Mad Men Of Riga (2/3)

"There was a big gap between the progressive agencies and the historic styled soviet organizations."
Behind the scenes of DDB Riga.

Sweet home of DDB Worldwide Latvia
Brīvības iela – the Brīvības Street leads directly to the famous Freedom Monument of Latvia. Right here is where the sweet home of DDB Worldwide Latvia is. DDB is located straight in the beginning of the new town of Riga. The front of the building is built in kind of a rough style. The three letters of DDB inclusive the circle – or does it represent a point?! – flash in the incredible dark darkness of Riga's night life. It looks pretty cool. And you definitively can't miss it.
I am meeting Andris Rubins, Managing Director of DDB Latvia. For more than 12 years he has been part of the DDB family. Previous to our meeting I combed through the world wide web for getting some information about Andris. I figured out that Andris is married, has three children and a troop of labradors. He enjoys playing saxophone and spends most of his vacations in Italy. These high explosive yellow-press-insights you can pick up by reading the introduction of Andris in his role as juryman at the advertising festival Golden Hammer this year. But let's not go deeper in these private details. Moreover I imagined him being an amazingly well-qualified guy to talk about advertising to … And that's what we did: we talked about advertising – surprise, surprise.

Welcome on board of the Mad Men's time machine. Please take your seats. Are your seatbelts fastened? Our upcoming travel destination will be the year 1995. Why 1995? Well, that year seems to be a fateful year for the advertising business in Latvia. If you have a closer look on the trilogy Mad Men Of Riga, it's get obvious: DDB – founded in 1995. McCann – founded in 1995. !MOOZ – founded in 1995. And certainly there is a handful other agencies founded in the exact same year. Does that look like a coincidence? Unlikely ...
And DDB played an important role. In the early stages, it was kind of a mission to support the capitalistic imperialism of McDonald's. The golden "M" sent the DDB troops out to the Baltics to make the world much better by selling fastfood. And the job of the Latvian legion – named DDB – was to adapt international ads for the Latvian market. McDonald's naturally was not the only enterprise conquering the Baltics. It was the starter's gun for many international brands too. By looking retrospectively at the year 1995, Andris was studying at Stockholm School of Economics. Two years later, he started to work as a Marketing Director in the food business. At that time, his mentoring agency was McCann Erickson. Andris describes McCann as the most progressive agency in Latvia during the mid 1990s. But it was not only McCann. Andris was obviously fascinated by the whole branch: "The advertising agencies were the most enthusiastic, progressive, talented and future driven companies.", Andris romanticizes.

Andris Rubins, Managing Director of DDB Latvia with his Mad Men drawing
And by comparing the advertising agencies with the Latvian economy in total Andris quickly recognized an incredible dilemma at that time: "There was a big gap between the progressive agencies and those historic styled soviet organizations." And that's why it has been difficult to do something great at that time. The companies were very scared of doing something wrong. They were totally unskilled: a discouraged gang of freshmen. The consequence: simple ads without any risks. Andris boils it down to a simple formula: "Smiling families." That's his synonym for riskless and boring advertising. But in the early 90s, advertising was not only simple, boring and riskless. Sometimes it was also strange – and sometimes even very strange. In this connection Andris talks about "agressive lotteries" as a popular marketing tool. "Agressive lotteries" – what the fuck?! I couldn't imagine what he exactly meant by that. But a couple of days later I got the answer. This big secret will be revealed in the third part of the trilogy – Eriks from !MOOZ told me absurd stories concerning lotteries in the 90s … Don't miss it …

Back to Andris. I am asking for the first famous ad he noticed. I am expecting some stuff of big players like McDonald's, Coca Cola or something like that. But one of the first ads Andris remembers is a commercial for Grindex, a pharamceutical company in the Baltics. The commercial traces back to a famous Latvian joke. Andris tries to piece the spot together and tells something about two animated birds, a big one and a small one, talking to each other. Regrettably, Andris doesn't get the punch line together. However, it was one of the first very popular ads that has been created in Latvia. The people loved the two birds. Unfortunately, the world wide web doesn't know the spot. Otherwise I would hand the commercial to you on a silver platter … Pardon me. 
Back in the 21st century, Andris seems to be relaxed and happy with the development of the Latvian economy. Up to date, it has been a process of understanding and learning. During the recent years, the whole economy has changed to the better. Today, companies act in a more professional way. They try to be unique with their brands and take risks in their ads. But what's about a change within the society? "Today, people are very critical and very cynical. They don't believe in advertising. They think it's all bullshit.", Andris declares. When having a look back in the early 90s, people at first were very open-minded in Latvia. People accepted brand stories. They believed almost everything. In their point of view, there was no reason for a brand to be dishonest. People were naive in a way. By now, they have understood that brands sometimes hide some facts and overdo others. From Andris' point of view people have learned to be critical, to question ads and to research by using Google. According to that, a lot of things have changed since 1995: the companies, the society and just as well DDB has changed. The DDB troops now consist of about 50 guys – right after McCann the second largest advertising factory in Latvia. By now, DDB Latvia makes the most of its turnover with clients they win on their own. Only three percent of the total income of DDB Latvia is earned by getting network clients. And Andris seems to be very happy about this fact: "… not because somebody calls us from Paris or New York and says: Hey guys, you have two more accounts, please welcome them." In this respect, Andris is sportsmanlike: "It always keeps us very sharp. We have to progress all the time." But what's about the present and the future of advertising? Andris sees the prospective role of advertising agencies in a much deeper sense than simply creating beautiful pictures and showing smiling families. He likewise thinks of consulting, packaging and even product development. Andris thinks more of being a "creative business think tank" than just being an agency doing nice ads. And he is proud of the strategic strength of DDB Latvia. But he also sees a problem in the knowledge and the perception of the clients: "Normally they don't ask for this kind of support. Normally they don't expect advertising agencies to help developing new products." Andris smiles proudfully while telling that his team regularly surprises their clients by showing more facets than being creative in the ordinary sense of an advertising agency.

One case Andris is very proud of is the Ventspils venti campaign. And he can be proud of it. Finally, the campaign won the Grand Prix, the gold medal in the category integrated campaigns and the People's Vote at Adwards Festival in 2012. And it was not only a creative campaign. They created a new product used by thousands of people. Last but not least it was very effective too ... "The whole city loves the idea. People have integrated it in their everyday life.", Andris outlines this success story. And DDB Latvia has some more success stories to tell – e.g. the Alumni donation campaign for SSE Riga, an untypical bank communication for Nordea and some other stuff. The secret recipe for good advertising seems to be very simple: "The more we do unexpected things, the more people will wonder, talk to each other and the brands will become interesting and unique." One example that shows this approach is the gamification case of O!Karte using the world-renowned game Tetris.

OKarte tetris case study from DDB Latvia on Vimeo.

Combined with some other ads and campaigns DDB became the most awarded agency at Adwards 2012 and at Password EFFIE 2012 Competition as well. Not only because of their success at some festivals DDB Latvia is considered as one of the most creative agencies in the Baltics. But what effect does this award balance have? For creative people? "They love it. It's the olympic games of the business." And for the clients? "It's very different. Some think it's bullshit, some are very proud of it and some only believe in Effie awards." After a short pause, Andris tells a crazy story of a bank account he managed a couple of years ago. The Marketing Manager of the bank told Andris, if DDB won the Golden Hammer Award, that would mean the knockout for the agency. The client didn't want to have creative work on its account. Because that would mean the agency doesn't sell their products and services. "What the fuck is this?", Andris is still wondering. And he continues: "That's oldschool-thinking."

Happy DDB people at Password EFFIE Awards 2012
But there are not only fretful moments in the advertising business. One story Andris really rejoices in is the creative battle between the two top mobile brands: O!Karte vs. Zelta Zivtina. But it was not only a fight between two brands. It was a fight between two creative teams as well. Andris describes this creative battle as a "smart way of making fun of the competitor". And he avoids the term "fight". Andris really enjoys telling this story. After gambling a few rounds the general public of Latvia noticed this exchange of blows. Everyone was curious about what would happen next. It became a "real time show". And for the agencies it was a challenge to be smarter than the "enemy". This creative battle is one of those stories that went out of the advertising business. It became a common talk on the streets. By the way, the "enemy" of DDB was !MOOZ – it will be the final part of the Riga-Trilogy. Watch the case here.

Last but not least, there is one open-ended-question: What's about this Mad Men drawing of Andris? Well, three years ago in 2009, Andris celebrated his 10th anniversary at DDB – it was April 1st. The DDB team sent out a press release to all media in Latvia. The news: Andris Rubins becomes the 2nd Latvian guy who will act in the television series Mad Men. And it went further. Andris should figure Bill Bernbach, who is the "B" in DDB. And although it was April 1st, all the media took it quite serious and the news worked a circuit. 
Today, Andris is still amused about this story: "I took part in a client meeting, not knowing anything, and my phone started to ring. Media, friends and relatives – everyone wanted to congratulate me. All I could answer was that somebody must have a great sense of humor." Later that day, there was a little party organized by DDB. Here the Mad Men drawing of Andris was presented. It was created by Gatis Šļūka who is one of the most famous cartoonists in Latvia. It was an evening with some drinks and a lot of laughter ... Finally, because of this drawing Andris Rubins is maybe the Mad Man of Riga who has been closest to the original Mad Men of Madison Avenue.

Yours sincerely,
William James Carlton

 – – –
Upcoming story in December:
Mad Men Of Riga (3/3) – Behind the scenes of !MOOZ.
I talked to Eriks Stendzenieks founder of !MOOZ and Director of Latvian Art Directors Club. It will be the final part of the "Riga Trilogy" ... Stay tuned ...