Published in Nov-Dec 2021
AURORA: You are managing two separate companies; how does that play out?
SYED AMIR HALEEM: I own two companies; Kueball Digital and Skate Interactive. I own 33% of the shares in Kueball and the remaining shares are owned by a gentleman based out of New York, where the head office is located. My wife and I own a 50% share each in Skate Interactive, which is based in Karachi. Kueball’s client base is mostly America-based and the work consists mainly of web and app development strategies. At Skate, we do a lot of content development; we write articles, shoot TVCs and do a lot of digital-based content. You could say that Skate is content-driven and Kueball is more about behind the scenes app development.
A: Do you offer purely digital services at Skate?
SAH: No, although we would like to. We opened Skate with the objective of helping young companies scale up. If a young business is having trouble growing, we do not restrict ourselves to just managing their social media or web presence. We help them put together digital strategies to achieve growth. These young companies don’t have amazing budgets, yet, to evolve, they need 360-degree solutions. They also cannot afford to pay two retainers – one to a digital agency and another to a creative agency. Because of my background – I have been doing strategy at a broad advertising level for a long time – I can provide both services to these companies. Another issue is the fact that it is usually the creative agency that determines the strategic direction of a brand, which is then translated into digital. Now, if that strategy is mediocre – which in most cases it turns out to be – how can I help these businesses scale up? The solution, especially given my background, is to offer both digital and creative/strategic services.
A: Was your earlier experience in advertising on the brand or the agency side?
SAH: The agency side. I worked for a number of large ad agencies, such as Interflow and Manhattan and eventually ended up with Ogilvy. At Ogilvy, I handled the Tang and Cadbury accounts for Mondel¯ez Pakistan, which, at that point, was worth one million dollars. They had a presence in 35 countries, and what was unusual was the fact that the account was managed out of Karachi, rather than Bombay or Dubai or another regional hub. So, I would find myself in Mozambique shooting a TVC for the Portuguese speaking market. I would be in Beirut shooting a film in Arabic for the Ramzan season. It was very exciting. I did this for almost four years. I also handled British American Tobacco on a regional level.
A: What prompted you to leave Ogilvy and strike out on your own?
SAH: Nishi Suri, who at the time was the global lead for Mondel¯ez based in Miami and a partner at Ogilvy Latin America, mentored me. She was brilliant and she nudged me towards opening Skate. Ogilvy had a digital training programme called Dojo. Digital was becoming big and WPP felt that their various component entities were not gearing up fast enough for the challenge. I took part in this programme and it set me down this path. I felt that traditional advertising was becoming limited in scope and that the more exciting work was happening on the digital front. I also sensed that digital would soon begin to make its presence felt in Pakistan. I could have done two things; wait a bit longer before opening a digital agency or start establishing roots. I opted for the latter and started Kueball Digital. It was a huge risk; everyone thought I was stupid to give up a high profile agency job and a good salary package to start a digital agency. In those days, digital agencies in Pakistan did not really know what they were doing. Anyone who could post anything for a client on Facebook believed they were a digital agency. There was no strategic thinking and I felt that given my experience with big brands, I could bring that missing element to the table. In fact, we were one of the first agencies to bring strategic thinking and storytelling to digital. Before that, most decisions were taken on a random basis. Everything in digital has to be based on logic. Every platform has a logic to it; you have to know which platform to use when and what to say; otherwise, you will not meet the brand objectives and end up wasting the client’s money. Digital agencies don’t know how to tell brand stories, because they have not been trained that way. Most of them come from a technical background; they know how to make posts, how to run an ad, but this does not help them create good content. If you have bad content delivered very well, it will still not help the brand. I would much rather have good content delivered badly than bad content delivered well. We were one of the first agencies to bring this understanding to digital.
A: Given that Skate offers both digital and creative solutions, what is your take on the contention that brand custodianship lies with the creative agencies?
SAH: I absolutely 100% agree. I believe that one of the main reasons why Pakistani brands seem so confused is because of the lack of brand custodianship, especially in the digital space. Digital agencies seem to be running absolutely independently and this is the clients’ fault.
A: But you are doing that too!
SAH: Yes, but how am I doing it? I am not saying: “I am not going to do what your creative agency tells me; I am going to do something else instead.” I am saying: “I will be a creative agency as well.” I am not overstepping; I am saying: “I will handle the entire thing; I will give you a 360-degree solution because I am not satisfied with your current brand communication.” I am not a digital agency that is constantly challenging the creative agency by doing my own thing, because that is not helping the brand. If the creative agency is putting out one message on traditional media and the digital agency is putting out a different one on digital, how is this helping a brand? It only confuses the audience. There has to be a single unified message, and even with a single message, you have to keep hammering it for two to three years before building up some sort of single brand equity.
A: What if the client does not want to change creative agencies?
SAH: In that case, I will not challenge the creative agency. I would request joint meetings so that we don’t end up working in silos. I would make huge efforts to make the creative agency comfortable and, when necessary, persuade them to accept my point of view. And, let me add, this approach works. The problem is that generally speaking, digital agencies have an attitude and it creates friction. My first objective is to get rid of the friction because that is counterproductive to my cause.
A: You said earlier that this is the client’s fault.
SAH: Absolutely, because the clients decide who does what. It is their call. If the client says there is going to be only one brand custodian, then that is the call. The digital agency will have to do what the client says; otherwise, they will be fired. However, if the client does not understand the importance of brand custodianship and goes from agency to agency for ideas, this will result in a singular consumer being exposed to too many different ideas along different touchpoints. At the end of the day, once we strip away all the complexities, what is advertising? Advertising is about message retention. The core objective of advertising is to have a message retained in a very cluttered environment and you cannot achieve that with multiple messages floating around at every touchpoint.
A: What about the tendency among clients to adopt a project-based approach, whereby each piece of the brand communication is subject to a new pitch?
SAH: It is extremely counterproductive. Let me give you the example I give to clients. I consult a doctor because I have a bad cough. Now, the doctor needs to understand the reason behind why I am coughing, and there could be multiple reasons, and I need to let him do his job. He tries something and it does not work. In this scenario, there are two options. Change the doctor, which is a stupid thing to do, because the other doctor has to start from zero. Or stick with the first doctor, let him make mistakes – and then grow with the ‘brand’. This is extremely important. The younger generation of marketers doesn’t have the patience. They don’t understand the importance of letting people make mistakes; everything has to be perfect every time. It doesn’t happen that way in real life. The result of this mindset is that there is no ownership of the brand.
A: So you are not in favour of project-based work?
SAH: Not unless it is handled in an intelligent way – external parties are hired on a project basis, but the brand custodian sits on top, which is usually the creative agency, and it should be the creative agency.
A: Yet, according to many creative agencies, this is not the way it is handled.
SAH: The bigger brands are not doing it; it is the smaller brands that don’t understand how systems work that do this. You will not see a well-established brand with an intelligent marketing team making this mistake. Yes, certain things can be project-based and clients have the right to do that. If their creative team is unable to come up with an exciting activation idea, they have the option of changing the agency, but if they feel that their creative agency is a good custodian and it is just their lack of activation experience that is the problem, they can outsource this. However, there are two ways to do this. Completely cut the agency out of the equation and randomly select an activation idea from a pitch and go with it. Or involve the creative agency and let them pick the idea that is most in sync with the overall brand message – and everyone is happy. Every agency is not good at everything. A lot of creative agencies are not good at digital. Digital requires long-term commitment and it rarely happens that digital is outsourced on a project basis because digital constantly requires coming up with something new, posting it and following up. Project-based work is high in activation because once the activation is done, it is done. There is no requirement that the next activation be linked to the first one.
A: Do you feel that client procurement departments are becoming too involved in the marketing decision making process in terms of the services they hire?
SAH: Struggling with procurement departments has always been a fact and it is the marketing team’s job to fight against this. Finance people do not understand marketing concepts. In fact, they do not understand the point of marketing; they don’t understand the fact that even if the brand is good, you have to go out there and tell that to the consumers. The brands I worked on all had procurement departments that wanted to go for the cheapest option, but their marketing people were fierce in their resistance. They would fight both ends. They would fight with their agencies to bring their rates down – and to some extent fulfil procurement’s requirements – and then they would go back to procurement and say the agencies have done their best, so what if there is a difference of Rs 200,000? It is the better delivery. Weak marketers don’t fight procurement.
A: Do you think the so-called seth-owned companies are more volatile in their approach to their creative agencies?
SAH: I absolutely disagree with this. I think the most intelligent person in a company is usually the seth, because all the rest are employees. It is the seth who is invested in the brand. Every time I have had access to the seth and put forward my case intelligently, I have never had him not understand or say don’t do this. If you have intelligent people, either on brand or the agency side, who are able to have a dialogue with the seth, you will always get the result.
A: Yet, it is a common complaint among creative agencies that their best creative ideas are shot down by clients.
SAH: If this happens, firstly, it is because the person making the pitch is not good at his job; he is not able to convince the client that the idea is good for the brand. Secondly, he has been unable to establish a relationship with the client. My modus operandi involved putting forward a good proposal to my clients. If they counter it, my response would be to say: “If you do A, you will get X results and if you do B, you will get Y results.” You need people with conviction and faith in their own ideas and the confidence to say “this will work and this will not.” One cannot blame the brand team for poor creativity because at the end of the day the fact is that the agency was unable to sell the idea. Agencies think that they are extremely entitled because they are the brand’s custodians. No, the people who are most invested in the brand are the clients and it is the agency’s job to convince their clients that their idea is the right one. Agencies have to win their clients’ hearts every time.
Syed Amir Haleem was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org