Interview with Sabene Saigol - CEO, RED Communication Arts
First published in November-December 2009
One would have thought that being young and enthusiastic would be a definite advantage for anyone contemplating a career in advertising. Well, not in Pakistan at any rate as Sabene Saigol, CEO, RED Communication Arts, discovered. Here she speaks to Aurora on overcoming the age gap and about what makes RED stand out from the rest.
AURORA: Why did you choose RED Communication Arts as the name of your advertising agency?
Sabene Saigol: I wanted something different. I was toying with the idea of using a colour. If you look at our business cards you will notice that the dominant colours are not red but blue and green. The idea is to make people stop and think and maybe even make them understand that advertising is about creating different perceptions in people's minds. Whenever I give out my business card people ask me "why is it blue and green and not red?” which means they won't forget my logo. It's part of my job as an agency head to ensure high recall for my agency.
A: As a relative newcomer how established is RED today?
SS: We are only three years old. In our first year we were basically an in-house agency and we did not pitch for clients. We just handled PEL and Union Bank. Effectively we've only been in the market for two years. So far we haven't been pitching aggressively. We've been focusing on building our team and our existing clients. We now have a very sound team. We have a couple of experienced people but most of my people are new and we trained ourselves. When I opened the agency three years ago I could have done what everybody else does, which is to poach people, but then I would have landed up with the same kind of agency you get out there. My corporate culture would have been the same as the one operating in the advertising agencies from where these people came from. I wanted RED to be different. It was difficult because I had no advertising experience either. But we have learnt on the job and have developed our own culture and way of approaching advertising. Now when people notice our print advertisements they know it's a RED advertisement.
A: What were you doing before you set up RED?
SS: I did my Bachelors in Economics at Wesley in the United States and then my Masters in Economics from the University of London in the UK. I was actually heading for law school but I came back to Pakistan because my parents asked me to. My father suggested I set up an in house advertising and marketing cell. The plan was that I would set it up and then go abroad again. What happened was that I fell in love with advertising. I didn't think that would happen; yet now advertising is all I think about.
A: In effect you haven't had any formal training in marketing and advertising?
SS: No, but every summer I've been on advertising courses abroad. For example, I have just come back from a stint with J. Walter Thompson in Europe where I did a management training programme. I also worked in their creative department and on several of their accounts. So I've had the training and the implementation experience.
A: To what extent are you able to implement what you learn abroad in Pakistan?
SS: The process can be frustrating. However, I think that creatively one can implement the way foreign advertising agencies think because they think conceptually, i.e. idea wise and that can be implemented here in Pakistan. At least you can push your creative team into thinking along those lines. In Pakistan, most of the time there is no idea behind the advertising that is created. For example a commercial has to be more than a story, it must have a concept behind it. This is why we do a lot of in house training, hold seminars and workshops. I make sure we have all the relevant advertising related publications available, for example Ad Age and Campaign. I think we have more books on advertising than any other advertising agency and I make sure my people read them. They laugh at me but I make them do it, otherwise all we are exposed to are PTV and NTM and then how are we expected to produce anything better?
A: Do you find your clients generally receptive to new ideas?
SS: Many do. Take our Cybernet advertisements, they differ from the norm. Depending on the product, sometimes one has to take a more straightforward approach; after all the purpose of advertising is not solely to be creative, it must also sell the product. For example the campaign we developed for PEL's Crystal refrigerator may not have been terribly creative but it did manage to sell all their refrigerators last year, which is an achievement considering that PEL refrigerators haven't really sold for eight years. PEL wanted to call the product the PEL fridge. We came up with Crystal and we argued for months about that. We told them that there was a negative impression in the market regarding the PEL brand name. Finally they listened and it worked. One has to build up trust with clients slowly and patiently. Do it one step at a time, especially if you're a new agency with a young team.
A: Does RED carry out a lot of market research before embarking on a campaign?
SS: We have a small market research department that does a limited amount of pre and post testing research. For this facility we charge our clients at cost so we don't make money on research. The research is to help us and to encourage clients to give us as much product information as possible. Sometimes it's worthwhile giving clients the results of research free so that they understand the merits of it and maybe next time they'll pay for it.
A: What encourages you the most about advertising in Pakistan?
SS: Small things encourage me. That one client who says “I really like this campaign" can see me through months. I see a lot of potential for advertising in Pakistan. Advertising here is so boring it can only get better. Multinationals are now taking an interest in advertising. They're not treating their advertising agencies like vendors churning out material, they are actually going into partnership with them and local companies are beginning to do the same thing. Clients are now giving the kind of importance to advertising that an agency needs.
A: What discourages you the most about advertising in Pakistan?
SS: Personally the most discouraging thing that RED has faced as a young agency is the attitude towards my age. There is very little encouragement from marketing professionals because their attitude is that I'm too young and therefore have no experience. So one is in a Catch 22 situation. If somebody isn't giving you that account then how am I going to get that experience? However things have improved in the last nine months.
A: How does one break free from this attitude?
SS: Our strength lies in our creative work and once we can convince a client to give us the brief then the work RED produces sells itself, which is happening. Recently we won the Mitchell's confectionery account as well as Pakistan Tobacco's corporate account, which was a big breakthrough for us; even though billing wise it's not a big thing, it's very high profile.
A: Why isn't RED a member of the Pakistan Advertising Association (PAA) or of the member Advertisers Practitioners Guild (APG)?
SS: Both the PAA and APG have denied us membership on the basis that we are an in-house agency. We are however members of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). Despite the fact that the APNS rules are so strict, we've met those rules and usually when an advertising agency gets APNS accreditation, PAA and APG membership follows, yet neither the PAA nor the APG would consider us. In the end if they won't give us membership what can we do? We can't go and beg them.
A: To what extent does RED interact with other Lahore-based advertising agencies?
SS: We interact with a couple of like minded agencies and we are working on establishing a kind of Lahore platform of Lahore-based agencies. I think that is something that's missing. There are many issues that agencies should get together and discuss.
A: What sort of issues?
SS: The fact that clients often bypass their advertising agency and deal directly with the print and electronic media. Then there is the issue of kickbacks. There have been a couple of occasions when we have been faced with a kickback situation, however we won the account because at the end of the day the client understood that if you opt for the more creative agency your campaign will be remembered. And that is this kind of client we want. I don't want every and any client. I have no ambition to be the largest advertising agency in Pakistan, that's not what we are here for. I would like to remain a middle sized agency with a select number of good accounts and do good advertising. I want to make that difference in advertising.
A: You and a few others, like Faraz Masood Hamidi for example, are part of the new generation of agency heads in Pakistan. What do you propose to do to give advertising standards in Pakistan?
SS: Until now I have been involved in setting up the agency and developing my team. Now the time has come for me to begin talking to people. I think trends are changing. Companies that have been doing very traditional advertising are changing their approach. Take Mobilink, their entire advertising strategy has undergone a complete makeover and now they are doing what I consider to be very good advertising. I think the D'Hamidi Partnership is the best agency creatively speaking. The Circuit is good too. I think that the advertising agencies that are doing good creative work are mostly the medium sized agencies. I think something gets lost when an advertising agency gets too big. As far as improving standards is concerned, the problem is that advertising agencies, although they complain when they are told to adopt an approach they are not happy with, still go ahead and do it. In my opinion this is wrong. It is the job of the advertising agency to educate and make the client understand that it is also in our interests that their product sells so could they please listen to what we are saying? Clients sometimes interfere unnecessarily. You show them an artwork and they ask "why is this red why isn't it blue?" This is annoying given that my graphic designer, who is trained, has chosen this colour because there is logic behind it. Why should we change the colour just because the client personally doesn't like it?
A: Has the fact that you are a woman been a hindrance in developing RED?
SS: No the problem is my age. People still ask me how old I am. It just comes straight out as a second question after meeting me. Sometimes I'm tempted to reply "what has my age got to with it? If I produce the work and produce it on time and you like it and it sells your product then what has my age got to do with it?" Hopefully this problem will sort itself out when I'm couple years older and then maybe the problem won't be my age but gender.
A: Five years from now where do you see RED?
SS: I hope we will have a large operation in Karachi. We opened a small office in Karachi about a year ago with a skeleton staff, yet the feedback I'm receiving is just unbelievable. We are doing so well in Karachi because the market there is so sophisticated. Because of the kind of work we are trying to do, we need to be in Karachi. In the next few years I want to develop the present team as well as put into place a number of strategic alliances.
A: What about an affiliation. Don’t you think that will help in developing the agency?
SS: The impression one is getting here from talking to people is that the affiliations that are currently in place are going to move. In view of this we prefer to wait until the right one comes along rather than opt for the first available opening. My objective in going for an affiliation is not to acquire clients. I believe if one produces good work the accounts will come. My objectives in having an affiliate are to get the benefits their training programmes offer.
A: So RED Communication Arts is here to stay?
SS: Yes, we are not going anywhere. Advertising is my first love, it happened quite by accident and I'm sticking to it.
A: It's certainly quite different from press law?
SS: Well, I never wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to go to law school in the United States because of the rigorous training law demands. But I think advertising is pretty rigorous. I think that to a certain extent one has to be a little masochistic to stay in advertising.