Few have left their mark on as many fields as Vukša Veličković, a Serbian writer, journalist, online publisher, editor-in-chief and advertising creative. We caught up with Veličković to discuss PR, media, political propaganda, and what connects Dua Lipa and Aleksandar Vučić.
Over the course of the past decade or so, you’ve traveled the road from novelist to cynical ad man. This is not an entirely unknown path in this part of the world. I can think of a few individuals, for example, who were a part of Yugoslavia’s new wave scene in the 1980s and who are now doing PR. Some are even doing political propaganda. What has that journey looked like for you? Is it a more logical progression than people might think?
God, I hope I am not that cynical. I’ve wanted to do all sorts of arts since I was a kid. I wrote my first film script when I was five. Obviously, had some trouble raising the budget. As a teenager in the mid-1990s I began writing for local magazines, along with a few gigs in a couple of Danish newspapers. Later on, I published my first novel. The book had a soundtrack CD with a selection of Belgrade’s underground music, which was like a unique thing at the time. I was really excited but as a brazen 23-year-old I found the local literary scene way too traditional and stiff. Moreover, the very term “writer” seemed pompous, inadequate, especially in the Serbian context. My second novel wasn’t really a novel, it was staged as a multimedia act, with videotext and live performance that had little to do with literature in the traditional sense.
For several years I was exploring the intersections of journalism and academia. I had some fellowships and scholarships, travelled a bit, but never really felt at home in the academic industry. So I guess the transition from creative writing to creative writing for hire, seemed natural. If I can’t write prose that pays the rent, I’ll write one that does. I’ll write for banks and hotels. Luckily, my ongoing antics caught the eye of Pavle Farčić, the CEO of Hominid Studio, one of the leading Serbian advertising agencies, so he took me aboard as creative director, some ten years ago.
Now, when you mention “corporate and political propaganda”, that sounds a bit over the top, at least in my context. I’m afraid I’m not the Svengali behind some menacing transnational corporation or a political structure. It’s a lot more banal than that. Most of the time I’m the guy who makes sure you get served the right YouTube ad. But to answer your question, yes, you can traverse from advertising to politics, and vice versa. They are part of the same realm, like religion, music or art. The main drive is emotional, it cooks up the desire. Unlike, say, science. Even though they both pretend to be scientifically based, we all know that in 90% of the cases in politics and advertising no one has a clue as to what they’re doing. Well, in many ways, today’s politics is nothing but advertising.
From my end, I haven’t done any political propaganda, but I was fortunate to work on a few social-awareness campaigns where I was allowed to mix the corporate with the social and the political. The most recent one, for the Hemofarm foundation, was meant to raise awareness on cadaveric organ donation which has been known to be a controversial issue in Serbia with little support.
When comparing the number of organ donors per million people in European countries, we realised Serbia was stuck at the very bottom of the list, trailing its neighbours like Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary by far. So we decided to go head-on and try to provoke the Serbian competitive sports-like mentality in order to stress out the importance of organ donation. We put up billboards and social media posts with images in the form of football score signs displaying how poorly Serbia compares in this area against its neighbours. As expected, there was lots of outrage on Facebook and elsewhere online, but the campaign achieved its goal. It sparked an ongoing national debate across all media channels, from social networks to radio and TV. And most importantly, the number of donors had increased.
What’s the relationship between advertising and propaganda as you see it?
Advertising is just a prettier word for propaganda, isn’t it? We live in the age of persuasion. The more connected we are over the internet, the stupider we become. Easier to persuade, easier to entertain. What was once supposed to distinguish propaganda from advertising was that advertising used to present the benefits of a product, whereas propaganda was a relentless emotional attack for a social or political cause. But today, the two conflate. The cause and the benefits are secondary.
In politics, ideally you’d have to persuade by means of dialogue, engaging with people through a public debate, explaining your policies and plans, and so on. With propaganda, you’re supposed to do the opposite. That’s how advertising works. Brands love to talk about engagement and communities blah blah blah, but the truth is, most of the time, good advertising is repeating one solid core message over and over again. Preferably in a one-way stream, with no dialogue at all.
And often the message itself is devoid of meaning. Because it doesn’t need any. The real goal is not meaning but emotional impact. Meaning can be implied later. That seems all fine, when you’re trying to sell a toothbrush or the same pair of jeans against another. It’s kind of bad when you’re doing the same with a political idea. Most likely, it means you don’t really have one.
Today, every major political party in most countries across the world has a marketing agency or two behind them. Staging the show, crafting the words, sounds and lights. For example, in Israel there is an agency that says on their website how they specialise in “right wing political marketing”. They provide you with everything – the tone of voice, the peaceful hand gesture, the well-cut suit, a slicker hairdo, all the scripts for all your promo videos on Instagram, and so on. In that sense, I’m not sure if there’s much difference between someone like Aleksandar Vučić and Dua Lipa.
But for some reason, we like to pretend as if our politicians are not merely acting. The same as in a real theatre. You know it’s staged, you know there are actors in costumes playing their parts. But you want to believe it’s real. And if it’s well played, you will relate to the show, you will become emotionally engaged. For that hour or two in the theatre, the show feels real. And when that same kind of staged performance is played 24-7 inside and outside your home, the staged reality becomes your only reality.
Sometimes we like to scream, oh oh it’s all a staged shitshow! No facts, no grounds in objective truth! Not even a semblance! I guess that’s why it’s very fashionable nowadays to complain how it’s all the French postmodernists’ fault. As if they were the ones who forged this crazy world. But the French were merely observing. Derrida and the rest didn’t invent anything new with their deconstructionism and reality-killing. It was happening before their eyes. They just took notes. And it seems the notes were correct. We live in a shitshow.
I’ve been aware of you and your work for the past decade. Balkanist certainly wouldn’t exist today without Bturn as inspiration. It was also organized as a regional portal. What is your attitude today towards “regional” media?
Somehow at one point somewhere along the line, the “region” as a term has lost much of its relevance, but I believe it’s coming back. It’s simply the nature of how we perceive things and phenomena. People think in batches and folders. We like to categorise. An average westerner couldn’t tell the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, so perhaps the regional attitude does make sense after all?
One of the core ideas behind Bturn was to use the regional factor as a point of distinction in the beginning, but our ultimate goal was to expand it into an international thing. Because how do you define “a region”? Culturally, economically, politically? Or just purely geographical? What are the Balkans anyway? I’m not sure if Slovenia or Croatia would consider themselves as “Balkan”. Of course, Maria Todorova comes to mind. The Balkans as an imaginary space, a front for competing ideas, projections and phantasies. Bturn tried to play around with this notion. We were brash, crude, sarcastic, deliberately self-exoticising, but we kept it real. In all truthfulness, the regional bit was our advertising push, a way we thought we could market the whole thing. Ah, this website, it’s about the Balkans! What’s that, the place with raging wars? Yep! And crazy turbo folk gangsters and avant-garde culture, fake boobs and anti-imperialist poetry, repressive governments and progressive ideas, crossover music and great food, what’s not to love?
At the end of the day, all we wanted to do was produce quality journalism, good storytelling. Because journalism in the Balkans is such shit. And I think we succeeded to a degree, though from the business side we weren’t fully ready, in terms of monetising the whole thing. It’s hard running an online magazine, as I’m sure you know. Actually, this year is the 10-year-anniversary of Bturn. A decade on the internet! Like a century in real life. Today, the long defunct Bturn is something akin to Bruce Sterling’s dead media. Even more so – it’s the undead, a digital zombie floating in cyberspace, refusing to die. Because there are people still reading it somewhere. The majority of the articles are atemporal, and I guess they still resonate because of the themes and the quality of the writing. Thankfully, Balkanist Magazine continues to carry the torch, this time as a better organised, more focused effort.
You’ve lived and worked in some of the world’s most competitive and vital cultural centers, including London and Milan. Where does Belgrade fit in with all of that?
It doesn’t. Belgrade is a micro cosmos, with an emphasis on the micro. Not only is the Belgrade universe small, it is also fragmented into several even smaller universes. Every time I come home, I feel the universe gets a little smaller. But still, it’s a unique place. It radiates with that sort of tense, anxious energy of a city suffering from some kind of permanent identity crisis, yet at the same time being very resistant to change. I know it’s a cliche, but Belgrade is of course, much closer to mid 90s east Berlin than London or Milan. But while Berlin is transforming and adapting, Belgrade not so much. The famous party scene has been in a steady decline, although we do have some very good young bands right now.
What worries me is the lack of independent cultural production in face of this crude version of for-profit free market ideology that we have here. Isn’t it troublesome that in a society where many live on the brink of poverty, the key social event every year is the opening of a new shopping mall? People with no money hanging in the shopping mall as some form of entertainment is quite sad. Then again, you remember that ministries of culture and education in Serbia have always been at the bottom end of the funding pit, either completely neglected or used as just another laundromat, so I guess it all comes back to a fundamental, systemic issue.
How does the Serbian advertising and PR context differ from that of say, the UK advertising and PR context? What do you have to keep in mind when targeting a broad Serbian audience?
Serbian advertising is terrible. And there’s loads of it. Look at Belgrade. The city is suffocating in advertising. Ads are everywhere, posters and billboards in every form plastered across every inch of space. Messages are reduced to the lowest common denominator, and quite often the ad copy is written in rhymes, stuff like that. It’s like Piccadilly Circus for the pauper, a shitshow Blade Runner without the neons. Ninety percent of it is simply awful. The rest is really well-crafted and produced, but mostly generic. And that’s not the fault of the creatives. There are great local agencies here and lots of talented people on pair with anyone in NYC or London. Most of the time, it’s the company boards or some self-proclaimed market analysts that dictate this form of cheap, lazy advertising.
I think businesses here are wrong to underestimate the local audience. I’ve been way too often told, “yeah, that’s a very cool idea but it’ll never pass in Serbia”. Well, how do you know!? Is there some research you can point to? Or are you just making stuff up? We are not so backward down here. Most of us are just a little frustrated, which I guess, is something you can tap into as an advertiser, why not.
Recently, I did a campaign for an up and coming Serbian bank, and they were very progressive in their approach of trying to distinguish themselves from their competitors. The campaign was supposed to be critical of the exploitative practices of the banking industry, with the bank saying “we’re not like that”. My creative interpretation took this a little farther, and we ended up with a very tongue in cheek campaign reminding people that banks treat them like workhorses and sheep.
We used quite literal yet stylised imagery together with a deliberately populistic message we thought amplified the need for a change of local business practices in both banking and advertising of banking. It was a campaign people loved to hate, but it made the right waves. The client was happy.
You mentioned right-wing political advertising earlier. Who do you think is doing better in that sense, the right or the left?
The right, definitely. The left is better at comedy, the right is better at advertising. It was funny how after the 2016 elections, the entire media landscape was talking about Trump’s marketing team doing some devious, shady tactics for targeting people, when they were simply taking advantage of all the available tools provided by Facebook to any marketer out there at that moment – collecting data and building custom audiences, then collecting more data and optimising the digital campaigns’ performances, and so on. Pretty much what any cosmetics brand with a decent digital agency was doing at the time, only at a scale much larger and with a completely different kind of impact, of course. But when comparing the two campaigns on the digital level in 2016, Trump’s was much better executed than Clinton’s, by a mile.
Or try a comparison in the UK around the same time. Everyone still remembers the “Take back control” Brexit slogan from 2016, right? What was the Remain campaign’s slogan? I think it was “Come together” but I’m not sure. Anyways, it is the former that will be remembered in history books as a prime example of a winning slogan.
Or even the last elections in 2019. The Conservatives’ tagline was “Get Brexit Done”. Spot on call-to-action. Compare it to Corbyn’s: “It’s time for real change” which sounds like it was written by an algorithm. Maybe soon they all will? Maybe in the future, every president will be a blockchain? But at the moment, it looks like the left is better at Twitter and comedy, and the right is better at advertising and winning the elections.
The Serbian media landscape has changed a lot over the past seven years, but then again, the online media landscape in the English-speaking world has also changed a lot. Even in just the past year or two, more and more content has migrated behind paywalls onto platforms like Substack and Patreon. What do you make of the current Serbian media scene, and are you optimistic that it will improve under different political conditions?
The Serbian media scene is absolutely catastrophic, and it doesn’t look promising. It has been in rapid decline for the last couple of decades or so. If you had no education and no skills, you’d go into journalism. Print or tv, doesn’t matter. The idea was that anyone with a head on their shoulders could do it. You don’t even need a brain, just pretend there is one. The internet of course finally killed everything. Today’s digital world of short form no-news eyeball-chasing clickbait articles is perfect for the contemporary Serbian “school of journalism”.
Unfortunately, as anywhere else, the media are quite powerful in constructing reality and shaping public culture. Yes, in the UK you have disgusting tabloids but you also have decent papers. In Serbia, disgusting tabloids only. And some of them are peddling real dangerous stuff, on a daily basis. They make your average Daily Mail or The Sun crap looking benign in comparison. One may try to ignore it, but the poison is spreading nevertheless.
As far as Substack and Patreon go, I love the idea of moving away from this bullshit clickbait SEO journalism of the last decade, towards supporting authors in creating exclusive, meaningful content. But I’m not sure if that business model is sustainable. It feels a little like the blogging boom from a couple of decades ago, when it all looked like a welcoming disruption of traditional media monopolies, and then in the end corporate media bounced back and took over again. On the other hand, the goalposts have definitely shifted. It feels similar today, but the context is different. I am sure there will be more disruptions, business models will transform and adapt even further. It’s hard to tell. We’re still at this very primitive stage of our online existence, cavemen tripping in the dark, aren’t we?
Cover photo credit: Braca Nadeždić/with permission