The Heretic Adman Shaking Up Europe
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because knowing who makes what makes up your mind in matters of style and substance can’t hurt.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In the heart and heat of Paris in late spring, Andrea Stillacci sits somewhere in the 16th arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower.
The locale? A 22,000-square-foot, former early-20th-century nursery. It’s somehow fitting when you consider the kind of dream factory that Stillacci, an Italian-born punk rocker, has brought to bear for everyone from Coca-Cola and Barilla to Amazon and Google, where making a brand breathe and live is part of a special kind of alchemy. And those big corporate names should in no way obscure how and why Stillacci came, saw and conquered the subversive mysteries of getting people to care about shit they got along without just fine before advertising came along. The result? According to AdForum, his firm, Herezie, has pulled in more awards than any other indie agency in France.
“If you’re paying attention,” Stillacci says in his Italian-French-accented English, “you can very easily make the brain an offer it can’t dismiss and the heart can’t refuse.” The 50-year-old married father of two teenagers has been performing this sleight of hand since he got bitten by the bug more than three decades, at age 14. His mother, a teacher of French literature, and his father, a manager at Fiat, had dragged him and his brother, Jacopo, out of Turin and into Milan. There, the Stillaccis’ next-door neighbor was a man named Franco Cagnasso.
Managing creatives is like getting the members of Cirque du Soleil to mow your lawn: You have no idea how they’re going to pull it off, but it’ll be fun to watch.
Stephanie Peirolo, ad agency consultant
As luck would have it, Cagnasso owned a successful advertising agency, and he inspired the teenage Andrea, who, over the subsequent few years, dove into the grime of punk. That addiction led to punk radio shows and writing gigs, first about indie music, then about contemporary art. “Cagnasso got me to understand that all of this is about humans,” says Stillacci. “How they live, feel, react, behave and how this intersects with both information and entertainment.”
The shove sent the punk rocker obsessed with the interaction of creativity, society and cash straight to the University of Turin to study economics. And then, tragedy: Jacopo was killed in a car accident. Rather than stumble, Stillacci, inspired by both his late brother’s and his parents’ relentless optimism, got two tattoos of the letter “J” — one on his arm, the other over his heart — and got to business and the business of living. The journey took him from Milan to Buenos Aires to London before he settled down in Paris and settled on an idea born in the full bloom of the punk-inspired DIY ethos: starting a company that was a living, breathing tribute to heresy.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the heretics that fought against the Roman Catholic Church with their lives,” says Stillacci, who has long been drawn to what he calls “the holy fire.” It’s a pretty noble sentiment for a member of an industry routinely accused of being tone-deaf to 21st-century interests in inclusion.
The feeling was significant enough to cause Stillacci and co-founding partner Pierre Callegari to do one of the stupidest things that anyone ever did in the middle of the 2009 recession. With no clients and being an Italian in France, albeit one who spoke four languages, Stillacci answered the call for entrepreneurial freedom, fired up by this idea that advertising was about people.
Partway between wants and needs, Stillacci always understood the creation of ad campaigns as being a kind of alchemy that drew on the inspirational as well the aspirational, all on the tightrope strung up above schlock and craven commercialism. Then he set about undoing all of the standard business-as-usual stuff. Sixty percent of his 135 employees are women, several of them in top management roles, and people of color, while not abounding, are also in the mix.
This is not the norm. “I found advertising to be a pretty brutal place for women, especially women of color,” says Stephanie Peirolo of UpperHand, a Seattle-based ad agency consultancy, who made her bones at Publicis. “But managing creatives is like getting the members of Cirque du Soleil to mow your lawn: You have no idea how they’re going to pull it off, but it’ll be fun to watch. Seems like he’s done that.”
Stillacci now finds himself in daily battle not only with Havas and Publicis — two of the biggest ad networks in the world are French — but also with hundreds of advertising agencies in a market representing 2.1 percent of France’s gross domestic product. And that’s taking into consideration parameters beyond the media spend in advertising like industry salaries, according to industry journal L’Usine Digitale. Last year Herezie brought in about $20 million from 30 different advertisers in 28 countries.
None of which matters in the end if it’s just about making money, which can be made even if things are not great (we’re looking at you, gas station food).
“The Herezie campaigns won tons of awards and work in terms of results and awareness,” says Babette Auvray-Pagnozzi, author of two books on French advertising. “Andrea is a creative and rigorous guy who gets the best out of his international experience and transforms that into creating jobs for 130 people in a dynamic way in a market that’s been suffering a tangible recession.”
The sentiment is rounded out by Martin de Pedro, designer, artist and veteran of a number of identity campaigns. “It’s almost immaterial in Stillacci’s case what they’re advertising,” he says. “How it’s advertised is the issue.”
That concern was front and center when Stillacci started designing a pro bono campaign for Handicap International. It’s not flashy or slick — driven by a secret weapon, his Executive Creative Director Baptiste Clinet, who also ushered into existence his work for David Lynch — but simple. A simplicity forced on it by a nonexistent budget, and by the difficulty in getting permission from various commissions and the Mayor of Paris to do stunts, in this instance, inserting prosthetic limbs on real statues at the Louvre and all over Paris.
“It was an ‘honest’ idea that raises awareness of a global issue and ties it into a tangible solution,” says Stillacci, who in the past few years has gotten into krav maga. How much awareness was raised? At last count 5 million people via the hashtag #BodyCantWait. The campaign won Herezie a silver and a bronze at the Clio advertising awards in September, in addition to its silver for a Google Cloud effort. “Technology opens billions of ways to interact with life,” Stillacci says. “But human beings laugh and cry for the same things and that’s what makes both life and advertising so unquestionably fascinating.”