Inspiration

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LatAm PR specialists and CP annual winners Sherlock Communications on embracing plurality

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With the dust now settling on the excitement of last week’s Creativepool Annual award announcements, we thought it was about time to probe a little deeper into the winners that captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of our judges.

As the number one ranked PR agency on Creativepool, Sherlock Communications are long overdue the spotlight treatment and given their recent People’s Choice and Bronze award wins for the incredibly powerful “Pimp My Carroca” campaign, it felt like a spotlight we couldn’t put off any longer.

So, we sat down with Alasdair Townsend, Managing Partner at Sherlock, to discuss being “gringos” out of water in the Brazilian creative scene, organising a business across 11 countries and the in-depth creative process that sits behind every job.

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How was your company born and where are you based?

We’re headquartered in São Paulo but have other offices throughout South and Central America. Sherlock Communications really came into being because myself and my business partner, Patrick O’Neill, after many years working in the London comms scene and now being immigrants in Brazil, were looking for a new challenge. 

Patrick who (coming from the client-side) had vowed never to open an agency, likes to tell the story that I bullied him into setting up the company over too many beers one night. But the truth, like so many agency stories, is more serendipitous. We started working together informally on a few projects in 2015, greatly enjoyed the experience of working with some super clients and felt like we had something different to offer. Happily, it all led on from there.

There are lots of great agencies in Brazil and to stand out (particularly as two “gringos” with funny accents!), it was important to us to focus on an area where we thought we could add real value - namely specialising in supporting international companies expanding in the region - and just try to do that one thing, really well.

We started working in our respective homes, built a website and started calling our contacts. Our first big campaign came with the National Tourism Organisation of Japan during the Rio games. Not long after, we opened an office in São Paulo and started to grow quickly with the team expanding to 10 people in the first year. We now have a bi or trilingual team of more than 50, all of whom have an international mindset, and almost all of our communications with clients are in English. Soon after we started built a digital and SEO team and started to get work from all over the world.

Over time, several of our clients started asking us for help with campaigns in other countries in Latin America. We first tried to work with other agencies, but it didn't quite work the way we planned so started to develop our own teams and now have offices in Mexico City, Bogota, Buenos Aires, and local teams in Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Panama and others, covering 11 countries in total.

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Can you explain your team’s creative process and what’s your team’s secret to staying inspired and motivated?

If there was a way of summing it up, I suppose, it would come down to embracing plurality in our thinking and trying to put systems in place that encourage that. Plurality covers the different countries and sectors in which we operate, the different company cultures and nationalities in our client portfolio and, most importantly, the different make-up of the team. 

A liberating factor from the beginning was the fact that both Patrick and I were foreigners. While we may have been long in the tooth in the UK, when we started we were new in the Brazilian industry and boy did we know it. 

The only way the project could succeed would be to be very honest about the fact, and encourage a non-hierarchical environment where everyone in the team could share and value different insights and perspectives. No matter what your previous experience, background or nationality might be, we all needed to work together to meet clients’ objectives.  

Over time, that philosophy has led us to grow a team that has includes some rather odd-looking CVs for a comms agency -- from academics to casting directors, even an ex-chef -- we’ve tried to embrace people who challenge the way we think. On a practical level, although our team is separated by geography, we have a deliberately close and integrated way of working

We use a range of collaborative and IM chat tools and have two weekly all agency virtual meetings (one to discuss clients’ challenges and objectives, one an open agenda session for creative brainstorming for any passion project a team member wants to bring).

Although disrupted this year by Covid-19, we also hold regular meetings in which we fly in team members to discuss strategy and business development, as well as organising an annual staff trip where the entire team meets together in one country.

We believe these meetings not only help us to build stronger working relationships and produce better results for clients, but they also help us overcome professional formalities and create friendships, ensuring we retain the flexible, familial environment that has brought us to this stage. Of course, they also help us to share differing perspectives from 11 different countries and maintain a dynamic and flexible environment. 

We also recognise the importance of lifelong learning, and support team members' pursuit of further education, collaborating with foreign study sponsorship programmes to help them become better communicators, in courses in Spain, Canada and the United States so far. In keeping with that ethos, we offer unrestricted leave, unlimited opportunities to work from home, and sponsor every team member to take complimentary expert classes in the foreign language of their choice should they wish. In this, as in so many other things, they put me and Patrick to shame! 

Last year we also developed an internal creativity bonus that quantifies and rewards innovation, making it part of everyone’s objectives and evaluation. Each staff member also has at least one free day per month dedicated to personal development. This could involve visiting a conference, attending external training, or volunteering with one of the third-sector projects we support.

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How has technology affected the way you work (if at all)?

It’s fundamental. Operating over so many different countries and with the vast majority of our clients being located outside of the continent, an agency like Sherlock simply couldn’t exist without the technology and tools available today, and maybe not even 10 years ago. 

Because of this, we’ve been incredibly fortunate during the current crisis. Our day-to-day working practices did not really have to change much as a result, though I and the whole team are missing our normal face-to-face gatherings. 

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

Over time, the team has produced some really incredible campaigns, work that has made tangible differences to the day-to-day lives of real people.

Some examples that stand out might be our campaign for banQi, offering banking and financial services to more than 50 million people previously excluded from the financial system in Brazil, or for Pimp My Carroca and Cataki, that has helped increase the salary of waste pickers by as much as 30% in Brazil and Colombia. 

It sounds like a cliché but I’d have to say that the biggest achievement is the culture and environment the team itself has cultivated, and I’m not sure how much credit Patrick or I can really take for that. 

How do you recharge away from the office?

After years of indulgence and far too many glasses of wine, the lockdown has finally prompted me to start running (with due thanks to the "Couch to 5k" app!) and play the occasional game of tennis. Along with the benefit of improved sleep, the wine always tastes better after.

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What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

If it’s a first job, even if it doesn’t seem like a natural fit, try it anyway. You’ll learn so much from the experience that you can use later (good and bad). Equally, if you find over time you want to try something new, don’t delay, just go for it. Never stop being curious. 

What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries?

As more and more of the marketing industry becomes programmed and automated, I hope and expect that individual, creative thinking will become more and not less valued. We’re beginning to witness this a little in the public and business response to the problems caused by big tech algorithms. 

Particularly in times of crisis, like the one we're all living through now, the importance of effective communications becomes obvious. I’m confident that the creative industry will rise to the challenge.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Hierarchy and the, often alluring, notion of being in your sweet spot or comfort zone. The most original ideas come from the most unexpected places. 

Clients always ask to see relevant experience and case studies but the truth is that the best work comes from different thinking, not the same. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s always worth looking.

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