If you ask me, the most influential people in history - whether they be from religious, political, scientific or business realms - are secretly also the world’s greatest copywriters. They know how to spin the story and communicate their ideas and values in way that is enduring and viral. They had, perhaps inadvertently, found a way to tug at our heartstrings and bestow onto their messaging a life much longer than their own. This is why we know them today.
As an aspiring copywriter, I’ve always wished that I had the key to that sort of power and influence. Maybe there’s some secret combination of words that makes people believe you. Perhaps a magic formula, or a spell, that converts at 100%. I’ve been searching for this copywriting alchemy for well over a decade. I’m stoked to report that I finally found it. Well, kind of. I have finally mastered the dark arts of rearranging words in a way that they cajole the reader to complete compliance. The only caveat is that it only works on one specific format; dinner invitations.
Although I’m a little disappointed that I can’t quite spark a revolution or start a cult yet, at least I can write the world’s most convincing dinner invite. I won’t reveal the secret here, but know that I now yield kind of like a minor superpower where I can invite anyone I want to a tête-à-tête and they’ll immediately accept. They just can’t resist this magic copy.
To put my newfound ability to the test, I’m going to be writing and sending invites to three people that I want to learn from. Unfortunately, my magic copy can’t quite summon people from the grave... and I can’t afford to hire Aamir’s psychic in Saddar yet (because, well, indie agencies like Ishtehari aren’t exactly flush with cash). So I’m going to pick 3 living people, from three different parts of the world.
Number one on my list is Alex Bogusky, (ex?) ECD at CPB and probably my first agency-crush. This guy was like my hero when I had way too much time to kill in the early days of my career. I’m oversimplifying by lumping his title into the creative director moniker… he has styled himself as everything from Chief Creative Insurgent to Advertising Dadaist to Chief Mischief Officer. He was the brains behind some of the earliest ‘viral’ digital advertising campaigns including those that set the tone for Burger King’s now-ubiquitous tongue-in-cheek brand persona.
But beyond his advertising endeavors, what fascinates me about Alex is that he appears to be a temperamental and perennially unsatisfied person. A quick look at his rap sheet will illustrate what I mean. Surfer dude joins this agency called Crispin Porter, gets promoted to as head creative within 5 years. Pumps out enough clutter-breaking work to add his name on the door and elevates the newly renamed Crispin Porter Bogusky to the rank of “World’s Hottest Agency”. And then, one fine morning, he quits. At the peak of his career, Alex, now labelled “Creative Director of the Decade”, decides to retire from the industry and start an anti-advertising collective. Insane, right?
But wait, he’s not quite done yet. 8 years later, he comes back to CPB. Pumps out another couple of award-winning campaigns. And quits again after 15 months. I mean, what even? To be honest, I kind of resonate with him. Though I don’t quite have the same street cred as him, I feel the same way about agency life. Some days I’m so gung-ho about the ad world that my wife thinks I’ve lost it, and some days I want to quit and retire to a hammock in the Gili Islands.
Second on my list is a woman called Pat Law. She’s the founder of Goodstuph, an independent agency based out of Singapore, and the focal point of my Instagram stalking for years now. Pat used to be the archetypical agency-type in the early days of her career, rising in the ranks of Arc, TBWA and Ogilvy as a firebrand creative before tragedy hit her. Her dad was diagnosed with brain tumor. Just to put things in perspective, her dad sold (and still sells) fried oyster omelets at one of Singapore’s hawker markets. She is the textbook definition of humble beginnings.
Apparently, agency salaries are shit in Singapore too. So, when she was faced with the prospect of a medical bill she could not sustain, Pat decided to take out a $10,000 loan and start her own hotshop and called it Goodstuph. The story behind the name is that when people see the agency’s work, they should at least be able to respond with “Hey, that’s some good stuff!”.
This is about the time when I started insta-stalking her, because it was around the time that we started Ishtehari and I was on my first hey-I’m-self-employed-so-I-can-take-off-whenever-I-want holiday in Singapore. Since then, Pat and Goodstuph have been a constant source of personal inspiration. Fiercely opinionated, aggressively protective of her team and the creative process, and the perfect hybrid between creative and entrepreneur, this woman is a tour de force of everything network agencies should be very very afraid of. In less than 8 years, she has made Goodstuph one of the most award-winning agencies in the region, bagging clients as varied as Unilever, HBO and HP. In the same vein, she is strategically setting the foundation for Singapore’ first micro-network, having opened fronts in Indonesia and Thailand as well. Given her energy, I’m confident that even this one dinner date with Pat will be enough to help me break out of my shell and extinguish all my doubts and fears.
Lest you think that I’ve got a gora (or a chipta) complex, the last guest on my list is a Pakistani. The guy’s name is Waqas Ali, and truth be told, his is a polarizing story as far as Pakistani talent is concerned. Waqas originally hails from Okara, and I first heard of him when I started experimenting with blogging back 2009. His story is one of adversity and reinvention, and hits a little closer to home. His tale is polarizing because he’s the poster child of ‘anything is possible’ and of Pakistan’s perennial brain drain problem.
Back in the day, Waqas was one of the dozen other people blogging about marketing in Pakistan. I’m embarrassed to admit that my elitist mindset immediately dismissed him as a bechara because his initial writings sometimes had broken English. At the time he seemed genuinely interested in marketing as a field and I actually felt bad for the guy because I was beginning to understand just how cut-throat and appearance-driven the Pakistani advertising scene was. Then, one fine day, he managed to sneak in his picture into Seth Godin’s book. He had my attention. Not that he needed it. Boy, was I wrong about him. While I was off chasing a job in the agency world, legend has it that Waqas met a shoemaker in Okara in a local panchayat. I don’t know what’s driving him at this point, but he decides to open up a handcrafted shoe company and decides to sell his ware online. The way he wove the story of ‘handcrafted’ is something I still show to my copy team to this day. I understand that at some point he won a $10,000 grant from one of the first joint initiatives between Pasha and Google. From that moment on, Waqas was unstoppable. He surgically built what I feel like was Pakistan’s first and most successful kickstarter campaign. The brand he built started off as Hometown, changed to Markhor, and it was clear that he was truly creating the purple cow that he had learnt about from Godin’s books. He would hand-deliver shoes… to his customers overseas. Seriously? This guy, in his unassuming attire, was throwing conventional business wisdom out the window and creating priceless storytelling in the process.
Like Alex, Waqas is not afraid to pivot. Now a Y Combinator alum, and feeling confident with his equally-talented wife Sidra by his side, he shut down the Pakistani luxury marque and went to create a revolutionary global shoe brand called Atoms. To put it in context, Atoms are pricier than Nikes, mimic Waqas’ own unassuming style, have no logos, and come in quarter-sizes. And the world is bending over backwards to get their hands (and feet) on them.
Waqas is a truly a phoenix who has risen from Okara and landed in Silicon Valley. He went from writing blogs about visionaries like Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit) to being friends (and co-investors) with them. He is the epitome of reinventing yourself for the right opportunity, and I think the time is right for me to learn this skill as well.
With these three super inspiring people on the table, I’m hoping the conversation will flow naturally. The introvert in me is a little relieved, because they each have such inspiring stories that they will probably talk to each other, and maybe some of the positivity and inspiration will rub off on me. I’m not a cook, so I’ll be relying on the Foodpanda app to order them whatever they want once they’re here.
I might also accidentally leave on the voice recorder on my phone, because this dinner will be chockful of insights that will last me a lifetime.
I’ll let you guys know if I get the RSVPs.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.