A couple of months into business school, Rafael Aparicio started to panic. The path was clear for him to follow his father and brother’s footsteps and join family’s sixty year-old stock broking business. One problem – Raf was not too inspired by the finance world. “I panicked, picturing myself in a suit and tie and working from a cubicle!”
Growing up, everybody told him, “you’re so creative”.
“I didn’t know what to do with that, but the words have stuck with me.”
Luckily he ditched finance and made the switch to advertising school. Today Rafael is the co-founder and Chief Creative Director of his own agency in Bogotá. And the family’s stock-broking firm - is one of their most valued, long-standing clients. “Now that they’re clients of mine, the story has a nice ending. I get to work with my family, but I get to do it my way. I’m helping them with what I love.”
After college, Rafael landed an internship, followed by a copywriting role at J. Walter Thompson, the agency he calls his “true advertising school”. But even as he learned the ropes, he was already hungry for more and asking, ‘what’s next?’. “I had the Berlin School application form downloaded since that first year at JWT. That’s about five years before I applied. I remember looking at the school’s website and immediately recognizing the face of Craig Davis, at the time Worldwide Chief Creative Officer at JWT. I couldn’t believe there was a school where my own Worldwide CCO taught, along with other industry rock-stars. That struck a chord with me.”
The Head of a Mouse
A couple of years later, Rafael got his first taste of leadership, accepting the role of Creative Director at Mejía Asociados, a small Below The Line agency in Bogotá. “I always said I would prefer to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion. Coming from JWT to a small agency, people looked at me with different eyes. At big agencies, there’s often a very big ego in every chair. Here, the environment was different – I felt I really had the trust and space to make my ideas grow and shine.”
Through solid creative work, the agency grew exponentially into one of the biggest BTL agencies in Colombia, winning major global clients such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, SAB Miller, and the Colombian Football Federation, as well as winning multiple awards in different creative festivals. Rafael puts this success down to creative ideas. “I spent four years at Mejía, and I saw how a small agency can become a big player thanks to the power of ideas. I compare it very much with David and Goliath. Sometimes the biggest agencies don’t put much passion into their pitches. They don’t realise they’re competing with small agencies that kill themselves for the opportunity.”
Written in the Stars
In 2011, another successful year at Mejía, Rafael finally sent off his Berlin School application. Rafael credits a great deal of his Berlin School journey to earning the esteemed Colfuturo Scholarship which supports global postgraduate opportunities for Colombian students. “When I got the Berlin School acceptance email, I think it’s one of only two or three times I’ve ever cried of happiness in my life.” Before heading into his first module, he recalls googling his classmates, seeing their profiles, and being terrified “that I wasn’t going to live up to their level”. But to his surprise, he realised, “everyone just saw each other as classmates, as equals – no divas“.
It was the creative kick-start he needed. In his first Berlin School classes, Raf was hearing the very same feedback that he had heard in his childhood and teenage years, but this time it was harder to ignore. “When one of your Berlin School classmates or teachers tells you that you’re so creative, it’s not the same as hearing it from your mom. These guys know what they’re talking about! (Mom does too, but she’s Mom).”
“I sum up the Berlin School with one word – empowerment. It showed me that I could compete globally and learn globally. It convinced me that I could go back to Colombia and start my own agency, and watch it grow just like I had at Mejía. I needed that push.”
Becoming "Brand’s Best Friend"
It’s no surprise that friendship would become the cornerstone of Raf’s next career move. Especially hearing about his Berlin School thesis, “Branding Friendship: The Berlin Exchange”. Raf explains, “we’ve all have had situations with clients, where we’re lacking some vital knowledge and suddenly, we remember that one friend that can help. Imagine, instead of saying, “I called up a friend”, you tell your client “I’m part of a knowledge network.” Raf’s concept of an idea-exchanging network with his Berlin School classmates puts a brand around this pool of knowledge and skills, one that becomes a powerful part of your own personal brand. “Suddenly the informality of “calling up a friend” transforms into this tangible, solid institution that can differentiate you.”
Ready to kick-start his dream of starting his own agency, Raf did exactly what he had learned back in Berlin – he reached out to a friend. Returning to Colombia, he reunited with high-school classmate, Michael Burrowes, a Graphic Designer and former Creative Director at Leo Burnett who was also looking for a new project to call his own. Together, they founded Raf&Mike, a full-service branding agency for local and multinational brands. Their mission was to protect, guide, and look out for brands, “just like a best friend would.”
“We called the agency Raf&Mike because that’s how our closest friends have called us since we were kids. We wanted to transmit that level of trust to our clients and let them call us like our best friends do, right from the start.” Personal connections are not only at the heart of Rafael’s creative strategy and leadership approach. They’re also the core of his agency’s values. “I always connected very well with people. Even in high-school, I never agreed with labelling people as “cool” kids or “dorks” – I just wanted to get to know everyone. I wanted to be the glue that held everyone together.”
Connecting with Colombian Hearts
During our interview, Rafael conducts what he calls “the soda test” – a quick marketing experiment which he does with his clients, to highlight the difference between Top of Mind and Top of Heart. “When I ask a client to quickly name two soda brands, they will nearly always say Coke and Pepsi. Then I ask them to name two soda brands they LOVE, and that’s when people get thinking. Most people just answer Coke, leaving Pepsi behind, and this isn’t just down to taste. Coke has done an incredible job of connecting with the hearts of its audience. You think of happiness, friendship, cute polar bears, Santa Claus. That’s what you want, be at the top of people’s hearts, not just their minds.”
For Raf, the most rewarding challenges are those that prove that creativity can transform a business, whatever the industry. As we discuss campaigns, Raf&Mike’s thought-provoking work for Western Union, stands out as an amazing example of the power of creative thinking to bring even unshakable corporate brands closer to their customers’ hearts. “I asked the general manager of Western Union, a guru in his industry, to define his business and his response was totally void of emotion – “we transfer money from point A to point B.” Raf&Mike’s challenge was to bring out the human interaction behind these seemingly faceless transactions.
“Colombia is a developing country, and we have a lot of people, Western Union costumers, working their asses off in crappy jobs abroad in order to feed their families, send their kids to school, etc. They’d rather spend their money that way, than buying expensive airline tickets to visit each other. We created a digital campaign where we asked these customers to send their video testimonials and tell everyone the story behind their transactions; why do they receive money, from whom, and how do they use it. People would vote for their favourite stories and those would win an airline ticket to be reunited with their families.
After a week of near-silence, the testimonials appeared, at first one by one, and eventually in droves. “The reaction was amazing, and not just from the winners. People were so thankful to see these stories being told. A real sense of community emerged. Some even claimed it was a gift from God. Western Union’s advertising strategy had always been “we are fast, effective, and secure”, but they had never looked behind the transactions. Behind every transaction there is a story, people are not just sending money, they are sending an expression of their love. The video testimonials were shared across the globe. The campaign melted people’s hearts and proved that even when you’re a small agency, ideas can be really big. They can break through borders.”
Change the World. (Seriously).
Raf&Mike is now one of Colombia’s top independent agencies, working closely with big names such as Black+Decker, Miller Lite, Western Union, Parmalat, Varta, amongst other high-profile local brands. They are currently operating on a team of eleven – twelve if you include Rafael’s dog, Teo, who joins him on his commute every day. Being a small agency, you might ask, how they survive and out-perform the bigger players. Rafael puts this down to creative freedom and developing friendship-like relationships, not only with clients but with employees as well. “I love the freedom that independence gives us. The agency now has a way of running itself. We have a result-oriented workplace which doesn’t pressure employees to follow a strict schedule. Creativity isn’t something you can switch on at 9am and shut off at 5pm. It can come at any moment. We let our team own their projects, and they know that we’ll have their back. The team feels like a family.”
Raf&Mike have 10 Commandments – the Tenth is ‘Change the World. (Seriously).’ “That word ‘seriously’ in the end means we don’t want “change the world” just to be taken lightly as one of those bullshit, happy-go-lucky, Teletubby phrases. We really think campaigns that look out for peoples’ wellbeing can really change the world, one small step at a time. We’re not telling our staff they need to come up with the next Facebook. They can impact the lives of people through their work, and that can includes, for example, giving people the opportunity to reunite with their families, a six-hour flight away. We can do good with our clients’ budgets, and not just earn them more money with empty advertising.”
As a business, Raf&Mike don’t focus on counting awards but rather on doing good things. “When you do good things, those awards will follow. But when you only focus on awards, that’s when you lose track of the change that you can bring about. Our focus right now is to enable our clients to really open their eyes, see what creativity can do for them, and how creativity is the best way to disrupt the market, connect with people’s hearts, and stay there.”