The best chief creative officers in the world talks to The Drum about how the world\u2019s best creative agency creates work that challenges brands and audiences.Publicis Italy has a talent for projection. Its campaigns for brands such as Netflix, Heineken and Diesel routinely travel far beyond the borders of its home market, carried by its distinctive, wry humor and a willingness to vault boundaries.What other agency would challenge real Romanian witches to predict the complex plot of hit streaming series The Witcher? Or cheekily dissolve the aura surrounding that most English of cinematic heroes, James Bond, in service of his lager sponsor?Its success in recent years can be seen in the agency\u2019s place in the World Creative Rankings \u2013 it was ranked best in the world this year. But according to chief creative officer Bruno Bertelli, who is also global chief creative for Publicis Worldwide, it hasn\u2019t been an easy 12 months.\u201dI think last year was even harder than the previous one,\u201d he tells The Drum. While the team occupied themselves in 2020 adapting to life amid the novel coronavirus (Italy was one of the first, and worst-hit, countries in Europe), he says settling in for the long run proved difficult.\u201dThe big issue was on creativity. When you\u2019re in the same room you can really concentrate, you can go deeper. When you\u2019re on a Teams meeting, you can have a bit of a chatter but it risks being superficial.\u201dIn response, Publicis\u2019s creative teams have continuously navigated local Covid restrictions in order to meet up and work in person. There have been some benefits; while the agency\u2019s creatives must ensure work is more topical than ever (\u201dToday, to be relevant you need to be topical. You cannot spend six months coming up with an idea. Speed is crucial\u201d), they are given regular downtime to recover from each campaign sprint.His colleague Cristiana Boccassini, chief exec and chief creative at Publicis Italy and Le Pub Amsterdam (and 4th in the World Creative Rankings) says advertising can\u2019t stand alone any longer.\u201dThe crisis helped us to be sharper on our positioning and to be more relevant in our current culture. Today, advertising is not enough in itself, it needs to be deeply anchored in culture. This helps our work to be more relevant and to give brands a clear role in our society and people's lives.\u201dBertelli says staff won\u2019t be expected to travel as much for the sake of showing their faces, and he says the forced informality of life in lockdown has improved client relationships. \u201dI\u2019ve noticed that there is much more trust with clients now. The fact that you present on Teams when you\u2019re showing the work \u2013 it\u2019s not like a typical agency presenting to the client. It\u2019s much more informal.\u201dChallenging workThe risk of superficiality is something Bertelli and his cohorts spend a lot of time thinking about. Some of Publicis Italy\u2019s most successful recent work has traded on a careful understanding of subjects other creative teams would steer well clear of.Its \u2019Francesca\u2019 campaign for Diesel is a prime example. The film depicts the life and loves of a young transgender woman as she prepares to join the church and was ranked as one of the best campaigns in the world last year.\u201dWe risk a little bit with \u2019Francesca\u2019,\u201d Bertelli says, \u201dbecause the film aired in Italy, where we have the Pope and where religion is very, very important. But the way it was shot, I think was appreciated. There is an image that to me is very important, when she looks into the camera. It\u2019s quite inclusive, it\u2019s not a \u2019fuck you\u2019. It\u2019s a bit more subtle.\u201dWhen it comes to controversial subjects, he says: \u201dIt\u2019s not about people\u2019s lives, it\u2019s about being relevant and disruptive in society. It\u2019s a big shift that brands have taken in the last five years and now it\u2019s no more about how a brand changed my life or inspired me \u2013 it\u2019s much more about how brands can be relevant in society.\u201dFor Diesel, this means challenging conformity. We realize that with fashion brands there are a lot of conformities that can be challenged. All the other brands are doing something one way and Diesel is always doing the opposite.\u201dKnowing what subjects might welcome further exploration or discussion is essential, he says. \u201dYou need to know exactly what your space is. You can\u2019t overdo it... for example with Black Lives Matter, every single brand jumped on it. Not all of them were actually \u2013 to me \u2013 allowed to do it. You need to understand your space and then be consistent.\u201dBoccassini also emphasizes the importance of consistency. \u201dThe key point is to be consistent with the strategy and the tone of voice. If a brand is consistent, there is less chance of it being perceived as controversial. What's important is to have a clear point of view that can resonate with your core target,\u201d she explains.\u201dThe second step is not only to claim your point of view but to bring it to action. In this way, it will not feel contrived. It's not only about being controversial, it's also about doing something meaningful for the brand and the culture.\u201dNew surface areaLooking at a brand from the outside in can help, she says. \u201dWe picture the brand as a person with its own language and behaviour. In this way, you\u2019ll find the right balance that\u2019s appropriate to the brand. Usually, you get criticism when your behaviour is seen as inappropriate to your core target. We identify brands as people, so the most important thing is to be consistent and have a clear point of view that remains constant.\u201dBertelli says fashion brands such as Diesel are particularly well suited to reaching audiences in this way. \u201dI\u2019m very interested in fashion brands. I think it\u2019s the most interesting category at the moment. 10 years ago, they were completely relevant \u2013 they were in their corner talking about clothes. Today they are relevant to your lifestyle.\u201dLook at what Gucci is doing, at what Balenciaga is doing. It\u2019s so exciting. We should be inspired in our industry by what fashion brands are doing, and how they\u2019ve managed to become relevant in society again.\u201dThe legacy of an established brand can sometimes get in the way of delivering such messages. Part of the agency\u2019s task is to find new surface area for their clients to operate in \u2013 apparent in one of its most recent campaigns for Netflix, which exploited the streaming service\u2019s familiar audio ident (internally dubbed the \u2019tudum\u2019) as a portent of events to come.\u201dIt\u2019s a big challenge. The minute you become the establishment, you\u2019re dead.\u201dBrands like Diesel and Netflix \u201dalways need to find a way to regain that niche position,\u201d he says. \u201dThey always try to find an alternative angle in order to not become like the establishment.\u201dNetflix has become one of the most popular brands in the world thanks to the pandemic. The challenge for it is to stay alternative, to stay as a challenge, as an underdog.\u201d Hence the witches and the \u2019tudum\u2019 in place of the bog-standard teaser trailer, both of which swiftly gained recognition far beyond Italy.\u201dSometimes it\u2019s about being irrational,\u201d he concludes.