Santo rising

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Santo, a Buenos Aires-based shop that opened only 18 months ago, seems to be living up to the miraculous implications of its name, having already won nine Cannes Lions, three One Show Pencils, five Clios and over half a dozen Latin American awards. Founders Sebastin Wilhelm, 34, and Maximiliano Anselmo, 38, chose the Santo shingle because it "sounded important, it didn't sound small," they say, and while the 16-person shop is small, its projects aren't.

Santo, in fact, was born with a big-brand roster. A year and a half ago, the budding shop had won separate pitches for campaigns for two Coca-Cola divisions before the partners officially had much more than a name. Anselmo, the art director, and Wilhelm, the copywriter (aka Maxi and Seba), had worked on Coke at Buenos Aires agency Agulla y Baccetti a few years ago, on a campaign about the team with the fewest fans in Argentine football. The client remembered the work, and later, when the pair were planning to open an agency, they were invited by Coke to pitch. Eventually, Coke told them, " 'We'd like to give you the account, but do you have a structure?' " Wilhelm recalls. "We said, 'We don't even have an agency, but give us the account and we'll build a structure around it.' " With general coordinator Maria Saravia and copywriter Pablo Minces they set up shop in a borrowed meeting room of a friend's graphics studio in early 2005.

The agency was buoyed by a startup partnership with WPP, which brought Santo assignments for Unilever, opening doors for Cannes Lion-winning work for laundry detergent Ala and, just over a year later, a global project, led by the elegant and empowering "Balloon," for Lux. Santo's Lux makeover, tagged "Play with beauty," features a regal female in a tub suspended from a balloon touring different regions, showering bathwater and self-esteem on women of the world. "Hopefully, Unilever will be able to take that strategy forward in other countries," says Wilhelm.

Before the recent success of "Balloon," Santo got its first taste of cross-continent reach with "Rivals," a cheeky animated spot for Coke that ran in Latin America during World Cup qualifiers and later migrated to Europe during the tournament. In it, Santo-style humor shines. A fly and a swatter, a lumberjack and a tree, a scientist and a rat, are all following the soccer match. As Argentina scores a goal, Pachelbel's Canon rings out, the antagonists embrace and more appear-a cactus hugs a balloon, a hippie wraps his arms around a giant bar of soap. Santo created another football standout with "Argentina," a ballad to national unity set to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." The song is "a great enumeration of things and it gets intense," says Wilhelm. The agency developed the Hinchalizer (or Fanalizer), a set of arms that could be added to an inanimate object to simulate a hand gesture fans do at football games (think of a speedy tomahawk chop). The arms turned buildings, toucans, infomercial hosts, cool baldies, hot dogs-any number of absurd animate and inanimate objects-into fans. The agency peppered lampposts, trees and signs with the arms and gave out do-it-yourself kits.

As for how the shop generated all this creative juice, "we actually have a dwarf here," Wilhelm says. With the comic timing evident in much of the agency's work, he waits a tick before completing his explanation. "Not a real dwarf; a garden dwarf who is dressed like a football player. That's our santo. That's the kid that Santo represents. To us, Santo relates to a time when we were all santos, when we were all naive and playful and we didn't take life so seriously."

Clearly, the attitude is infectious. In a recent TV campaign for Telecom Argentine's broadband division Arnet, Santo lauds the real draw of the internet-absurdity. "It looks very cheap, and it's intended to look cheap," Wilhelm says of the work, which indeed looks like it was done in PowerPoint in someone's parents' basement. Luckily, the subject matter, namely nonsense on the web, like how to pick up a girl via e-mail, and the consumer-created "Numa Numa" dance craze, works smoothly with the art direction, which balances on the endearing line between clever and cloying. Eschewing the slick metaphors for speed that seem prevalent in the category, the seemingly amateurish take should net Santo even more hardware.

A more concrete reason for Santo's distinction stems from experience, which can be attributed to the duo's years together, along with Wilhelm's work at Mother/London and Wieden+Kennedy/Amsterdam. Wilhelm and Anselmo had been a team since 1995; they were offered jobs at Mother in 2001, but Anselmo's first child had just been born and he didn't want to go abroad, so the team was separated. Wilhelm partnered for a time with Juan Cabral at Mother, while Anselmo became a CD at Agulla y Baccetti, but Argentina's fiscal crisis stung creatives at that time, says Anselmo, stunting the development of the country's young talents. "For a time all you could do was price ads," but now "there's a new generation of creatives and agencies, working at an international level, raising Argentine creativity to what it was before the crisis."

And Santo is rising along with it. Ensconced in Buenos Aires' chic, picturesque Palermo neighborhood in a warehouse where movie posters were once hand-painted, the shop is already offering employees a profit-sharing plan, along with copious fresh flowers and massages. There's even a special line of white Santo shoes in development. "I hate sounding like the clich‚ of the successful creative agency partner, but we're really happy with how things have been turning out," Wilhelm says. "And there's still space to improve," he's quick to add.

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