Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Berbatov and the Bulgarians

Dimitar Berbatov is the Bulgarian forward who plays for Manchester United. He’s a handsome, brooding £30.75m striker who is fond of a quick cigarette, not necessarily standard training procedure these days. He’s also something of an enigma to the fans of United due to his playing style, which has seen him described as walking a “fine line between languid genius and a louche waste of space” (The Guardian). He’s infuriatingly casual, seemingly lazy, yet stylish, clever, and very cool. Why would such a player, handed such a great career opportunity, not make more of his ability and good fortune?

After my visit last week to Sofia, Bulgaria, to speak at the Marketing and Innovation Forum, all is now explained. Berbatov is a Bulgarian par excellence! Having not been to Bulgaria before I was quickly indoctrinated in the ways of this beautiful and quirky country and its friendly and ultra-laid back people. Mystery, Sensuality, and Intimacy are big players in Bulgaria – especially the Mystery.

Being at a historical crossroads, and a former member of the Eastern Bloc, Sofia is a city at the base of Vitosha Mountain, a backdrop that gives way first to industrial zones, then dated communist apartment blocks, before finally revealing an attractive restored center. Throughout the city there are hints of modernity. Bulgaria is a nation in transition, and its marketing and advertising reflect that. Like many of the supposed later-developing nations, the great avenue of innovation lies in leapfrogging years of slow evolution and going digital. Our local agency understand that.

The Bulgarian government probably don’t get that. At an interview with Bulgarian Public Television, I was instructed not to mention any brands on air, and they couldn’t say what company I was from! Tough, but I love a challenge. What’s strange is that this rule does not hold for press or online. Apparently it also doesn’t hold if your company has done something wrong.

The main event was at the National Opera and was full of 400 young and not so young marketing and advertising professionals. They were engaged, passionate, restless people, asking tough questions, laughing whole-heartedly, and focused on the future.

Coincidentally, I also watched the UEFA Champions League final in Sofia, where after 63 minutes, Dimitar Berbatov trotted on to try and pull back Manchester United from the brink of defeat against Barcelona. He didn’t score, was rarely seen, and seemed a little nonplussed by the game, although he must have been as motivated as any other player on the field. In Bulgaria, it’s what you don’t see that matters. Lots of Mystery.