Interview with Salman Ali, Fahad Bombaywala and Umair Ahmed, co-Founders, Sandpaper.
AYESHA SHAIKH: How did your advertising journey start and what triggered the idea to create your own agency?
SALMAN ALI: I interned at Evernew Concepts but my first full-time job was at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi in 2012 in planning. This was a time when agencies were establishing their strategy departments and planning was a new phenomenon. Nida Haider, who was the Planning Director, hired me and I worked under her supervision for three years. This was followed by a two-year stint at Ogilvy under Shazia Khan and then a switch to JWT, where, at the time of my last assignment, I was the Associate Planning Director. For people like me who study business, the pressure is always to opt for the brand side because it offers greater stability, progression and remuneration. I chose advertising because I wanted to do something creative and out of the box, but I didn’t have the autonomy to work the way I wanted to. I reached a point when I knew switching to another agency wouldn’t cut it and it was time to take the plunge.
FAHAD BOMBAYWALA: I never aspired to a career in advertising and I landed in the industry by accident. I did my bachelor’s in design and filmmaking. Zehra Zaidi came across the work I had done for my thesis, called me for an interview and I joined Adcom in 2008. After a year as a Creative Associate, I left and did my master’s in philosophy. These two years were decisive because they made me realise that advertising is the profession for me; it was the only career where I would have the freedom of creative expression and the power to influence change in people’s behaviour. I was lucky to work at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi for three years and spent another three at Ogilvy before switching to JWT and finally returned to Adcom as Associate Creative Director in 2017. This was when the realisation dawned that agencies were focused on cost-cutting rather than producing insightful, creative work.
UMAIR AHMED: I started in 2006 with Bullseye, which was a brand activation and event management agency at the time. Activation was then in its infancy and I was lucky to work with people like Tanveer Ajmeeh, a pioneer in brand activation. I was given the liberty of handling people and delivering within strict timelines, but I was also mentored and guided at every step. After almost two years, I switched to the brand side believing this would enhance my career growth because that is the thinking that is ingrained in us right from the time we enrol in a university – working on the brand side is always better than going to an agency. That is true to a large extent, yet for someone like me, the day-to-day monotony and the nine-to-five routine did not work. I came back to activation and, along with Tabish Waqar and Ahmer Khan, set up Brandlogics, an event management and activation company, while also serving as a Director at Ishtehari. It was during this time that I realised that my experience was limited entirely to activation, with no working knowledge of strategy or creative. I wanted to plug this gap, but I knew that working at a conventional agency was not the answer.
AS: Do you think this is the right time to set up a new agency, given that the big players are complaining of shrinking margins?
SA: When you join an agency, you want to be included in important meetings and have the opportunity to present your ideas. Unfortunately, in the last 15 years, the top brass has not made way for vibrant young people with fresh perspectives and new ideas. People who pursue a career in advertising are aware that this is not where they will be making the most money but at the same time, they do not want to be stifled. After a few years, you realise that it is all a big, fat, commercial game. Yes, we are in the business of commercial art, but I wanted to create insight-driven work. Instead, conversations in boardrooms centre around which celebrity will be featured in the TVC, who will write the jingle and where it will be shot. In my view, time is better spent in understanding the client’s business challenges and coming up with solutions. Most clients are quick to see when an agency is conning them and this breeds mistrust, which can end only when an agency like ours is brave enough to say: “You want a TVC shot in Bangkok, but it won’t solve your problem.”
FB: The industry is very business-driven. Profitability problems arise because ‘established’ agencies have huge payrolls and this financial pressure pushes creativity and insight to the backseat. To convince clients to hand over a cheque is a difficult task, especially when trust isn’t there and clients believe that the agency is only looking to mint money instead of looking out for their brand. We felt that there is a huge void in terms of agencies that want to solve a business’s problem and this is the space we are filling. There may be 500 agencies out there, but we want to position Sandpaper as the one that will resolve specific business challenges innovatively.
UA: I don’t agree with the notion that business has shrunk. Every week, more than four to five new brands are rolling out campaigns across multiple mediums. To survive and be profitable, it is imperative to decide what your business model is. From the beginning, we were clear that we would remain a lean agency in order not to hike tariffs to cover operational costs. We charge for critical thinking to solve problems or achieve a goal. It is not as if new brands have stopped coming into the market; in fact, there are more brands with substantial marketing budgets now compared to a decade ago. But, clients have become smarter and they want specific results, which is why they are turning away from traditional agencies and retainer models and are looking for alternatives. In my experience, if you give good ideas and insights, clients are happy to pay.
“We are also working on putting our tariff on our website, which would be a first for the industry. What usually happens is that agencies have different tariffs for different clients. Our approach is to have standardised rates for the services we offer. I admit, this model is not going to make us rich, but that is how we want to work.”
AS: How will you ensure that Sandpaper doesn’t fall into this trap?
SA: We will not take on retainer clients and take on projects instead. For example, if a client is facing a certain issue, such as declining sales in a particular region, we will do the research, figure out a solution, share it with our client and oversee the implementation – and that would be the end of the project. Before taking on a project, we estimate the time and resources needed to complete it and then quote a tariff. We are also working on putting our tariff on our website, which would be a first for the industry. What usually happens is that agencies have different tariffs for different clients. Our approach is to have standardised rates for the services we offer. I admit, this model is not going to make us rich, but that is how we want to work. Brands pay us a specific amount and in turn, they receive our dedicated attention.
FB: When we go for client meetings, we make it clear that we are not there to take over from their existing agency. Our pitch is: Continue working with your agency for the planned year-round initiatives but for this specific launch, campaign, re-launch or business problem, we can provide a targeted solution and its execution will take up the next three months. At some point, if we take on an IMC campaign with multiple collaterals (TVC, digital ads, print campaigns, packaging), which need adaptations, we will need more designers, graphics people, art directors and visualisers, but they won’t be full-time; we will bring them on when we have a project that needs more resources.
UA: Our goals are clear. We want to build a team that shares our work ethic and vision but most importantly, our values. We plan on keeping it small and will not be venturing into areas such as media planning and buying because that is not our core expertise and require too much money. If we have that kind of cash, we might as well go into films or set up a production house.
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