Founding Partner & Creative Director, Johannes Leonardo
Ferdinando Verderi is Founding Partner and Creative Director at the New York based creative agency Johannes Leonardo. Born in Parma, Italy, he studied ancient Greek, Latin and philosophy. Ferdinando creative-directed the award-winning adidas entertainment pieces "Your Future Is Not Mine" and also "Original Is Never Finished", the winner of this year's Entertainment for Music Grand Prix at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. In this extensive 101GreatMinds interview with Uli Reese, Ferdinando pulls back the curtain on the campaign work, touching on the importance of brand history, the shifted role of music as a medium and the philosophy behind constantly challenging the status quo.
Reese: Ferdinando, could you tell me a little bit about Johannes Leonardo’s vision?
Verderi: When we started the company in 2007, the vision was, and still is built around the idea that ‘the consumer is the medium’. At that time, with the digital revolution taking over the industry, the relationship between brand and consumer was changing and the priorities were shifting. Quietly, the audience was becoming the biggest medium. A new generation was suddenly able to endorse messages or to destroy them in a matter of hours. We saw in this a new global creative community that is constantly active in creating, spreading and re-interpreting ideas. This was really becoming an important part of the conversation, so much that we defined the agency as a creative community, seeing no difference between what would happen inside and outside our walls. Today, 10 years later, with the company at a different scale obviously, everything is at a different level, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit behind our approach. From the very beginning, we had somehow found ourselves creating and thinking for big brands for which ‘connecting past and future’ was an integral part of their identity - brands with more than 100 years of history, like Chanel or Coca Cola. We were inspired by the idea of thinking in terms of a much longer-term perspective on the brand’s life - both in past and future terms – than that of our intervention on them. We realized these brands had preceded us for centuries and were striving for being immortal. It’s a humbling but powerful point of view to operate from, it inevitably inspires ambitious ideas. With adidas Originals it’s very similar: there is a huge, irreplaceable history but also a strong, unique relationship with the future, and a clear role in it.
Reese: According to Johannes Leonardo's philosophy, we were then only at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way consumers will ultimately engage with brands. Which role has music played in this evolution?
Verderi: I believe that music is the perfect example of something whose role has dramatically shifted during this transformation. Music in advertising used to be seen as a soundtrack - a very important element of the mix, no doubt, but not nearly as important as we think of it now. The TV commercial was the context in which music would operate. We all have those memories. But today, I feel the role of music is completely different. From being a soundtrack, music is now becoming a medium in itself, arguably the most powerful way into the audience’s world. And we are no longer talking about sound, but about music. Music as an industry, a culture, a scene.
Reese: One thing that most of the CMOs I interviewed agreed on is that we are not valuing enough what music does for us. It might be a complex question, but what are the sonic three stripes? What is adidas Originals' audible DNA?
Verderi: adidas Originals is a brand built around creative courage. What we added to the equation is the idea that true creativity always involves challenging the status quo. So, for Originals, today music is a tool to challenge the status quo. The question for us is more about what is the point of view on music than what is a certain sound. If there was a sonic identity, it would probably be challenging the idea of identity as something finite, definable. It would be something that is constantly evolving, something that takes a memory from the past and re-invents it for the future, and then again, and again. It would be an interesting sound, actually – one that never gets old, that is constantly evolving, never finished.
Reese: It sounds like you cannot compare adidas Originals is to any other brand, and that got me wondering: Is this maybe sound branding 4.0? Is it just something none of us can understand yet? Is it all about evolving, being, or is there something audible where I could close my eyes and immediately know: this is adidas Originals?
Verderi: I think the sort of experience you are describing is related to a past in which we were all a captive audience, having to repeatedly hear the sounds brands would push onto us. We would see a Levi’s commercial on TV twenty times, and the music associated with that experience would become meaningful to us, through repetition. Today, there’s not much reason to watch a commercial or any form of branded content unless one chooses to. Even less so to watch it more than once. It’s no longer about relying on the people “learning” your musical DNA, it’s about expressing a brand’s point using music as the medium - and in our case even as the message - itself. But if I had to answer your question more literally, I do believe that, if in a few years there were a number songs representing the adidas Originals DNA, they would be completely different but they would have an emotion in common: a sense of what we call 'collective memory' re-imagined. A memory being reinvented through the naivety, power and creativity of the next generation. You must remember that when a person from our audience watches our latest film featuring Frank Sinatra’s My Way, he or she thinks it’s a new song. “Cool song, I have never heard it before”, is what we hear a lot. But then, if they like the commercial, they learn about Sinatra and understand that the song has a huge history, and realize that it’s a song they have all heard before and that it was already part of the collective memory. But it still feels new. The interesting part is when people learn about Frank Sinatra through that song - just like for my friends and I the Beatles felt new through Oasis - and only then, instantly realize how the past always informs the future in everything we are surrounded by. That very emotion is what we are after.
Reese: You say the consumer will become the medium. If someone asked you to create sonic equity going into the next 20 years, how would you go about that?
Verderi: I would dare to say it would be more of a musical legacy than sonic equity. With the emotions coming from the meaning of the song more so than from the mere sound of it. I remember when music videos were among the most relevant form of pop culture: it was visual musical content, just like every good ad on TV, but its role was completely different: music videos were there to inspire, ads were there to sell. Music was the medium, not the background. There was an integrity in the purpose of entertaining the audience with a piece of creativity that would move them, without asking much back. If we managed to create a legacy based on this same insight, I would be very proud. This type of conversation is very important to us as we’re not expecting people to watch our commercials. We don’t like to talk down to our audience with a corporate message. We trust music is a more powerful language than advertising. We let music do the job by simply being itself.
Reese: Looking at Your Future Is Not Mine and Original Is Never Finished – in the Originals’ way of doing iconic songs, is consistency even important?
Verderi: No. We always think of a consistency in terms of purpose, never of style. The idea for us is always the key, and that has long-term integrity. But the medium that we use to express it has complete freedom to invent and re-invent itself, in this ’never-finished’ process. As Alegra O’Hare always reminds us, we never want to get ‘stuck in our own paradigm’, even (or especially so) when the brand is in its most successful moment yet. Having strategic and creative integrity towards the purpose of the brand means being true to the idea of challenging the status quo, and as a consequence, of challenging the brand itself and our own success. As soon as something is out, I force myself, together with my friends Wes, Matt, to think about how to completely challenge what was just done, how to make it feel old.
Reese: You guys just won the highest award in Music Entertainment, The Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. This season, you also won Best in Show at the AMP Music Awards. Last year you won two music-related Gold Lions at Cannes. But the story with you goes back to 2008 – when your agency was still less than one year old and 5 people big, you guys won two Gold Lions with the first piece of work the agency produced, among which a Gold Lion in best Use of Original Music. What do these successes have in common?
Verderi: I would say the only thing all these successes have in common is the intention to subvert the relationship between music and images: images become a way to bring the music’s message to life, and not the other way around. They are basically music videos hacking the context of a commercial. In the first two instances, we wrote the lyrics and created original music from scratch. In the case of Original Is Never Finished, we used one of the most famous songs of all time, My Way, but the approach didn’t change.
Reese: On stage at Cannes this season, in a conversation with Alexander Wang, Stan Smith and adidas’ Global Creative Director Paul Gaudio, you all stressed the importance of a collaborative approach and brought the four of you as example of that. How does such an individualistic musical message like My Way reflect the community spirit that came across during the talk?
Verderi: If you notice, both My Way and Your Future Is Not Mine, are singular messages that reach their apex through a collective moment. Both films lead to a finale in which a crowd is chanting the message as a chorus: an individual message endorsed by a community. This is the tension we are after with Originals, a brand that speaks to its audience as individuals, but thinks of them as a community. This is why music is such a powerful tool for us: the idea of chant or chorus is a fundamental community experience.
Reese: You mentioned an era long gone in which we would fall in love with songs through advertising. Was there any meaningful experience earlier in your life in which creativity and music were intrinsically connected?
Verderi: That's an interesting question, it actually makes it a personal story. When I was in high school in Parma, Italy, during the final year, my three friends and I decided to stand as candidates for the student corp. It was a relatively strict school where these things were taken very seriously but we primarily did the campaign to experience something new and to avoid classes. While the campaigns of the other parties had political ambitions, ours had musical ones. We covered the school with hundreds of black and white photocopies of all Beatles album covers, only with our faces pasted onto the ones of the actual Beatles. And while going through classes to explain our program, we wouldn’t talk, but just bring a stereo and play Beatles music. We loved their music but most of our coeds didn’t really know who the Beatles were, just like today kids don’t know about Sinatra, and the whole thing felt fresh and new and picked up. We won the ‘election’ having then to pay the consequences for our own coup and own the responsibility we were elected for. It was an interesting experience, it showed me early on the power of music on youth.