Don't Cry for Me Argentina

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(Read more on the current downturn, including creatives' take on opportunities and a timeline of innovations during hard times.) While the severity of our current recession is foreign to many Americans, Argentina had been going through economic and political tumult for much of the 20th century, and saw a serious crisis only a decade ago.

Marked by a sharp devaluation of its currency and eventual default on billions in international debt, the crisis brought violent protests, rampant unemployment and extreme poverty. Marketing and advertising changed, too.

We asked five Argentine admen about their experiences during the crisis years, how clients reacted, how the work changed and how their lessons might apply to our changing times.

The Witnesses: Carlos Nesci, account director at JWT, Argentina; former executive vice president at SoaresGache; Joaquin Molla, co-founder, la comunidad (which opened in Buenos Aires in 2000, just as the crisis was unfolding); Alberto Ponte, CD/Wieden Kennedy, Portland; creative director at Agulla & Baccetti during the crisis; Santiago Lucero, general CD, Publicis, Madrid, during the crisis worked as a creative director at Agulla & Baccetti (until August 2001) and at JWT (until 2005); Patricio Cavalli, now a journalist and consultant working in Buenos Aires; he was formerly head of a business unit in JWT Buenos Aires and managing creative director at SoaresGache.

The Mood

Patricio Cavalli
Patricio Cavalli
Patricio Cavalli: Before, there was this feeling in the air that a big crisis was coming. Argentina has lived from crisis to crisis for more than a century now, so everybody's kind of expecting the next big one. When it exploded in 2001, it was more a social and political crisis. There were riots, protests, people killed in the streets, people in major cities and the countryside pot-banging and shouting "que se vayan todos" (which means mostly "that all politicians go away"). A president resigned, another took his place then resigned a week later and another took office and had to call for early elections after another deadly riot in June 2002. And then, all of a sudden, in a sort of miraculous way, everything went "back to normal." A president was elected, the economy grew stronger, and everything was, like, forgotten.

Joaquin Molla: People talked about the crisis all day, every minute. It didn't matter if the day was bright or their kids were saying their first words, it was all about the crisis. We replaced "How are you today?" with "What's the price of the dollar today?"

Santiago Lucero: We started noticing that things were changing a year before the corralito [ed: restrictions on bank accounts intended to preserve the value of the Argentine peso and prevent capital from leaving the country, instituted in December, 2001]. Just by taking a look at the streets, at people's moods, in newspapers, we started to realize that things were going to suffer a deep change. At the same time, clients started to notice that things were going very badly.

Alberto Ponte: The first three or four months, nobody was able to think straight. Violence and poverty became apparent on the streets. It was sad. People who had a stable life a week before were begging in the streets a month later. On the other hand, people started helping people a lot, a whole lot more than before. Solidarity became something the people took in their own hands, not waiting for the government to solve things. There were lots of exchanges, and the poor people were the ones who helped others the most.

The Business

Cavalli: It began as whispers in meetings, and eventually became obvious in focus groups and the like. But it wasn't as if out of the blue, agencies had said "Ok, let's get real with the tone of communication." Agencies, creatives and clients were deeply involved in the crisis. Their savings were gone and their jobs on the brink of disappearing, so, I think they began translating their own feelings into the work.

The feeling that advertising was going to be affected was in the air from
Alberto Ponte
Alberto Ponte
about 1999 or 2000. From 2000 to 2001 you began seeing that budgets for TV spots became more and more narrow. Clients began moving their money from brand-building to tactical sell-or-else pieces, and it became apparent that 2001 would be a tough year. It also became obvious advertising couldn't be flamboyant; there was a sense of shame that would keep admen from saying "let's make a large production." Those were times when you couldn't go to the supermarket and buy large quantities of food without getting bad looks from people.

Ponte: Things started changing a month or two after the corralito [restrictions on bank accounts intended to preserve the value of the Argentine peso and prevent capital from leaving the country, instituted in December, 2001], depending on the size of the company and also if the company was working just for Argentine clients or regional or worldwide clients. The work started changing quick; people started letting long term strategies go and worrying about selling. Since the quality of ads in Argentina was high at the time not everybody lost their jobs, some agencies decided to make pay cuts in order to not fire people. If you were established at your job you wouldn't lose it.

Joaquin Molla
Joaquin Molla
Cavalli: Then it became absolutely obvious. When you see the country in flames, people getting killed on the streets and the president resigning and fleeing the government house in a helicopter, well, you don't exactly have to be a genius to say "Fuck, marketing budgets are going down to zero." I remember things were so fucked up (excuse my French) that people would be very, very straightforward about what was going on, mostly as a catharsis. I remember going into Nestle's offices in Buenos Aires and meeting with five different brand managers in separate meetings; two of them said goodbye because they were departing to Chile and Brazil, the other two were talking about going to justice to get their savings back and finally one of them handed me her resumé, because she just heard in "radio pasillo" (corridor chatter) she could be fired within two or three weeks. The most commonly used expression was "esto se va todo al carajo," or "this is all going to hell." People were blunt. But one thing I remember was the sudden all-powerful and in full metal jacket appearance of CFOs and other financial managers, messing even with the creative product itself, in some cases deciding over who should stay or go in creative departments. That was a moment when I said "oh dear, the boat is sinking."

Molla: Some [teams we knew] were fired and left advertising and returned eventually, after one or two years. Fortunately, most of them were able to join the ad world again. A lot of agencies reduced salaries, fired people or gave them forced holidays without salary for a period of time. One guy told me at his agency they asked a lot of people to just go home for six months and wait—they got just 20% of their salary during that period. The other option was to negotiate the best way to leave, the severance. It was depressing.

Ponte: Some brands stopped communicating, some brands didn't. The ones that stopped, they had to pay a high price for that afterwards. Some small brands took places that they couldn't if the big brands hadn't stopped communicating. The quality of the communication suffered a lot too, due to small budgets and also lack of long-term plans. Some people got really creative in order to make an impact and be relevant with small budgets. Some people just did lots of crap.

Lucero: We had to be more alert to what people felt; what their mood was. We kept doing our job, more than ever, giving them assessments in terms of creativity and strategy. And, as always, some clients became more creative than before. Others felt fear and became more conservative. Budgets became smaller than before, but when you live in a country that's always in crisis, economical or otherwise, you learn how to make money more profitable. We had to be more strategic and very, very alert in terms of what it was people were feeling. How would they react? Was it time for humor or for emotion?

Santiago Lucero
Santiago Lucero
Nesci: We tried to explore the mood of the local soul, making a sort of balance sheet among our hits and misses as a society. And in doing so, many ads with the "manifesto" format were run, exposing the true feeling of consumers and, at the same time, showing the will of brands of speaking in a different way... more straight, plain and sincere, avoiding the flamboyant style of the advertising speech. The copy in those ads tended to recognize that things were not working as we could imagine but suggesting that... there's light at the end of the tunnel / accepting that we're neither the best nor the worst of the world / if we don't help each other nobody will help us... and so on, addressing our folks with insights that reflected the Argentine idiosyncrasy, obviously, in search of empathy among brands and consumers. The substance of the communication was "the Argentine character" later on. This evolved from manifestos to different pieces that projected our way of being with everyday characters and situations that showed typical slice of life stories—what we call "costumbrismo." When we began to suffer the consequences of the crisis things were not great for our creativity, probably because it was such an excessive local experience that nobody felt reflected on that.

The Lessons

Cavalli: Friends who were laid off usually left the country. The ones who stayed, we began arming small-scale networks. The country eventually bounced back and in 2004 most people that had been laid off were back working. A lot of people laid off took their big severances and began their own personal endeavors. That led to a proliferation of new and small but talented agencies that are now competing against (and hitting heavily) the big boys in the ad business.

Molla: Some people got really depressed, and that was hard to see. I've seen glorious entrepreneurs turned into scared little boys in days. We were starting with the agency; we were in a positive mood, building something. So in a way we didn't let ourselves enter that general state. A lot of people were following our dream so we had to keep the course and put the energy high. We fired two people and it was our first time at la comunidad. It's always hard and in the middle of a crisis even more, because you know how hard it is to find a new job. Fortunately, both found new jobs fast.

Ponte: The ones who panicked did bad work. The ones who reacted in a smart way about it didn't. In order to be relevant and impactful with little money, ideas have to be even better, because you can't rely on high production value. Some of them found alternative solutions. It was not that crazy as it appeared to be at the beginning. By alternative solutions, I mean no hiring new people or freelancers, no big parties. Some of them agreed with their employees to make small pay cuts so nobody got fired, with the promise of bringing everybody back to more fair salaries after the crisis.

Lucero: Obviously the worst moment was having to reduce people, firing very talented teams. There were a lot of very talented creatives who saw this crisis as an opportunity, so they started their own businesses, design bureaus, production companies; they became film directors or animators or freelanced for other markets. There were also a lot of people who had to leave the country to get a job. Ironically, some of them had great success in other markets; that was good for the development of creativity in the region in the long run.

Nesci: At the end, when the crisis was over and the subject was no longer "pain & debts," a stronger creative style emerged, an entirely new one, that was more ours...more Argie but better suited to universal consumption.
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