“Small Can Thrive Against the Huge — and Do It in Our Own Unique Way”
Corel Theuma was meant to work in engineering, following in the footsteps of his father. But, like many of those that make up the advertising industry, he fell into it. When growing up in his home country of Malta, his mother would not-so-subtly leave the classifieds section of a local newspaper on his bed. He spotted a receptionist job that appealed to him, went for it, and landed at what eventually turned into Lowe, Malta.
Nowadays he's a stalwart of the US industry. Most recently he was a general creative director at R/GA, where he picked up a Lion this summer for his work on Verizon. Before that he was at 360i and spent time at Grey New York working under Tor Myhren, who's now at Apple. He's just joined the team at StrawberryFrog, working closely with Scott Goodson, the founder of the agency.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Corel to find out more about the move, lessons learned growing up on a tiny island, and why it's best not to talk to his mum about his favourite hobby.
LBB> Where are you from – where did you grow up?
Corel> I'm originally from Malta - a tiny island south of Sicily. And by tiny, I mean 17 miles from point to point. I always make the joke that on any given map, the word Malta is probably bigger than the actual country. What Malta taught me was that small can be big. Small can thrive against the huge — and do it in our own unique way. We don’t need to be big to be good. Quite the opposite really.
LBB> How did you first get in the industry? What was your very first job?
Corel> I fell into advertising by mistake. My dad is an electrical engineer and so naturally I decided to follow his footsteps. I loved math and physics, but eventually engineering wasn't the right thing for me. It felt too rigid and by the book, and so I dropped out. At the time, my mom made sure I didn't just sit on the couch, so she used to leave the 'classifieds' section of the newspaper right on my bed. Which is when I came across a receptionist job at what now is Lowe, in Malta. There I met a ton of friends (mostly art directors who were very patient), and fell in love with the idea of helping brands express what they stood for. The rest is history.
LBB> Why did you decide to make the move to StrawberryFrog?
Corel> Momentum, impact and the future of marketing and creativity. When looking for the next gig, I'm always looking for a story to tell after the fact. At R/GA, it was 'taking on a notoriously complex client and turning it into the award-winning account that every creative wanted to work on'. To me, what's very impressive is StrawberryFrog's comeback. The company is experiencing soaring growth as the world’s first Movement Marketing, advertising and transformation company. So naturally, I'd love this story to be that, together with my co-ECD partner Tyler, we’re shaping the pedigree of creative you expect from the modern StrawberryFrog - and in the process we are re-establishing this incredible company back as number one - where it honestly deserves to be.
LBB> What is it about the team and the culture there that clicks for you?
Corel> You might think what we’re doing at StrawberryFrog is hard, crazy even. But it’s the complete opposite. We take on more huge clients than much larger agencies and do it smarter, faster, better. Being a member of this team is like being part of a political party, only with all the important things that lead to great creativity not bad. Not wasting time and dehumanising creatives.
At the risk of sounding generic, everyone here is family. It was surprising to me how genuinely excited everyone was when I first started. It wasn't fake. I was the newest member of the family and all the 'siblings' wanted to get to know me. At big agencies, I often felt like I was constantly looking over my shoulder - with the politics deterring from what should have been my main focus: to create the very best work in the world. When you have this kind of culture, you move fast, and have the support and backing to think big and try new things.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Corel> In 2012, E*Trade at Grey was one of the hottest accounts to work on at the time. For the Super Bowl spot, the agency would go through hundreds, if not thousands, of scripts until they landed on the right one. I was proud to break through the bunch and have my script produced. I worked closely with Tor the CCO, who’s now at Apple, and we did game-changing work.
LBB> And what recent projects are you proudest of and why?
Corel> Winning in Cannes for Verizon made me smile. But the project I am most proud of has to be 'Adaptoys'. It's a toy line we created with The Christopher Reeve Foundation that enabled quadriplegic parents to play with their kids for the very first time. When you're healthy, it's easy to get down on the carpet and play with your kids, but for one in every 50 parents that's in a wheelchair, it's not even possible. I remember being so encouraged by the small group of people that came together after hours and made it happen. That said, what was most incredible to me, was actually seeing the toys being used. For the first time, we didn't just create advertising, we created a solution. We helped parents connect with the ones they loved the most - it was as if their condition didn't exist anymore. It truly reshaped how I approach projects now and solidified a core belief: that advertising has the power to change mindsets, help brands, and help people.
Above: The 'First Responders' campaign for Verizon
Above: The 'Adaptoys' campaign for the Christopher Reeve Foundation
LBB> Within the industry, who are your creative heroes?
Corel> Growing up at Grey New York, Tor was a very dominant presence in all our lives. What made him a hero in my eyes wasn't the fact that he was the CCO, or later the president. It was how he led. He was amazing at curating talent and engaging them to bring their best. He also implemented ideas that pushed a culture of creativity - like 'No Meeting Thursdays' and 'Heroic Failures'. The cherry on top was his outstanding presentation skills - he owned a room.
LBB> And what work makes you jealous?
Corel> I'm jealous of all brave work. Work that clearly takes a lot of heart to both sell and buy. I recently came across KLM's 'Fly Responsibly' campaign. Can you imagine telling a room of marketers representing an airline company to promote flying less? That takes heart, and a courageous mind. The campaign managed to position them as so much more than 'an airline company'. They're now seen as thought leaders in travel overall. I look forward to seeing how they act on the positioning.
LBB> Outside of work, what are you passionate about?
Corel> It wasn't until I moved out of my cocoon that I realised this, but I'm actually a decent cook. I love chopping and mincing and frying and broiling. I find it to be quite therapeutic. I'm actually considering taking a course after hours - could be a cool second career down the line.
LBB> What do you do to break out of the industry bubble?
Corel> This is not my mother's favourite topic. But I actually love to play Texas hold'em poker tournaments. It helps me use the math side of me that I don't typically get to use in marketing.
LBB> What are your thoughts about the changing role and definition of creativity in the ad world?
Corel> I want people who are creative game changers to work for me. I use the word creative on a macro level. Because the most fascinating thing to me in recent years was seeing advertising agencies and creatives try and determine on which side of the divisive digital line they stood. You'd hear things from creatives like, 'oh, I only do film', or 'I'm a digital art director'. I found that to be very odd. My personal view is that digital, social, TV, radio, A/R, are just media outlets. Yes, you may have experience in one area more than another, but the truth is that we need to stop being 'a type of creative', or a 'type of creative agency', and get back to thinking of ourselves as amazing problem solvers.
LBB> What would be your dream brand to work on and why?
Corel> This is a conversation that both Scott [Goodson, founder of StrawberryFrog] and I have had a few times. The truth is I'd love to work with brands that understand we're way past the point of 'selling'. Today consumers are in search of something deeper. I'd love to work with brands that are truly willing to identify their true purpose - and implement it in actions, not words.
LBB> What’s exciting you about the industry right now – and frustrating you?
Corel> What I find most frustrating is a poorly run inter-agency team process - especially when multiple creative agencies are involved - even if they're from the same parent company. I find it to be incredibly frustrating to all involved, cost-conducive to both agencies and the brand, and a distraction from the best creative solutions. In 10 years, I've never seen it work.
However, what I find exciting is the reset that's happening overall. Brands are starting to realise that having a big agency roster isn't necessarily resulting in great work and results. At StrawberryFrog we do what huge clients need and want, we just do it differently and better than the huge corporate agencies. What matters is opening up pathways to the bigger, smarter ideas. As a CEO, the trick is to spend time and truly understand your brand and what its true purpose is - and if you don’t know if we can help. From that point on, any business objective will simply become a brief that anyone can take on - no matter of the size of the agency. Because as a brand you're clear on what you stand for. We use Movement to activate purpose since most purpose strategies sit in a PowerPoint someplace and never get activated. Why not now?!