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Luis Miguel Messianu named his ad agency Alma, after the Spanish word for “soul.” Advertising is a business associated with selling, not soul-searching, but Messianu has a different idea about successful brands. The company’s well-known mantra contends, “Brands, like people, have soul.” He believes that good brands connect on human terms. An agency forges that intangible element, bonding people and products. But if the soul of the brand is rotten, advertising will out it. As Bill Bernbach put it, “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people knowing it’s bad.” Bad brands go to hell. Good brands go home with you.

Leo Peet, vice president of finance; Angela Battistini, senior vice president of brand services; Isaac Mizrahi, co-president and COO;
Luis Miguel Messianu, creative chairman and CEO; Álvar Suñol, co-president and CCO; Michelle Headley, senior vice president of operations.

Peers, competitors and clients regard Alma as one of the top multicultural agencies in the United States. Its campaigns for Hispanic consumers are now crossing over to the general market. The Clorox Company recently awarded Alma the task of leading two total-market campaigns.

Patty Morris, director of brand content and development at State Farm Insurance, suggests why: “Alma can take a complex topic like insurance and make it relatable to an audience who may not understand its nuances. As we’ve expanded our presence in social media for the Hispanic market, Alma created a loveable and relatable campaign character in Abuela Rosa [Grandmother Rose]. Recognizing the human truth that grandmothers are respected, trusted and loved universally, but more so in Hispanic culture, this charismatic and kind character offers helpful advice. That campaign has helped us build trust and emotional connection within the Hispanic market.”

Luis Miguel, as he is known, is the agency’s guiding force and conscience. Born in Mexico City to Romanian immigrants who had fled the despot Nicolae Ceauşescu shortly after World War II, Luis Miguel is cheerful, intelligent and accessible—his office door is always open. He speaks movingly of his love for family and his commitment to keeping Alma a place where all are treated with respect and kindness. He shares credit and responsibility with his team, recently naming two colleagues, Isaac Mizrahi and Álvar Suñol, agency copresidents. Mizrahi is also the agency’s chief operating officer. 

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Luis Miguel got his break at seventeen, when a friend happened upon something he had written and suggested he contact a local ad agency for an entry-level job. The teen was more interested in soccer and acting, but got the job and wrote a radio spot that aired within a week. “My father was appalled. He had secured me an internship with his dentist and wanted me to pursue a more stable career. For me, advertising was fun, challenging and gratifying. Eventually, my father understood that happiness was about fulfillment, not money.”

Messianu’s Hispanic origins and immigrant experience informed his career. He knew from the beginning that he wanted to build an agency that spoke to Hispanic Americans, a choice that has won him loyal friends and professional distinction. In 1994, he opened Del Rivero Messianu DDB, rebranding it in 2007 as Alma.

Boris Nurko, associate director of advertising and communi­cation production at the Clorox Company, has admired Messianu for more than 20 years. He recalls that Luis Miguel was the only agency director to call him when he sent his promo reel after graduating from Columbia University’s film school 20 years ago. A few years later, they ran into each other. “I was an assistant director on a shoot for McDonald’s that Alma was shooting in Mexico City. I saw him, reintro­duced myself, and thanked him for his kindness to me three years earlier. He remembered me. For a young immigrant filmmaker trying to make his way in this business, this meant a lot to me,” he said. Nurko, born in Mexico to Jewish parents from Turkey and Lithuania, said, “We seek out people who think and speak as we do, and I’m not just talking about language. I am talking about culture. You cannot teach it. You must live it. And Luis Miguel has.”

Paul Bouche, CEO and partner at Astracanada Productions, Inc., believes Messianu’s combination of humanity and business savvy makes him unique. “There are select human beings who can truly connect with their consciousness, the greatest source of their inspiration. You need an open mind and the courage to throw conven­tion out the window. Luis Miguel blends his humanity with the skills and aptitudes needed to be a successful business owner and communicator. By wisely figuring out a way to put his gifts to the service of clients and brands, he has advanced the cultural under­standing and respect of Hispanic people everywhere.”

Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States, comprising eighteen percent of the US population. More than a third are immigrants. What once was a niche market is now a fat slice of it. Marketers who ignore it—or condescend to it—are foolish.

Mizrahi, a former Coca-Cola executive from Brazil, suggests the salsa secreta is cultural understanding and respect. “The best brands speak to the cultural interests of their audience,” he says. “They don’t simply translate a sentence into Spanish and hope it works. For a long time, marketers tried to put Hispanics into one box. Part of this was chauvinism. Part of it was laziness. Today, successful brands are developing products and services that appeal to Hispanic buyers’ needs and desires. Our job is to help them find ways to communi­cate that commitment and respect to Hispanic audiences.”

For me, advertising was fun, challenging and gratifying. Eventually, my father understood that happiness was about fulfillment, not money.” —Luis Miguel Messianu

For more than fifteen years, a diminutive Argentinian woman wearing enormous black-framed eyeglasses beneath a prominent set of bangs has been Alma’s not-so-secret weapon. Marta Insua, a psychologist from Buenos Aires who has worked in market research most of her career, cannot be overlooked. Using her wide network of friendships and connections, she has brought to Alma troves of insights as its “chief curiosity director,” drawing from sociology, anthropology, political history, cultural history and human behavior.

She knows the Hispanic immigrant experience because, she says, “I am one.” Witness Alma’s recent McDonald’s spot, “First Customer”: parental pride for a son on his first day at work taking orders at McDonald’s. Even if you dislike McDonald’s, it’s impossible not to be moved by the familial love and pride this piece of film captures. All of it has the fingerprints of Insua and her research team.

“Part of our job is to understand the ‘quest’ of the immigrant,” says Insua. “How do they measure fulfillment? Achievement? For years, American marketers condescended to immigrants. No more. We have proven such treatment is not only insulting, but also unprofitable. I believe clients turn to us because they want to be a part of this and gain from it.”

JP Theberge leads Cultural Edge Consulting, a consumer insight boutique firm specializing in collecting data, knowl­edge and, of course, insights. A frequent Alma collaborator, he appreciates the agency’s nuanced understanding of Hispanics. “Too many marketers stress the complexities of the Hispanic market. The many nationalities, dialects and segments—bicultural, recent arrivals, etc.—can be over­whelming. No group is monolithic. Millennials, Gen Zers, boomers, gadget freaks, truck guys and stay-at-home moms are not characters in a bad sitcom—they’re real people with a variety of life experiences,” Theberge says. “If you only scratch the surface of their motivations or stereotype them, you fall flat. But if you can find nuggets of universal emotional truth, you will strike gold. With a wink and a whisper, you say to them, ‘I know where you’re coming from.’ Alma regards consumers as people, not targets to be manipulated or convinced.”

Alma’s 150 employees represent more than 30 Spanish-speaking nations, all squeezed into mostly wall-free space on the fourth floor of a bland high-rise overlooking the silver-sequined waters of Biscayne Bay. To service its new Sprint account, Alma recently added more than 50 staff members, causing some growing pains.

As the agency expands, bad actors cannot hide in its office geography. Neither roles nor ranks nor cubicles divide the staff. Account execs, writers, planners, art directors, producers and interns are thrown together side by side, glued to their screens and tethered by their earbuds.

The worst mistake you can make here is mistreating others. We don’t do assholes, divas or rock stars.” —Álvar Suñol

A member of the relative newcomers, Suñol was cajoled out of temporary retirement from his home in the Canary Islands two years ago. Wearing tight blue jeans and a white T-shirt over a toned and tanned physique, Suñol looks like a young Bruce Springsteen without the Jersey tough-guy thing. He is more like your friendly older brother, inspiring respect, confidence and the urge to please.

Suñol believes the tight-knit culture will resolve any issues with Alma’s expansion. “The only thing that will get you fired here is making the same mistake over and over again after we’ve asked you to improve,” Suñol says. “This is a business that treats people like family, but it is not a family business that puts up with your shit. The worst mistake you can make here is mistreating others. We don’t do assholes, divas or rock stars.”

In January 2016, Alma was once again named to Advertising Age’s Agency A-List. Although Alma was also named Advertising Age’s Multicultural Agency of the Year in 2014 and 2015, another multicultural agency in Miami, the community (also known as la comunidad), took the honor this year. When asked to compare his agency with the community, Messianu demurred. “Their work is excellent. We always benefit from strong competition. I respect their work.” One Brazilian staff member was less generous: “They’re not multicultural, they’re Argentine.” Ouch.

The American Hispanic market is big enough, diverse enough and rich enough for both of these Miami multi­cultural behemoths. Alma once created a poster to demonstrate the many nationalities on its team by showing the many ways staff said the word “popcorn”: palomitas (Mexico); rosetas (Andalusia, Spain); pochoclos (Argentina); cabritas (Chile); pororó (Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay); pop (Uruguay); cotufas (Venezuela); gallitos (northwestern Venezuela); crispetas, maíz pira, maíz tote (Colombia); cocaleca (Dominican Republic); poporopo (Guatemala); canchitas (Peru); canguil (Ecuador); millo (Panama); rositas de maíz (Cuba); pipoca (Bolivia and northeastern Argentina).

Alma means soul. Alma means business. Alma means to win your heart. Watch out. ca

Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.

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