in those languages as sheer insolence.
Knowledge of the language is unnecessary in a country where over 50 percent of the population is registered in statistical surveys as illiterate, while the other 50 percent are all intellectuals, which means indigent and, therefore, no good as consumers. How is it possible, by the way, to put down on paper such means of expression as gestures and shouting, so popular among these peoples? Nobody will take you seriously as a copywriter if you do not at least once say that the Serbian language is totally unsuitable for advertising.
Being cosmopolitans, we are all incensed at the fact that nobody speaks our language but us, and we are angry that what is a witty pun in Belgrade does not sound the same at a festival in Cannes or New York. But we love our clients, no matter what language they speak.
For example, the client liked a spot he saw on satellite TV, but how can we discreetly tell him that the average Serbian housewife (most probably his mother) does not have a cell phone, does not wear a miniskirt and does not drive a Porsche?
For here, as everywhere on Earth, the client is always right. In the States, it is because the client pays your salary. Here, it is just because of his decision to become a client. You see, where I live, going to an ad agency, just as going to see a psychiatrist, is considered public admission of having a problem. And in my country it is shameful and unpatriotic to have a problem. That is why I won't let anybody criticize my clients. Except me.
If you are a fiery proponent of economic logic, my country will turn you into a heretic in no time at all. Industry has stopped and nobody is working. Nobody is working, but at least half the population gets at least some salary. Even without salaries, everybody is buying something. Everybody is buying, but production is zero. Production is zero, but clients want ads. Clients want ads, but they have no money to pay for them. Skeptics would say that this market has only one fault-that it does not exist. Nonsense! Not only does it exist, it is also resistant to all cataclysms.
The good thing about embattled ethnic enclaves is that they are always au courant. My friend will do anything to make sure her son becomes a proud inhabitant of Planet Reebok, although she herself is unemployed on Planet Earth.
Shopping malls and flea markets are sprouting overnight. The first sell originals, the second cheap knockoffs, and both are indescribably crowded. Billboards for Sony, Lucky Strike, Johnnie Walker and McDonald's are becoming an integral part of the cityscape, and work for foreign clients is becoming an integral part of my job.
Working for them is particularly inspirational. When you suggest that a literal translation of their original slogan sounds stupid in our language it will be taken as an insult. As a rule, they will bring you the oldest extant versions of ads for their products, disregarding your desperate attempts to explain that nowadays bell bottoms are equally out in swinging London, Hamburg and Belgrade.
I admit I myself was also under the influence of pride and prejudice. Coca-Cola's brand manager in Albania went pale when he heard that our proposed commercial would show only young men squatting in folk costumes and drinking Coke. Every time that the 15th back-translation of the 13th version of the local campaign goes smoothly, I love these clients as if they were my own kith and kin.
In Yugoslavia you can choose whether you want to work with foreign or local agencies. The only difference is who is going to owe you money: foreigners or countrymen. You have at your disposal one-man bands and large orchestras, the promising and those who used to be so, the creative and the profitable, prizewinners and total losers, full and fool service, old-fashioned and ultra-modern, etc. What connects them all is the fact that in every one of them you can have the best coffee in the world. If, over that coffee, you also chat with the creative staff, you will feel completely at home. Although they don't go to all the international festivals, they know what happens there. They leaf through the trades and dream of the day when their client will accept a provocative ad. You will recognize them easily: the art directors by their suit jackets, the copywriters by their messes.
I regret that one day in the future I will not be able to complain how I had a hard road to success, as from the very beginning I started working in the largest international agency in the Balkans. To be a copywriter in the Balkans never means only that. You write copy for ads, scripts for TV and radio commercials, think up events and brochures, prepare presentations; you are the prompter at shoots, you set up strategy, you know about media, you translate everything that is shoved under your nose. You also write song lyrics, then you sing, play and dance them. When the going gets tough you are also an account manager.
In spite of a generally dismissive attitude toward new-fangled things, such as our profession is considered to be, a copywriter here is far from the lowest form of life. Why? Consider the following:
1. Everybody loves advertising.
2. Everybody believes advertising.
3. If you are self-confident, you will make more money than your parents do, unless you are ashamed of your parents.
4. If you are not self-confident enough, then you are not made for this job.
5. Never enthusiastically say in unknown company that your job is to sell ideas. You will be buried in shit.
The Good Life
The heroes of the Balkan advertising drama look like characters in a Chekov play: they all love and hate each other and pine to be somewhere else, but they never go there. In order to test this insight, I asked a colleague, a well-known copywriter, whether he had ever thought about going abroad. "Are you crazy?" he said. "Where else could I play tennis in the middle of working hours, on the National Bank's private courts?" The man is right. Tennis is not to be discounted. And why should we go anywhere, when everybody will come here sooner or later. As I said-we are in the center of the world, and it is never boring here.
For adventure seekers I recommend a one-day trip to my agency. You have come to work and declared the first empty office to be yours. Precisely on that day, the art director has time to devote himself to the same project as you. Bingo!
In a good mood, you put down ideas on paper and kick out intruders from your office. The power hasn't been cut off and no mini-civil war has erupted. It's your lucky day.
You have hit upon a great idea, but the repentant account manager comes up and says that your client no longer produces marmalade but sees his future in selling motor oil. No problem here, maybe both are made from plums.