While we were setting up this interview, Petya told us about Vassilissa - "We are very different, but we complete each other perfectly". They are both recognisable names in the industry, with many years of experience (Petya in the field of design, Vassilissa - in marketing communication and strategic planning) and dozens of successful campaigns. In the summer of 2019, they joined forces and launched SHED, The Highlancers Collective - an organisation that gathers, facilitates and represents freelancers for a wide range of creative and communication solutions. We talked with them about their endeavour, advertising and the current situation in an unusual interview-story-with-pictures-and-performance-on-a-piano. Enjoy!
*All visuals in the interview are selected by Petya and Vassilissa and are part of the answers.
What are you up to these days, at home?
V: Between the zoom meetings, I managed to complete my personal "DIY Balcony" project. It turned out great. So now I have a summer room in the home office, with lots of flowers and Mediterranean colours. Today, Saturday, as I was elaborating on the answers to the following questions, I painted the elevator door, the electrical panel and the pipe in the common area on my floor. Our block of flats is not of the latest construction, and like most of it kind, the common areas are not really welcoming. I'm glad I have time to harness my hands to something other than typing on a keyboard and clicking a mouse. The lack of manual labor is no less a pandemic of our time and most likely has a negative impact on our psyche. Therefore, such challenges are wonderful for me in the days of isolation.
P: I work and I steal time to play the piano. I got a new - old Casiotone 701, the same age as me. We meet mostly in the evening. Between 1 and 2 am is the time for me to let go of the day and travel with it through distant lands and epochs. Good thing the neighbours are on holidays. Here is a little journey to Cairo in 1981:
What cheers you up in the quarantine?
V: House of Humor and Satire - Gabrovo - an example of a brand, that is thoughtfully developed by the Director of the Museum, Margarita Dorovska, through a clear mission and adequate response to the situation. Trump's gems, and our own politicians, I think they all amuse us. The sense of humour is especially acute at this moment and it provokes first-class memes.
P: The memes on Instagram.
What makes you sad?
V: For many entrepreneurs, the crisis will be the end of something they have built with a lot of love and efforts, and that is always sad. Other people are at a deadlock and have no choice.
P: After Vasya's answer, whatever I say will sound insensitive. Anyway, I'm not known for my delicacy. :)
What makes me sad is the innate fear of change, typical for the Bulgarians. We stay at the same workplace, which we have hated for years, with people who make us hate ourselves, and when we lose that, we collapse. Because we know nothing else. With every little change, we abruptly enter into panic mode - "How do I get better as fast as I can?", instead of pausing for a moment. We should take time to look back for a while, and to look inside us, acknowledge the once we love, and probably whom we have ignored for years, and ask ourselves - "OK, do I want more of this in my life?". It is difficult for us to look ahead and believe that bad is for good.
Now we have the opportunity to rest for a moment, to learn something new, which we always postpone, to dedicate ourselves to the things we have left behind for years. Now we have the opportunity to stop fighting other people's battles. What makes me sad is how many people will come out of the isolation unawakened. They will return to that work, which makes them unhappy, and they will get lost again.What makes me sad is that whole generations of capable people who only lack self-confidence are still waiting for someone else to change their lives.
My sadness turned out very dramatic. ;)
What do you miss about "the normal life"?
V: Traveling - the dreaming, the planning, the anticipation, the experience, taking photographs, the storytelling - everything about it is missing. But now is also a good time to consider whether we have traveled in a sustainable way, and what in our travels can become more aware and smarter.
P: I miss the scent of spring in Sofia. It's annoying to go out and feel the smells of a mask with the scent of fabric softener.
SHED, The Highlancers Collective, has been around for almost a year. Why and how did you launche it?
V: We still haven't reached a full year, and we're still in beta - a period where we find and fix bugs. We test processes, approaches, ways to collaborate. If something doesn't work well, we replace it. There is no reason to stick to something just because it seemed right at first. There are no ready-made formulas in what we do and we try to set up everything based on experience. But, of course, there are trials and errors. We iterate, and we already have the confidence to say that our model can be successful.
We created SHED because we've noticed a clear trend for several years already. More and more talented and experienced people, with a great work culture, leave their jobs for a salary and decide to work for themselves. And these are by no means just designers and copywriters - there is already a critical minimum of specialists in all areas of communication. Everyone has their own reason for becoming a freelancer. Some realise that they may burn out and they need to get out of the "system" to recover. Others want to have more flexibility in the way they work. Some want to regain motivation and have the freedom to choose projects, and some just want to be their own bosses. All that, at least until recent, wasn't possible in a traditional agency structure.
Freelancers are often seen as people outside the "industry". However, they don't think so of themselves. Rather, the industry hasn't so far recognised them and has no mechanism to interact with them. There are many prejudice about the freelancers. That they are lazy, irresponsible, they could not be relied on. Undoubtedly, there are some, who are like this. But most freelancers (we call them highlancers) are people with extremely high personal motivation, who hold on to their good professional reputation and the high quality of the product they offer.
There was no organisation in Bulgaria to facilitate and represent these people. To unite them through teams with a common goal and task. This is an extremely qualified human resource, but as of the summer of 2019, there was no mechanism through which the market could take full advantage of it. This is where we saw the potential and the role of SHED.
P: On the other hand, freelancers need projects on regular basis, so they can provide for them and their families. What happened before SHED was that often when a project came to a freelancer directly from a client, or an advertising agency, the freelancer would stretch the offer, so they can cover the upcoming months, but those prices were actually inadequate for the market and the task. The truth is that when freelancers have regular projects from us, they can feel secure about their future. This is one of our goals - the freelancers to be rewarded according to their efforts and everyone to have their time and be happy.
And the clients are happy when the agencies understand them. With us, they don't get the designers and copywriters who are free at the moment to work on their project. In SHED, the creatives are selected according to the task. If we have a brand that produces organic foods, the account, the copywriter and the designer are people who are yet familiar with the matter, they are chosen consciously because they live a healthy life, have been interested and active on the subject for a long time and can contribute much more to communication with their own experience.
But let me get back to the question. We created SHED because we believe that new times require a new way of working, as well as a new attitude towards clients and creatives. And instead of struggling with windmills to change the status-quo, it's often better to create something new, the way you believe it should be.
How exactly? Laying on a blanket at the Jazz Fest while the dogs are stealing food from the neighbours.
How do the highlancers cope in the current situation?
V: Great. Firstly, because they are used to the remote model of work, meaning the stay-at-home-situation is not stressful for them at all. Secondly, because they feel that their time is coming. I believe that they feel more involved and that they are being taken more seriously now.
P: The highlancers are in year-round isolation. ;) Maybe this is the community that least felt the change in their routine. The only difference is that now we even brainstorm virtually.
Is freelance the future of advertising?
Q: Certainly, freelance is a way to diversify the traditional agency model. This model, in the form in which it still exists, was created somewhere in the 1960s, and it hasn't evolved much since then. Of course, there are new units, departments, roles, but in essence it's unchanged. However, market realities have changed a lot. By the end of the 1990s, the standard media commission was 17.65% (this is not a typo) on the client's net media budget. With other expenses, creative fees, etc., it was normal for an agency to get about 30% of the total campaign budget. Nowadays, at best, agencies can enjoy 10-12%. This is not enough to sustain a larger structure, and agencies are forced to compromise the quality of the talent over quantity. A freelance resource is a great way to offer a very wide, but at the same time, very profiled, range of services, according to the specific needs of the project and its budget, without the need to maintain a large number of full-time resources. The introduction of even a partial freelance model in the agency, allows significant optimisation of the total cost, but not at the expense of the salary received by the talent.
In Western Europe and the United States, this model is better developed and has been functioning for years. This gives us the confidence to believe that it has great future here.
P: But of course! ;) I think that after the lock down we can all confirm how much more efficient the home office is. Besides, you don't pay "a going to work tax" - petrol, I want a coffee, 4 p.m. - wow, i'm going crazy for something sweet, etc. The costs are less, you can plant a ficus between the tasks, pay attention to your children, and do a bunch of other great things.
Is there something from the classic agency that you miss and that you would transfer somehow to SHED?
V: Of course. Being a freelancer is sometimes a lonely activity. That is why we are looking for the spirit, the teamwork, the high work criteria. What we certainly transfer from the classic agency is the project management know-how. For us, it is also a way to overcome the basic prejudice against freelance work - that it lacks control, accountability and in-depth knowledge of the brand.
P: I miss kicking someone's ass on table football. How will I do it in SHED?
With a delivery to my living room. Then I will cheat my colleagues on brainstorming at home.
Do Bulgarian clients trust freelancers for long-term or complex projects, or you have to make the first steps in this direction?
V: Both. Most have never tried working with fully freelance teams. But those who have tried, are satisfied with the result and assign more diverse projects to freelancers. Here I want to note that SHED doesn't necessarily compete in the field of advertising. There are a large number of projects with clients, which are often not connected to advertising at all - like internal communications projects or special projects that require teams with very profiled skills and in-depth process. In SHED many of our projects are just like that. Of course, we are still at the beginning of our journey, not only as an agency, but also as a market. We are already managing complex projects, with teams of 20 people and we dare to say that for now the result exceeds our expectations. We thought we would need much more time to reach this stage.
Is there a good client culture of working with freelancers in Bulgaria or is there still a lot to learn?
Q: Here, perhaps, the problem lies not so much in the clients as in the freelancers themselves. Many offer a purely creative service or product. They are not businesses and often lack the appropriate skills and way of thinking. They do not always know how to put a price on their services and how to prepare a budget and timing, how to negotiate, how to manage cash flow, deal with accounting and taxes. Clients, on the other hand, are business organisations that are accustomed to interacting with other businesses and expect clear business culture and processes. In this sense, working with freelancers is difficult for the clients, and often both parties are not able to meet each others expectations. The function of SHED is to take over the mediation between the business and the freelancers. Each project is managed by a Project Manager, who in addition to the process and brand requirements, takes care of the administration of the project. Our goal is to protect the interests of the freelancers, and also to meet the business and brand requirements of the clients, so we can help them reach their goals.
P: Freelancers often need an interpreter to properly understand the brief or the feedback. That's why we make many meetings until the assignment is clear, we brainstorm everyday together with the client and our freelancers. The more things we discuss together, the better the end result. I'm not saying anything new here. We all know that the key is in the communication and in the brief. If the communication is bad - the brief will suffer - the creative will be ineffective - the client will be dissatisfied - and the creative team will be dissatisfied, and... "Oh my God!"
Petya, you've been teaching design to students. Do you believe that good visual taste is nurtured or some people have it, and others - don't?
P: For me, everything can be nurtured. Both bad and good taste. It depends on where you grew up, where life will take you, who you will meet and what you want to take from them. How much you will develop is strictly individual. I teach at SoftUni design and I see the difference between the generations very clearly. Mine didn't have the Internet, we learned from each other with lots of errors and we don't stop learning to this day. Millennials expect that you will to do it for them and that suddenly they will be good designers without any effort.
And when they have to face their true skills - it's an apocalypse. And complaining begins "I don't pay for tutorials ... But these 4 days are not enough for me to make my design… I have a friend who doesn't think that my grade is fair…"
And among them there is a small percentage of talented sweethearts who dig, absorb every word, look for feedback and do not grumble. Then they tag me in sweet Instagram stories, how they align their design elements and arrange their tools. The truth is that design is kraft, you cannot learn it in 3 months, you learn it all your life by watching and doing. This profession requires patience, curiosity, discipline and hundreds of other qualities that we can transfer to another interview.
Who is the Bulgarian ad-man?
V: A person who is looking for himself and a better lifestyle with greater personal and creative freedom, opportunity for realisation, and fair remuneration for his work.
P: Last year I participated in a workshop of Vasya and Niki Tinkov, using a method called Lego Serious Play, which, through a Lego game, dives deep in you and brings out truths that you didn't suspect were there. So, according to it, there are 5 types of ad-people:
the youngest - inspired, they don't understand much, advertising is a colourful jungle, and they are the first in the office every day to change the world;
those between 3-5 years in advertising - still believe in big ideas;
those between 5-10 years - they have already "built communism" somewhere, they are slowing down and they don't want big changes or big anything;
those between 10-25 years - weakened by all the cakes, sausages and beers swallowed, exhausted by the eternal struggles and the burnouts; some stay, some leave, others make agencies. ;)
and the bosses
(We have no bosses. We are all equal).
I think that there is only one type, no matter how long a person has been in the industry or how many changes he/she will go through. He/she is a curious idealist, with a pinch of practicality. Because we have to actually do those things, that are born in our imagination.
I recently watched a conversation with Richard Turley (global creative director of Wieden+Kennedy) from his living room in New York. It ended with him confessing he finds some pleasure in the lock down, because of the solitude and the idea that he will feel nostalgic for this period in the future. They've already started to remove the restrictions in Bulgaria, people will return to their offices soon. Will you miss anything from the lock down?
V: For us, it was a very intense, but also a very satisfying period of work. The work day didn't always have a clear beginning and end, but it was also much more flexible. To plant two flower pots between two zoom calls is priceless. I think many of us are convinced that we can be much more demanding of our time, and not turn every need for professional communication into a live meeting. I personally hope that these things are here to stay.
P: I will miss having a shot of vodka for disinfection at breakfast, after I have walked the dog. ;) I never liked vodka, now even more. I will also miss realising how many surfaces I have touched on the way from the front door to the bathroom. Maybe, I will really only miss the evening zoom calls with friends and clients.
Is there something I didn't ask, but you you want to share?
V: They say that the three most addictive things in the world are heroin, sugar and the monthly salary. Indeed, the thought that from now on you have to readjust your life to live without the guaranteed tranche at the end of the month, called a salary, can be terribly stressful at first. But abstinence doesn't last long. Your needs and priorities change, and so do your spendings. The feeling of freedom, however, is much more exciting and tangible, and the thought that you may have to return to the old way of life begins to seem much more frightening.
Vassilissa Ivanova has been marketing communication and strategy professional for over 20 years. She was Business Development Director at New Moment Group (which over the years represented Saatchi & Saatchi, Bates Worldwide and Y&R Brands) and Strategic Marketing Director at bTV Media Group. She is a lecturer at New Bulgarian University and a curator of the program "Mentors at NBU".
Petya Savova has been design and advertising professional for over 15 years. She was part of the creative teams of BBDO, The Smarts, Garlic, Noble Graphics and Saatchi & Saatchi Sofia, where she was Creative Director. She is a lecturer at SoftUni.
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