Reinventing Greece


Global branding strategist Peter Economides is in Sydney and Melbourne this week, brimful of ideas on how to change the world’s perception of Greece.

It’s all in the DNA, says the man who helped Steve Jobs rebrand Apple in the 1990s.

Think Different was the campaign slogan, not ‘Think Differently’. There’s a subtle but vital difference. It was 1997. In California, Steve Jobs had recently returned as CEO to the company that he co-founded 20 years before.  Peter Economides was in Manhattan – Head of Global Clients at TBWA – one of the world’s top-ten most influential global advertising agencies.
Jobs had ordered the creation of an advertising campaign that reflected his philosophy for Apple: the Think Different campaign was the result.
While the first iMac was months away and long before iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad were even a glimmer in his eye, Jobs wanted to reinforce, both to his staff and the world, what Apple meant – what its DNA was made of. And behind that simple, deceptively clever advertising slogan, was a poetic call to arms.

The narration to the accompanying TV commercial – spoken over images of John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other visionaries – struck a chord so profound, that it resonates to this day:

Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently…
Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world… are the ones who do.

The Think Different campaign reinvented Apple. It laid the foundations for the company that in 2012, is the largest publicly-traded corporation in the world, with an estimated value of US$ 626 billion. To ensure the campaign would run seamlessly around the world – spreading its message of rebellious non-conformity with absolute integrity – Steve Jobs gave the task to TBWA and Economides.

Speaking from his home in Athens – on the eve of his much-anticipated presentations in Australia – Economides says the experience of working with Steve Jobs taught him one crucial lesson: how any brand has to be true to itself. “I had the job of checking to see the campaign and the applicability of the line ‘Think Different’ around the world, making sure it was relevant globally,” says Economides.

“When I spoke to the Brits about it, they said ‘over our dead bodies, it’s grammatically incorrect.’

“In Japan they said that they didn’t want to be seen as different, and that’s because Japan is a very homogenous society, but Steve Jobs’ response was, ‘well, that’s the way we speak in California’.

“And that’s a very insightful response, because any brand has to be true to its DNA,” says Economides emphatically.

The parallels with Greece’s current need for reinvention – a subject close to Economides‘ heart and one he is regularly invited to speak about around the world – jump out, for this highly articulate and much-travelled Greek South-African. “Taking that through to Greece today, we feel under pressure to become ‘northern European’ because that’s the defining dialogue in Europe today”, says Economides, who has lived in Athens for more than a decade.

“Well, we’ll never be good Germans, we have to become exceptional Greeks. We have to be true to who we are.

“The experience of working with Steve Jobs taught me, is that if you have a strong belief in who you are – if you don’t get the brand right –  there’s no direction, there’s no guideline on what the product should be like.

“This was the big lesson for me of the Apple experience. The only thing we did was reignite the DNA of Apple, we became true to ourselves.”

Economides’ traces his own DNA back to Asia Minor. His grandparents migrated from Imbros.  Brought up in the family home in Johannesburg, he studied Business Science at university in Cape Town.

Founder of the Felix BNI global branding agency in Athens, Economides is a former Executive Vice President and Worldwide Director of Client Services at McCann Erickson. His journey through the world of advertising has taken him across four continents via Hong Kong, Greece and Mexico to New York, and just as the 20th century closed, back to Athens. It’s no overstatement to say that that his work has impacted consumers almost everywhere.

Economides’ last visit down-under was in 1995, when he was responsible for marketing Coca Cola worldwide. Nearly 20 years later, he arrives on Australia’s shores to share amongst other things, his vision on a more complex, less effervescent global brand: Greece.

“A brand is nothing more than a set of impressions that people have in their minds, but what I’m talking about is a nation’s reputation, what the nation thinks about itself and what the world thinks about it,” says Economides.

“In terms of Greece, when I talk about it as a brand, it’s the social psychology of the nation that I’m really concerned about.

“This is not about creating an ad campaign. It’s all about how a nation behaves, in the collective sense”.

Global brand strategising is what Economides will talk about in his Australian presentations.

As he has done in the United States and Canada, he will also talk about why Greece has to change how it is perceived – not just externally to the world, but to Greeks themselves – and how it should go about it.

“A brand is the result of everything you say and do, and everything you don’t say and don’t do, by the way,” he says.

Economides believes at the root of Greek society today is a lack of a sense of the collective – a sense of the whole.

“We tend to be fierce individualists, which is a wonderful quality. It’s exactly what let us succeed around the world. But in Greece itself we’ve allowed politicians and the corrupt few to determine what this nation is all about,” he says.

“Rather than deal with politicians responsibly we’ve tended to say ‘ach, let them go about doing what they do, and I’ll go about doing what I do.’ ”

Despite having to cope with the current day-to-day challenges produced by painful economic reforms, Economides believes the Greek body politic is ready to embrace and endorse a new vision for the country, – a process he says must happen for change to occur.

For someone whose life’s work has been to motivate consumers and transform people’s behaviour through images and texts, Economides says that it’s important to look at how the mass media has instilled an image of Greece historically. And it’s an image that he say needs retuning.

In the US when speaking at a conference last year, he famously remarked that it was “time to park Zorba and be more Apolllonian”.

“If you think about Greece’s image around the world, it got frozen in time with the image portrayed of Greece in the 1960s: this very glamorous black and white world of islands and Mykonos, Onassis and Maria Callas, and this character called Zorba,” says Economides.

“I’m not talking about Kazantzakis’ book, I’m talking about the image of Anthony Quinn on the sand when Alan Bates says to him ‘will you teach me to dance?’ And Quinn’s response is ‘did you say dance?”  Economides impersonates Quinn’s Zorba as he theatrically delivers the punch line.

“I think we need to park that a bit,” he says quietly, back in his own voice.

“This is something I’ll be talking about in Australia”. Going back to the Apple experience, it’s all about DNA, he says.

“I feel that this Greek love of life is actually where our know-how resides, but the issue is how to create a value-driven proposition based on this know-how of life. We need to be able to monetize it more effectively.

“This is where nation branding begins. It’s about how we feel about ourselves, how we define ourselves, what our narrative is.”

The role of the diaspora and how to make the global Greek network more effective says Economides, is key to changing perceptions of Greece internally and externally.

“The nation has become so disconnected with so many things. It needs to realise it’s a global community, not just the Greeks in Greece.

“Greece is 11 million people, or 20 million people globally, that’s what it’s all about”.

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A very English Athenian

It’s in a quintessentially English setting, far-removed from her home in Athens that I’ve arranged to meet Sofka Zinovieff.

In the UK to promote her first novel The House on Paradise Street, the author, who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is the VIP guest at a literary event hosted by the five-star Calcot Manor Hotel – a luxurious country house dating back to the 14th century, set amongst the rolling Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire. Not that Zinovieff is any stranger to England’s green and pleasant land.

Born and brought up in London, she is the daughter of an English mother and Russian emigré father. As a student, Zinovieff studied at Cambridge University where she graduated with a first-class degree in social anthropology – the study of how contemporary human beings behave in social groups.

It’s that analysis that has underpinned much of her work as a writer. Her first book Eurydice Street, a Place in Athens was the story of her own acclimatisation to living in an adopted culture – Greece. The Red Princess –  the biography of her paternal grandmother- the remarkable story of a White Russian aristocrat who became an ardent communist in the Soviet Union.

With the American publishing house Simon and Schuster recently announcing that they are to publish The House on Paradise Street in the United States, Zinovieff’s move into fiction has taken her to her widest readership yet.

Taking the reader from the war-torn streets of 1940s Athens, to the partisans’ mountain caves of the civil war and on to the present, it’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Greece’s past, present or future.

The story is told through the voice of Maud Perifanis, a young English anthropologist who loses her Greek husband in a mysterious car accident, and then hears the  heart-breaking tale of her mother-in-law’s early life – caught in the brutal political tides of the Greek Civil War.

Is Maud the author in disguise? “People assume I am, she’s an anthropology student who went to Greece as I did, and married a Greek, but in character we’re very different.

“She becomes much more disillusioned with Greece than I could ever be, she’s more uptight, more classically English than I am.”

It’s a tale that could only have been told by someone with an intimate knowledge of the country and a passion for its idiosyncrasies.

“It’s difficult to sum up a deep and long-lasting love in a few words,” says Zinovieff, when I ask what she loves about the country that has been her physical home for eleven years, but spiritual home for half her life.

“What attracted me in the beginning may have been the stereotypical things – the beauty, the light, the history, but when you start a life in another country you go through a kind of rebirth.

“You start as a baby and grow up, you become somebody else, and you see your past and your life before very differently, especially if you’re young as I was, in my early 20s.”

Zinovieff confides that one of the most liberating aspects of reflecting on her English upbringing was deliverance from the British class system.

“In England, by the way someone has finished their second sentence you’re able to determine where they’re from, where they went to school, all that sort of thing. I find that very off-putting,” she says, in her very English and disarmingly precise way.

While the book invites readers to reconsider their views on Greece past and present, it particularly addresses Britain’s involvement in Greek affairs seventy years ago. Did she set out to change hearts and minds on the subject? “I don’t like the idea of fiction trying to be didactic, but I did feel like opening up that area,” she says.

Depending on one’s position, as the Second World War ended, Britain either saved Greece from the evils of communism, or behaved like a brutal imperialist. Zinovieff says she doesn’t take sides but in the novel there is a deliberate inclination to explain and reveal injustices, particularly those perpetrated on the Left.

“I was surprised when I found out more about the Dekemvriana – the events in Athens in December 1944, which I found shocking.

“It seems to me extraordinary that within weeks of the Nazis leaving suddenly there was the British army killing the very people they had been comrades with before.”

The affect of the civil war and the schism in society that followed it, is the underlying narrative in The House on Paradise Street and one partly inspired by her husband’s family history, “but only in the way that a spark can lead to a fire,” says Zinovieff.

“I’d been interested in the war for a long time and then coincidentally cousins of my husband received the remains of their deceased aunt back from Romania. She had been a partisan on the Left during the war, operating near Lamia. Quite a bit of the story is set there.”

To Zinovieff, the recent infamous actions of a Greek Neo Nazi MP, is a shocking contemporary manifestation of the political dysfunction conceived during the civil war.

“To have facists slapping communists on television is a sign of something deeply unhappy in the society. “In Greece, politics is a deep-seated emotional activity played out within families. Often it’s almost irrational. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent times.”

As a widely published author Zinovieff has been one of Greece’s great defenders during a period of sustained international media criticism.

“Greeks have felt like pawns a lot in history and that was something I wanted to explore in the book,” she says. “They felt used. If you look at the crisis in recent years, yet again they feel they’ve been done down by outside powers.”

Her next book will revert to her original calling – non-fiction, once more to mine the rich seam that is her own family history.

This time she is setting out to explore story of her maternal grandfather Robert Heber-Percy, Mad Boy as he was known, who in his twenties had a remarkable and intimate relationship with the english aristocrat, diplomat and composer Lord Berners, twenty-seven years his senior.

“When he met Lord Berners in the mid-1930s, my grandfather was a mad young man of 21, very good looking,” says Zinovieff.  “They met at a house party. Berners took Mad Boy back to his beautiful country – a wonderful Georgian villa in Oxfordshire.

“They were an unlikely couple. Berners had been a diplomat in Constantinople and Rome during the First World War. Highly cultivated and creative, he wrote music for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and had friends as varied as Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.”

Through their remarkable lives Zinovieff will recreate the exotic bohemian world they inhabited and reflect on the paradoxes of pre-war English cosmopolitan high-society.

“In a way the book will be about how I feel towards Berners, because to me, he’s a sort of great-grandfatherly figure, even though I never met him.”

Zinovieff’s new book is the telling of an extraordinary family history. But then the tales told by this English Athenian author are far from ordinary fare.