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There is an enthusiastic regional pride in the creative work now winning awards from the global community. Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea and formerly part of Yugoslavia, is slightly smaller than West Virginia, yet there are 135 design firms in its capital city Zagreb (pop. 780,000), known as “Little Vienna,” including international ad agencies BBDO, Futura DDB and Bates Saatchi & Saatchi. Unlike other Eastern European countries, Croatia had advertising agencies in the pre- and post-Communist eras, with both capitalism and communism existing there simultaneously.

Croatia has had a robust design and advertising culture since the 1990s. With its relatively young economy, designers and ad creators have had the freedom to create adventurous work. The twenty-year-old School of Design at Zagreb University has produced highly qualified graduates. Most graphic design in Croatia is produced in advertising agencies, while independent design studios work primarily for the cultural sector and smaller companies. With the opening of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, there was a rush by companies, especially in the food industry, to develop new brands and to update strong brands that had originally been created during the 1970s.

The story of Bruketa&Žinić OM exemplifies the robust post-war, post-socialist spirit of Croatia. Davor Bruketa and Nikola Žinić met as students at Zagreb University’s design school and, after stints with established studios, opened their own design office in 1995. Podravka, the largest food company in Croatia, hired them while they were still students and it remains a top client; B&Ž has designed seven of its annual reports and the innovative 2007 report has won a number of creative awards. In order to offer more communication tools, in addition to graphic design, the partners decided to become a full-service ad agency a few years ago. The agency now employs 50 creative individuals (and several dogs) in a rambling series of spaces in an office building near the city center, the former site of a toilet paper factory. B&Ž is not a space designed to impress, but a busy workshop with a deceptively laid-back atmosphere, part of the culture of community that the partners established from the outset.

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“The advantage of working in Croatia's small market is that we are able to precisely target our audience,” says Bruketa, with only minor language barriers within this region, expansion is easier for local agencies and local brands. Advertising campaigns are very conspicuous here and campaigns are discussed enthusiastically in the media. Public opinion responds quickly.” Žinić adds, “It is harder to access large international brands that have big advertising and design budgets, but working with limited budgets has made us more innovative and created new communication channels.

“Croatian designers surely have enough talent and knowledge,” he continues, “but we miss specialization. Here everybody is doing everything. At B&Ž we are trying to make specialists within different domains because we believe that a single designer can’t be equally good at visual identity, packaging and advertising.”

Young, ambitious and hip, Bruketa and Žinić have won numerous awards for their witty, often unconventional approach to advertising including London International Awards, Cresta, Clio, Epica, ADC New York, Young Guns and New York Festivals. The work has been published in many prestigious publications including Communication Arts, the New York Times and numerous books. The partners have visited New York a number of times to receive awards. What were their impressions? “New York is the only place in America that I feel I could live in,” Žinić says. “Everybody speaks funny English, you don’t feel like a stranger there, it’s totally free.” They were both impressed by the layout and structure of the city as well as the ease in finding their way around. “You quickly share in the energy, it moves really fast. There are no superstar designers in the U.S.; designers are just doing their business. When American designers come to Croatia, they are met by TV crews and media asking for an interview—they are stunned!”

If we believe something is impossible, in two days the whole office will become depressed. To keep people motivated, forget the word ‘impossible’!” — Nikola Žinić

Four years ago, together with Anja Bauer Minkara and Moe Minkara, B&Ž established Brandoctor, as a separate consultancy. “The perception was that Bruketa and Žinić are two crazy guys not capable of making hard business decisions,” says Žinić, “perhaps too creative and not strategic enough.” Bruketa adds, “Brandoctor is the sniper. B&Ž is the trigger.” The consultancy, consisting of a group of seven within the office, helps to define and communicate brands with extensive research and analysis. New clients are free to hire Brandoctor solely for this service and not chose B&Ž for advertising, but most do.

In creating this sister agency Bruketa and Žinić have proved that they are able to successfully switch from T-shirts to suits. Some clients have worked with B&Ž for seven or eight years. The partners insist that the client and designer must be compatible. Cooperation between the agency and Brandoctor has been successful, although they move at entirely different tempos and use their tools in different ways. B&Ž works at a crazy, hectic pace while Brandoctor has a slower, more deliberate rhythm, sometimes taking months to define a new brand.

When asked which ad agencies they most admire they immediately replied, “Wieden Kennedy!,” inspired not only by its creative campaigns, but also the management style and strategic, research-based approach that goes deep into the brand culture. In spite of the fact that this is a relatively large, successful design business, Bruketa and Žinić are still quite hands-on, directing creative teams on a wide range of projects while continuing to learn. “In the future, digitalization will provide more precise targeting and completely new forms, so we must create innovative ways to reach audiences by using both traditional and new media,” says Bruketa. “Technology offers opportunities that will allow us to introduce original concepts to our clients.”

Technology offers opportunities that will allow us to introduce original concepts to our clients.” — Davor Bruketa

What are the problems that B&Ž face? “A major one for us,” Žinić explains, “is finding the right staff, people who can contribute to our agency culture—the chemistry has to be right.” Another issue is motivation, “How can we keep people believing that they can go further and do more than is expected? The best way is by our own example.

“If we believe something is impossible, in two days the whole office will become depressed. To keep people motivated, forget the word ‘impossible’!”

The partners consider winning creative awards both good and bad. “Although winning creates broad visibility, to many prospective clients the perception is that we are expensive, but our prices compare with other good agencies,” says Bruketa. “Originally awards were meant to raise the level and standards of the industry, but some advertising is produced only to impress other designers. Yes, our clients care about awards. It is good PR for the client and B&Ž: but for us the real goal is to show that our work is effective.

“This is an exciting time. The advertising business is changing. Nobody knows where this business will be in ten years. Fifteen years ago in Zagreb, agencies were all about media buying and the creative part was almost free. Today everything is different. The focus now is on relevant insights, strategic thinking and creativity.”

Their decision to remain a totally independent agency and not be bought out by a large global company has been a wise one. Bruketa and Žinić remain free to make decisions without having to satisfy the financial quotas dictated by a parent agency. And B&Ž wins awards for its work because it has succeeded in making even conservative companies look cool, sexy and modern. What do Bruketa and Žinić consider to be their best work? “Every future project!” they reply with a laugh. ca

Linda Cooper Bowen is a marketing consultant interested in exploring current business issues which concern the creative profession. She has written for Communication Arts, Graphis, Print, HOW and I.D., as well as a number of foreign publications. Bowen has taught a graduate marketing course at Pratt Institute and is a frequent guest lecturer to design organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Her book, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Creative Marketing is published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. For additional information, see lindabiz.com. Bowen live in downtown Jersey City, where she enjoys an excellent rear view of the Statue of Liberty.

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