Sitting in his Madrid office, Lus Bassat holds up a copy of his latest marketing manual, The Red Book of Brands, and beams. "No way would you have been able to do this before the Wall fell," he says, pointing to the book's cover. It's a portrait of Mao Zedong, wearing his usual black-and-white outfit. But perched atop the Chinese chairman's head is a cap emblazoned with the Nike swoosh. "I've lost all respect for Mao," says Bassat, 58. A self-confessed leftie in his youth, he's chairman of Bassat, Ogilvy & Mather, Spain's No. 3 advertising agency, with $250 million a year in revenues.
Bassat, like many of his generation, chafed under the heavy yoke of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship. His early TV commercials were pored over by teams of censors. Sources of creative inspiration were hard to come by: He had to travel to France to view daring new films, such as Last Tango in Paris. "My worst fear in those days was having my passport confiscated," he recalls.
That's why when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Bassat felt it was the most significant event since Franco's death 14 years earlier. "It was the end of those stony-faced border guards, identical to the ones we'd had in Spain," he says. He still treasures a fragment of the Wall sent to him by a German colleague.
The end of the dictatorship also marked the start of Bassat's association with Ogilvy & Mather. During a visit to New York in 1975, the Catalan adman convinced founder David Ogilvy to take a stake in his small Barcelona-based shop. Bassat's work campaigns captured the essence of the new free-spirited Spain. An ad for Adidas urged people to jog in their underwear, while one for Prenatal, a babywear chain, encouraged pregnant women to show off their curves. O&M was impressed and decided to buy Bassat out in 1995. The Spaniard landed a seat on the multinational's World Wide board.
Bassat, who is back in Madrid after a London stint as chief creative officer for Europe, likens the Wall's collapse to the flowering of sexual freedom on Barcelona's beaches. In the prudish Franco era, "nobody had dared to imagine what life would be like without bikini tops," he says. "But once they're gone, you realize the weird thing was that they ever existed in the first place." Take that, Karl Marx.