Adrian Boțan: „Without tension, there is nothing but boredom”

It’s always a challenge to write about a person you don’t know or know very little and only from what you’ve heard/read about them. And perhaps it’s not by accident that this new igloo column (called A Switch) debuts with the proposal and challenge to meet Adrian Boțan, Chief Creative Officer Europe @ McCann Worldgroup Europe – currently one of the most (if not the most) renowned Romanian advertising men in the world. What you may, however, not know is that Adrian Boțan studied architecture before beginning to work in advertising in the mid ‘90s.

Architecture is, therefore, the basic note of the new column that sets out to discover what happened to Romanian architects who, after completing their studies, chose to work in other fields, in which they achieved excellence.

As I was saying, it’s always a challenge to write about a person you don’t know, this being, at the same time, a venture into an unknown territory, where I invite you to accompany me, even though the article exceeds the average number of minutes that we usually assign to reading in the 21st century.

American Rum (ROM, Bucharest)

What is the connection between architecture and advertising? Adrian Boțan believes that they intersect in the intensity/adrenaline of their undertaking and not just there. As for the dosage of sense and sensibility behind the step that he took from architecture to advertising in 1995…

Haha, you’re tempting me… to post-rationalize. It was 100% chance. I remember that I had friends who worked in agencies and I thought it was interesting, but architecture was like… a mission, a vocation. At least this was what we were inoculated with at University. So I was sort of looking down on advertising people. And when the opportunity arose for me to work in advertising, I was reluctant to take it and told myself that it was temporary and that I would return to architecture. But guess what, in advertising I discovered the same spirit as in the architecture school – we were given the sketch of a sketch every day, it was that intense.

This space of camaraderie and school atmosphere, the fact that you were basically learning something new each day and that we made our own rules as long as we delivered – these are all things I found once again in the advertising agency and it was like a natural continuation of my school days. Perhaps advertising gives you a sort of Peter Pan syndrome and this is why I live with the feeling that I haven’t finished school yet and that everything is possible. Later, I discovered that advertising was very conceptual and offered instant gratification, unlike architecture, which became increasingly technical and laborious. Besides, I had also rediscovered the dimension of social engineering, which is fundamental in architecture, but, lo and behold, it was the same in advertising. To draw the line, not for a moment do I regret the choice I made.

For over 20 years, Adrian Boțan has been working within the McCann Worldgroup advertising agency, currently oscillating between its Bucharest and London offices.

ThisAbles (IKEA)

What real-positive impact do advertising campaigns have on people’s lives? Give us an example of one such campaign that you were involved in and its effects. And how do you usually monitor/quantify this kind of effect?

There are many parallels between architecture and advertising, but I believe the most important is that they are both based on creative problem solving. And this is why it’s vital to locate the tension, the conflict in the brief, because otherwise you can’t make something remarkable. Imagine that you have to design a house on a perfectly flat, rectangular plot in a North-American suburb. Kill me! Perhaps the only chance is to approach the theme from the perspective of the boredom and suicidal tendencies that it generates, otherwise I can’t imagine how you could create something interesting.

In this paradigm of problem-solving, agencies today are responsible for more than communication, becoming consultants for their clients. One example is the IKEA ThisAbles project, which comes from our Tel Aviv office, where the team created a system that adapts the furniture for disabled people. It has a social, cultural, but also a business impact. Because it solves a problem that affects 10% of the global population, not just in Israel, and opens IKEA towards a new market. It has a real-positive impact both on people’s lives and on the clients’ business, quantifiable in the growing sales and brand appreciation of IKEA. Another example is a special edition of Vogue Magazine, dedicated to women aged 50+, made for L’Oreal. We called it the “Non-Issue” and its cover star is Jane Fonda who, besides being an icon, is also the living proof that age is a non-issue.

Non Issue (L’Oreal, Paris)

What would be the slogan of a campaign regarding global warming that would make us react more decidedly and coherently than we have done so far?

These big-as-the-Planet problems, such as global warming, can no longer be solved through a slogan. I believe that what Greta Thunberg does is good, because she creates notoriety and a feeling of urgency. But she has a limit, since she uses scare tactics and it’s the kind of campaign that is addressed to those who are already adepts. The same radical language also brings many detractors, especially from among those who deny the science behind global warming. And the difficulty comes from the fact that we are like a frog in a pot kept over low heat – the water is lukewarm, we’re enjoying it, we remove one more layer of clothing, everything’s fine… Things are made even more complicated by the politicizing of the topic, and by the fact that stopping global warming would involve a complete revisal of the economic model. It’s a problem that can only be solved through multiple campaigns. Perhaps one of them should be aimed at those who have decision-making power, perhaps we should move the Global Economic Forum of Davos to Antarctica, since the temperature there reached 20 degrees Celsius this February. Nothing more impactful than Christine Lagarde sunbathing on a glacier, surrounded by penguins.

A habit from your past as an architecture graduate that still influences the work of the advertising man:

Being addicted to the adrenaline of the pitch… I remember that Dorin Ștefan was publicly judging our projects in Year II and, even more, made us comment each other’s projects. Wow, how traumatic! But I learned so much from this process: it’s very healthy for the ego and for self-confidence. At least that’s what my therapist says.

A Romanian architect and an international architect that you would like to work with if you practiced architecture?

Interesting challenge… I had the opportunity to work with Bogdan Babici as his client for the project of a summer house in the mountains. And, speaking of tension, we didn’t manage to solve it until we found the tension: the plot had a very abrupt slope, oriented North, and we threw a couple of projects away until we realized that the tension of the place came from the fact that I hated the orientation towards the North, so I suggested to Bogdan to turn the house and the layout towards the sun. Then, Bogdan’s genius surprised us with a project that looks more like a cable car station (this being a quote from the approval meeting at the Commission of Monuments, LOL) than a mountain cabin. As for international architects, Jean Nouvel – I’d like to make an advertising agency headquarters with him.

Bihor Couture (Beau Monde, Bucharest)

A question that you would like to answer, but you have never been asked until now by any journalist/interlocutor?

Does architecture need marketing? Or does marketing need architects?

Well, and what do you think?

Adrian and Bruno had a phenomenal intuition regarding igloo magazine and I believe that the profession needs such vehicles in order to be promoted. There’s also Andrei Borțun, the man behind Romanian Design Week, who does good propaganda for design. But it seems to me that architecture still remains a niche subject, nowhere near visible enough compared to the impact that it has on the city.

The average citizen is very uneducated in matters of aesthetics and doesn’t have the instruments needed to make an informed choice when he finds himself in the position of a client. It hurts to see newly built houses with 40/40 bathroom windows and 1m2 balconies, and everything finished in structured pink paint. It’s obvious that people don’t have other frames of reference and aspire to a slightly bigger Communist block apartment.

Well, I think this could be solved in time only through a marketing and promotion plan for the profession, one that would bring architecture back to pop culture, create opinion leaders, etc… I wonder if the architecture school offers a marketing class, because everything starts from one’s formation.

I picture Adrian up, in the air, where he has found a breathing space in the suspension that flight time gives, and I wonder if he still knows how many dozens of advertising campaigns he has worked on until now. A different kind of ephemeral architectures that, like it or not, influence and shape our collective consciousness. I’m left with a book recommendation, “Eating the Big Fish” by Adam Morgan, and I choose to ask him about the time that no longer has patience, or that we don’t know how to tame anymore.

Training Day (Jack Black & George Clooney, Nespresso)

I fly at least twice a week. I try to emulate Clooney’s “Up in the Air” character: my goal is to go through security in less than a minute and maintain gold status on two air alliances. I’m only half joking… The plane is my private space. There’s nothing urgent up there. I read, I tidy up my to-do list. Non-fiction, science… I avoid anything that has to do with marketing. The last book I read: “Misbehaving” by Richard Thaler.

A book that an advertising person should recommend to an architect and one that an architect should recommend to an advertising person:

“Eating The Big Fish” for architects. It’s the quintessence of the process of positioning a product that has a disadvantage. The product can be quality architecture or one’s personal brand. Or both. We managed to position Romanian advertising on the world map with this type of thinking, as a challenger of the West, because, look, we are all that they aren’t – chaotic-creative, tricky, resourceful and provocative by default. For advertising people? Mmmm… “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. It captures very well the change of paradigm that architecture has been through in the early 20th century, as well as the feeling of being on a mission and the narcissism of the profession of architect.

In Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”, an advertising man gets into a series of troubles and ends up in a house that has in the meantime become legendary and that, although it was just a set design piece, was conceived to look like a Frank Lloyd Wright project. What kind of films inspire you or influence your work?

Many of the films about and featuring advertising people are not well-documented, with a few exceptions. One of these is “Mad Men”. The process, the campaigns, the clients, the intrigues – it’s all very real, minus the fact that the media and the business have evolved and everything has become much more complex. Don Draper is the ethos of our profession – a visionary consumed by internal tensions. I said: without tension, there is nothing but boredom. The second exception is “No!”, a film about the true story of the referendum that removed Pinochet from power in Chile. It’s the story of an advertising man who worked for the democrats and chose to make a positive campaign that projected a future seen through rose-colored glasses, using all the clichés of Capitalist advertising, especially American advertising, from the ‘80s.

NO, 2012, director Pablo Larraín

What do an architect and an advertising person drink when they meet?

Nectar and ambrosia. It’s on the advertising person.

An old passion that you couldn’t let go of and a newer one:

Architecture, for both. Who knows, it’s good to have a backup plan for a second career…

We have entered an election year. An idea/a few ideas for a more evolved Bucharest from the point of view of urban planning and architecture, one that is more focused on its inhabitants:

Bucharest 2030. I’d design a campaign to promote an imaginary Bucharest from 2030 (with a look outside the borders, since Romanians are so sensitive to the way they are perceived from abroad). Something positive, a vision of the transformed city. A pedestrian Calea Victoriei. The Dâmbovița quay turned into a promenade. The House of the People – the largest art museum in the world, in the vein of Frank Gehry, etc. I would outsource the campaign to the best architects in the country and outside it. I believe that people should dream a little and I don’t see how anyone could be convinced by abstract talks of traffic and stuff, when, in fact, what people need, before anything else, is vision. Look at Dubai, a city built from sand, a dream and a few starchitects. Copy with pride, why not?

An ideal 2020 from a creative point of view:

Marketing is becoming increasingly serious and politically correct. I wish for a year with a little more humor.

Let me end with an imaginary cocktail recipe starting from the ingredients suggested by Adrian, one that the architect and the advertising person could enjoy together, while drawing the plan for 2030 Bucharest:

30 ml gin
30 ml bitter
30 ml vermouth
(just) 3 drops nectar (so it doesn’t go to your head too quickly)
décor: a tiny bit of ambrosia (so that any resulting allergic reaction will be a creative one)


Interview published in igloo #194_Efemer-Permanent

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