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Sergio Alcocer

sergio alcocer 8x8cm Sergio AlcocerPresident & Chief Creative Officer


Prior to my recent visit to Austin, TX based LatinWorks, I had never really experienced in depth the American phenomenon known as a “multicultural agency.” As a native Costa Rican, I’m sure I could speak the lingo, but I wanted to know more about what made them tick. Fortunately I had no better guide for the journey than the agency’s President and Chief Creative Officer, Sergio Alcocer.

A copywriter by trade, Sergio has honed his craft all over Latin America at agencies such as Leo Burnett and Y&R, but it’s his more than a decade as a driving force at LatinWorks that has earned him the respect of not just the US Hispanic advertising world, but the global ad industry as a whole.

Under Sergio’s guidance, LatinWorks has scored numerous accolades, both industry — Cannes Lions among other mantle metal, and Multicultural Agency of the Year by both AdWeek and Ad Age — and mainstream — having the most replayed spot on Super Bowl XLI, and from the sounds of things, they’re just getting started.

Join me as I kick back with LatinWorks’ creative guru and chat about his career, his advice for newcomers to the business, and just where his agency sits, both in the city it calls home and in the strange and evolving world of Hispanic advertising.

ihaveanidea: Your career has taken you to places like Mexico, Venezuela and New York City, but I hear you started in the Dominican Republic, a place not exactly known on the global ad scene. What was that like?

Sergio: I started my career as a copywriter in the Dominican Republic back in 1986. Now the Dominican Republic is a lovely country.  It’s very difficult market, especially in those days. It was very underdeveloped, creativity was rudimentary, and it was very tough trying to do a good idea with those conditions.

One of the interesting things that happened to me there was that, living in the Dominican Republic at that time, there would be no electricity for twenty hours a day. I worked for four years as an advertising guy without electricity. I would be writing at night by candlelight, at the point in your career where you are working 24 hours a day! The candles give off heat, but if you open the window to let a bit of air, the room becomes infested with mosquitoes.

Now imagine what would be like to have to do final art for a publication, and you need to go to the photo-mechanic to create it. That process required electricity, but when there’s no electricity and you have a deadline for a printout tomorrow, what do you do? Well in order to write the headline, I’d have to cut the letters out of old ads in the file and create the words with the letters that were available! I learned to write depending on the letters that I had. I needed to have a cool ad on strategy, but I didn’t happen have the letter “D” (laughs)

Of course this forced me to be even more resourceful.  I’m very lucky that I started my career working in these conditions because it forced me to think outside of the box, not to be clever but for mere survival.

ihaveanidea: That all must seem like a million miles away and a million years ago! Here you are, President and CCO of one of America’s top multicultural agencies! But I have to ask you, what does it mean in 2011 to be a multicultural agency, a Hispanic agency? Not so long ago we separated digital agencies from traditional ones, and today it seems like those disciplines are merging. Will we even need Hispanic agencies five or ten years from now?

Sergio: That is a very good question, and it’s certainly one that keeps me up at night, as they say. For many years, people have talked about the general market in the United States in reference to the mainstream big market, but this “general market” has become greatly fragmented. You have realize that the concept of the mainstream mass market was based on things from the 1950s, the 60s, the 70s, even the 80s, when you could talk to everybody at once through a single point of media. You could put a TV spot on ABC or NBC and reach everyone back then, but the “general market” doesn’t exist anymore, in terms of reach.

It’s also interesting to note that the Hispanic marketing industry in the United States has always been very based on the use of the Spanish language, and that is unfortunate. When you use the Spanish language to communicate with people, you may not realize this but you are alienating a large number of Hispanics by talking to foreign-born Latinos, who are the ones that consume Spanish language media in vast amounts. And this group is becoming smaller because the growth of the Latino population in the US is primarily by birth, not by immigration. Spanish is frankly becoming an obstacle to communicating with people because more and more Latinos are either bilingual or prefer English. I believe is that language needs to stop being the definition of the Hispanic market. It needs to become a tactic and not a strategy. For example, nowadays talking to a Latino teen in Spanish is virtually impossible because Latino teens by definition are going to school in English. They probably have parents who speak Spanish, but all of their friends are American so they watch American media. They’re not watching Univision. So how do you talk to a Latino teen in Spanish? You can’t. You need to talk to him as teen first and Latino second.

I believe is that language needs to stop being the definition of the Hispanic market. It needs to become a tactic and not a strategy.

The big challenge is when the Hispanic advertising industry loses the Spanish language as its sole purpose and the communication becomes in English. Then the general market traditional agencies and its clients are going to say “Well, we don’t need you anymore if you’re not going to talk in Spanish.” So, that is what makes the Hispanic industry very nervous. Now, how do you overcome that? The agency needs to transform into an agency that adds value to clients. We need to be a good agency first, and an ethnic specialist second. We need to understand and be masters in this specific niche, but before that we need to do great work, be great marketers and all of that. I think that if we have the balance of those things, we’re going to have an interesting business proposition. We’re working on doing that transition. For me again, the secret is to evolve the industry beyond language and then be ready to fight with the big guys because now the fight is over ideas.

ihaveanidea: So there’s room for the non-Hispanic creative here at LatinWorks! Could a gringo from Vermont who cut his creative teeth in the Manhattan multinationals fit into the culture you are trying to create?

Sergio: (laughs) We try to mix it up here, not because I want to transform into an Anglo-agency, but because I think that ideas come first. I believe that in advertising, human truths are more important than Latino insight. There are not as many Latino insights as you might think, and some of them are invented in order for clients to feel better (laughs)

Ideally, I want to have the best talent possible, the best talent I can afford, the best talent I can bring to the agency. I think that there’s enough Hispanic knowledge within the company to help a brilliant Japanese creative to succeed, because what we’re looking is for inspiration and human truth. That said, I don’t lose sleep over wanting to recruit people from other agencies or big shops. I want people that see the potential coolness of the Hispanic market.

Not too long ago, the US Hispanic market was perceived as a “lesser” market, and sometimes rightly so — there are as many really bad Hispanic agencies as there are good ones, and there’s some really ugly Hispanic work. Even in Latin America, the US Hispanic market used to seen as lesser than the Argentines or the Mexicans or Brazilians or whatever. So the US Hispanic market has always been seen as a little dumb.

When we started the agency, we had a Swedish client, and the president, if you can imagine him, he had that Swedish look, super fashionable, young, entrepreneurial, cool, chic, a very interesting guy. And once when I was talking to him, I explained to him the Hispanic market, “Well you see, there’s forty million Latinos in the United States, there’s media” and so on, and when I was finished, he told me “that’s the most modern thing I’ve heard in a long time.” So his perception was that it was cool that there’s almost a country inside of a country, and it was cool that there’s all of these people that you can talk to in their own language, even as they live inside of “other” country called the US. He thought this microcosm was absolutely cool, modern and brilliant, and if you look at it that way, it’s true! And that’s the perspective I want to have. The perspective I want to have is not “Oh, we’re a lesser market,” the perspective I want to have is that this is a very interesting experiment. There’s no other place in the world that has it, there’s no other country in the world that has a minority of the multicultural market as developed as this, so let’s have some fun with it!

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

A collection of Sergio’s ads from all his years at LatinWorks

ihaveanidea: How does a president, someone with all of the responsibilities you have in that role, stay on top of all the change that is happening in this industry, and how do you keep your agency updated?

Sergio: It’s not easy. I fell in love with academia, and I think you need to keep on studying long after you graduate from school. I attended the Berlin School of Creative Leadership recently, spending two years doing my Masters. I did the Hyper Island Master Class last October. I go to all of the conferences I can, and I’m a very avid reader.

Still, I need to be aware that age is a factor. I’m not a kid anymore, I’m 48 years old, and to stay fresh you need to surround yourself with young blood and drink it like a vampire (laughs) I constantly bring in fresh young talent and let them work and put them in charge of things.

…you need to surround yourself with young blood and drink it like a vampire…

ihaveanidea: LatinWorks is a well respected and admired agency, but which agencies do you personally admire?

Sergio: Here in the U.S, Goodby and Wieden are my favorite agencies. Outside of the US, I love Almap BBDO. It’s phenomenal how they keep on doing all the work they do. I absolutely love Scholz & Friends in Germany. I admire their humbleness and  the amount of brilliant work they consistently do. Of course shops like Mother and BBH. I mean I wish I was John Hegarty, I think he’s a brilliant man.

I’m very conscious of who we are and where we are amongst all of these incredible agencies.  I know that there are a lot of things for us to do, and I’m never satisfied.  But I’m happy that little by little, at least in Latin America, the agency is known, we’re doing well in the eyes of AdWeek and Ad Age, we are doing cool stuff in Cannes each year, and this year I’ll be a judge.  It’s just fun, being a little Hispanic agency in Austin, getting known outside of the U.S.

ihaveanidea: Talk to us about the city of Austin, and how it has grown as an advertising city. Or is it even an advertising city the way some other places are?

Sergio: I think Austin is a little oasis for me. It’s very unique and rare for a place in Texas, and little by little it’s becoming very rare for the United States as well. I’m sure you’re very familiar with the work of Richard Florida, the guy that wrote The Rise of the Creative Class. Richard says that in order to create creative cities, there needs to be the characteristics of talent, tolerance and technology. There needs to be social tolerance to allow artists, the creative types to move into a city without being worried about censorship or police. There is a gay tolerance, a drug tolerance, tolerance — not acceptance, just tolerance, so that you don’t go to jail for the rest of your life if you have a joint. There needs to be technology to allow the artists to get around and live affordably. Look at what’s happening to New York! Brooklyn is booming creatively in the music industry and everything because they cannot afford to pay the New York rent, so everybody is going to Brooklyn! So now all of a sudden all of the cool bands are from Brooklyn, because that’s where these guys live. Austin has the three T’s: the technology, the tolerance and the talent. It attracts a lot of talent.

I also think is that there’s a certain amount of Austin pride. Even though a lot of people here come from elsewhere, there’s this almost civic duty to keep the city cool, celebrating the vibrancy of the music scene and growing the film industry. I think the city planning really good, and that the local government understands that the creative talent that lives here is what keeps the city alive.

In terms of the advertising industry here, I think that there are a number of interesting agencies, but that’s only because that lifestyle is here, not necessarily the market. We can do business all over the country from here, and in fact only one of our clients is in Austin. So if the Austin advertising community is growing, it’s not due to local clients, but a fresh and vibrant lifestyle.

ihaveanidea: it’s always interesting to look back on a career and see how you would’ve done things differently or how you did things exactly the right way. Reflecting on your own career, if you had to give three pieces of advice, three tips to a junior about this industry, what would they be?

Sergio: One thing I would stress is the importance of finding a mentor when you’re starting your career. Somebody who is not selfish, who doesn’t feel threatened, who knows how to tolerate mistakes and gives you the chance to experiment. You need to work for somebody that is going to give you wings to soar, and if you don’t find that in your first agency or first boss, leave and find someone else. Remember, creative directors aren’t just choosing to hire you, but you are also choosing to work for them, so have a good eye for these people. I was incredibly lucky that my first boss was somebody like that, and I can just imagine what would’ve happened if he wouldn’t have been my boss.

Secondly, I’d remind people that there is a tremendous difference between being a creative and being a creative director. It’s a totally different world, and not a lot of people make the switch gracefully. This business is very strange in that you grow in position and in power based on creative merit, but then you grow so much that they don’t allow you to keep doing what you were good at! Learning how to switch from being a creative to a Creative Director is key, because if don’t then you cannot grow financially.

As for any advice on making that change, the really difficult part is learning to judge work on its own merit, and not as a creative that has just become a Creative Director. You can’t look at work in terms of how you would have done it, but rather appreciate the work even if it’s totally different than what you would have done. Resist the temptation to change everything, even if you knew that there’s a better way, because that’s going to make people not want to work with you, it’s going to make people feel that you’re competing with them. When you’re Creative Director, the art of letting people work and stay out of their way is very difficult to achieve. Even I’m still working on that!

Finally, this is a job that requires so many hours and so much unnecessary stress that you need to be incredibly passionate to do it, and to do it right. I don’t know any creative of any significance that has a separate personal life, not because he or she can’t go home at a decent hour, but because creativity is something you cannot stop thinking about. It becomes a way of thinking, a way of behaving, a philosophy of life. It’s not something you let go of at 5 PM. So you either have that absolute, and family and friends to support you in your passion, or you’re always going to be somewhere in the middle.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

A collection of Sergio’s ads from all his years at LatinWorks

Interview by:

ignaciocreditpic Sergio Alcocer

Ignacio Oreamuno
El Presidente

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