Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2009


Interview with Neil P. Christy, CEO, Headlion.

AURORA: Why did you start Café Headlion?

NEIL CHRISTY: We wanted a space in which we could do something for the industry. I am very critical of our industry. It has potential, but people don’t have the will; everyone is more interested in approvals and getting the business in. No one is taking a long term view about brands, and this is hurting our industry. The Café is aimed at getting people to talk to each other and do something interesting. In Pakistan people have a tendency to want people to fail, they celebrate failure, and a reason why this is so is because they don’t interact with each other. Our idea was to create a place where everyone could have fun, but we also had a mission, which was to inspire them to excel, interact and create; a place where people could do something out-of-the-box.

A: How do you inspire them?

NC: Through various activities. We recently held a debate based on the Marketing 360 model. Although Marketing 360 is a very credible forum, what tends to happen there is that people bash each other. There is no appreciation; people wait to pounce on any new campaign or brand. I am part of that forum and the attitude is: ‘I know better than you.’ People criticise a lot, but as they are doing it either sitting in their office or at home, it is safe to be critical. When we held a similar event here, we made sure that the people who wanted to be critical also had to defend their judgment and come up with an alternative. Our first discussion was about Ali Zafar moving from Telenor to Mobilink. We had two more topics lined up but we ended up having two hours on Ali Zafar!

A: What was the outcome of this debate?

NC: People agreed that Mobilink had done the right thing in signing up Ali Zafar.

It was an opportunity and they would have been stupid to miss it. Mobilink is going down as far as the numbers are concerned; they are in a panicky situation. Then they saw an opportunity where their biggest rival was exposed. It was a strategic move.

A: What other activities is the Café involved in?

NC: In August we will be launching Pakistan’s first marketing library as well as a Wall of Fame celebrating famous Pakistani brands and brand builders. The library is a place where people can have a coffee, relax, read, brainstorm and be inspired. It is something unique in Pakistan.

A: What about the food?

NC: We have brilliant chefs. Both were working for the top two restaurants in Karachi and our head chef is a former chef of the Hard Rock Café in Dubai. We have amazing food; the best in Karachi.

A: Running a successful café requires the same kind of hard work and commitment it takes to run an agency. How confident do you feel about combining and running two very different businesses?

NC: The Café is run by a separate team headed by Sara Dawood. Sara is into marketing and is also a very good chef. As far as the advertising agency is concerned, it is run by Azadar Hussain, and I oversee the two ventures, besides being involved in two other ventures. As far as the Café is concerned, my role is to taste the food (a wonderful thing to do!) and market the brand. This is a wonderful opportunity to showcase my work. I keep complaining that clients do not approve good work, and in this case I am the client, and I have to ensure that whatever is produced is done according to what I believe in.

I can’t make excuses for bad work! However, both ventures are interrelated, in the sense that advertising is a very relationship-based industry. You have to have good PR because great work on its own doesn’t sell. It will take you 50% of the way, but it is the relationship that gets you the client. The Café is another way to get to know people; it is becoming a marketing hub.

A: You mentioned a need to do something for the ad industry. To what degree do you think the profession has suffered from the lack of an effective industry association?

NC: Agencies are not interested in that scenario.

A: Surely it is to their advantage to be interested in having a body able to protect their interests?

NC: The ad agency business is vicious. There is a complete lack of trust. Even among close friends, when it comes to business, we don’t trust each other. People expect to be stabbed in the back and that is why these associations are not successful. I went to a few meetings of both organisations (AAP and PAA) but then I pulled back, because I saw that both organisations were more interested in personal/ego issues rather than agency issues. I did not feel that they would fight for me or Headlion; they are more interested in their own agencies and in the clout they have.

A: In the last 18 months, advertising seems to have gone from boom to bust. How serious do you think the situation is?

NC: I think it is more hysteria over here. At Headlion, from day one our vision has been very clear. We have a big dream and we are going after it, and it is to become Pakistan’s first global ad agency. I think we are the first Pakistani ad agency to be operational in the Middle East, the UK, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

A: Through your online presence?

NC: Yes. But we also have a liaison office in Riyadh, and very soon we will have one in the UK.

A: Why Riyadh?

NC: In Riyadh we are affiliated with Promoseven, the largest media agency group in the Middle East. In Pakistan, agencies apply for an affiliation with an international agency; our case was totally different because we had won a pitch in the Middle East and we had the client. We were competing against the top five agencies from around the world, including a British agency, two Middle Eastern agencies and an Indian agency. Yet our work was far superior, despite us not having an office there. When we won the account, the brand team told us that we had to find a liaison office in the Middle East, so we contacted Promoseven.

A: Who was the client?

NC: Tetley. They will be launching in April next year, and it is expected to be one of the biggest launches in Saudi Arabia in 2010.

A: Why has Tetley gone off the radar in Pakistan?

NC: Because Tetley is not focusing on the urban market here. They are focusing on the rural and the sub-urban market, but they are planning to venture into the urban market next year.

A: Are you interested in an international affiliation for Headlion?

NC: Yes, definitely. An affiliation is big thing to have in terms of business and stature. People take you seriously when you have the stamp of an international agency.

A: So why has this not happened so far?

NC: That has been one of our sore points. We have interacted with a lot of groups, including WPP and BBDO, but these groups tend to investigate our credibility through people who are not interested in us getting an affiliation.

A: Which people do you mean?

NC: Let’s just say the leading advertising agency people here; I don’t want to name them. We are a creative agency and we do our buying through media houses. If someone contacts a media agency for a background check on Headlion, they will not recommend us, they will recommend an agency that will be more profitable to them instead. We have been told that this is one of the reasons why we have not been able to get an affiliation, and it is also one of the reasons why I say that this industry is vicious. But we will get there; failure is not an option for me.

A: Why is Pakistani advertising not making its mark internationally?

NC: We are given three days to deliver a job, so it’s not about quality; it’s just about going on-air and making sales. Everyone is interested in short term goals; no one is interested in the long term. The telecom industry is a prime example. Every day they churn out ads, but look at the level of mediocrity! It is amazing that people can produce these kinds of ads in spite of phenomenal budgets. Give these kinds of budgets to a good advertising agency and they will not only deliver good advertising, they will also deliver good sales.

A: You have painted a rather grim picture of the industry. So what keeps you going?

NC: Our interest in the global market. We want to be Pakistan’s first global ad agency, and the work we have done globally has been amazing. You could say that our positioning is similar to that of a sushi restaurant. People who have a developed taste for sushi will come to us. And clients who are interested in great work are coming to us. Clients are contacting Headlion because they have heard about our creativity.

A: Do you find it difficult to hire quality people?

NC: The traits that we look for are those of the lion. For us attitude is much more important than the skill set. If you have a lion’s attitude, you will get the job, but if you don’t, no matter how good you are, you will not get the job and if somehow you manage to slide in, you will not last at Headlion. Also, we don’t hire the giants of the industry; we look for the younger lot and turn them into giants.

A: As a new generation self-made ad man, how has the journey been so far?

NC: The journey has been interesting. My inspiration and my mentor was, and still is, Taher A. Khan (CEO, Interflow Communications).

A: Was Interflow your first job?

NC: Technically it was. I had been working in a small agency for a couple of months when I had a bet with someone who said that Interflow did not hire anyone without a sifaarish (pulling strings) and I said I would get into Interflow without a sifaarish. I then made an ad for Pepsi (a big Interflow account) with the caption ‘The choice of a new generation’.

I was called by Interflow and I was hired. I was trained in a very interesting way; with Taher, within 30 seconds you could learn something that would last you a lifetime.

A: What happened after Interflow?

NC: I started The Brand Partnership with Numan Nabi.

I created the brand; I named the agency and created the first logo. Numan Nabi taught me a lot too, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity he gave me. Then I realised that I had to move on and start a place where I could create ads, because I used to complain a lot (I still do) about the standards of advertising.

I wanted a place where I could make the judgment calls on the kind of work that should be presented to the client.

A: Where do you see Headlion in the next five years?

NC: I see Headlion with offices in Pakistan, New York, the UK, and the Middle East and I see Pakistani people working in them; people with great talent and who can be better than anyone in the UK, America or the Middle East.

I work with amazing people and I think that they are far more talented than their work shows them to be.

A: What is your message to young people who are reading this interview?

NC: Failure should never be an option. But you have to fight for your goal. Go after what you want and you will get there. My concern is that people in this industry don’t have a goal. Everyone is thinking short term. To young people I say, dream big and define your goal, whatever it is. You want to be the best creative director? You want to be the best copywriter? You can be, as long as you don’t give up. The opportunities are there, if you dream big you will get what you want.

Interview conducted by Mariam Ali Baig.