Toni Segarra: “Good advertising is like popular poetry”

José Ortega y Gasset said that he never decided to be a journalist. It was inevitable, because he was born at a newspaper.

Something similar might have happened to Toni Segarra. The publicist was born in a Barcelona printing press and it was there, from a very young age, that he discovered the trade of designing and writing slogans. Back then, in the 1960s, it was common for printers to have a small studio where brochures and display advertisements were created.

toni

As a teenager, Toni loved writing. Since he was a “language and literature” child fate seemed to launch him inexorably towards a degree in law. But a year before he entered university, along came a literature teacher who changed the logical order of his future. Toni studied Hispanic Philology because he wanted to learn to write. Today, after having written dozens of slogans that will remain forever etched in the memory of Spanish advertising, he is not so sure whether that is the faculty where people are taught to write. But he did learn something important. “To read, to analyse and the great virtue of summarising concepts.”

His first year at university was also his first year as an employee. Toni, at 18 years of age, helped out at the family printing press by writing short texts. “It was really easy,” he says. “So easy and so much fun that it couldn’t possibly be a job.” But soon it ended up being one. The Vizeversa advertising agency hired him as a copywriter.

I worked in the mornings, studied in the afternoons and, at the age 22, was already married

Adult Toni arrived soon after. But between projects, and between exams, he often felt a burning desire to be a writer.

That sense of longing hung over him and he often lamented over it. One morning, while beating the sheets to make the bed, Toni started on again about the same thing. This time his wife stopped him.

“Perfect. I’ll go back to work, we’ll go and live with my mother, and you focus on writing.”

Toni was terrified. A writer? Be a writer?

“At that moment I accepted that my vocation was to be a publicist,” he declares. “I’m crazy about advertising.” And maybe that mix of passion and obsession is why today Toni has nearly 40 Lion awards from the Cannes International Film Festival, …….. Sol awards from the El Sol Latin American Festival, a National Communication Award, and he was elected Best Spanish Creative Person of the 20th Century in a poll conducted by the magazine Anuncios.

At the age of 27 he attained advertising glory with a spot in which a dog named Pippin left home because the boy with whom he was playing was no longer paying any attention to him. The boy preferred to watch TV. This TVE advertisement received the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1989.

In a profession in which your creativity is measured by the number of awards you have, it is easy to lose sight of the real meaning of things. And Toni lost it. “I was winning lots of awards and I realised that I was getting obsessed with winning them instead of devoting myself to the most important thing: to make a campaign work,” he says. “Although awards still get me excited. For 27 years in a row I have won at least one Sol award at that festival and it shows me that I have had a consistent career.”

But for Toni one sentence is all it takes to sum him up. “I’m a guy who writes ads.” Moreover, for a long time, he was “the repository of advertising in Spain.” “I would read all the publications and books on advertising. I was doing exhaustive research without realising it. I was an advertising bookworm,” he says. “Even the English I know I learned from reading so many ads.”

During those years Toni worked at various agencies: Contrapunto, Casadevall Pedreño & SPR, Delvico Bates and Vinizius. In 1995 he founded his own company with Luis Cuesta, Ignasi Puig and Félix Fernández de Castro. They called it *S,C,P,F… and soon reached the zenith of advertising creativity. A TV spot of a hand riding the wind from the window of a BMW shot Toni back to advertising’s Olympus.

Then came the new Ikea iconography, and the aerial revolution for Vueling.

For Toni, advertising is not the only thing he is “crazy about.” He is also obsessed with “the madness of synthesis.” “The novel involves filling in time and paying attention to rhythms,” he says. “Poetry, however, is the most useful knowledge tool I know. It has no desire to explain. It sets out from the idea that the world cannot be explained. And by that I am talking more about Sabina than Aleixandre. Good advertising is similar to popular poetry, poetry you can understand, not the deliberately obscure poetry that tries to confuse you.”

He rarely writes poetry. And if he does, it is out of a “sheer need”. Either because he wants to bring order to his thoughts or aims to explain something he will never take to a printer or put on a blog. Those writings are private. Although there are others that were published in 2009. In his book Desde el otro lado del escaparate (“From the Other Side of the Shop Window”) he collected a series of reflections and, among them, addressed the importance of research in his work.

It’s more fun than sitting and thinking alone and it makes you grow

He says what he likes most about his life in the agency is the sense of teamwork. “I live in a permanent meeting. It’s where I think I have the most value and where I can make other people’s work easier. My job is more to see things than to create.”

He also has preferences when it comes to formats. “What I like most is graphic design. Billboards, newspaper pages…” he says. “I am a big fan of graphic design. I think I have good taste, but I can’t execute it. It’s my frustrated vocation.”

The idea of being a writer was definitely a mistake.

He loves reading and defines himself as a “literature freak.” He especially likes Latin American literature. He reads Cortázar, García Márquez… and he has Borges on his bedside table, the author who wrote in the foreword to A Universal History of Infamy that “first of all, reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.”

Sometimes an ad says what a country needs to hear

Toni sees advertising graphic design as the most desirable activity for his retirement. Although he hastens to add that there would have to be “recognition for good TV spots”. “Sometimes an ad says what a country needs to hear,” he says. “That happened, for example, with the ad for Atlético Madrid, in which a Republican and a Nationalist are reconciled over football. It is a spot that sought to boost morale when this country needed it.”

“Advertising,” he emphasises, “does a lot of work under the radar.”