AURORA: After having held the position of Chief Creative Officer at Adcom for so many years, what was the transition to Chief Innovation Officer like for you?
ADNAN SYED: It was less of a functional change and more of a personal change, because I had always been a hands-on person in terms of the creative work we produced. So letting go was probably the biggest change. The other change was moving into a more managerial and advisory role, which took a bit of getting used to. Since I was so used to being down in the trenches, taking a step back and letting other people fail or do their stuff was probably the hardest thing to get used to. My first transitioning out took place in the form of Green Man’s Ark in 2012.
A: How was Green Man’s Ark positioned?
AS: Green Man’s Ark was conceived as an integrated agency aimed at providing business solutions to clients regardless of medium, but with technology at its core. Our aim was to give clients media neutral solutions to whatever the business problem was. It was meant to be a new way of working, different from the way traditional creative agencies worked. However, it started evolving in a different direction to what we had conceived; I suppose the market realities were what they were. In hindsight, I think we were a few years too early, yet it turned out to be a necessary step, because it served as a catalyst for changes within the organisation as well.
A: Adcom’s affiliation with Leo Burnett is relatively recent. Has there been a difference since, and what form has it taken?
AS: The excitement is there, mostly because of the intellectual resources we are now in a position to tap into. At the end of the day, it is an affiliation, not an equity partnership, so any benefits we derive is entirely up to us. With an equity partnership, it is in the network’s interest to push as well. Here, we need to push ourselves, which is probably one of the reasons why many network relationships have not gone very far in terms of actual quality on ground.
A: Because it is just a matter of having a name on the door and access to affiliate clients?
AS: Yes and this is good for clients and great for building the volume of a portfolio. At Adcom we have a track record of pushing ourselves under our own steam – and the record speaks for itself – but to take the next quantum leap some kind of affiliation or association was necessary. Our biggest learning has been in terms of systems and methodologies and in gaining a lot of intellectual capital in terms of knowledge.
“One may not find the skill sets we require in a single person, instead they may be scattered among different people who have been using those skills in a different way. This is where network affiliations come in handy, because if there are skill sets we cannot find in Pakistan yet, we can tap into them even if they are sitting in remote geographies."
A: How does this translate in practical terms?
AS: One cannot say that there is a system to creativity, but systems and methodologies do help in maximising creative output across people. An agency may have that one creative genius who prefers to work as a loner, but when you have large teams, systems help in getting teams to work efficiently across the board, so that the overall output is of a better quality.
A: How do you cope with the fact that many of the traditional functions in an agency do not exist anymore and that you are almost in unchartered territory when it comes to determining the skill sets you need most?
AS: At Adcom we have been evolving our way of working over the past 15 years. We were probably one of the first agencies to do away with silos. There used to be a time when we had our own terminology for the positions in the creative department and when people would move to a different agency, they often found that their designations were not analogous to the industry. Our experience with the digital agency, first as a separate entity and then as a part of the media setup, gave us a lot of learnings in how to put different people together and getting them to work collectively as well as carry out their individual functions. One of the mandates I have set for myself is to get our creative operations in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to work in this way, despite the geographic distances. To make them break out of their traditional mindsets and encourage them to learn from each other’s skills. One may not find the skill sets we require in a single person, instead they may be scattered among different people who have been using those skills in a different way. This is where network affiliations come in handy, because if there are skill sets we cannot find in Pakistan yet, we can tap into them even if they are sitting in remote geographies.
A: What do you see your primary role as Chief Innovation Officer?
AS: To make collaboration a reality on-ground. It is about creating awareness about how new media is changing peoples’ lives and what it implies for us in terms of advertising. At Green Man’s Ark, we had to physically move the Telenor team to Islamabad because the client wanted them to sit with the rest of the creative team over there. This was a huge transition, but it worked very well; today both the digital and creative teams are very well integrated and in the past two to three years the stuff we have been doing for Telenor has moved away from traditional campaigns; it exists across mediums and it invites people to engage and interact in ways that we were not able to do before. It is also about ensuring that the right people are sitting together and collaborating on projects. It may seem obvious that people need to work together, but the reality is that when you have different offices (and it can happen in the same office) sometimes one brand team doesn’t know what the other one is doing. It is not only about people who have the familiarity with a skill and those who don’t; often a person has the skill but doesn’t know how to apply that skill or integrate it into the work the team is doing. Getting this up and running is the challenge.
A: How do you achieve this?
AS: For many years I have been curating a lot of information about our industry worldwide for our team and making sure they are aware of what is happening on the knowledge platforms out there and within the different categories they are working on. It is about giving the teams reference material they can take inspiration from; they are so bogged down in their day-to-day deadlines that they do not have time to go look for material. People don’t read; they tend to look at stuff that is easily available.
A: Is the lack of motivation to read one of the reasons why it often seems that there is not a lot of intellectual depth within agencies?
AS: Most leading agencies have network affiliations, and one cannot say that those networks do not give them that intellectual depth, because they do. It is a question of filtering this down to everyone and this may sound like an obvious solution, but doing it in reality is difficult because people have to make the time to do this.
“The challenge is to keep that flame alive and getting people to believe in what you are telling them. Throwing them into the pool and having them experience the water firsthand and then come back and agree with what you have been saying all along is a validation."
A: Do you not feel that the spark or the ‘sexiness’ has gone out of the advertising profession? Many senior creatives express a sense of frustration about the lack of recognition for their work and, by implication, their worth?
AS: I think autonomy has got a great deal to do with it. You need to be empowered to do certain things, either as a personal benefit or as a collective benefit for the agency. Let me give you an example: We sent our ECD Awais Dhakan to be part of the Spikes Jury this year. It turned out to be an amazing experience for him and for us because he has come back with this fantastic new energy.
A: Won’t this fizzle out in a few months?
AS: The challenge is to keep that flame alive and getting people to believe in what you are telling them. Throwing them into the pool and having them experience the water firsthand and then come back and agree with what you have been saying all along is a validation. They come out of the experience knowing what international creative directors are thinking and what they have achieved. And this in turn gives us the opportunity to tell them that this is why we have been pushing them to experiment, because this is the only way we can find our own way of making a mark.
A: Why do agencies always tend to look outside Pakistan for validation?
AS: That is our reality. Being applauded or validated inside Pakistan does not hold credibility. The PAS Awards are a great platform for recognition, yet winning an international award for the same campaign is considered a far bigger achievement. Leo Burnett has a system whereby every quarter a team made up of their CDs and other senior people get together to evaluate, rate and critique the work of their partner agencies. We sent two of our PAS entries earlier this year and we received some really positive feedback. Yes, the actual rating was disappointing, but it was very realistic and extremely encouraging. It is very important for the client to see this, because when the validation comes from abroad, people accept it and this exercise helped us put the point across to the client. Clients need to understand that collectively our work needs to be pushed up a couple of notches if we are to compete and be recognised on international platforms.
A: Why do creatives in Pakistan shy away from interacting with each other professionally? Don’t you think that if there were more systematic engagement at that level perhaps something truly Pakistani would emerge, instead of always trying to emulate the Indian model?
AS: Following Indian type ads is a bit of a fad. The issue is that it does not matter how you package an ad; it is the value of the insight that is important and it is the pursuit of those insights that is lacking.
AS: Because we do not want to do the hard work; digging requires work.
A: Are you saying that Pakistani agencies are lazy?
AS: We are collectively lazy. As a nation we are lazy. At Leo Burnett we have access to strategic thinkers and planners – and one can see the way they mine for insights and how they translate those into actual work. Leo Burnett has a reputation for a very solid strategic thinking and planning in the advertising universe, and India is an example of that. All those fantastic ads are based on solid intellectual work, not just creative executions. We are trying to tap into that thought leadership and translate it into what we do here. When I look at case studies from abroad, I can see the way they refine their thinking down to its simplest form and to do this requires a lot of work and a lot of real world understanding and knowledge about people.
“With the internet and globalisation there is very little originality out there. The media explosion has created a host of different interaction opportunities and finding that emotional or intellectual switch has become paramount, which means that finding the kind of people willing to dig deeper and find this switch is going to be increasingly important."
A: Do you think the small agencies are better placed to crack this?
AS: Oh yes; take Arey Wah and their PAS-award winning campaigns for Homage and Kenwood as an example.
A: Hopefully that won’t be a one off?
AS: I hope not; some of the people behind those campaigns are Adcom alumni, so I feel rather proprietorial towards them. Yet, if I were to be critical, last year it was simply the same thing. Unfortunately, we tend to fall into that trap. But they are very passionate about what they do and I am sure they will again come up with something that will be a game changer. There is also Farigh Four. You were talking about how advertising has lost its ‘sexiness’. The glamour has shifted. The kind of glamour associated with big budget productions has lessened because the reality of the world is changing. The nature of sexiness has changed; it is still sexy but the conventional notion of sexiness has changed.
A: Perhaps what I meant that the energy seems to have gone.
AS: Because that energy has moved out.
A: Moved where?
AS: Moved into start-ups; digital hot shops.
A: Surely agencies must do something to bring it back?
AS: That is our recruitment challenge. Our working paradigm has to change. Managing a client is probably the most difficult challenge of all, but there is usually a relationship with the client, so one can build on that. Managing relationships with the talent out there is something different altogether and one needs to evolve keeping this in mind. We need to look at different places for talent. It is obvious that our design and business schools will continue to churn out the same kind of people with the same kind of training. Agencies will either have to devise their own ways of training them or they will have to look in different places and in different ways for people. On several occasions Piyush Pandey has said that the way he brought change to the Indian advertising industry was by going out and searching for talent all across India. He hunted out people who had the passion and groomed them and then they went out into the industry and spread the gospel. And it’s true; if you keep looking at the same pool of people you will keep on perpetuating the same result. Intellectual and creative rigour are equally important, although increasingly intellectual rigour is playing a more important role, simply because creative executions are a dime a dozen. With the internet and globalisation there is very little originality out there. The media explosion has created a host of different interaction opportunities and finding that emotional or intellectual switch has become paramount, which means that finding the kind of people willing to dig deeper and find this switch is going to be increasingly important.
Adnan Syed was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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