Olivetto story demonstrates fortitude of the human spirit

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The "legendary" Brazilian adman Washington Olivetto is one of the more extraordinary men you will meet in any walk of life. He merited this epithet long before last Dec. 11, when on a busy Sao Paulo street, he was kidnapped by an armed gang dressed as police. His eventual release came after 53 days held captive in a windowless room, where air was funneled through a pipe, a wash bucket came once every four days and, to disorient him, loud music was blasted at him day and night.

Earlier this month in Sao Paulo, Olivetto gave a press conference where, in a typically animated speech, he told of his captivity with honesty and considerable humor. You may already have read the excellent account of this ordeal in the Feb. 11 issue of Ad Age.

For those of us who know Olivetto, even a little, his disappearance was a shock. I can only imagine what it meant to his close friends and famously loving family. But it is clear the fortitude, strength, creativity and courage he demonstrated in building W/Brasil-the country's first internationally recognized advertising agency-and by which he became the most awarded individual at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, are not reserved for his business life.

Stuck in this hell created by his captors, with a light bulb on 24/7, Olivetto drew on his creativity to survive. He scratched names on the wall with cutlery, drew pictures of loved ones, recited poetry and made "top 10" favorite lists.

The kidnappers allowed him to write and, although none of the letters he wrote to his family were passed on, he received replies to letters he wrote to his kidnappers. When he accused them of being cowards, they wrote back saying he should be more polite!

Occasionally, inevitably, he became frustrated and screamed and banged on the walls, but this resulted in rough treatment and handcuffing. So he learned to be more docile.

And then they were gone. The police caught the Chilean gang's accomplices, and Olivetto's captors fled-and with them went his light and air supply. He was rescued only when a neighbor heard him scream.

It is understood no ransom was paid. It is easy to have a view on the rights and wrongs of paying ransoms if it's not your family in-volved. But there is a culture of kidnapping in Brazil today. More than 300 business people were taken in the last year. In Brazil, where admen are regarded as rock stars, four leading advertising executives have been kidnapped.

The Olivetto story is a reminder of the difficulties faced by people in advertising and marketing in some parts of world. Sadly, news of Olivetto's release emerged as we learned that Vladimir Kanevsky, the general director of Ator, Russia's No. 2 outdoor media company, had been shot dead in his car in Moscow-despite having four bodyguards. We are as sorry for Kanevsky's family as we are overjoyed for Olivetto's.

There is no business "angle" on this story. It just deserves a wide audience as a timely reminder that the human spirit can prevail.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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