Emotion works. Advertisers understand that consumers are much more likely to remember a brand when they feel a strong visceral response to it. One among the breed of advertising agencies that like to stir the senses, Contrapunto BBDO is in touch with its feelings. Regarded for its creativity and beautiful print work, the agency is Spain’s most awarded at Festival de Cannes, El Sol and Festival Iberoamericano de Publicidad, with campaigns that have cultivated cachet both at home and abroad. Imagine work that is imbued with meaning and ads that make you smile or weep.
Contrapunto BBDO’s down-to-earth humor and knack for casual conversations appear throughout its portfolio. For example, take its witty TV ads for the Spanish National Lottery. A wistful department store clerk brags about a brilliant ring from her husband and shows it off to all her cooing coworkers—except the “jewelry” is just a lottery ticket draped across her ring finger. The campaign drives home the idea of dreams so close, you can touch them. Another example is the agency’s latest campaign for Mercedes-Benz, poking fun at a Michelin three-star chef who humbly tries to claim he doesn’t care about stars—until someone steals his Mercedes-Benz “star,” or hood ornament. These ads resonate with our everyday points of vanity and pride, jealousy and desire—the agency gets us.
Creative director Carlos Jorge, who joined the company as a junior designer in 1998, asserts that the agency’s empathetic personality, evident since Contrapunto BBDO was founded, sets the tone for all brand activity and customer interactions. “The agency is like a school,” he explains. “I learned from former creative director Antonio Montero, and he learned from the creative director before him. There is a certain style to our method of working that is recognizable, and we feel very proud of that. What’s special is that regardless of the people running the agency, the ethos remains the same. We treat consumers as people, and the aim of our work is to touch the heart.”
Now comprising a team of 90 in offices in Madrid and Barcelona, Contrapunto BBDO began in 1974, when the agency’s five founders set up the Madrid office. Entering a creative golden age, the agency rode the wave of la movida Madrileña (the Madrid movement), a cultural movement that emerged after the death in 1975 of the dictator Francisco Franco and broadened personal freedoms and civil rights. Through the 1980s, the movement embodied the artistic spirit of Spain. Playing a role in the transition to democracy, Contrapunto BBDO led some of the most contemporary campaigns on the subjects of AIDS, the use of condoms and women’s equality, which had previously been forbidden topics. “It wasn’t about leading any movement,” explains general manager Francisco Ribera de Gracia. “It was about listening to it. We were reflecting how attitudes were changing in this country, making them relevant to many people still anchored to the past.”
As the first agency to be named “International Agency of the Year” in 1991 by Advertising Age, Contrapunto BBDO experienced a long run of creative accolades—then the 1990s financial crash hit. The agency’s business smarts turned the crisis into a minor setback, getting results at a time when sectors such as the automobile industry had lost 50 percent of their market. It was a bad time to advertise a car, but that didn’t stop Contrapunto BBDO.
Mercedes-Benz is now one of the agency’s flagship clients. In the ’90s, “Mercedes-Benz was open to new ideas and wanted to rejuvenate itself,” explains CEO David Coral. “It is easier to launch a new brand than to change the perception of one that is already established, but we needed to reach a new breed of consumer. The main challenge was that the new cars were not yet available to see. We had to convince the audience that the company was changing—without showing any cars. We did this with humor,” says Jorge. The TV ads played out as a series of everyday conversations between friends. “The ads were saying ‘I’m not better. I’m just changing.’ The claim was ‘Something is happening.’” Consumers realized that Mercedes-Benz was transforming simply through video clips showing the reactions of people looking at the new car. The car maker was making fun of itself in an original way—without showing its own product. By putting itself in the consumer’s shoes, Contrapunto BBDO helped to change the perception of the brand.
Reflecting its passion for social good, Contrapunto BBDO has formed strong relationships with nongovernmental organizations, conceiving big ideas that either raise money and awareness for important causes or advocate to alter policy. For Amnesty International, the agency’s empathy is apparent in its 2015 ad, “Terrorists.” The ad initially appears to be about terrorism, opening on two masked men who list their demands—“the immediate release of our own from prison; the persecution must be stopped.” When the men hold hands and unmask themselves, viewers realize they aren’t terrorists. The self-described “criminals” who are “endangering stability” are a gay couple. Finally, overlay text reveals, “In four of every ten countries, homosexuality is punishable with a prison sentence or even the death penalty.”
It’s an efficient approach, playing off our prejudices to increase impact. Coral says, “We’ve learned a lot about how to create a high impact with a low budget. Sometimes you have to move the people—and sometimes you can make it fun. It comes back to the idea that there are two ways to communicate: to surprise or emotionally connect.”
The shock-tactic method is apparent in Contrapunto BBDO’s attention-grabbing prints for the World Wildlife Fund. Harnessing the power of beauty, the visually arresting images raise awareness about the extinction of the most unique and protected species on the planet, showing animals turning to dust in an explicit way.
For Amnesty International, the work is more rational and persuasive—even, at times, amusing. For its Putin digital ad, Contrapunto BBDO uses the Amnesty logo as if it were a fly buzzing around the nose of certain world leaders and making them look cross-eyed. It deftly mixes comedy with heavy-hitting and thought-provoking concepts.
In 2002, the agency opened its office in Barcelona, with Coral at the helm. He had previously held the position of business director of Bates Europe and left to head Contrapunto BBDO’s new Barcelona office. He and six others got the new location going. It grew quickly, and in 2008, it merged with a digital agency headed by Joaquim Calaf, who is now the general manager of the Barcelona office. “The merger was important for the evolution of the agency,” says Coral, “and for our relationship between the two cities.”
Calaf adds, “The environment in Barcelona is very different from that of Madrid. Whereas Madrid is the capital city with a liberal identity formed from la movida, in Barcelona, the personality is more structured. Also, the digital background is stronger in Barcelona, and this has its influence on the work, too. You can appreciate the difference in our copywriting most of all. Whereas both cities pursue an emotional connection, in Madrid, there is a very natural way of talking that mimics the Spanish sense of humor. In Barcelona, there is always a trace of irony, and we are less subtle in our approach.”
Today, more than half of Contrapunto BBDO’s work is digital—a trend that is set to grow. But for the agency, content is the most important thing. To put it simply: idea first, medium second. “We try to be clear in not confusing tools and goals,” says Jorge. “In some cases, technology is attractive. It’s fancy, it’s nice, it’s new—but a brand cannot survive with fake media. It still has to create a conversation. If the work is good, then the channels we use are less important.”
In approaching a project by defining the challenge, Contrapunto BBDO’s aim has been to understand the context and come up with an idea that is relevant—not in terms of consumers, but in terms of human beings. Four decades on, these values remain the same. This is helped in part by promoting the values from within—the mentorship aspect of the agency is strong. But it also works hard to understand what people are feeling and thinking about, perhaps now more so than ever.
True to its public spiritedness, Contrapunto BBDO has also been working with socialist party PSOE, the main opposition party to Partido Popular, which has been in office for the past four years. As the agency gathered momentum for the December 2015 general elections, its aim was to refresh the disillusioned younger generation’s perception of the traditional PSOE, showing the party’s progressive stances on issues such as women’s and workers’ rights.
The agency has done this in two ways. Its first ad targets new voters, aged 18 through 25, using an eye-catching animation that shows issues hindered by the ruling party and how the traditional political party might be the answer. The second ad takes a more confessional approach, in which members of the public speak openly about their needs and wishes. Rather than try to convince, this gentler tactic respects the intelligence of the populace. Here, it is more about listening than talking.
“This is a good example, like la movida, of the agency surfing the wave at the same time as society is changing,” says Ribera de Gracia. “This country has been through a lot of profound changes in the last seven years. In Spain, we call this period the ‘second transition.’ The first was the transition from Franco to democracy—and now, here comes the second.”
According to Ribera de Gracia, the key to the agency’s work connecting on social and political levels is to “understand before working and prepare before acting.” He continues, “We proactively listen to what the client has to say, use in-house research, embrace tons of bedtime reading, and seek out interesting and interested staff who are fully abreast of what’s cooking around the world. We had no previous experience in politics, yet we won the PSOE account this year. This happened because we demonstrated a remarkable capacity to quickly understand the reality of their business. Our proposal was modern, insightful and meaningful to people they intended to impact.”
Whether for luxury cars or animal rights advocacy, Contrapunto BBDO’s campaigns are socially relevant. The agency aims for maximum emotional impact, which has been its unique selling proposition since the 1970s. And happily for Contrapunto BBDO, if you understand society, advertising is a great place to be. ca