Brazil’s most admired advertising executive explains how advertising shapes and improves society
In our latest interview, we spoke to Felipe Simi, the Founder, CEO and Creative Chairman at SOKO and the most admired advertising executive in Brazil, according to 2023 Agency Scope research. We spoke to Felipe about his career, the role advertising plays in shaping and improving society, the importance of addressing present issues rather than those in the future, and much more.
Can you tell us about your background and what you were doing before setting up SOKO?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I was “born” to have a career in advertising. Still, pursuing a creative life was always an integral part of my being. By the time I enrolled at Advertising School in 2003, it was clear that there was no other path for me to take.
Apart from a deep-seeded need to create, I also wanted my creations to have a positive influence in the world I live in and the larger world around us all. Advertising, branding, marketing, communications both reflect, react, and shape the perceptions of the world. I honestly believed I could make a positive difference in the business of marketing — and that I could do some social good at the same time.
Unlike a lot of people in the agency business, the first eight years of my career were spent on the client side at two iconic companies: The Hershey Company and Unilever. From the outside, it might seem that those two companies hardly need any work at all on their branding. But as I quickly found, maintaining the highest levels of a brand’s identity requires daily attention to the smallest details. That’s why these brands are so valued and respected. There’s no autopilot when it comes to maintaining a stellar, indelible brand experience.
I decided to take that inspiration to the agency side in 2010, when I was hired as Creative Director at New Content. Three years later, I took on the role of Chief Strategy Officer at CUBOCC. Five years later, I knew I had to start out on my own.
What inspired you to set up your business?
What led me to establish SOKO was a growing discomfort with certain industry practices, both operationally and culturally. I felt that many advertising agencies were too focused on traditional models, often driven by metrics like media placement and awards, which could sometimes prioritise quantity over quality. Additionally, I recognised that the industry had its share of toxic practices, including hierarchical structures, barriers to diversity, internal competition, and various forms of discrimination.
I firmly believe that anyone who deviates from what is considered standard in society needs to be creative to navigate and thrive in different situations. As a gay individual, I found comfort and solace in the arts and writing from a young age. This creative outlet allowed me to express myself authentically and explore alternative narratives beyond societal norms.
The realisation of my own creativity and the desire to challenge the status quo were pivotal moments in my life. This led me to embark on the journey of founding SOKO, an agency committed to pushing the boundaries of creativity, dismantling toxic industry practices, and using advertising as a force for positive social impact.
At SOKO, we are not just another agency; we are a platform for innovation, creativity, and social change. Our mission is to demonstrate that advertising can be a powerful tool for good, and that’s what drives me and the entire SOKO team every day.
Had you always wanted to run your own company, or did the desire develop over time?
The desire to run my own company and make a significant impact on the advertising industry developed over time. It wasn’t something I had always aspired to do from a young age, but rather a result of my experiences and observations in the industry.
While I didn’t always have the goal of running my own company, it became a natural progression in my career as I became increasingly passionate about reshaping the advertising landscape for the better.
How have you been able to build an enviable list of clients that includes the likes of Stella Artois, Dove, Netflix and Corona?
We are incredibly fortunate to have won the trust of so many brand giants. The primary reason we have attracted so many big names is due to the way SOKO exudes diversity in its staffing and in its thinking. We don’t believe in silos; we just believe in great brand stories. The best way to extract original, creative thinking is to allow people to experiment and explore the depths of their imaginations and match that with a commitment to data-driven thinking to support it.
How would you describe yourself as a business leader?
Vulnerable. I see vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness. In the advertising industry, there’s often a pressure to present a flawless image and always have the right answers. However, I firmly believe that true creativity and innovation often emerge from the willingness to embrace failure and imperfections.
By embracing vulnerability, I become a better listener. I’m more receptive to the ideas and insights of my team members, clients, and collaborators. This approach has allowed us to uncover unique solutions and approaches that we might have otherwise missed. It’s a reminder that none of us have a monopoly on good ideas, and the best results often come from collective efforts.
So, I see vulnerability as a key driver of our creativity and success at SOKO, and it’s a quality I value in myself and our team.
Why is diversity so important when it comes to hiring and creative development?
I have been called an “LGBTQIA+ activist.” It’s a distinction I’m tremendously proud of. It’s part of the reason I recognise the need for people to bring their full selves to a job in advertising. Diversity is paramount when it comes to hiring and creative development for several compelling reasons. First and foremost, it brings a rich tapestry of perspectives to the table. In a creative industry like advertising, where the goal is to connect with diverse audiences, having a team that reflects a range of backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints is invaluable.
Diversity also fuels innovation. When people with different life experiences come together, they bring unique problem-solving approaches and ideas. It’s like having a toolkit with a variety of tools; you’re better equipped to tackle complex challenges and generate fresh, innovative concepts.
Moreover, diversity fosters empathy and cultural competence. It allows us to understand and relate to the experiences and needs of a broader range of people. This is essential when crafting advertising campaigns that resonate with diverse audiences, ensuring that our messages are respectful, inclusive, and culturally sensitive.
In terms of hiring, it’s not just about ticking boxes; it’s about creating an inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and heard. When employees see diversity at all levels of the organisation, it sends a powerful message that their contributions are genuinely appreciated.
What role does advertising play in improving and shaping society?
Advertising plays a multifaceted role in improving and shaping society. At its core, advertising is a powerful communication tool with the ability to reach millions of people. This reach can be harnessed to promote positive change by raising awareness of critical issues, advocating for social causes, and challenging established norms and prejudices.
Moreover, advertising has the potential to inspire action. It can motivate individuals and communities to engage in social initiatives, support charitable causes, and adopt responsible behaviors. Through compelling storytelling and creative campaigns, advertising can spark conversations, change perceptions, and drive societal progress.
However, advertising’s impact is not one-dimensional. It can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes, promote excessive consumerism, and contribute to environmental concerns. Therefore, it is crucial for advertisers to approach their work with a sense of responsibility and ethics, ensuring that their messages align with the betterment of society and the well-being of individuals. We can generate desire through advertising, but not access. That’s not sustainable.
What current trends are you seeing in the industry? Has it been affected by the global economic slowdown?
At SOKO, we place a significant emphasis on addressing the challenges and opportunities of the present rather than solely fixating on future trends. I’m not into futurism, when so many issues have to be addressed today. This approach allows us to stay grounded and responsive to the immediate needs of our clients and the evolving dynamics of the industry.
As for the impact of the global economic slowdown, it’s undeniable that economic conditions can influence the advertising landscape. Budget constraints, shifting consumer spending patterns, and market uncertainties have compelled businesses and agencies to adapt their strategies. We’ve seen a heightened focus on cost-efficiency, a greater reliance on data-driven decision-making, and a renewed commitment to creativity as a means to stand out in challenging times.
How have you found the experience of being a jury member for the Cannes Lions and The One Show?
These are two of the biggest honors of my career. The responsibility to uphold the highest standards of advertising creativity around the world is something all jury members take extremely seriously.
And while judging awards might sound very easy and comfortable, the process involves strenuous work and a great deal of time. I didn’t really have an idea what to expect before participating as a juror on the Cannes Lions and The One Show. But we have to review hundreds of submissions — and the discussions among the jurors can be pretty passionate!
But it’s gratifying to help choose work that defines our industry and raises the bar on what we do every day. You really get a whole new appreciation for the number of great minds working in advertising.
How is the future shaping up for yourself and SOKO?
For me and SOKO, the future is about continuing our journey of creative innovation, impact, and positive change. While it’s essential to keep an eye on industry trends and emerging technologies, I firmly believe that addressing the issues of the present is equally, if not more, important. Our focus remains on creating meaningful work that challenges the status quo and positively impacts society.
As for SOKO, we will continue to expand our presence and influence in the advertising and creative industry. Our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and creative excellence will remain at the core of everything we do. We’ll keep forging unique collaborations, pushing boundaries, and proving that advertising can be a force for good. The future holds more opportunities for us to partner with like-minded organisations, NGOs, and individuals who share our vision of a better advertising industry together with a better world.