Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

"Nobody puts either money or the effort behind training people"

Interview
Umair Saeed, COO, Blitz Advertising on the entrenched mindsets within the advertising profession.
AURORA: How long have you been working at Blitz?
UMAIR SAEED: Seven years – almost half of Blitz’s existence. Until now I haven’t spent more than two to three years anywhere else. The longest time I spent with an agency other than Blitz was with Manhattan Leo Burnett, and I would not have left had it not been for the opportunity to work with DDB and particularly on the Lipton account, which was the reason why I was hired at Blitz.

A: What was your role at Manhattan?
US: I was the senior account manager. My first job was as a planner and I have always been a planner at heart.

A: Where did you start your career in advertising?
US: With InSynch in 2003. Raza Mankani had just bought the agency and asked me to join. I was interning at Orientm McCann and I thought it would be good to start with a smaller name because you get to make your own way up. Raza was very passionate about planning and he felt there weren’t any real planners in our industry.

A: How would you define a planner’s job?
US: Advertising is about getting from here to there. The question is how do we get ‘there’ and it is the planner’s job to avoid the leap and work out a method to the madness. In other words work out how to achieve the brand’s specific objective, without compromising on its values and long term priorities or spending an awesome amount of money. A planner must understand a particular category and then come up with the solution, and advertising will be one of many aspects of the solution. When we look at great campaigns, we see how advertising helps in product development. Great initiatives usually go beyond the TVC; they are about something that adds tangible value to the consumer’s life, even if the idea originates from advertising. A planner is half concept writer and half art director. He can think of the solution in terms of a communication.

A: How much importance do you give to research?
US: Research is part and parcel of the process. Globally planners are very heavy into research, but in Pakistan not many brands provide hands-on research. They rarely look at research as something useful to product innovation and improvement. They consider research as a safety net; a way to say: “research said this, which is why we did it”; so if you fail, you can blame it on the research.

A: Why this undervaluation of research? Is it because brands don’t want to spend the money?
US: You spend Rs 10 million on developing a campaign and another Rs 100 million on running it, but you don’t want to spend a fraction of that cost on finding out if this is the type of campaign the brand really needs? No, it has to do with our priorities as a nation.

A: What do you mean by that?
US: We all think we know everything. We are experts on everything; politics, cricket, culture death, whatever... and because we are so full of ourselves we don’t value anyone else’s opinion, and at the end of the day research is someone else’s opinion. Research is about facts and who cares about the facts – because we think we are right.


"Research is important because it challenges the core assumptions and if you can’t challenge these assumptions about what you believe is there, then you can never look past a certain lens. You need to change your lens."


A: Surely when you see how much emphasis multinationals put on research, isn’t it rather myopic for local brands to disregard it as a fundamental marketing tool?
US: Young’s is an example of a local company that will not move without research. No packaging change or product concept is launched without prior testing and they are very thorough. Another example is Haier, a client we managed for a long time; in fact, we helped them become number two in the category. With them nothing moved without Millward Brown’s research and they went beyond what conventional market research agencies offer. They were bold enough to suggest what should be done to the product, how to bifurcate or package different offerings within the same market. They were able to do this because the project was initiated out of China and their country head was also from China – and because research was valued at a very different level. Millward Brown were able to change the way Haier approached certain business units, and they had phenomenal results. They are practically number one in air-conditioners and are number two or three in most of their product categories. This would not have been possible without the research they invested in. But what is research at the end of the day? There are two types of marketers in Pakistan; the less gutsier ones who look at research as a safety net, and the gutsier ones who know what they need to do and don’t think they need research to prove it. I would never want to discourage the latter marketer, because deep down when we have the conviction of an idea, we don’t need validation. However, research is important because it challenges the core assumptions and if you can’t challenge these assumptions about what you believe is there, then you can never look past a certain lens. You need to change your lens.

A: Blitz has a media affiliation with Spark, are you now looking out for a creative affiliation?
US: We are always looking for a creative affiliation. Blitz is a classic full service advertising agency, even though our media division is doing exceptionally well. Spark normally sign up with creative agencies; their premise is that within conventional media agencies, strategy and creativity tend to take a backseat because numbers are king, and they don’t subscribe to that view. In their view, numbers are just numbers and the lifetime value of a creative idea cannot be quantified in a media numbers presentation. Spark is about putting integration and creativity into media.

A: Are you managing the media only for Mobilink?
US: Media and their digital.

A: What made Mobilink opt for a relatively small agency like Blitz to manage their media?
US: It was a break. We are a small agency and Mobilink was almost bigger than us. Why did we get it? One, because we really wanted it and they were probably tired of the big media companies not giving them the attention they wanted. Two, in the last couple of years there have been a lot of changes within Mobilink and the senior marketing and sales people have left. So when we won the pitch in April 2014, everyone said it was a fluke and that Mobilink had done this just to annoy the bigger players. To be honest even we were like...“okay, we won, but how are we going to keep such a big account?” We hired a lot of people, including from agencies which had handled Mobilink. We put together a team in Islamabad, hoped for the best and worked very hard. At the end of that year, another pitch was called and an external audit was carried out and we came out as the cleanest agency to have worked with Mobilink. And we won the pitch again. This gave us the confidence and momentum, and we won several other businesses after that. Between the first and second Mobilink win we hardly pitched because we were too busy trying to handle them.

A: Blitz has developed an in-house training cell called the Wacky Cell. How does it work?
US: It was an idea co-created by myself and Owais Jaliawala. Agencies poach talent from one another but they don’t grow their own. Yet, when you hire people from other agencies you have to remould them to your requirements. The idea is to recruit young people but not to train them within departments or confine them to functions that correspond to their degree. We don’t put them with the regular teams, but in a separate cell and we train and mentor them for a couple of months. In the process, we evaluate those who have talent and in which specific area.

A: Are they paid?
US: A very small stipend. It is essentially about inspiring and dazzling them so that they want to be a part of the agency. The idea is that after we have brainwashedthem according to our own ideas of what advertising is we put them head to head on briefs with the mainstream departments. So instead of working with the mainstream creative or planning team, they work as independent units. This year out of the seven pitches we won, four went to the Wacky Cell and three to the mainstream Blitz creative.

A: It seems a successful idea.
US: It is. But retention is a big problem. So long as they are working independently they are happy, but once I put them in the system, some of them start having issues. Some survive, some change things around and some leave.

A: Is the effort worth the return? Constantly hiring people and losing them?
US: You can never have enough people around you. Our industry is a thankless one. It drains you to the level where there is not much left to give to either work or home. As a result there is a diminishing quality in the output of the senior creatives. Unless you have a constant supply of new people and you become ruthless with the senior people within the agency, things don’t work out. Now, it is extremely difficult to tell someone who has worked for 10 or more years in the industry that they are not good enough. There are two ways to tackle this. One is to keep empowering them with fresher minds. What is a good creative director? Is it someone who writes the ads? No. A good creative director is someone who can take the ideas of others and turn them into something better. Unfortunately, as an industry we expect everyone in the creative team, from top to bottom, to be concept writers and copywriters.

A: Given that a lot of creative people have big egos, how do you manage to make them buy into the notion that they need to be team players?
US: It doesn’t always work. One of the big problems in advertising is that we have created this idea of what a creative should be; basically a difficult personality, moody, bad at time management, self management, people management. That was the industry benchmark, but I don’t think it works that way anymore. Some of the best minds I have worked with have been excellent time and people managers. This kind of badass image is a prototype we have created, and if someone wants to be seen as a creative, they start acting like that. Another problem with senior creatives, and rightly so, is that they eventually become frustrated. Although they have given a lot to advertising, they realise that advertising is not making the same sort of effort for them anymore. There are very few agencies which offer medical insurance, a provident fund, gratuity or any kind of fringe benefits. So at the end of 10 or 15 years if they lose their jobs they have nothing.


"In our business we pay a lot of lip service about the fact that people are our only asset, but nobody puts either money or the effort behind them."


A: Why is it ad agency people don’t seem to have the sort of energy and buzz that one senses in people in smaller startups?
US: Firstly, although there are lots of agencies in Pakistan, the majority have had the same head for the last 20 years; second generation heads haven’t really come out; JWT is probably the only exception, which is probably why it has more buzz around it. Secondly, most agencies are not putting in the amount of talent they should be. Thirdly, agencies have put people on a conveyer belt; just work and go. The reason one doesn’t sense the buzz is that most workplaces are very dull. Digital agencies are better at this; they have no defined work cubicles. There are chairs and desks available and they are expected to set up their own space. In ad agencies everything is managed and there is nothing left for people to do on their own. Fourthly, the HR management in agencies is led by business managers, and business school teaches us that people are not indispensable, that the system is more important. Yet, there are no two ‘yous’; only one you. Yes, if I leave the system will carry on, but whoever replaces me will not be me. People are defined by their unique life experiences. On paper you can put the best people together in a team, but there is no guarantee it will work out. Especially in our business, you put together your best two creative resources and if they end up not liking each other, you can’t do jack about it. In our business we pay a lot of lip service about the fact that people are our only asset, but nobody puts either money or the effort behind them.

A: How do you see Blitz progressing over the next five years?
US: We will remain a small to medium size agency for quite some time because we like to do everything we do well, and in the last seven years we have said no to a lot of business for various reasons. However, we do aspire to get bigger brands on board and to land a creative affiliation. At the moment a source of pride for me are the startups we have set up within Blitz. There is Spark, TCC (The Content Company), Blitz PR and Blitz XP, which consists of an experiential planning team that conceives activations, and executes them through third-party sources. Digital has been the key focus because it is not rocket science to see that revenues in conventional creative are shrinking. It is not to say that TV is going away as a medium, it simply means that if clients have Rs 10 to spend on advertising, they will not want to spend more than Rs 1 on an ad. The equation is becoming very difficult for local brands and the creative business.

In fact there is hardly anything local. Agencies in Pakistan are winning awards for international campaigns – which is just surprising. I lost faith in the local awards once an agency won an award for a global campaign in a local category! Creative is a shrinking business proposition and this makes it even more difficult to do business in a transparent way, and if like Blitz you don’t cheat clients, it is even more difficult to make money in the creative business.

Umair Saaed was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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