‘Confidence will help rebuild the country,’ says government’s Chief Creative Officer Steve Vranakis

‘Confidence will help rebuild the country,’ says government’s Chief Creative Officer Steve Vranakis

Many virtual meetings begin these days with references to our cranial and facial hair, and the unfortunate state it is in due to our isolation at home. Greece’s Chief Creative Officer Steve Vranakis jokes about his shaved head – the work of his wife and the cause of a state of mild embarrassment when he had to do a video conference call with the prime minister. I say something about my beard and that helps break the ice.

How is daily life going? “We live in an apartment in Maroussi. We’re lucky to have a tiny garden and a shed that we turned into a guesthouse/office. I get up in the morning and get ready; I feel like I’m going somewhere, and that makes all the difference. I am extremely fortunate.”

At the same time, the 48-year-old former executive director of Google’s Creative Lab for Europe, the Middle East and Africa is accustomed to teleworking. Even Greece From Home, the new platform for tourism which has drawn international praise, was set up between colleagues on three continents without a single contributor actually going to the office.

My somewhat selfish motive in this conversation is to get inside the mind of a person who has been tasked with rebranding the country, and to draw inspiration and out-of-the-box thinking that might help my own work. The interest for a general readership is more obvious: How does he imagine the Greece of tomorrow, and how can he, in his position, contribute to shaping it?

You have the novel title of “chief creative officer” in a country which, just as it was emerging from its economic crisis, has now been plunged into a global health crisis. That sounds challenging!

Last summer, I decided to leave the UK after 20 years for Vancouver, where I grew up, to set up the Google office there. All my belongings were being shipped in a container, and Greece holds snap elections, and the current prime minister wins. A week later, we had a conversation about the country, his vision, the types of people he was hoping to bring in from all aspects of society. I talked to him about Greece having this blank sheet of paper – this opportunity to start over again, but with the environment at the core. We were very aligned. He asked me to join the team as an adviser. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make, because at Google, the next step up would have been vice president.

So what tipped the scales?

I thought, “It’s now or never.” I’ve always tried to do something for Greece. The combination of him, the vision, the team, the circumstances, of people starting to rebuild confidence in Greece within the country, and bolster its credibility on the international front – that would be unlikely to come about again. I went back to Google and told them I wasn’t going to go, and I came here, saying I would stay for one year, on a civil servant’s salary, in order to do as much as I can. And we’ll see.

For individuals with comparable backgrounds, the first contact with the Greek state can seem like running into a wall. Have you had negative experiences over this period?

Everywhere, not just in the government, you have people who are only thinking of their own benefit. I did have a horrible experience, but I don’t want to talk about that, only about the very positive experiences. I saw a model of holding people responsible, accountable, with KPIs [Key Performance Indicators], OKRs [Objectives and Key Results] and all the things that are implemented in the world where I grew up in Google, where you did a performance review every quarter, and you couldn’t bluster your way around it. So that is how we operate, and that’s an important change. In a government administration, like any other organization, if you sit and wait for things to come to you, you’re going to be waiting for a very long time. I’m out there, talking to people, looking at stuff, and hunting for opportunities. And I report back on everything that I take on.

And so we come to Greece From Home, the digital platform for tourism…

We formed a great group with Minister [Haris] Theocharis’ team, along with Marketing Greece, EOT [the Greek National Tourism Organization], and we agreed that the priority is not to position tourism right now, because the crisis was just starting in terms of the virus. We started with questions: How do you stay connected to people who are the lifeblood of your industry but who can’t be here? How do you keep people occupied within the country whilst in isolation, and have them reacquaint themselves with the Greece they love? How do you ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people in the tourism industry itself, who are currently affected, come back smarter and stronger? How do you give them opportunities to upskill and acquire new digital training that will help them rebuild their businesses? So that structure was the basic thought for Greece From Home. We shared it with the minister the next day and he liked it, we sprinted for 24 hours, the prime minister approved it and we built the platform in two weeks. And we did everything from home. I don’t want to use the cliche that every crisis creates opportunities, because this is a horrible time we’re living through, but it certainly has created the environment for people to be resourceful and show ingenuity.

Two weeks seems like an extraordinarily short period of time. What’s the secret?

There is no secret. We built it on a website called Wix, which allows people who know no code to build a website. I have five interns from local universities who’ve never had a job before in Greece and two guys that I use remotely – one is in Bangkok and one in Stockholm. We worked hard, all hours, and it happened.

Tell me about the interns.

From the beginning, I made it very clear that I wanted to build my team with people half my age. The crisis in Greece affected everybody, but the people hardest hit were the youth – their future prospects, their opportunities, their employment. I wanted members of that generation to be integral to the narrative, because it was to them that I was speaking. I was very keen on this sort of “halo effect,” where if young people are given the opportunity, are given employment, are able to move out of their parents’ homes and start their own lives, or are able to come back to the country they were born in, it has a positive effects on their family and, by extension, on society. So instead of trying to make everybody happy, make the kids happy. I also needed their cynicism, which borders on the reactionary. Because that’s how they should be. They’ve done everything correctly, they’ve studied, they’ve worked hard, and they’re struggling. I wanted people who, when we came up with concepts, would look at them and call them rubbish: “That is advertising bullshit.” Sometimes it feels like going back to school for everyone. I learn things, but sometimes I say something and they look at me like I’m from another planet. That’s logical. They’ve never even worked in this environment, and they’ve just been thrown in at the deep end, coming up with a narrative for a country.

Are you satisfied with the result?

Yes, but it’s only the beginning. Greece From Home is an aggregator. We’ve pulled together existing content, we’ve started launching exclusives and premieres and livestreams, but it was only meant to be the thing that sends the message. Now we’re getting tons of people who want to put their content out there, from travel and history to culture. It’s great to see that happen.

Generally in the digital realm – from drug prescriptions to the digital permit system for people to leave their homes during the lockdown – we’ve seen things take shape that would have normally taken years to reach fruition…

The work that Kyriakos Pierakakis and his team have done is phenomenal. Greece From Home is great, but their contribution concerns things that are critical to keeping society functioning. I want to be really careful when I talk about the crisis. The heroes are the medical frontline workers, the delivery people, the people stacking shelves at the shop. We must not forget that. Seeing these young kids on scooters making deliveries hundreds of times a day with masks and gloves on is heartbreaking. So we have to redefine heroism. We also need to redefine value, because the people in the desk jobs, doing what we thought were the single most important things for a lot of money, are now stuck at home, not being able to do much, and the people who are keeping the country going are arguably some of the lowest-paid people.

Perhaps the pandemic will also change cultural and social role models. Celebrities and influencers, for example, showing off their lifestyles at home, seem to have raised people’s hackles.

You know, I’m the son of a Greek immigrant from Sfakia who landed in Canada 50 years ago and who worked two jobs all his life. I’ve done OK, I’m OK now, but the issue I have, and I see it on my social media, is with people posting the wine or the gourmet meal they’re going to have that night. One of the many things Google taught me was humility. You need to understand there are people who aren’t working, who aren’t making money and don’t have savings, who have to ration food because there is so much uncertainty ahead of us. I think you’re seeing the best of humanity right now, but you’re also seeing a sort of naivety and recklessness, where some people are still in their bubbles.

We do not need a pandemic to bring a discussion over the future of Greek tourism to the fore, but perhaps now some issues can be addressed more emphatically: the return to a more personal form of hospitality, with moderation and authenticity, with respect for the environment, cultural identity and local communities. An emphasis on quality. A brake on overtourism. The creation of value, as opposed to continuing down a road that leads to diminishing returns?

I think the real opportunity is in being able to attract an individual of higher value – and I don’t mean higher income – because they share our values: a respect for the environment, local culture, the needs of locals who welcome them to their homelands. A traveler who knows where they are visiting, who wants to leave a positive impact. What I’m trying to describe isn’t necessarily an individual, it’s a mind-set. Those types of people exist, and there’s a lot of them.

And how do we succeed in doing that?

We need to send a message that there are things that we hold dear: the environment, our heritage, our culture and our cuisine. And these are things we expect you to enjoy and to respect when you come to the country – we have this sort of agreement. If we’re telling people: “Come here to party,” then that’s what we’re going to get – as has happened, unfortunately, to some other countries around the world. The high-value customer is not a financial thing, it is someone who shares the same beliefs.

It isn’t simple when success for tourism is measured in the number of arrivals and total revenue generated.

An economist might say, “No, you’re being ridiculous,” but I think that you can bring in similar revenues with fewer arrivals. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of margin on mass tourism, with cheap package holidays and 20-euro flights, although I’m not suggesting that we go to the other end of premium and luxury. Prospective visitors need to know they can come here and find quality at a good price. We need to reinvigorate the tradition of Greek philoxenia, because it is part of our identity; it’s the thing that shows to the rest of the world: “You’re not here for us to make money off you; you’re here because we want to build a relationship with you over time, and we hope that you’ll keep coming back.” That’s the relationship that’s going to keep people coming here and, inevitably, spending their money here. After this confinement ends, you want people to say, “I went to this place that showed me what it was like to be with people, to eat from the earth, to breathe clean air and swim on clean beaches.” The environment is critical to this. The environment has to be an equal stakeholder in tourism. That should be our statement.

Will the positive publicity for the country in the international media have an impact?

I just posted a Bloomberg article saying that, after years of Europe looking down on Greece as an unsolvable problem, Athens can now walk with its head held high. We mustn’t tempt fate, because there’s still a long way to go, but the combination of leadership and unity in following the rules is that which says that Greece is back. I’m not speaking politically, but that internationally people are acknowledging that we can manage things on different fronts, from the protection of Europe’s borders to the pandemic, is a huge vote of confidence. And confidence – just like the lack of it in the previous crisis – is contagious.

What can you reveal about the country’s new branding?

Words like “repositioning” or “rebranding” sound too much like marketing-speak. We are talking about a new narrative, an approach that will help move the nation forward. It’s a formula for change. That idea has an expression, which is a logo and an identity, and a line, but it’s not an advertising campaign. It’s not a slogan. And we want everyone to be a part of it. That’s why I’m hoping it will be very well received. On the other hand, as a creative person who takes every job personally, I like to joke and say that the day after we present it, I’ll leave the country!

And how can talented people – people who are out there but perhaps never had the chance to shine – take part?

One basic aspect of this is that we want to take these pieces that we have developed and open-source them, what Google does at its best. I am not talking about 10 million people designing a logo, I’m talking about a competent team doing the pieces, but where those pieces go is open to everyone. We want to take this platform and invite people to address the best, the worst, all the different aspects of the country and its people. That is how we’ll engage the population as well as the professionals. Because somebody will see this, take it and hopefully turn it into something that makes us say, “Wow, that’s better than what we’ve done actually!” I’ve learned late in my career that if we can create the conditions and the environment for people to succeed, we all come out better. The goal is to make something that people will get behind, something that will boost morale, confidence and the general mood. It will show people that things are moving, and that will have an immediate effect on the economy. Confidence is what will help rebuild the country.

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