The view from Belgrade

Lazar Dzamic, Author and Professor

Issue 45 | December 2017

William Gibson (no relation to Percy Fender) was not just right about technology, but about advertising prowess in Serbia too: the future is already here, just not evenly distributed.

After leaving Google's free food in August 2016, and the kindly auspices of the editor of this magazine as my boss, I moved to Belgrade to enjoy some peace and quiet, away from the rattle and din of the modern communications industry and the tech rollercoaster driving it. I wanted to focus on writing, teaching at a university and some art projects.

What I got was the peace and quiet of the Keith Richards kind, who once famously remarked on why he is still climbing on a massive stage, in front of tens of thousands of screaming people reacting to a million-watt PA: 'I need some f****g peace and quiet!' Right.

Belgrade, professionally, through the eyes of someone conditioned to a super-advanced market, is a strange fruit. Like many other things in Serbia, and the Serbs themselves, is full of paradoxes. Here are some of them, in case you wondered...

1 It feels strange being a person from the future, literally. But, here, many marketing things we take for granted are still not everyday, or don't really exist. The market is, in some instances, 10-15 years behind the mainstream marketing curve in the UK. For example, CRM is almost unknown to the marketing masses, as is the concept of a customer journey. Where the word is used, it usually means some sort of a database, but not exactly a thought-through communications suite that reflects main customer needs, pain points, triggers, behaviour... Digital is still something separate from the mainstream broadcast channels, and usually, budget-wise, means 'Facebook'. You Tube's still waiting to be discovered by the local marketers.

2 The true surprise for me, as an ex-strategist was the absence of strategy in the creative work. After nine or so years of group-leading judging at the DMA Awards, I thought that a good way to quickly familiarise myself with the local market was to jump in and help judge the awards run by the local IAB branch. To my surprise, out of 40+ entries, only two had something that could be called 'strategy' in the way the readers of this magazine would recognise. Everything was downright executional, with channels and the media tech as the starting point. Ideas are usually wedded to individual channels, holistic thinking is still to become the norm...

3 However, that's the mainstream. Serbia has some world-beating companies, particularly in tech, but also in advertising. New Moment, one of the leading creative agencies, had won a Titanium Grand Prix in Cannes last year, and a raft of Lions this year too. They are now an international name pitching, and winning, prestige international projects. Nordeus is the most famous creative industry name here, a gaming company responsible for Top 11 football manager game with more than 100 million active players worldwide! Two of their case studies are on Think With Google... BioSense is one of the world's most advanced Big Data agricultural consultancies, while Themes Kingdom is the world's second-largest Word Press templates provider. They are showing the path to the rest....

4 The king of the media plan is still the good, old, linear TV. Given the habits of the population, it is still one of the simplest, and even cost-efficient ways, to reach the mainstream viewership. Some demographic trends play to TV's hands, particularly the ageing population due to the low birth rate and a massive exodus of the young people. That created the paradox of the pensioners being the most reliable spenders in the economy, followed by the public service workers, then anyone else who can afford a job. The grey economy is still massive, which impacts on the media spend, budgets and the headroom for professional growth. One of the peculiarities of the local market is also a frequent 'capture' of the creative and media agencies by the local political structures, making the marketing budgets a tool for the political control and, sometimes, censorship, of the media.

5 Given all of the above, it is also to be expected that the marketing education is going to be somewhat patchy, but good efforts are now popping up. State universities seldom teach modern marketing thinking, but do have quality electrical engineering, maths, statistics, economics and organisational sciences studies. The Faculty of Media and Communications, where I teach, is the only one in the region with a degree in digital marketing. It is, to my knowledge, the only place where one can learn about CRM or Content in the way it is discussed and practised in the leading global markets. Courses and diplomas in the fields such as SEO, UX, game design, Ad Words, analytics, social media marketing and programmatic are more common, but of varying quality. The trade organisations such as the IAB are helping with education and professional initiatives, including certificates of proficiency.

6 Desire to learn is getting stronger by day. It is driven by a new generation of younger managers, brought up with the internet, as well as the first true wave of modern start-ups and entrepreneurs keen to practise what they've learned online. Also, there are now some big, modern Serbian companies with owners or CEOs who want to compete globally and realise they can't do it without good talent. Finally, foreign companies and their local offices are bringing the ways of the world to Belgrade and slowly rising the tide that is lifting all boats, as well as making new demands on the agencies. So, learning has become important and quality providers of knowledge and expertise are in high demand.

7 Last, but not least, the trend of incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces has well and truly arrived. New Spark, ICT Hub, Impact Hub and similar networks of spaces are now spreading across the country and are responsible for the true renaissance of the digital sector, as well as for mainstreaming the innovation and design thinking. Some of their bets are now becoming global unicorns, which is whetting the appetite of the others eager to emulate that.

In a nutshell, it's fun being here. It's less boxed, formatted, jaded and cynical, but at the same time less challenging, advanced, structured and innovative compared to the ever-buzzing hubs of London, Amsterdam or New York. But, I guess, it's the same for most of the planet, compared to those thought-leaders.

At least I have lots of sunshine, tomato that explodes with taste and some magnificent, oily, local walnut brandy. Sapienti sat.

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