A man of versatile talent and the most successful manager in the regional advertising industry
Srdjan Saper: I consider the UEPS Lifetime Achievement Award to be a reward for good performance in the first half. The second half is being played now, and we'll see if there's going to be extra-time or penalties. As long as someone keeps playing the match against themselves, they're still in the game.
Readers with more life experience might remember him as the front man of the band VIS Idoli. Mr. Srdjan Saper is a very versatile man. He’s been successfully involved in music, acted in films and directed TV music videos. He studied medicine, world literature, history, film and TV directing, before graduating from the University of Dramatic Arts. He wanted to direct films, but today, even though he says that the time for that had probably passed, he could have been a film producer. At one point, social engagement drew him towards politics. He’s been a successful manager for many years. He founded his first agency, Idols & Friends 19 years ago, and he’s been successfully leading the network of McCann agencies for the past 17 years, with the first ones established in Belgrade and Skopje. Today he steers I&F McCann Grupa, with agencies in eight countries across the region. He admires the people he works with at McCann and believes that they are the force that has made I&F McCann Grupa what it is today- the biggest and most successful advertising system in the region. Recently, at this year’s Weekend Media Festival, McCann Beograd was declared the Regional Agency Of The Year.
How much did you parents support you in your musical career and commitments to your band, VIS Idoli, (who became leaders of the “new wave” in the Serbian and former Yugoslavia music scene) the rebellion that you expressed through the songs that you composed and performed?
They didn’t particularly support me, but they didn’t interfere either. They believed that I knew what was best for me. Naturally, at the beginning they were concerned that it would consume a lot of my time and that in the end I wouldn’t have any “practical life skills”. However, time has shown that things eventually fell into place, and that my life choices were, first and foremost, motivated by a desire to experience as much as possible in a short time span. The Idols were, in that sense, a great experience. To be honest, I also had a lot of luck.
Your inclination towards music and the arts meant that despite being accepted to study medicine, you studied filmmaking instead. Did that steer you towards your future career in the advertising industry, due to its reliance on TV commercials?
I studied medicine, world literature, history and film and TV directing, but in the end I graduated from the University of Dramatic Arts. If I were starting out today, I’d know that University is simply a continuation of secondary school, something there to enable young people to make some sort of life-defining decisions more easily, based on the civilizational experiences of those that preceded them. At the time however, I was one of the few who had some idea about that. In that “two dimensional” time, it was believed that educational decisions were also career decisions; and for me this proved to be true; as a young director and composer I partnered with two of my friends, Boris and Tucko (Branimir Dimitrijević i Boris Miljković), and we started creating TV commercials. That was in 1984, and it marked my entry into the world of advertising.
You two started out with your first agency Soda Film, only to found a new agency, Idols & Friends, in 1995… but just two years later you obtained the franchise rights to establish McCann agencies first in Belgrade, but then in Skopje too. What motivated you to make that decision?
Tucko and I founded Idols (me) & Friends (him) in 1995; we thought that it would be interesting to transform everything that we know into something that will benefit the profession and advertisers as well as ourselves. We wanted to be free! And to have control over our work overtime. That’s how we continued in capitalism what we wanted in socialism. To discover the form that suited our entrepreneurial spirit. And that was an agency. There’s nothing better than being accountable yourself for every success and failure and assuming all responsibility. Taking on responsibility is what truly impresses me among true leaders and those who control big and small things in this world. We created an USP for our company: The right to risk! In this job everyone has to risk for a discovery of the real, big meaning. In 1997 I founded McCann agencies in Belgrade and Skopje, and later in other countries in the region.
Last year you marked 15 successful years leading “I&F McCann Grupa”, which now operates in eight countries across the region. In these 17 years, what was key to its growth? Was it the two Cannes Lions won by McCann Beograd and McCann Skopje?
I don’t think so; the Cannes Lions were a result of our success. The key factor was that we have always, in every year we were in business, managed to gather the best people. There were bad moments and months and also divine, unforgettable situations, weeks, years. McCann has always been a company where people specifically wanted to work, and not anywhere else.
We succeeded in (and probably we could’ve been even more successful) at collectively creating a feeling that working at McCann was something special; this was the result of having truly exceptional people. When our 20th anniversary comes, we’ll try getting everybody who ever worked here together; you’ll see that it’s an entire world in itself! McCann now really looks like our part of big, wide world. We have always tried to make sure it was like that, without pathos, but also without provincial moaning. We never had any sort of complexes.
Agencies that work within the I&F McCann Grupa achieved great success, and in the past few months we had the opportunity to see three truly unique campaigns which will be remembered in the region: Agency McCann Sarajevo was a part of the team that realized the film Bubamara [Ladybug] for The Coca-Cola Company; focusing on the Bosnia&Herzegovina national football team’s participation at the FIFA World Cup; The “Respect the living, too” campaign, conceptualized by agency McCann Tirana, for the Albanian Ministry of internal affairs, was the second example and the third being the viral sensation “Taxi Drama”, which McCann Beograd conceptualized and developed for Jugoslav Drama Theatre JDP, with nearly a million views on YouTube. What are your thoughts on the past year and has it established a recognizable direction for McCann, something that we can expect from your agencies in the coming period?
I hope that in the future, we’ll be able to focus, much more than we can now, on what we call ‘creative excellence’. Up until now, our focus was on strategy, understanding business, regional development, education, for the future and for all; developing individual marketing disciplines and creating platforms for their integration into our clients’ campaigns. In the future, our focus will first and foremost be creative excellence! We want to be recognized for that by both advertisers and consumers alike; that’s what we’ve worked on all these years. But to succeed in this we have to put our initial slogan back on stage: ‘The Right to Risk’. We’re enriched by many years of experience that will make that risk bearable for all. In our work it’s essential to be different, for the human mind is designed to only perceive risk and movement, or rather, to catch what stands out. It doesn’t have the capacity to perceive “the same“, and 99% of what exists today falls into the category of “the same“. In our region, a lot of what exists can be described as same.
McCann is becoming a synonym for creativity. Some of the biggest creative talents in the region work or have worked in your agencies. Are your talent pool and your investment in development of these talents the thing that makes you different from other agencies in the region?
I think it would be arrogant if I said something like that. The number of successful and creative campaigns is pretty evenly spread across the advertising world. There are many agencies with creative and intelligent campaigns, but you also have those who are unoriginal and unsuccessful. We’re all equally trying to find our place under the sun. Of course, we’d like it if what you just said were true, but that truth is determined, first and foremost, by consumers. When discussing people and the talent pool, I believe that it’s my personal responsibility to make the agency the best place for creative freedom and responsibility at the same time.
You operate in eight countries. Your latest acquisition was McCann Sarajevo. Are you planning further regional expansion?
We operate in all the former Yugoslav republics, but also in Bulgaria and Albania. We don’t want this to be a definitive list as the logic of business growth, both our own and that of our clients doesn’t end here.
At the recent Weekend Media Festival, McCann Beograd was declared Regional Agency of the Year by regional creative advertising review, BalCannes. What does the success of McCann Beograd mean for the agencies in the I&F McCann Grupa. Your network recently had a creative summit in Rovinj, what were the comment on this achievement and what did you talk about?
We discussed how to maximise the advantages of our regional system to get the best people on the best projects, irresspective of where they occur. These sorts of meetings are a good opportunity to exchange ideas, to discuss how to inspire each other in-house, to distinguish, recognise and reward the best ideas. Finally, we want our creatives to meet each other and mingle, which is a particularly exciting thing, because people are excited by each other and great campaigns! The success of Belgrade's McCann brought me a lot of joy as it recognised our efforts throughout the entire region and confirms that our persistent aim for regional integration make sense.
Media agency, Universal Media, won the Grand Sempler for best media agency in the Adriatic region at last Sempl Festival. McCann Beograd was declared the most creative agency in the region and won the SoMo Borac Award as one of the best digital agencies. This acknowledgement proves your advantage in all areas of the communications industry.
I think that after many years in which the tendency to divide various services into specialised agencies dominated the industry, the pendulum has swung the other way towards a discussion about integrating ideas. I hope that we won't move everyone and everything to social networks as I get the impression that at times, they lack emotion - the kind that's expressed in traditional media, but I'm sure that in the future, the communication of ideas will be singular and adapted to different observational structures. Creativity needs to be the lifeblood of all agencies, regardless of their specific focus.
The Association for Marketing Communications Serbia (UEPS) awarded you with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Didn’t that award arrive too soon? I get the impression that in the time that lies before you, you’re going to make some significant strategic breakthroughs that will be career defining. What will UEPS do then? Give you another award?
I consider the UEPS Lifetime Achievement Award to be a reward for good performance in the first half. The second half is being played now, and we'll see if there's going to be extra-time or penalties. As long as someone keeps playing the match against themselves, they're still in the game.
This interview was published on Media Marketing.