Ejaz Asi, Head of Operations at The Brand Crew (TBC) is just about the most distinctive individual you will meet in an agency. A deep thinker, outspoken to the point of being blunt and deeply passionate about creating powerful digital experiences that resonate with users, Asi is the antithesis of the agency professional. So, it might well be important to point out at this stage that although he works in an agency, Asi is not an adman. He inhabits the digital sphere and his diverse range of interests and specialisations include web development, experience design, user centred design and social web. The overarching influence in Asi’s life is the five years spent at Military College Jhelum (MCJ) which left him determined never to give in to the ‘yes man’ mentality that he believes plagues every sphere in Pakistan, and especially advertising and marketing. Not one to mince words, he says advertising professionals in Pakistan are “not madmen… [instead they are] a true reflection of our society which is entrenched in boseeda [ancient] traditions… they would bow to a client because he has authority.”
Asi’s scathing indictments are not limited to admen. He virulently opposes digital professionals “who don’t have domain expertise… it is criminal” and clients who “don’t know enough about technology, I cannot forgive them for it.”
This strong, emotional response to incompetence is very much a part of his character and is perhaps in equal parts a result of his disciplinarian upbringing as well as a sort of seething frustration towards those who have had better opportunities in life than he did, but failed to make the most of them.
To say that Asi is a self made digital professional is the epitome of understatement. After opting out of a career in the armed forces, a decision which shocked his peers and, he suspects, broke his father’s heart, he was aimless, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree only to show his parents that he wasn’t “an idiot and a dumbass”.
The experience did nothing to instil his confidence in the education system because despite studying with the wrong books for just seven days prior to the exams, he managed to pass with good grades.
This was followed by a period of solitary ambling through the internet cafes of Multan, where Asi unknowingly sowed the seeds of a future career by teaching himself CSS and HTML, reading books like Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman and Art and Science of Web Design by Jeffrey Veen, setting up an online magazine called Erudition Online that expounded on art, culture, science technology and the internet, learning more about analytics, and along the way inadvertently delving into a subject he now loathes, marketing. Parallel with all this he also indulged his longstanding interest in European history and Iqbaliat.
The internet thus became Asi’s classroom, his teacher and ultimately his window to the world. After a few years of this rather productive web surfing, he decided it was time to spread his wings and move out of the confines of Multan, where everyone thought him fairly odd because of his interests and the fact that his activities had “no monetary purpose or value attached to them.” There were two choices in terms of an escape route: go to Lahore or to Karachi.
An ethnic Punjabi, Asi decided in favour of Karachi because it seemed to be more cosmopolitan, whereas in Lahore he was afraid he would have to deal with “terribly nosey Punjabis… and I knew they would make my life miserable.”
Karachi proved to be a revelation for the naïve Asi, but he thrived in the city, initially working on the first generation ecommerce portal, iPaki and then moving on to new media house, BITS to work with Sabeen Mahmud and Zaheer Kidvai, where he honed his user experience and user interface design skills.
Despite enjoying his work, Asi’s anti-authoritarian streak remained intact and he decided to quit the nine to five in favour of freelance work in partnership with Farzad Bagheri (now CEO and MD at TBC) whom he met through an online connection during his internet café days in Multan.
“Farzad and I had the same mentality of not saying ‘yes sir, yes sir’ to anyone. We freelanced together for three or four years. He was a designer and I was a developer but I learned so much about design by working closely with him.”
A few years later when Bagheri was offered a partnership opportunity by Amin Rammal (Director, TBC), Asi was at sea in terms of what to do next. However, he soon joined Bagheri and Rammal and together the three set up The Brand Crew in 2007.
“In the classic nature of the dot coms of their time, we were clueless and didn’t know where this [TBC] was going, but we knew who everyone was; Amin was very advertising and branding focused, Farzad was on the creative side and I was focused on technology. We knew that the three of us coming together could turn this into some sort of a good thing.”
As a result of these diverse specialties, TBC has developed into a hybrid agency, doing everything under the sun from traditional advertising campaigns and packaging design to some very non-traditional web and app design and social media strategy.
Although Asi works in what is best described as a digital agency, his outlook of digital in Pakistan is not rose tinted like that of many industry insiders, because he believes that clients in particular treat it like a “bastard child… it is your child but you really don’t want it.”
This is a reference to how companies are forced to invest in a digital strategy because others are doing it or because it is a global strategy. Although Asi realises the merits of investment in digital regardless of the motivation, he is also a strong believer in getting to the “essence of things” and doing things for the right reasons.
He believes that the digital space has been hijacked by professionals who are doing things for the wrong reasons.
“I don’t have a problem with people who see this as a cash cow; that type will always be there and I don’t think it is immoral. However, it is important to separate money from passion. You can find money in any business, but this industry by its very design requires a lot of passion.”
While many people throw the word ‘passion’ around rather lightly, for Asi it is full of meaning because as he points out, “you need passion to survive and evolve in a space which is growing so fast, it is bewildering even for the experienced. You need people who see a purpose in this, who think they can make a difference, whether it is in distance learning or ecommerce.”
But passion is just one element; Asi is also a strong advocate of a multidisciplinary approach for digital professionals and urges young people to have a diverse range of interests.
“Diversity is a good thing. If it wasn’t for the calligraphy classes that Steve Jobs took, Apple may have been very different.”
Quickly switching to another one of his pet peeves in what is a stream of consciousness monologue that I struggle to keep up with, Asi sums up the impact of the lack of corporate interest, passion and multidisciplinary learning by saying that the ultimate loser is the user.
“All this talk about understanding your consumer is the biggest bullshit you will ever hear. In digital, the user is the only person missing in the entire sphere. There are no studies or research, we are living in a dark world and that darkness is consuming us every single day,” he finishes somewhat theatrically.
This is the space Ejaz Asi inhabits. A place where work is life and evokes strong feelings and where room must be made for diversity and for passion.
And for a higher purpose.