A man of many talents, Srđan Šaper, reveals to Kapital why he moved from rock music into the marketing domain, whether he considers himself as a manager or an entrepreneur, whether he has any plans for his agencies, which advertising campaigns have left a special impression on him, as well as many other things.
Former vocalist of the legendary Belgrade band Idoli, unaccomplished doctor, historian, and professor of literature, graduate director at the Faculty of Drama Arts, and today one of the most successful managers in the advertising industry in the Balkans.
Somewhere at the beginning of the 80s, on Belgrade walls graffiti appeared, which was supposed to announce a new rock band on stage, called VIS Dečaci. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Srđan, be a man’, ‘Boys emancipate women’ were some of several lucid messages that have achieved their goal – to attract the attention of the public. The media wrote about that, and the band began to play.
Later, “Dečaci” grew into “Idoli”, a band that marked the Yugoslavian “new wave” and which entered all anthologies of the popular music of our former state, as one of the most important rock bands.In both groups, our interlocutor in this interview, Srđan Šaper, was the vocalist, who at the beginning probably was not even aware that the above-mentioned graffiti was, in fact, the first “marketing campaign” in his career. After a few years, Idoli fell apart, Yugoslavia fell apart too, and marketing and communications marked Šaper’s future life – he worked first in several marketing agencies, in film and drama production, a little in political campaigns, so that in 1997, he signed an agreement with McCann Worldgroup and opened his agencies in Belgrade and Skopje. In the following years, Šaper founded agencies in other countries in the region, and, today, the system works successfully in eight countries. All agencies, members of I&F McCann Group, are part of the largest communications network in the world, McCann Worldgroup. Šaper is today one of the most successful people in the field of marketing communications in the Balkans, his agencies regularly receive awards at regional and international festivals, such as the recent awards at the Golden Drum Festival in Portorož and the award for the most successful agency in the region which McCann Beograd got in Rovinj.
McCann quite often wins awards at prestigious festivals, so this time it also received award at the Golden Drum Festival in Slovenia. What are all these awards for you and what is the secret of success of your agency, which is regionally distributed in several countries?
We are trying to create a kind of creative culture in the agency, which is most important for our business – to make everyone who works in the agency feel as part of a unique creative team. This, of course, sometimes results in the excellent, and sometimes in the awarded campaign. Creativity in marketing communications should be a combination of science and entertainment. At least that is how we in McCann position it. Of all the awards that we have received, the biggest is still the one that McCann Skopje received, the Golden Lion, at the most prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
As in other businesses, it is certain that even your business faces competition, so if the client asked why they should choose your agency in particular, which would be the simplest answer?
We can hear what the client sees as their problem, and we can say what we think they should do to solve it. Everything in between is what we actually do.
Do you consider yourself to be a successful businessman? How do you perceive yourself?
I think that I managed to make a successful and respected company, and that is the reason that makes me feel good. We have over 300 employees, mostly young people, we have been the nursery of talents and staff all over our region, and a long-term irreplaceable support to a large number of our clients, we participate in creating a positive spirit of cooperation and joint work in all countries where we operate, we love to be curious and optimistic. All this makes me happy.
How did you switch from rock music to the world of advertising, political campaigns, etc.? Were you interested in politics in your younger days, when we lived in the so-called “single-mindedness”?
Of course, I think that the work of Idoli is the confirmation that politics, in fact, political communication between people and their institutions, interested all of us then. Since in the world of rock’n’roll there is a rule that either you die young or grow old as someone who wants to change society, but “no longer from the basement, but from the roof”, I opted for the latter.
How did it come about that you got a franchise for McCann 17-18 years ago? How much of the market in which you are doing business do you keep in Serbia today, and how much in other countries where your agencies exist?
Franchise, we can say, was easy to get, because we were among the first in this region interested in it, who had the knowledge and experience to realise it. The result is reflected in nearly two decades of successful cooperation with perhaps the greatest and certainly one of the oldest and most respected advertising networks in the world. Today we operate in eight countries in the region and our market share is different from country to country, and it depends on the market development. We want to take the maximum advantage of the benefits of a regional system and get the best people to work on the best projects, so that we could provide our partners with the best regional service. Our wish is to be the largest and most interesting agency on all markets. I am proud to say that on most markets we already are, and I hope that in two years’ time we will be in the same position wherever we operate. McCann Skopje is not only the leading agency in Macedonia, but also in the top agencies in the region if we consider the number of international clients, received international and regional awards.
What is the situation in the communications industry in Serbia today, if we compare Macedonia and other countries in which your group operates? How much has the crisis affected the business, are marketing and communications budgets of companies recovering, and what are your forecasts in the medium term?
Serbia is a bigger market in terms of budget and number of clients, and there is no doubt that, in terms of business, it is more developed than Macedonia. However, this does not mean that agencies are better, but just that they have more opportunities for development. Otherwise, the problems we face are the same. Decreasing consumption and investment lead to decline in sales, which is related to lower advertising budgets, thus creating a closed circle that goes down. My character and position do not allow me to be a pessimist, but I must say that I am not an optimist either when it comes to our countries. The situation is in all respects very difficult.
There are brands that have survived the transition and today are popular in the former SFRY. Why from 1991 onwards in each of independent countries it is kind of hard to create new brands, which would have the potential to gain popularity such as Cedevita, Cockta, Smoki, Bekutan etc?
Because markets are smaller and more fragmented, and, therefore, the support that goes with the introduction and duration of brands that become famous is much smaller. And, of course, the competition is much greater. SFRY (former Yugoslavia) was, after all, not a country of open markets, and it brought multiple profits to the national brands. However, even in such difficult circumstances, many new brands have become regionally strong, for example, Nectar, Grand coffee, Doncafe, Chipsy from Serbia, Vitalia from Macedonia…
You enrolled in medicine, you finished the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, you were a musician, an actor, you are now at the helm of a company in the field of creative industries. So, you were always involved in the arts in one way or another (if we exclude medicine and political campaigns). How much is in all this people management a challenge for you, as you are a manager of a regional company? What type of manager do you consider yourself to be, and what are the principles which you adhere to in the daily management of I&F McCann Grupa?
Honestly, I have never thought of myself primarily as a manager. I would like more to see myself as an entrepreneur. It is a beautiful word, a man who enters into something new. In the end, I am not qualified to be a manager, and, in this respect, my people management has always been more the result of intuition and, for example, astrological sign, not to mention my character, rather than excessive knowledge. I am a lover of compromise and I think it has helped me in everyday practice, and, on the other hand, I can bring the necessary “dose of fire in the dark and cold nights”. But since this is, of course, not enough, I brought into our company the people who know much more than me how to run a business and how to manage people and resources. McCann has always been a company that people come to with a clear desire to work right there, and not somewhere else. We did it, and we are constantly working to create a common feeling that being in McCann is somehow a special thing. And that is because we had, and we have really special people.
What do you most appreciate with your associates, and what is it that can make you lose your temper?
I appreciate the positive spirit, cooperation, and taking responsibility for decisions and mistakes. I lose my temper when I see pettiness, the attitude that nothing is possible, uncongeniality. I have understanding for most of human flaws, but hypocrisy leaves me at least indifferent.
When you started working in the advertising industry, there was only television and radio, while advertising was based mainly on videos. A lot of things happened in the meantime, the Internet and social media have become the masters of our lives. Where is the advertising industry heading now? What will the companies and brands do next in the fierce battle for consumers?
I think that personalisation of communication, which we already see, and which has found its place in many sci fi movies, is inevitable. Advertisers will find us everywhere and will speak to us personally. This will, in the developed world, certainly lead to the setting up of ethics and social correctness in the core of each campaign. We still look like one another, but, on the other hand, respect for diversity has created the most diverse world from the beginning of the human race. It is usually forgotten in the stories about the negative aspects of globalisation.
People usually say that this question is the same as asking a parent which is his favourite child, and so on, but here it is: which advertising campaign has left a special mark in your career – not necessarily the award-winning, just, which project has changed something and made a difference?
There are many such projects, of course, it is always said so. The project that I ambitiously realised at the beginning of the work for the International Basketball Federation was important to me. I think it was absolutely ahead of its time, but they did not accept it. If they did, I would never have made the agency. In respect of McCann’s campaigns, the one for LAV Beer, “You either are or you are not a lion”, was socially most striking. It has become a part of life. But, indeed, there were many of them, and many were, from today’s perspective, ahead of their time. For instance, when it comes to the content show, which we here in Macedonia in 2000 produced together with colleagues from the studio TOMATO for Coca-Cola, called Tokmu Toa, it was and is still an unsurpassed combination of television and marketing, with a clear definition of strategy, message, and identification of a target group. I would also like to mention a campaign called “For our own good”. It is one of the first major public awearness campaigns that we implemented back in 2000 in Macedonia, and that is current today. The logo of this campaign, a smiling sun “Made in Macedonia” is still used, and is the most widely used logo in the Macedonian creative industry.
I know that it is not worthwhile to comment on the competition, and so on, but just like artists are asked about favourite authors, I would like to ask you: which advertising campaign that was not realised by McCann has delighted you lately (regional or global)?
Honestly, I do not have a habit to make a list of things that I like, I think that we live in a transient world where we have to try do everything we do the best we can. This means that in a sea of stupidity which we are surrounded with, there are a lot of good, creative, fun campaigns. These are the ones that put a smile on your face when you see them. But I do not remember the old ones, I remember mostly new and fresh things. For instance, the campaign that I have really liked lately is “The Chronicle of Threats”, realised by the Belgrade Saatchi & Saatchi, which received an award in Cannes for that. Socially relevant, smart, and different.
You became an entrepreneur about 20 years ago, and after all that experience, what would be your helpful advice for young entrepreneurs in the region, what would you tell them?
Two things: to not hesitate but to get down to work because it is the most beautiful thing when you create something of your own, which until then has not existed, and second, to not take heed that success will be fast or large. But the road to this success is really great.
How do you balance between the challenges of being successful in what you do, and a desire to see, hear, experience everything you would want to in a time when it is difficult to cope with an endless source of information, when technology is changing fast, and there is a chronic lack of time…?
I sleep a lot less than I would like to. I read a lot less than I used to.
Srđan Šaper is the founder and chairman of I&F McCann Grupa, one of the leading communications networks in Southeast Europe, which operates in eight countries.
Srđan Šaper is known as the founder and member of Vis Idoli, which started the new wave movement on the music stage of former Yugoslavia.
After the music career, he entered the world of marketing. Before the establishment of McCann, he worked as a creative director, TV commercials producer, and director of SM Delo, Borba, Idols&Friends, Ogilvy&Mather, and Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1997, Srđan signed a contract with McCann Worldwide and opened agencies in Belgrade and Skopje. In the next few years, Srđan established agencies in other countries of the Balkan region and today’s system successfully operates in eight countries.
All agencies, members of I&F McCann Group, are part of the largest global communications network, McCann Worldgroup, and deliver international experience and local expertise through their entire range of services.
Recently, at the Golden Drum festival, the agency network, McCann for Central and Eastern Europe, within which agencies being the part of I&F Grupa work, was declared the best communication network in this part of Europe.
The agencies McCann Beograd and McCann Tirana, working within I&F McCann Grupa, also contributed to this significant recognition, winning one gold and two silver awards at the Golden Drum Festival.
During his 25 years of experience in marketing and communications sector, Srđan Šaper has become one of the leading experts in this industry in the region. What is more, he is one of the most prominent public figures, who actively contributes to the world of business and culture of modern Serbia.
This article was published on the portal Kapital in the Macedonian language.