Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2016

Removing the fear in the agency

Interview with Shakeel Khokar, CEO, Bates & Interflow.

Shakeel Khokar, CEO, Bates & Interflow. speaks to Mariam Ali Baig about where he wants to take his agency.

AURORA: When I spoke to David Mayo earlier this year about the rebranding of Interflow, he said it was about giving the agency a shot in the arm and transforming it into a more relevant one for today’s clients. What is your take on the rebranding?
SHAKEEL KHOKAR: The Bates model is very interesting, not only in the context of our own market, but generally in the Asia Pacific region. Most of the time the big network agencies service the big international network clients and the expertise goes to those brands which already have access to this. The Bates model is to plug in international expertise into local businesses; it is about offering local clients international expertise that is specifically honed for local businesses.

A: Conceivably, any big network agency could make the same claim?
SK: Yes, but their approach will be different. Ours is to adapt the international expertise and experience to the specific requirements of a local client. Of course, the network agencies can also say this, but in practice they will be limited by their culture; their brands are predominantly international and most of the time, it is the brands which end up driving the culture and the way of working at an agency.

A: What else will the Bates affiliation bring to the table?
SK: A different approach and certainly one that involves being fearless. Agencies need to be more fearless.

A: Aren’t most local clients fearful?
SK: I don’t agree. Most clients are running successful businesses and anyone who runs a successful business must have a degree of vision. It is a question of the agencies making themselves heard by their clients; of working hard to earn that credibility. We cannot just say that we think a creative is great and will do wonders for them. It doesn’t work like that. Agencies need to approach their clients with their strategic thinking in place. Local companies are doing a lot. The third generation has come to the fore. This is a generation that has come back to Pakistan and they want to get on with their businesses. The dry period of the last 15 or 20 years, when the second generation was more interested in moving abroad, is over.

“Experience is about making an idea become even bigger. Another aspect of the leadership job is to manage egos. They cannot be crushed, because then you crush creativity, so what you do is remove the fear. You have to talk – and agency leaders are shy of straight talking. The real kick is to give people direction."

A: Yet, this was the same discussion one had 15 years ago; that the seth generation was being replaced by a more outward looking second generation.
SK: In my opinion, especially in the mid-90s, most of that generation aspired to move abroad and those who came back were half-hearted about it and happy to maintain the status quo. This third generation really wants to do something and they are taking bolder steps. You notice this by the way they interact with their communication partners. They maintain a friendly and open stance; they have the patience to give us the time and hear us out. They believe in Pakistan more – and if this is because of the global situation and they don’t have an option to believe in anything else, well it works for us. This is a great time to work with local businesses. They have the resources and are serious about growing their business. Pakistan’s GDP growth this year has been better than the last three years and this will encourage local brands. Think about it, their costs involved in carrying their products to the consumer will always be lower than what they are for the global systems, so they can only fail if they do not have a good strategy. Otherwise they should be successful.

A: To what extent is Bates & Interflow being reorganised?
SK: We are doing a complete re-haul. We are identifying which talent should be doing what job. There is a need for further client integration. The traditional agency, which used to do everything for the brand, has been reduced, in most cases, to doing just creative and maybe media along with it. And they were happy to shrink their knowledge base – something which is beyond me. For me, whether you do an activity or not, you should still be able to think about it. It is about bringing all this back.

A: In other words, going back to the full service model?
SK: Exactly. Once you have a full service mindset, even if you are (for argument’s sake) not handling media or digital, you should still be able to think in those terms. The moment you start to think is the moment when clients will take you on board as a true brand partner. Agencies need to think about the role communications can play in the lives of consumers; our strength is our ability to understand them because we work on an array of brands as opposed to just a few – and that means we have a better and quicker understanding of changing consumer patterns.

A: Agencies structures in Pakistan have remained more or less the same. In your opinion what needs to change?
SK: Structures are determined by the skill sets of the team, not by titles. Agencies can only survive within a matrix structure; they cannot function in what I call a ‘redundant’ structure. For example, we are working on a couple of projects where the ECD and I report to the account director because I am playing a different role in that campaign; I am playing the copy part and this is an example of reverse mentoring. You work in circles as opposed to straight lines.

A: What are the benefits of working in circles?
SK: You don’t stop and you don’t waste time. In the straight line model, an account executive goes to the account manager with a problem, who will then refer it to the account director and so on, and even with the quickest of agencies, two days are lost just in order to go through a procedure. It becomes a power game. Likewise, a copywriter cannot give an idea because it is the creative manager’s job to think of an idea – and then the ACD too has an ego... In the circle model, the person who owns the project (for example, if it is a digital project the person with the digital ability becomes the project head) leads the project. The point here is that someone who has been at the agency for six months has the same voice as someone who has been there for 26 years. This system doesn’t only save time, the quality of the output is also better.

A: Is there not resistance from the person who has been there for 26 years?
SK: So far we haven’t had any. When the agency head is willing to step out of his room, then other people will not resist.

“The critical job of an agency leader is to remove the fear across all levels. If some agencies are doing a bad job it is because they are scared of losing a client – and you can’t play if you fear losing."

A: Given the hierarchical structures of most mainstream agencies, how does one encourage a collaborative approach?
SK: You take the fear away. The critical job of an agency leader is to remove the fear across all levels. If some agencies are doing a bad job it is because they are scared of losing a client – and you can’t play if you fear losing. The notion of experience, in terms of having ideas, has never made sense to me. Experience is about making an idea become even bigger. Another aspect of the leadership job is to manage egos. They cannot be crushed, because then you crush creativity, so what you do is remove the fear. You have to talk – and agency leaders are shy of straight talking. The real kick is to give people direction. If people are fearless they will give you better results. Clients are looking for effective solutions.

I read Imran Afzal’s recent interview in Aurora and I agree with him about corruption. Clients just tell agencies what to do and they do it because it is an easy way out; as a result, they are not doing the job they should be doing for the brand.

A: One of the big problems in this industry is a lack of transparency.
SK: And it doesn’t just stop here. The bigger problem is not the money; the bigger problem is that agencies are not interested in the quality of the work. The offshoot of that lack of transparency is the corruption of creativity itself. It becomes a money-to-money deal and this is reflected in the quality of some of the work we see. Then there is the mutual admiration club that exists within the industry, where everyone is telling everyone else what great work they are doing. But we are not, and we need to stand up and say it. Instead of understanding how to be more efficient as a system, agencies want to grow their business; they don’t realise that growing alone is not enough. They need to make better systems.

A: Coming back to what needs to change, what about skill sets?
SK: We need better local knowledge; road side knowledge not drawing room or university classroom knowledge; this should be the biggest change made. Walk around our agency and you see Grammar School working next to Kotwal Building School. They are two different species of people ideologically speaking; this is where the balance must come from, more than age. The big challenge has been to break down the barriers and bring everyone together – and it has paid off. We need different backgrounds and skill sets. The in-depth understanding of the language and flavour of our local life is missing. We also need people from different disciplines who can form a bridge. Another problem is that the habit of reading has declined. We are forcing our younger people to read books; we ask them to choose three lines from a book and talk about them. We are pushing this, but it will take time. One person told me he hadn’t read the book but watched its clip on YouTube! I told him he had killed the purpose. You have to read, because when you do, you know what you don’t know. The other issue is the fact that articulation is dead, and that is a big problem when you are in the business of communication. If you are not articulate with a client, you are wasting words and no agency or creative person can afford to do this. If I have a great idea, but cannot explain it, it becomes pointless. These things need to come back in order to bring back the charm to the agency business – which, at the end of the day, is to give an idea that leads to a great result.

A: By and large do you think most agencies here in Pakistan have a roadmap to effect these changes?
SK: I don’t think they plan. They need to have a vision, because only then will they know what path to take.

A: Why this lack of vision?
SK: There could be a million reasons. Maybe they need to become more contemporary in their approach. Agencies cannot be run in the old way, as in “I am the boss and you do what I tell you to do.” I think agencies have forgotten how to retain their charm. It is this pressure (which I call fear) of losing business and as a result, delegation doesn’t happen in many of them.

A: Surely fear of losing business is justified to some extent? Clients do chop and change agencies quite a bit.
SK: If they are producing quality work why would a client move? The point is that if a client wants to go, he will, and instead of addressing the reasons why a client wants to leave and what they can do to solve the problem, they adopt the attitude of “we have to keep the client at any cost.” This makes no sense to me. You have to address the problem, even if it means firing your creative director because he or she is not cutting it and hire someone who is professional and will do a great job.

A: What brought you back to the world of advertising?
SK: What brought me back is partly what and, more importantly, partly who. The what part is because advertising is so interestingly poised right now that I thought it might be fun to bring about a bit of a change and see if the charm can be brought back to agency work. As for the who, Interflow has been a sort of home for me. David Mayo was my boss and mentor during my Ogilvy days and it’s great fun working with him. He is full of spunk and you are lucky if you get that kind of personality to work with; it makes the job much easier. Then there was Taher (Anwar Khan) of course. I have worked with him for a long time; we have a great professional equation and he is one the few people in the industry who can tolerate me!

A: What are your plans for Bates & Interflow?
SK: Our positioning is to be fearlessly creative.

A: What does this actually mean?
SK: It is about telling it how it is. Taking risks, losing the fear, bringing back the agency’s charm and surprising our clients every time we talk to them about strategy and creative. I want to see what will happen once we bring to our local brands the international expertise and experience that goes into running successful brands. The next 20 years are going to be about local brands; I have no doubt about that and I want to be with them in that growth.

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