When you hear a knock on the boardroom door of AlmapBBDO, you don’t expect the face that appears around it a few seconds later to be creative director Marcello Serpa, partner and CCO of this year’s Cannes Lions Agency of the Year. Waiting to gain entry into his own agency, to give an interview about himself, it says a lot about the man who is as humble and approachable as they come.

Born in São Paulo and raised in Rio, Serpa went to Germany in the 80s and studied graphic design. During a trainee programme at a small agency he fell in love with the “speed of advertising” and the career path for one of the industry’s most respected individuals was set.

Business is booming now more than it ever has been for Serpa, and in the last year AlmapBBDO has created stunning campaigns for VW, Billboard, Pepsi, Havaianas… the list goes on. But even though he’s won pretty much every gong under the sun, he’s still only 48, and with an insatiable appetite for ideas, a third child on the way and a photo album that looks like a surfing magazine, there’s no sign of Marcello Serpa losing pace.

How have things changed in the industry since you came back from Germany?

The Brazilian ad scene in the 80s and 90s was kind of provincial. Very good talent, very closed market in the sense that we have our own music, our own culture, our own literature, influences, jokes, TV stations, TV soap operas – everything was very Brazilian. The language kept everybody on the same island, and the ad industry kind of developed the language of the Brazilian culture. With time, the economy just opened up and then the advertising had to change as well. Big companies are coming to Brazil and buying Brazilian companies, and suddenly you have to develop campaigns not only for the Brazilian market, but also Latin America, or sometimes the companies come here and just ask for global campaigns. However, we are still very keen to have campaigns that work locally.

Is there a difference between the German and Brazilian advertising markets?

They are black and white. Water and oil. Absolute opposites. In Germany, you get a rational, almost scientific search for simplicity. It’s an attempt to find the golden nugget and throw out anything else. I loved that and I have mixed it up with my Brazilian DNA, which is a little bit chaotic and colourful, to make a nice balance.

Is São Paulo a good place for creativity?

Yes, because São Paulo embodies everything that Brazil has. At some point, everything that’s creative in Brazil tends to end up in São Paulo because the money’s here, the industry is here, so the engine is here. But even if you are far from the engine, it sucks every kind of influence from all sides of the country and pulls it into São Paulo. It’s kind of a melting pot of Brazilian culture. It’s ugly from the outside, but it’s a great, beautiful queen inside.

Are the clients here brave?

Not very. I’ve never met a client who wanted to be brave from the start, they have to develop a kind of confidence, so they can become brave with time. It’s like everywhere else, we have to have a client relationship that allows us to develop a confidence, so that we can actually push big ideas to the pipeline.

What’s the working environment like here at AlmapBBDO? You won Agency of the Year at Cannes – does that bring pressure?

No. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think this [winning the award] is always a consequence of something, not a goal. I don’t think we have the pressure of winning again because we’ve won so many times – we’ve won agency of the year in Cannes and the Gunn Report three times each. Instead of pressure, it’s a kind of a relief. When I was 29, I won a Grand Prix in Cannes and everybody was saying, ‘now you’ll feel the pressure’, and I said, ‘no, I don’t feel a pressure, I feel relief because now I have done it’.

I remember winning a gold Lion a long, long time ago – and I’ll never say which piece of work it was for – but I don’t like it. I don’t have it in my portfolio. I won a gold Lion and I was like, ‘great, wonderful!’. Everybody loved it [the work] and I just thought it was cheap.

If you had a year where you didn’t win any Lions – would it be a disaster?

It would feel like a disaster, but it would be a very good lesson. [You’d say] ‘Shit! Everything we did this year was not relevant. How can we change that?’

Is there a friendly rivalry between AlmapBBDO and some of the other agencies?

It’s sometimes friendly, sometimes kind of nasty, sometimes a little bit mean, sometimes a little bit cheap. There’s always a rivalry, Brazilians are very passionate about themselves and their work. I respect a lot of people. There are agencies that are not in the same league as us because they play for something else. Maybe money, business, or they are in a different kind of business than us. We are in the business of having ideas that move brands. We love to have ideas, the ideas are our main resource – we live on ideas.

When a client comes in we don’t talk, we show the work. We’re very passionate about the work we produce. All the agencies with this type of philosophy respect each other. And we learn from good agencies. Every time someone does a great commercial we say ‘ooh, shit, this is great’, not only with Brazilian agencies, but worldwide.

Several American agencies have opened up in São Paulo. How do you think they’ll do?

It all depends on how they’re going to approach the Brazilian market. If they come in with the same recipe they have in the US, they’re gonna fail. If they come in eager to learn how Brazilians are going to react to something, then they may succeed. There is not a single agency in the history of Brazilian advertising that was run by an American or a Brit, or by anybody who thought ‘I’m going to come into this market and do exactly what I did in my country’.

What’s the best piece of advertising you’ve ever seen?

It’s not the best piece of advertising I ever saw, but it’s the single piece of advertising that influenced me the most – the piece of advertising that put me in this business. I was studying design in Germany when I saw this newspaper ad and thought, ‘this is the kind of thing I want to do’. [He politely asks to borrow a pen and draws IBM’s 1985 SchreIBMaschinen print ad by GGK Dusseldorf] I was like, ‘wow’. [It made me realise how you can] blow people’s mind with very few ingredients. It gave me a sense of purpose.

In 2008, aged just 45, you won a lifetime achievement award at the Clios. How did you feel about that?

When I got the call I was like, ‘shit!’ It’s like scoring five goals in the first half of the World Cup final, so it’s going to be impossible to lose in the second half. I was a little bit suspicious that someone wanted to put me in a museum so early! But at the same time I felt a kind of relief that I don’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore and that’s a very good feeling. I love to play. I don’t go into a meeting or a creative department with fear, I love to go with joy and have fun, and when you take out the pressure, things just go smoothly.

What do you think will be your legacy?

It would be quite stupid for me to talk about legacy, I don’t care about that. Maybe one day I’ll put in a book all the work I have created or helped create, just for the record, so my children can have a reference of all the work I’ve done in my life. I think it’s important to have it on record but legacy is not for me to define. It wouldn’t be very humble for me talk about legacy.

Could you imagine yourself doing anything other than advertising?

Oh, yes. I could be a painter, or I’d love to be an architect or own a gallery. I’d love to be a director. I love to cook, too. On weekends I always cook at home for the whole family. I always talked about opening a small restaurant with some friends.

I’m a passionate surfer. Once a year I travel somewhere to surf – Indonesia, The Maldives, Fiji, Hawaii. I surf here every weekend. I have a house on the beach just 90 minutes from São Paulo. It’s a nice way to forget about everything. I disconnect very quickly, within two days when I go on holiday. I take lots of exercise otherwise life is too stressful.

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