Shehzad Yunus speaks to Mariam Ali Baig on creative expression, Pakistani talent and starting up in Dubai.
MARIAM ALI BAIG: How does The Living Room position itself as an agency?
SHEHZAD YUNUS: The agency is five years old; it was started by Roger Kanakri and Danny Onessi, both of whom held senior positions at Saatchi. They felt that the global agency networks were turning into dinosaurs and they decided to open an independent agency that would be agile, flexible and which could turn work around very quickly and yet do great stuff. This is what attracted me to them. I have worked with the bigger networks, such as DDB, TBWA and Raad, and I learned a lot from them. I have won tons of awards but the spirit of this agency and the way they think attracted me to join them.
MAB: Why did they call it The Living Room?
SY: The idea was to keep the feel casual and informal. The agency is like a living room where people get together, drink coffee and discuss ideas – it is a very friendly atmosphere.
MAB: How difficult is it to compete with the network agencies?
SY: There has been a shift and this is where the agility comes in. A lot of multinational clients are increasingly attracted to independent agencies run by people with tons of multinational experience and who can therefore offer the same level of expertise and experience, but with better service. Agility is a very attractive quality and that is what clients are seeking. Today our client portfolio includes the Commercial Bank of Dubai, Lacnor, Oasis, Paris Gallery and Nestlé.
MAB: How creatively strong is this region in terms of advertising?
SY: This region has become very potent in the global advertising scenario. The most attractive aspect about Dubai is that at any given time there are 196 different nationalities coexisting and working together. This gives one the opportunity to work with and learn from so many different people. Dubai is often seen as the gateway to the world in terms of trade; it is also the gateway to the world in terms of communications, advertising, marketing and creativity. In Dubai you get to work on campaigns that are run regionally and which are often picked up by global networks elsewhere. Our biggest market is Saudi Arabia, but it is a restrictive market and groundbreaking or award winning work rarely happens there. Their advertising is more hard sell; it is research and consumer driven and very direct, although once in a while you will see this one sparkling gem that sort of sneaks in somehow. Beirut, Dubai and Egypt are doing amazing work. In fact, Egypt is doing mindblowing work; they are very quirky and they have a crazy sense of humour. Thanks to their film industry they have some amazing actors and directors.
I am not saying there is a lack of talent in Pakistan, but if you restrict people to mediocre advertising that panders to a client’s whims and you don’t give them the freedom they need, they will not gain acceptance internationally”
MAB: Does UAE-based work have a particular flavour?
SY: At the moment the work here is expat driven because there are very few Emirati creatives in our industry, which is a pity, because if we had Emirati creative directors, copywriters, art directors and designers, they would bring their own flavour, insights and flair to the work.
MAB: What prevents them from wanting to go into advertising?
SY: I haven’t figured that out yet. When I started a creative directors’ club eight years ago I went looking for talent and I found incredibly talented people, but they weren’t keen on working in an advertising agency. I don’t think they want to go through the grind. In an agency an entry level person would start at AED 8,000 to 9,000; however because of the Emiratisation policy, the same person would easily earn about AED 20,000 within two years and be promoted to VP and then make AED 45,000, so why would they come and slog at an agency? Emiratis are very entrepreneurial and prefer to either join the family business or start their own. Some of the start-ups here are outstanding. The new generation of Emiratis have been educated abroad, their vision has broadened and they want to take their family business places or start their own. It is about going places; getting the experience and starting something of their own.
MAB: To what extent does Dubai attract advertising talent from Pakistan?
SY: There is a lot of digital talent coming in from Pakistan, especially in programming and design, but I can’t say the same about advertising. Actually it is scary; there are only one or two really good creative people from Pakistan.
MAB: Why is this so?
SY: I don’t know; maybe it has to do with the standard of creativity in Pakistan. You will find a lot of brand managers from Pakistan working in multinationals or in the banking sector; in fact, when it comes to marketing and other disciplines Pakistanis have gained acceptance here, perhaps because they have the right qualifications and experience. Creative people require a portfolio, and it is mediocre...
I am not saying there is a lack of talent in Pakistan, but if you restrict people to mediocre advertising that panders to a client’s whims and you don’t give them the freedom they need, they will not gain acceptance internationally. This is why Pakistan never wins awards; the only award Pakistan won was for the Bug Splat campaign and it was done by a non-resident Pakistani. It was a good start and if it encourages other Pakistanis in the creative community to come up with great ideas, it will be wonderful. I just wish the award had come from someone home grown who has lived and worked in Pakistan and created something steeped in our culture. There should be more such examples, not just one.
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