The VMLY&R Poland CEO and SAR president on tech, talent and tension in Poland and the momentum that the Grand Prix-winning Last Ever Issue project created for his agency
As CEO of VMLY&R Poland, Dariusz Andrian leads a team of over 350, split between Warsaw and Krakow, delivering projects for a diverse collection of clients. As a member of the VMLY&R’s EMEA executive leadership team, Dariusz drives strategic changes in regional operations and supports evolving client needs and digital transformation. He leads one of the network’s European Centres of Excellence, offering client partners deep technological expertise and accelerated access to specialist capabilities across customer experience, platforms, data and analytics, as well as content.
Also the president of the SAR (the Polish Marketing Communication Association) his concerns are bigger than just his own agency in Poland. A graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw, he’s interested in the broader contexts in which advertising sits.
LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to him about what problems and subjects he and the Polish ad industry have been wrestling with of late.
LBB> What would you say are the most important factors influencing Polish advertising at the moment?
Dariusz> It's not just the advertising or the marketing industry. I think that, overall, there is a very interesting tension here in the country. We have to face a conservative government which creates a huge tension on the market. Society is very divided. If you travel to Warsaw, to Krakow, to Gdansk or any of the biggest cities, there is no difference between the lifestyle and the way how people live compared to somewhere like London, Paris or Amsterdam. It's a Western type of lifestyle. But in the countryside, it's a completely different story. So, for every industry - not just the creative industry - this is a challenge. With this very divided society, how do we play with different emotions, different lifestyles and different approaches to values? I think for the youth, this is a big challenge because they are the most connected with Western democracy. For them, it's strange to watch and compare the news that they are gathering from the official television stations compared with the news they see in their lives.
I think, at the end of the day, especially for the creative industry, this is both a challenge and also an opportunity to give a voice to our people to create something that has meaning and purpose. We can challenge oppression. It's something that we have to challenge and we are fighting against.
LBB> You have this dual role as the head of SAR - the Marketing Communication Association - and also the CEO of VMLY&R Poland. What are the big priorities and focuses right now for SAR and the advertising industry of Poland?
Dariusz> It's my second candidacy and I'm really glad to have this great honour of being president of the Polish Marketing Communication Association. The main focus is education. It's a key pillar of our strategy. We are trying to educate market use. That means talent on the market - how to create a connection between the brands and people. But more than that, how to make it right, how to make it relevant, how to address disruption in the market and how to build a much stronger offer for our clients. At the end of the day, we are fighting for growth and stable business.
As of recently, we are fighting for new talent. We understand that we need to be open for completely new players and for completely new industries. We started many years ago as an association only for advertising players, but right now we have people responsible for film production, brand building, design and even customer experience. It gives us a broader perspective and at the same time we get to combine the knowledge from different industries; creativity with technology with data and with media.
We feel that the level of creativity and talent that we have right now means that they should start to work not only locally, but for clients abroad, especially from Europe. This is something that we can introduce not only to the Polish market, but maybe even further. It's an interesting market from a talent point of view because we have many creative people not only from advertising but in every industry. We have strong gaming companies, we have very strong influencers and marketing players and we have very good reputations among tech professionals. So, I think that this is something that we can introduce and hopefully help out businesses outside the country. My role is to present our skills and promote the talent of our agencies within the association.
LBB> Why do you think these disciplines like tech, gaming, influencer marketing etc. have become so strong in the country?
Dariusz> We started a transformation process after communism. In the early ‘90s, we had to step from the past into the future. The gap during that time between western Europe and central-eastern Europe was enormous. I think that really impacted us in terms of our ambition and in terms of that attitude. We have strong skills and approaches to everything that we are doing. Our approach is to work hard to change our lives thanks to better performance and stronger efforts. This, having been part of our culture for the last 30 years, means that future growth is a natural step ahead. We created a completely new industry, an IT professional market which is probably one of the strongest not only in this part of Europe, but in Europe as a whole. The overall number of talented people is very high, and I think that in the creative industries it's the same.
If you look at the film production industry, we created a lot of very talented people that are making careers not just in Poland, but in London, LA and New York. Advertising is exactly the same. I have plenty of colleagues, even from my company, that have worked in New York, Dubai, Sydney, London or Paris. Seeing that, it justifies the fact that we are trying harder to make this great step ahead.
LBB> How does that feed into what your priorities are right now within your agency, VMLY&R?
Dariusz> Our operation is quite big. I'm running a company with 350 people. And the challenge for us is how to combine two completely different worlds: the first one is the creative part of the business and the second one is the people in the technology department. We're addressing this challenge in a good way. We found that the answer lies in our culture. Creativity must be supported by many things. That includes technology, data, customer experience and those kinds of things. We've learned how to combine those elements to create strong offerings.
Our culture is very diverse because we need these different types of talents and their capabilities. We have to play with them every day and create a good answer for the client's needs. For me it's fascinating because in the past, the process seemed to be very easy. It was a couple of people responsible for a creative job. But right now, it's almost impossible to make something with only a couple of people, so you have to find the right talents to match the task. And sometimes it leads to an interdisciplinary team, with plenty of different people with very special capabilities or talents. So, for example, if we were doing a content campaign for the client, we would probably need musicians, music directors, actors and storytellers.
LBB> That makes me think about what I've heard about your agency. What is it that you feel that the broader VMLY&R network turns to your agency in Poland for - what kind of problems are they often looking to solve?
Dariusz> You can’t create every capability everywhere. Instead, you need to see how people use their skills and look at already established teams that can support the people in the best way possible. And then of course you should also consider the geography of talents in a smart, effective way.
Of course, I think that there are people with core capabilities who we can find in every office, but Poland can specifically support the others due to our technological offerings. So, you could say our specialisation is supporting different types of capabilities and offerings by supplying them with what they need and giving them an effective way to combine creativity with technology.
We are responsible for delivering different types of tech capabilities and services. It's really broad in terms of what we can do. It can be building a tech product, it can be support management or even just maintaining the platforms. But because of that, it means we have easy access to the best talent on the IT market. This allows us to create very strong tech offers for our clients directly.
But we work very closely with our headquarters in Kansas City. For me it's very interesting because working in such a connected organisation means that you can learn and develop quickly. And I think for our people, this opportunity and ability to work for international clients - working with teams from London and from the United States - is something that creates their portfolio. So not only do they gain important skills, but at the end of the day everyone is satisfied because we are working for the great clients who are often leaders in their sectors or industries.
LBB> I wanted to speak to you about some specific examples of work and an obvious one is The Last Ever Issue, which you were very successful with at Cannes Lions 2019. How did that affect the agency?
Dariusz> It was amazing for us. We not only achieved the greatest recognition in Cannes in terms of Titanium and Glass, but we were named Agency of the Year in the Good track and on the same stage with worldwide players. It's given us very strong momentum which we're able to keep because we understood that we can be successful. We can address every challenge and all of our clients' needs. It shows that Cannes is actually something achievable for a local agency.
I also think the way we did this project, how we expressed ourselves and how we worked overall is different. I mentioned before that we are trying to collect the right talent, but now we have a better understanding of what people need, what they're looking for and how to address that. That's about asking the questions of how to create emotion and how to enable a connection between brands and customers. I think that this is a type of transformation in a cultural sense. People really prefer to work for the brands that can create and address these purposes. The Last Ever Issue opened the door to a more creative, completely new and very disruptive approach to new clients. Now people understand that this is the level that we would like to achieve for our clients.
LBB> What sort of work since then has embodied that for the agency?
Dariusz> Recently, for one of our clients - Danone - we did a special activation on Twitch where we created an artificial intelligence solution that can, in real time, recognise what is going on in your game based on factors like performance. It prepares dedicated custom messages that help users with their lifestyle. It shows branded messages, so if you are hungry, you can eat the product being shown. It's nothing new, but how we did it is special. That fact that we can use gaming has given us great momentum, allowing us to pursue a previously unexpected connection between brands and players. And we're waiting for the results, but this is a good example of how we are combining technology with creativity.
I think that's a very good example of how we have to work. We need to understand that in something like gaming, the amount of business there is bigger than the film and music industry overall. This is something that can completely change the way we communicate to the customers and how we can use this special opportunity to build a better connection.
LBB> Going back to your own story, you studied journalism and political science. Why were you interested in that when you were growing up?
Dariusz> I dreamed I would be a journalist and even in high school, I was writing for the daily newspaper and I even had some shows on TV as a teenager. I really believed that the career path of being a professional journalist was something for me. But when I started, I used to work for TV stations, for magazines and all that and I realised very quickly that overall, journalism and the world of media is changing rapidly. Unfortunately, the way the media was changing during that time convinced me to start a completely new path for my professional life. This was before Google, YouTube and social media, but I realised the power and potential of media. So, I decided to switch to advertising.
LBB> What have been the big moments in your career since you began in advertising?
Dariusz> During my time, I've worked for big international networks. I spent 10 years at DDB and McCann and then I decided to open our own business with my partner. So, I started to be an entrepreneur and became the owner of a little boutique advertising agency. My belief that investment specifically in digital marketing and digital advertising would create value for the clients not only gave us a chance to build our position in the market, but we also grew quickly from the boutique agency to a middle-sized player. We went from 20 people to almost 200!
We also decided to be part of the WPP family and VML because we found that the way they were thinking about the future of advertising and the way they were doing stuff was top class.
LBB> Do you think the speed that the Polish industry has developed over only around 30 years since the end of communism has helped it to adapt more quickly?
Dariusz> I think that, generally speaking, we can say that developing markets like Poland are hungrier and are trying to address this gap between the well-established societies and countries.
But importantly, it's also about the people. Everything depends on the people and I see plenty of great strong talent in the UK, in the United States and in our network too. For us, the challenge is how we go about connecting the best people to the different locations. I don't think that there is a huge barrier for our development compared to well-established countries and overall I think that our energy is something that you can feel. One of the proofs for that is based on numbers. If you compare the number of people that are working in marketing and communication, we are in the top five in Europe.
In the last 20 years I've been doing business management type work, but I started as a creative person before switching so I could be much closer to the business. And I have great esteem for the creativity of our industry and the fact that no matter where one looks, you'll still find great creative people - something that is unique for our industry. So of course it's a disruptive transformation process. We still have to find a way to combine different types of design, technology and good processes. But at the end of the day, creativity is in our DNA. This is something that is really unique. When you can have creativity supported by technology, it's a powerful combination. And then you get something truly unique when you implement human beings who have their own specific talents and capabilities.
Additional reporting by Josh Neufeldt.