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Agency Life

Connect the Dots

Connect the Dots

Natasha Smith

Natasha Smith

April 5, 2018

Turns out that creativity emerges when you simply connect information from different places.

"But it turned out my great-great-great-grandmother had been a Havas, so I thought this could be a good omen for the whole adventure."

Alexander Rudan, Executive Creative Director at Havas Wien in Vienna, talks about his unusual start in advertising, the best and worst ideas that he’s ever had, and how to connect the creative dots.

How’d you get your start in advertising?

It was in the mid-90s. I was the playing head coach of the Vienna Vikings, a perennial powerhouse in European American Football. Towards the end of my active career, the Vikings’ president, who owned a small ad agency at that time, asked me if I wanted to work for him. I willingly accepted. Although I knew next to nothing about the job back then, he gave me a lot of freedom. So, I did everything from copywriting to art direction, account management, and print production for the clients I worked for—actually, everything but media buying. Baptism by fire.

And so, where did you go from there?

I left the small shop after some 20 months or so for a job offer as a copywriter at JWT. Next stop was FCB. Then I followed a job offer as a CD, later ECD, at Ogilvy. After about seven pretty successful years, I banged heads with the CEO there—a former politician and lobbyist—and who would have guessed, I ended up short. So, I left Ogilvy and worked as a freelance CD for Publicis, DDB, Lowe, and some local shops, when Frank Bodin—who was (besides his CEO job in Switzerland) the interim boss at the Vienna office at that time, looked for an ECD to run the agency here. And that was the very first time in my life that I applied for a job. Frank was crazy enough to hire me, and I have never looked back.

Why Havas?

Well, the former Euro RSCG Vienna had some very dire times and basically hit rock bottom back in 2011 and 2012. Frank was very honest about the situation—and truth be told, there were lots of people who thought I was crazy, but the chance to rebuild the agency and try to shape it to my beliefs was too good to pass up.


And when I talked to my dad about the opportunity, he smiled, vanished, and soon emerged from his basement with a dusty, framed copper engraving of the Havas crest. I was never much into ancestry research, but it turned out my great-great-great-grandmother had been a Havas, so I thought this could be a good omen for the whole adventure.  

"I think creativity is nothing more than the ability to connect the dots."

What’s the best thing about being an executive creative director?

The best thing is to be able to work across all accounts and spend time with all clients and all the people in the agency.

The biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is working across all accounts and spending time with all clients and all the people in the agency.

Define creativity.

I think creativity is nothing more than the ability to connect the dots. An ability, if not an inner impulse, to associate. It is about combining existing information, and as a result forming something new. All great inventions of mankind are basically such combinations. Think about Gutenberg’s letterpress, which was nothing but a winepress combined with moveable type.

In our industry, this means the combination of the specific information in a brief (product, target group, competition, price, etc.) with general information (everything you’ve ever seen, heard, felt, tasted, experienced). And if done well, this combination is done in a relevant and unseen way that becomes impactful.

Which is a rather technical definition, I know—one probably lacking magic and aura. But I like it, because I think it frees the “non-creatives” to give it a try, because creativity ain’t just a divine talent that you either have or don’t have. The equation is easy: the more varying information, the more possibilities to combine. It’s imperative to feverishly search for specific information, be forever curious about everything, and collect loads and loads of general information.

On a less technical level, I think creativity is an attitude. A 24/7 demeanor. And not anything you turn on from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Or in the ad business from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

How do you spark creativity amongst your team?

I try to encourage everybody in the agency—not just the Creative Department—to contribute and express their thoughts and share their ideas. And I tell them to come up with things they think are great or interesting to them and not with things they think I might like. Which sounds great to everybody, but still is hard for lots of people to do, because they are so afraid of making an absolute idiot of themselves in the process. So it is a lot about trust, as well as a mutual understanding I try to install that this is just the nature of the game and we all sit in the same boat. When trying to crack a brief, the majority of the ideas we come up with—all of us, no matter how senior or decorated—are just utterly bad, often embarrassing. But even the most useless things can be a source of inspiration to the next member in the team—so screw it and don’t hold back.

How does your city inspire you at work?

Culture and inspiration are omnipresent in Vienna. Arts, architecture, music. The city also has become a magnet for people from different cultures in the last couple of years. And even though some people think that this spells doom for society, it is actually a move back toward Vienna’s roots, as the city has always been a melting pot that drew its cultural greatness from these many colliding influences.

"But it is also a blessing, because you have to learn to do more with less."

What’s the most interesting thing about working in Vienna?

As international and as big as Vienna may be, it’s the capital of a very small market. And so the agencies, the accounts, and the production budgets are very small as well. This is often challenging—for example, if you have an idea that because of small budgets, can’t come to life. But it is also a blessing, because you have to learn to do more with less.


And you have to be a true generalist and know your way through all disciplines, as agencies can’t afford to hire specialists for everything. It makes things more engaging, too.

What’s the best idea that you’ve ever had?

The best idea was proposing to my wife almost 20 years ago. Hands down.

The worst?

The worst idea?

I had so many bad ideas in my career that if I got a Euro for each one I’d be a rich man. But the worst had to be when many years ago I wanted to change a pretty successful campaign, because I thought it had run out of steam; I had a new idea that I thought was oh-so-smart. I don’t even recall my idea, but it got rightfully rejected, because it was smarter in a sense of highlighting my own smartness than being truly smart, and we lost the client (not just because of that, but it certainly did its fair share). The new agency continued working on the original idea and delivered great work time and again. So that was that. But maybe it wasn’t that bad at all, because, believe me, it taught me a very valuable lesson.

Tell us about the biggest epiphany that you’ve had in your career.

I was lucky enough to meet a lot of nice and interesting people in the business that I’m happy to run into and have a chat with. But I always spent my leisure time with people from outside the industry. And thanks to their company, I quickly learned that the real people out there couldn’t care less about what we do. They care about doctors and their work, and teachers, and even plumbers. But advertising? Or its siblings like digital or CRM or PR or whatnot?

The moment you accept that fact, it changes the way you work and see work. And it for sure reminds you to take everything with a grain of salt—especially the next big thing that will definitely, 100 percent, this time for sure, once and for all change our profession.

What’s something that’s made you proud while working at Havas Vienna?

During the last couple of years we had people leave for other agencies for various reasons. And the fact that many came back to rejoin us and even more asked if they could come back is something that is more than satisfying to me.

Another thing that comes to my mind is Volvo. It was the first pitch we won here back in 2013 and, although Grey is handling the account now in most countries, Volvo has stayed with us in Austria. And in that time Volvo’s market share grew from 0.9% to 1.3%—which of course is also a result of fantastic new products. But I happen to think it also stems from countless pieces of hardworking stuff we came up with for them.

"But it turned out my great-great-great-grandmother had been a Havas, so I thought this could be a good omen for the whole adventure."

Alexander Rudan, Executive Creative Director at Havas Wien in Vienna, talks about his unusual start in advertising, the best and worst ideas that he’s ever had, and how to connect the creative dots.

How’d you get your start in advertising?

It was in the mid-90s. I was the playing head coach of the Vienna Vikings, a perennial powerhouse in European American Football. Towards the end of my active career, the Vikings’ president, who owned a small ad agency at that time, asked me if I wanted to work for him. I willingly accepted. Although I knew next to nothing about the job back then, he gave me a lot of freedom. So, I did everything from copywriting to art direction, account management, and print production for the clients I worked for—actually, everything but media buying. Baptism by fire.

And so, where did you go from there?

I left the small shop after some 20 months or so for a job offer as a copywriter at JWT. Next stop was FCB. Then I followed a job offer as a CD, later ECD, at Ogilvy. After about seven pretty successful years, I banged heads with the CEO there—a former politician and lobbyist—and who would have guessed, I ended up short. So, I left Ogilvy and worked as a freelance CD for Publicis, DDB, Lowe, and some local shops, when Frank Bodin—who was (besides his CEO job in Switzerland) the interim boss at the Vienna office at that time, looked for an ECD to run the agency here. And that was the very first time in my life that I applied for a job. Frank was crazy enough to hire me, and I have never looked back.

Why Havas?

Well, the former Euro RSCG Vienna had some very dire times and basically hit rock bottom back in 2011 and 2012. Frank was very honest about the situation—and truth be told, there were lots of people who thought I was crazy, but the chance to rebuild the agency and try to shape it to my beliefs was too good to pass up.


And when I talked to my dad about the opportunity, he smiled, vanished, and soon emerged from his basement with a dusty, framed copper engraving of the Havas crest. I was never much into ancestry research, but it turned out my great-great-great-grandmother had been a Havas, so I thought this could be a good omen for the whole adventure.  

"I think creativity is nothing more than the ability to connect the dots."

What’s the best thing about being an executive creative director?

The best thing is to be able to work across all accounts and spend time with all clients and all the people in the agency.

The biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is working across all accounts and spending time with all clients and all the people in the agency.

Define creativity.

I think creativity is nothing more than the ability to connect the dots. An ability, if not an inner impulse, to associate. It is about combining existing information, and as a result forming something new. All great inventions of mankind are basically such combinations. Think about Gutenberg’s letterpress, which was nothing but a winepress combined with moveable type.

In our industry, this means the combination of the specific information in a brief (product, target group, competition, price, etc.) with general information (everything you’ve ever seen, heard, felt, tasted, experienced). And if done well, this combination is done in a relevant and unseen way that becomes impactful.

Which is a rather technical definition, I know—one probably lacking magic and aura. But I like it, because I think it frees the “non-creatives” to give it a try, because creativity ain’t just a divine talent that you either have or don’t have. The equation is easy: the more varying information, the more possibilities to combine. It’s imperative to feverishly search for specific information, be forever curious about everything, and collect loads and loads of general information.

On a less technical level, I think creativity is an attitude. A 24/7 demeanor. And not anything you turn on from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Or in the ad business from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

How do you spark creativity amongst your team?

I try to encourage everybody in the agency—not just the Creative Department—to contribute and express their thoughts and share their ideas. And I tell them to come up with things they think are great or interesting to them and not with things they think I might like. Which sounds great to everybody, but still is hard for lots of people to do, because they are so afraid of making an absolute idiot of themselves in the process. So it is a lot about trust, as well as a mutual understanding I try to install that this is just the nature of the game and we all sit in the same boat. When trying to crack a brief, the majority of the ideas we come up with—all of us, no matter how senior or decorated—are just utterly bad, often embarrassing. But even the most useless things can be a source of inspiration to the next member in the team—so screw it and don’t hold back.

How does your city inspire you at work?

Culture and inspiration are omnipresent in Vienna. Arts, architecture, music. The city also has become a magnet for people from different cultures in the last couple of years. And even though some people think that this spells doom for society, it is actually a move back toward Vienna’s roots, as the city has always been a melting pot that drew its cultural greatness from these many colliding influences.

"But it is also a blessing, because you have to learn to do more with less."

What’s the most interesting thing about working in Vienna?

As international and as big as Vienna may be, it’s the capital of a very small market. And so the agencies, the accounts, and the production budgets are very small as well. This is often challenging—for example, if you have an idea that because of small budgets, can’t come to life. But it is also a blessing, because you have to learn to do more with less.


And you have to be a true generalist and know your way through all disciplines, as agencies can’t afford to hire specialists for everything. It makes things more engaging, too.

What’s the best idea that you’ve ever had?

The best idea was proposing to my wife almost 20 years ago. Hands down.

The worst?

The worst idea?

I had so many bad ideas in my career that if I got a Euro for each one I’d be a rich man. But the worst had to be when many years ago I wanted to change a pretty successful campaign, because I thought it had run out of steam; I had a new idea that I thought was oh-so-smart. I don’t even recall my idea, but it got rightfully rejected, because it was smarter in a sense of highlighting my own smartness than being truly smart, and we lost the client (not just because of that, but it certainly did its fair share). The new agency continued working on the original idea and delivered great work time and again. So that was that. But maybe it wasn’t that bad at all, because, believe me, it taught me a very valuable lesson.

Tell us about the biggest epiphany that you’ve had in your career.

I was lucky enough to meet a lot of nice and interesting people in the business that I’m happy to run into and have a chat with. But I always spent my leisure time with people from outside the industry. And thanks to their company, I quickly learned that the real people out there couldn’t care less about what we do. They care about doctors and their work, and teachers, and even plumbers. But advertising? Or its siblings like digital or CRM or PR or whatnot?

The moment you accept that fact, it changes the way you work and see work. And it for sure reminds you to take everything with a grain of salt—especially the next big thing that will definitely, 100 percent, this time for sure, once and for all change our profession.

What’s something that’s made you proud while working at Havas Vienna?

During the last couple of years we had people leave for other agencies for various reasons. And the fact that many came back to rejoin us and even more asked if they could come back is something that is more than satisfying to me.

Another thing that comes to my mind is Volvo. It was the first pitch we won here back in 2013 and, although Grey is handling the account now in most countries, Volvo has stayed with us in Austria. And in that time Volvo’s market share grew from 0.9% to 1.3%—which of course is also a result of fantastic new products. But I happen to think it also stems from countless pieces of hardworking stuff we came up with for them.

Natasha Smith is the strategic communications manager for Havas Group. She happily represents 404 in the 212.

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