Andrei Chahine is not your typical ad guy. A former jazz pianist-turned-creative director, Chahine is a dynamic force in the halls at 1515 Broadway, helping to drive MTV’s renewed music mindset toward a bold new future with an honest, engaging, and creator-centric approach. Hot on the heels of multiple Cannes Lions wins for his work on the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, V sat down with him to discuss his creative inspirations, collaborative process and this year’s VMAs.
V by Viacom: Let’s dive into your 2015 VMAs campaign that featured Miley Cyrus, sprinkles, and the craziness that won you a Cannes Lions this June. From what bizarre, magical, and frightening place did this emerge?
Andrei Chahine: We already had Miley, so we knew we wanted to activate her huge fan base in a way that felt natural to her and natural to the social environment she really thrives in. A lot of her engagement with fans revolves around fan art – she actually champions and shares a ton of the art that fans make for her. So we wanted to amplify that and make it bigger than she could ever do on her own.
V: You tapped into something that was organically creative and blew it up. That’s a big aha moment.
AC: Totally. In the digital and social space, it’s tough to build a community from scratch. Introducing new behaviors is even tougher. So we found some behaviors that already existed and then found ways to make them bigger and bolder. To be successful we needed to think about creating a dialogue between our fans and our brand, and not just speak at them with TV promos.
V: In general, would you say that avid fans are one of your secret creative weapons? Are they something that should be tapped for all campaigns?
AC: I think so, and they don’t always have to be avid. You just want to be in the conversation set first and then hopefully do something that people think is cool and makes people want to check you out. There is no button that makes people want to pay attention to you.
V: Creatively, for MTV, are you trying to reflect current culture or, rather, lead culture?
AC: We’re ultimately trying to lead it, and that’s what our brand historically is known for, but right now we’re a brand who is in a state of necessary evolution, so it’s baby steps.
V: For this year’s VMAs, the campaign was very creator-driven, focusing on the artist and their expression of creativity. Was that a purposeful pivot?
AC: Yes. It’s still coming from the same place as the Miley campaign where we’re fashioning a set of tools to create a dialogue or to create a story. In this case, we created a set of tools for the artists to use themselves – say, by picking a color, by saying words about creativity and self-expression, or by having us commission a video in their vision.
V: So this year’s campaign was really about MTV being a canvas for creators and artists.
AC: The VMAs campaign is always, at its heart, a brand campaign. It sets a directional tone about being a brand that champions the thought-leaders, the artists and the creators. Giving Kanye four minutes of time during the show. That is a perfect example of MTV at its best. Same thing with Alicia Keys. She got three minutes to do whatever she wanted. She sang a poem by Martin Luther King and that was awesome. It was more about shining a light on people out there doing awesome creative stuff. Not necessarily beating our chest and taking ownership.
V: You’ve worked on the agency side at shops like Grey, Anomaly, Leo Burnett, and BBDO, and now you work in-house at a brand. Do you find that there is more creative freedom?
AC: Ideas get less muddled along the way to execution for sure, and the speed you can work is way faster than at an agency. Which is super necessary in the media landscape these days – we certainly do operate in a 24-hour news cycle.
V: There is an agility that comes with scrappiness.
AC: What’s also cool is that executions that have lower budgets typically have less eyeballs on them. With the VMAs, everyone is looking at our marketing campaign and that’s exciting – but there’s also excitement in something as simple as having my teams pick up cameras and shoot creative, awesome stuff every day that doesn’t have to be seen by everyone on TV.
V: In 2016, do you think that it is really possible to actually be disruptive? Is disruption even a good goal for a creative?
AC: I think to some degree you need to disrupt in order to resonate. There are so many things that happen every single day that you are not overtly aware of, that in order for something to resonate it somehow needs to be worthy of your attention. But these days, I find a lot of disruption to be counterintuitive. Whether it was the green screens from the Miley VMAs campaign last year or the look and feel of this year’s VMAs, whispers can break through more than shouting.
V: How does a brand whisper and not shout?
AC: I think that minimalism really breaks through. A great example from last year was the Snapchat billboard up in Times Square. You have all these brands screaming at you in neon lights, capital letters, flashing everything, million-dollar LED displays. In my opinion, the one thing that cut through was a static all-yellow billboard with the Snapchat ghost logo. That’s an important lesson. My personal mantra is that to do good advertising you have to have a general distaste for advertising. I aspire to make news, to make art, to change behavior. If you’re just making advertising you are living ten, fifteen years ago.
V: Give us a window into your path from inspiration to idea – your creative process.
AC: For inspiration, I consume so much content: film, art, a ton of magazines. I also read a lot about advertising ideas that resonate. KFC making a sunscreen, which to me is really excellent communications in the year 2016. Or Domino’s designing a car. At MTV, especially with this year’s campaign, I was also looking at what happens in culture, musically. We can draw a lot of inspiration from the way artists are reaching out to fans themselves – even Kim Kardashian with her emojis. Labels trying to navigate the media landscape, successfully and unsuccessfully. Even the Frank Ocean release has fables on both sides of the story.
V: Do you utilize brainstorms as part of your process?
AC: I think brainstorms with over two or three people are worthless. I can give you ten articles that agree with me. You usually end up compromising yourself into weaker thinking in brainstorms. From my agency days, I think it’s about having two people – the copywriter and the art director – in a room staring at a wall with a notebook. And these days those roles are blurred since creatives can think media agnostically in a range of tonalities.
V: At the end of the day, what’s your litmus test for success? Is it winning a Cannes Lion? Is it getting fan love?
AC: It’s recognition from my peers. I’ve worked with so many amazing people – people I look up to, former bosses. I carry so many perspectives on my shoulder at any given time that I always refer back to. When I get an email from a former boss that says something like, “Dude, I saw that thing you did. It’s awesome, great work,” that means something.