Cristina and I were in the same Masters programme in Amsterdam. She was a diligent and serious student, someone who seemed to get full marks on most things. I remember how she dreaded leaving Amsterdam, but unsurprisingly she’s now thriving at one of the largest advertising agencies in Romania. We spoke in early September, she in her parents garden in the countryside, and I, unprofessionally, somewhat hungover in my London flat.
Cristina is currently the Head of Strategy at Geometry Bucharest, a 120 people strong advertising agency. In 2019 they came up with the concept of end-to-end creative commerce, which is based on creating fun and meaningful experiences that end with a purchase. As a strategist, Cristina represents the voice of the consumer during the creative process. Her team of three strategists “amazing ladies, super smart and dedicated to their work” provide strategic input for clients in a number of different sectors, including retail, confectionery, dairy, tobacco and alcoholic beverages.
“What we do is sort of a mix between sociology, anthropology and behavioural economics. My role is to define consumer pain points based on barriers, aspirations and beliefs, and come up with a solution that caters to their needs and aspirations. We’re kind of the voice behind the scene that makes sure the idea is rooted in consumer behaviour and it is what the brand needs at that moment.”
Cristina’s team’s insights are then used by the creative team to design the actual campaign. An example is a Christmas campaign for an upscale shopping mall in Romania.
“They had a different approach to Christmas and avoided seasonal clichés by challenging people to rethink their gifting strategy. The observation they started from was that there’s nothing worse than giving people something they’re not going to enjoy. They are excited by the thought and like the surprise, but if it turns out they dislike the actual gift, they also have to hide their disappointment. So our idea was to help people avoid these awkward situations by creating the NO NO gifts catalogue, based on 14 different personality types, so consumers know what they should stay away from.”
No No campaign examples.
Cristina says that a good strategist needs to care about “everything” and constantly be on the lookout for new trends, which sounds exhausting.
“You need to read about, I don’t know, how the construction market is developing in your country. What young people think about managing their finances. You basically need to know all the trends that are happening. Let’s say people are buying scooters, then you need to look at the categories that might benefit from this, such as safety gear or companies that help you design or upgrade your scooter. You need to look at banks that give people loans to buy it. So you shouldn’t just look at a specific product.”
I’m curious to understand what a typical day could look like for Cristina. I’m not surprised to hear that she likes to immerse herself in a topic that she is working on.
“I advise my colleagues to try and go as deep as they can into a topic without getting interrupted. It’s hard to do so since there are always calls and short chats popping up. When we get a new brief I like to review previous campaigns to see if we can learn anything from them. Then we look at what the main competitors are doing and if we see any major shifts since the last campaign.”
Cristina mentions one campaign that Geometry worked on for one of the most well-known cake brands in Romania. Their previous campaign was focused around hugs, referencing how the layers and glaze hugs everything together, and involving people hugging each other. This year, with social distancing measures in place, that was no longer a viable option.
“As a planner you need to be very sensitive to these shifts. Even if there are things you don’t like or approve of, you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a truck driver, or a single mom who struggles to make ends meet, or a student who keeps failing his exams. You have to be accepting and not look down on anyone, it’s a position that requires you to be very open, flexible and empathetic.”
Strategists often spend a lot of time analysing trend reports and research studies, but with Covid-19 most of these immediately became out of date. For Cristina it’s an opportunity to be creative and resourceful when getting the data and insights she needs, something she thinks was part of people’s mindset during the Communist era.
“During communism my parents had to come up with lateral solutions and repurpose things. This is also the case in strategy when you don’t have relevant data. You might have to go to a service station and pretend you need to service your car, or contact the moms you know with toddlers and ask them about baby nutrition and things like that. You can also participate in focus groups or interview people to better understand them. We don’t have data or research on everything in Romania so you have to improvise, find alternative solutions. With Covid-19 observing things as they happen and staying close to people’s mindsets becomes even more important.”
The idea of doing “deep” or very focused work is something many people struggle to find the time and space to do, so I ask Cristina if she’s found a way to ensure she gets that kind of focused working time.
“I wish I had an answer here! I try to do the stuff I am interested in all the time. This morning I read an article about how masculinity attributes are shifting in the US, it’s a topic that I find super interesting. I try to read articles and interviews since it's something I enjoy and don’t consider as work. Nothing has made me as adaptable as working in the advertising industry, you have a presentation in two hours and then one hour before it’s postponed. It’s so unpredictable. I used to get upset when a meeting was moved, and still do sometimes, but I’ve learned to be flexible and it has helped me a lot.”
Cristina will not return to the office this year. At the beginning of lock down she found herself in her 36 square metres studio flat, worrying about a potential mouse.
“I thought I had a mouse on my balcony. After I put out traps and everything, it turned out it was just birds that were snooping around. So after being stuck for two months, together with a potential mouse, I said to myself that everything that comes afterwards will be manageable. I developed some kind of resilience and accepted the situation and realised I needed to make the most of it.”
Cristina has realised she’s able to live with very few things. Although she misses the parties and events she used to attend, she’s not craving it as much as she thought she would.
“I realise that my leisure time is horribly different, but at the same time really good. I never liked nature, I never liked being outdoors, I didn’t like insects. And I was just joking with my friends that I discovered nature when I was 35 and I’m finally not scared of bugs anymore.”
A number of people in this interview series have mentioned that their interaction with clients have changed as a result of Covid-19. For Cristina it has meant convincing them to move more of their spend to online channels, which hasn’t always been easy for those who tended to not venture outside the occasional Facebook campaign before Covid-19.
“It was a big shift and a transformation we had to facilitate by showing examples of what other brands were doing. Many clients were used to doing things in a certain way for years and then someone comes and tells them you need to shift everything around super fast. It’s always a risk. But we are on this journey together and I think we all understand that going back to how things were is not possible and not necessarily what we would like to do even if we could.”
Covid-19 has also brought some new narratives to client conversations. One example is the interest in locally produced products. Cristina points out that since the fall of communism, foreign products have always been seen as the high quality option in Romania. But with disruptions to supply chains and the importance of supporting your own people and country, this is rapidly changing.
“Even international brands like Danone [a French food company], are trying to find ways to communicate that they use milk from Romanian farmers and that you are supporting them when you buy their products. It is becoming much more important to help your own people.”
Another big change is that people who can afford a holiday, and who would normally go abroad, are now exploring Romania instead.
“I was surprised to see how many people started trekking in the mountains, people that have never done that before. The Danube delta hasn’t seen this many tourists in years, so people are trying to make something of their holiday without risking too much. Rural and remote options are becoming more popular, all sorts of chalets. The weekend getaways that people used to do in European capitals now happen in Romania.”
At the start of the pandemic some people in Romania hoped it would bring people together and create a friendlier culture. But at soon as Bucharest’s chaotic traffic was back, it became clear that things would not necessarily change for the better.
“I read an article where they explained that things were much smoother in societies with a strong social net and a feeling that they were in this together. In societies like ours, where you know the state will not support you and you know you’re on your own it is more difficult. That is why wearing a face covering is not very embraced and we have a lot of conspiracy theories. What we do care about is our family and our close group of friends. I think fear is popping up more often in everyday decisions, however irrational they may be, and we need to find a way to cope with it or let it go.”
On the bright side, Cristina does think that Covid-19 might lead young people to become more interested in personal finance.
“We don’t have a solid financial education system, we’re not necessarily seeing young people planning ahead. But now they see a crisis that is impacting their income and they are going back to the mindset of their parents, making the most of what they have. I think we will see much more reuse, repurposing and recycling happening.”
And with those hopeful predictions, I leave Cristina to enjoy the hammock in her parents’ tree filled garden, showing that there is always a silver lining.