Hernan Sen: Breaking Structures
With a long career in the advertising industry, Hernán Sen confesses that what attracts him most from that world is creativity. The CEO of Dandy, an agency he founded more than 23 years ago, highlights the capacity of having an agency in the cloud. The pandemic found him in the cloud and carrying years of expertise in technology and remote work. In the following interview, Sen assures that “we must change the scenario of threat for that of challenge” and shares his vision of the importance of data-driven creativity and his opinion on the behavior that brands should have in the current context.
What attracted you to the world of advertising?
Creativity, no doubt! That was the trigger. I’ve always had a creative urge. I’m a musician (bass player), I studied drawing and painting (I prepared the entry level test at Prilidiano Pueyrredon) and I’m a film buff. As a teenager I would spend hours watching spots and print pieces. Advertising brought together all those worlds that attracted me.
How did your career start?
I started young. At the age of 20 I was already working at Capurro, which at that time was the biggest Argentine agency. I was there during the merger with DPZ, which, in turn, was the largest Brazilian agency. The Capurro/DPZ merger was called the alliance. But the rhythm was devastating and I wanted to finish my university career, so I looked for a smaller agency, with interesting accounts, where I began as a Creative Director. In 1997, I took over the Roemmers Laboratories account. I had now an independent studio and, with those foundations I developed my own agency. I felt I could do it, I was confident in my abilities. I’ve had my own agency for 23 years now.
What lessons did you take away from each of the places you worked?
Lots of things! If I had to briefly define each step, I think that in Capurro and Capurro/DPZ I learned to work as part of a big structure, as a team player and to interact between teams. I like to think of myself as a very good team builder. From the small agency, I learned how to deal directly with brand owners and agencies. That’s the difference with multi-agencies. In both structures I worked for national and international companies with different work cultures and work approaches. That helps you forge and develop plasticity and ductility.
Is there any campaign that has marked you?
The first thing that comes to mind is “Sweet Week”, which is still active to this day. I had just joined Capurro and that campaign hit the charts! The idea came from an account manager who gathered all the candy companies in Argentina together and proposed that we set up “The week of sweetness”, where people would exchange a candy for a kiss all week. I remember at that moment I realized it’s not just about creating aesthetical and well written pieces or consistent graphic systems, it’s also about inventing business that doesn’t exist… And that changes everything.
What do you like most about your work?
My work is my passion. When that happens, you work 24-7 with the same passion and energy. I like to feel challenged, to find a way to turn things around, to mix that disrespectful side we Latinos have with the “by the book” approach of Americans. I tend to set my goals above what each client needs. It’s good to raise the bar, try new things and experiment.
What would you change if you could?
I don’t think I would change anything right now. We have just gone through a period of great change in the agency, to get us where we wanted to be. We are making progress in some methods and ways of working that are super installed in central countries. But we have to let things evolve naturally.
What were the challenges of taking an agency to the cloud? What advantages do you find in this modality?
At first, I thought that we were not going to be able to be 100% virtual and that we were going to need some discipline to hold face-to-face meetings. Over time, I realized that many times we force meetings that are not really necessary. Last year, a colleague in New York told me over coffee, “My dream is to work at home.” And I thought, we are already there. One of the main advantages is to be able to say to a creative: “Forget about the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday schedule”. It’s also interesting to think in terms of absolutely flexible work teams. We can hire a Japanese photographer, to shoot a model in Spain, for a campaign in North America, while everything is managed from Latin America. It’s all about breaking structures. After three and a half years in this modality, I see that we have grown, not only in the number of new clients, but also in the development of existing clients.
Why is the concept of “data-driven creativity” so relevant?
Historically, doing market research or just a simple survey, at least in Argentina, was something reserved for companies that had the budget to invest in search of that information. Today, data is accessible and conclusive. As you measure the different USPs in different audiences and adjust the messages, you achieve an understanding that colors the entire communication. Briefs are more precise and, logically, creativity flows. We have been working with Telecentro for a year and a half in this direction, together with Tribu, the strategic marketing agency driven by data from Pablo Gazzera, former EVP of Unilever. Results are excellent. It has become Tribu + Dandy’s success today.
Recently, you created the latest Telecentro’s campaign, “Attributes”. How did the idea come up and what was the objective of the campaign?
“Attributes” has been developed in five spots where we communicate the company’s differentiating factors. Using a classic split screen method, together with an always effective dose of humor, we claim that Telecentro gives you more and charges you less. There is not much to think about, just switch to Telecento. The idea comes from analyzing data in different “precision marketing” campaigns, where we saw which assets different audiences value the most. We noticed that many of them are unique attributes and that our main competitor does not offer them. This is how the creative idea came about. The objective of the campaign is to keep raising the perception of the brand’s quality. It is consistent with the company’s constant investment in technology to improve its offer of services. The campaign has just launched so we still have no results to share, but we are very confident and pleased with the films, print and digital pieces. Data allows you to travel roads with GPS.
How do you manage the relationship with your clients, in terms of both the creative process and the production of communication ideas, in the midst of a complex context such as the pandemic?
The pandemic has come to undermine 100% face-to-face work models and many other things… Some clients who previously struggled with the use of video conference meetings have discovered them. That change is here to stay. In our case, the creative process is our usual one. On the other hand, productions have become more complex, mainly shoots or photographic productions where you need numerous teams interacting in the same space. But you have to be creative and find your way around it. There are several examples of productions using cell phones or still photos with good results. Other scenarios, unfortunately, will have to wait.
What do you think clients should do today in this difficult moment in terms of communication and advertising?
This situation generates very opposite realities. There are clients who duplicate their advertising investment and others who lower it to zero. This has forced us to be agile in rethinking our planning for 2020 and, at the same time, imagine different exit scenarios to recalibrate objectives. We have to change the scenario from threat to challenge. Clearly, we are all more connected, and this is an opportunity for brands not only to get closer to their audiences, but also to keep on learning the digital domain. My recommendation is digital, whatever the situation.
What do you think is the role of advertising and communication in today’s pandemic and global crisis? How can it help society, consumers and advertisers?
We communicators know how to manage tone. We have to keep talking. Brands talk to their audiences all the time, and that’s what we have to capitalize on. For example, we told our whole client database that, thanks to being in the cloud, we are 100% operational today, but not from a sales point of view. We were very careful about that. What we propose is that you can count on us to keep your business going. It is time to reach out and help. I’ve been receiving many inquiries from both entrepreneurs and medium to large companies with different problems since the start of quarantine. Some of them could not find their way back, others had a work strategy but needed our contribution in vital areas. We decided to dedicate time, analysis and energy to help them get ahead. We showed them cases of success from more advanced countries in dealing with this crisis and even did some brainstorming with them. Many of those who consult us now have never been our clients before.
What is the opportunity for the creative industry?
The opportunity is technological. The other day a colleague friend said to me: “There is plenty of technology today, but ideas are missing!”.
Some professionals say Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of all companies, especially those which haven’t taken that step. How do you think that whole process will develop?
In my opinion, all companies, to a greater or lesser extent, have been working on their digital transformation for some time. Either on their own or because reality is pushing them. The advance of technology is exponential, so it is very difficult to predict how the process will unfold. Professionalizing the processes is usually a good decision.
What will be the challenges?
Some of the challenges will surely revolve around hard and soft sciences. Also, careers of the future do not exist yet. There are many challenges ahead. Let them come!
What other projects are you working on today and for which clients?
We are working together with Tribu for Ethical Nutrition Argentina, from Roemmers Laboratories. This is a very complete line of formula milks which are commercialized in Argentina and in LATAM. We are also digitally developing Campanita, from Celulosa Campana, a historical client of the agency. As for new clients, we are working on the digital campaign for Topcret Madrid and creating the brand Mammys Yummys for a gastronomy product startup in New York.
What goals do you still have pending professionally?
Right now, I’m very much into “precision marketing” and working on the agency’s global profile. My goal is to become an expert in these areas of development. It might sound commonplace, but this crisis will pass. We have to stay focused and be creative. Creativity saves us and we must never give up.