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“I’m quite weary of agencies that say we’re not in it for the awards”

Zeenat Chaudhary catches up with Ali Rez, Chief Creative Officer, Impact BBDO MENAP, who was recently chosen as the MENAP region’s first jury president for Cannes Lions.
Published 10 Mar, 2023 05:14pm

From being named one of the top 10 global ECDs (World Creative Rankings 2022) to being the most awarded creative leader in the Middle East with over 700 awards (including Cannes Grand Prix, Spikes, and Dubai Lynx) and with more than 20 years of creative leadership experience across the world, Ali Rez, Chief Creative Officer, Impact BBDO MENAP, has recently been chosen as the MENAP region’s first jury president for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2023.

Aurora visited the Impact BBDO MENAP office in Dubai to find out more about what this honour entails, and what challenges creatives in the region often face.

ZEENAT CHAUDHARY: Simply put, how does it feel to be chosen as the MENAP region’s first jury president for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2023?
It feels great, and not just on a personal level. It feels wonderful knowing that the MENAP region is finally showing up on an international level and this will open the door to many more individuals.

ZC: What are the criteria one needs to meet to be selected as a jury president?
There are a lot of interconnected moving parts. You have to produce a certain quality of work, won at least one award (because that shows that your peers are recognising the quality of your work), produced a certain number of ads, have a world view with a cultural background, and a personality to carry/lead a jury. In my mind, those are the qualities that are primarily looked at. They look at talent across the world and pick someone. I didn’t know I was a candidate till I got an email from Cannes Lions one day… and then I basically lost my mind with joy. That was it; they just identify and contact you.

ZC: What will your responsibilities in this position include?
I have been on the Cannes jury before so I am aware of the systems. They give you a briefing when you get there; what the standards, procedures are, how to evaluate an entry, how to make sure you’re not being biased, etc.

ZC: What are you most looking forward to at the festival which will be held in June?
Every time you go to the festival, it rewires your brain. You look at work that is truly incredible and think about why you couldn’t think of it, meet incredible people and hear amazing talks. If you are in a room with someone like Robert Redford or Malala Yousafzai, there is a different energy. It’s like the difference between listening to music on your headphones versus being at a concert. You come back and feel different, more educated and inspired. You find more courage to push for your work.

ZC: In what ways do you think Cannes Lions can facilitate more creative individuals from the MENA region, or specifically from Pakistan?
We have recommended certain ideas to Cannes already; we feel they can have more regular training sessions (they already have some online sessions); for young creatives there are programmes being planned to help guide them and create the kind of work that will help them reach new milestones.

ZC: What challenges do creatives in Pakistan face in terms of reaching international standards/global recognition?
The problem is the same as it is anywhere, and it happens in Pakistan a lot more – non-creative people judge creative work. When you have somebody who is not trained to be creative, i.e. a person who cannot write a film script for e.g. giving feedback on a film script, that’s going to turn out to be a disaster. I don’t mind a little feedback on subjective elements but when you get objective feedback, which a lot of clients tend to do, that’s an issue. You wouldn’t go to a pilot and say ‘Can I fly the plane? How about you take a dip here or a loop there?’ Because you’re not trained to do it. And advertising is the one industry in which everybody thinks they’re qualified to criticise it. I’ve done entire sessions on the topic of colour with clients; there’s a science to it, a training on how to pick fonts, but a lot of it is ignored. I always ask clients straight out, ‘Why don’t you trust us?’ That takes me to the second issue that there is very little appetite for risk. When you want to do something new, you have to ask the person to trust you because creatives can imagine an idea but most people cannot imagine what the end result will be and end up falling back on things that have already been done. Whenever I’m asked to show references and I say there aren’t any since we’re doing it for the first time… and it doesn’t get sold as a result sometimes. That’s why a lot of the content in Pakistan, especially commercial content, looks and feels the same. During cricket matches for example you can force people to watch awful TVCs, but I don’t think there’s a single brand manager in Pakistan who can sit through their own ads. It’s media buy blasted 10,000 times so someone remembers it. Why isn’t playing it twice enough for people to remember it? That’s the challenge. Pakistani films meanwhile are doing really well recently because the control is with creative people and results in absolute magic.

ZC: How do you feel about the ongoing debate about some agencies are only creating ads to win awards?
I disagree overwhelmingly. Most of my clients are asking for work that they can win awards for. Ad agencies are businesses and for businesses to work they need fame that generates more clients/business for them and more talent. Through our awards we get some of the best hires reaching out from all over like India, Brazil and Argentina because they want to work here. Because we have good talent, we win pitches. It is a circle. It is commercial exercise. At the same time, while you’re doing that commercial exercise, isn’t it wonderful that you also manage to do something good for the planet? You help people by winning awards. I’m quite weary of agencies that say we’re not in it for the awards. Okay, so you’re happy doing mediocre work or creating mediocre content? And you can’t win an award if it hasn’t worked among consumers. For Cannes Lions, you must have certain sales figures, impact figures, show whether it was a social good project, etc.

ZC: What would you say are the major career milestones that have brought you here today?
One is that fortune plays a major part, such as having the right people around you who have your growth in their mind and support you when you need it. It takes a lot of fortune to find the right people, and if you don’t, it’s up to you to leave whoever you are working with and try to find the right people. The leadership at BBDO for instance, whether it’s local or global, supports you and hence you come up with good work. They push you to produce it, back you up with clients and so there is a desire to do better work. One person can impact your career. When I was at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), in my second semester, I was also interning at an ad agency and couldn’t attend all my classes. Around the same time, I was accepted into an art school in the US and had attained financial aid as well, but one of the requirements was to showcase that I had completed my foundation year at IVS. The administration stated they could not certify that since I had been absent a lot. But, there was a teacher there at the time, Arshad Faruqui, who was not even my professor but was part of the admin and he saw that I was struggling. When I explained the potential domino effect of the current situation to him, he readily approved it, saying, ‘You have real world experience and that’s more important.’ He looked at the bigger picture. Because of that one small gesture, everything else fell into place. The second thing is you must set goals and plan. Sally Hawke’s famous triangle depicts work, time and money, indicating that when you work for a good place, you can get one of these three things and a great place has two of these. It’s important to choose the right thing. If it’s the work, then follow the work and fortune will step in to help you find the way.

ZC: What’s next for Ali Rez?
No idea. I have challenged my team though – I said that we have won many awards but now let’s look and aim beyond that be it an Oscar, an Emmy or even a Nobel Peace Prize.

Cannes Lions takes place June 19-23. For more information on this year’s festival, visit