In conversation with: Tahaab Rais, Regional Head of Strategic Planning, FP7

27th June 2016

Tahaab is one of the most respected planners in the industry with 10+ years’ experience working at agencies such as J. Walter Thompson and FP7. As Regional Head of Strategic Planning for FP7 it was fascinating and hugely insightful to listen to his views on the creative industry, the problems it is facing and where the main opportunities lie moving forward.

 

What are the main creative opportunities you identify in the Mena region?

Individually, as agencies in the region we are like primates that stumble. Together, we are primates that can fly! The creative threat for us is in choosing between advertising or media, or digital agencies or tech giants, or contemplating who’s superior. Creativity shouldn’t replace the analytical thinking and solutions that creative agencies get from their media and technology partners. Rather, it should give them a bigger playground by opening up new perspectives and new worlds.

Hence, I have immense belief and faith in the creative opportunity we have before us thanks to the collaboration and combination of agencies working together in our region and creating ecosystems. We need to adopt a renaissance-like attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that our region and the world didn’t know it was missing. We have an opportunity to create a renaissance of our own. And brands need to buy into this approach as well and empower us to work together.

 

Is the negative forecast affecting the level of creativity or just the investment in creativity?

It is affecting the investment in creativity. 100%. And it’s wrong. To paraphrase Henry Ford, “A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops the clock to save time.” What’s the one thing on our planet that can’t be replicated or improved or replaced via technology? What’s our final holdout against the machines when a version of The Terminator’s Skynet emerges to make us redundant? What’s the one thing we’ve got that Big Data will never match? It’s creativity. And it will remain the only way for our industry to survive and thrive. It isn’t simply a word that’s applauded at award festivals; it’s problem solving at the highest level. And by creativity, I don’t mean ads. Ads won’t solve those really hard problems that our brands will face in an uncertain tomorrow. Bigger creative solutions will.

An old ex-Royal Danish Air Force Gulfstream III airplane was highly modified with containment systems to transport sick Ebola victims over long distances from Africa to the United States. Justin Trudeau used his Christmas address to urge fellow Canadians to warmly welcome refugees. He did so himself, making the now-famous “You are home” statement and setting an example for world leaders. In the previous recession in the United States, Hyundai created the Hyundai Assurance Program, which encouraged Americans to buy a new car, with the assurance that the car-maker would buy the vehicle back from them if they lost their job and couldn’t make payments. Look at some of the most-awarded ideas too. Samsung’s “Life-Saving Truck”. P&G’s “#LikeAGirl”. Volvo’s “Life Paint”. Talwar Bindi’s “Life-Saving Dot”. Domino’s “Ordering Emoji” and Lockheed Martin’s “Mission to Mars” which as an idea can revolutionize education. These are all creative ideas, at their finest.

So creativity has a lot going for it, despite a lot rising against it! The agencies and talents with a distinctive point of view about what they do will help their brands find and deliver a meaningful role in people’s lives. As a result, more people will accept those brands in their own lives and also expect more out of them. This will make creativity more imperative and creative agencies more needed. Hence, we have a choice. We can choose to blend in and be replaced or we can stand out and be irreplaceable by creating ideas that’ll make our brands – and what they offer – irreplaceable. Hence, making what we offer irreplaceable and our product worth paying for.

 

Are more of your clients investing in creative digital solutions?

It is imperative and they all are. We are living in a digital world and frankly, we shouldn’t even label them creative digital solutions; just creative ideas that take different forms on, primarily relying on digital.

Where the marketers of our world need to get smarter is in what they do that’s transformational to their business through digital and technology – communications, channels and media are key but they are only a part of the business. Digital needs be at the core of brands’ business transformation and brands need to be bolder in allocating part of their channeling budgets as an organization towards digital R&D and digital product development (banks and telcos have begun doing that; FMCGs are behind), towards experimentation (and the risk of failure), towards start-up like turnaround times in new products and experiences for people, and of course, towards keeping a good 10% of marketing and creative budgets aside for the unknowns – things they don’t know about and things we as agencies don’t know about! That’s where the magic will happen.

 

Is there enough creative talent to work in the region or do you still feel the need to bring talent from abroad?

If we talk about traditional creative talent, agencies do get by with local as well as imported talent who currently work across the region. We have enough talent to continue creating creativity the way we have done thus far.

But if we put our hand on our hearts and talk about creative talent for the future that we are living and competing in today – innovative products and solutions that are transformational (tech and non-tech), experiential ideas, content marketing and entertainment – then the answer is “No, we don’t.” And by creative talent, I don’t just mean creative directors or writers or art directors. I also imply strategists, content marketers and technologists. We have some way to go!

But there is potential. And it needs to be nurtured by us – today. There is potential in the youth and start-ups who need to be energized by our intent when it comes to our creativity – we don’t make advertising, we make creative solutions that impact lives. There is also potential in existing stars (seniors and juniors) across our agencies who need to be given the opportunities to learn, to fail, to travel, to cross-pollinate and be augmented with the skills needed. And of course, we always access to importing qualified experts (filtering out the pseudo-intellectual and theoretical kinds to actually pick the ones who roll their sleeves up and make things happen) from abroad and giving them an environment and the freedom to thrive. And build things their way.

 

When you bring creative talent from abroad, do you think they struggle with the different creative culture or creativity is a global language?

A great creative mind should succeed anywhere in the world. But, a creative mind also needs to constantly learn, adapt and feed itself – because the reality is that we are in the business of working with people and creating work that influences and shapes culture. So, being able to understand people and get the culture of the region one is working in and working for, is key to succeeding especially in a region as diverse and exhaustingly astonishing as MENA!

We have to be curious and open to the culture we are living with and people we are living with. I was a creative talent from abroad. And it took me all of a couple of months to get completely entrenched into a culture that was seemingly alien to me and a set of people whom I hadn’t interacted with much before in 20 years of my life! In every market that I travelled across MENA during my days exploring this region as a newbie, I made sure to meet locals, go people-watching after work in the evenings, eat the local food, sit on the streets, speak with their taxi drivers, understand their language, buy their books, follow trends, watch great work done that had worked with real people on the streets. I gave myself a self-induction course into the MENA culture.

So when talent does come from abroad, we need to look for the ones who are curious, open-minded, love learning and want to play an additive role to the culture they are working for. And push and support them to bring the best of what they have and take in the best of what the region is offering them and put it all together into a delicious creative tabbouleh or mixed grill (depending on what suits your palate!).

 

We recently had the Lynx and the Cannes Lions awards. Did you notice a creative improvement from last season?

I’m a bit worried! And that worry goes beyond the quality of work winning at the awards. But let me first answer your question: I love award shows when work that has been created for a brand to solve a brand, business or cultural problem wins – but it makes me unhappy to see work created only for awards tending to win more. And the award shows are pretty guilt of that. The sad truth is that often categories at the award shows have always guided the work created by the agencies.

Most from our industry regionally and internationally still seem to love certain categories such as print, radio, design etc. and winning in the same. I’d like to question those winners and know more about the origin of that idea. Did it stem from: “Hey, let’s solve a problem the brand is facing and achieve the results by creating a brilliant print or radio ad” or did it stem from: “Hey, the awards season is coming up so let’s plan some proactive work”. Creativity for art’s sake isn’t why Cannes or Lynx should exist. We’re fooling ourselves We need to be purposeful in our efforts and that purpose should not be to win awards. The result, yes. But not the purpose. If a great piece of print, radio, outdoor or design did make a difference then that should be celebrated. One look at the winners and you’ll know why I’m unhappy!

In the latest BrandZ reports, four of the top five most valuable brands are technology companies: Google, with a brand value of $229bn, Apple ($228bn), Microsoft ($122bn) and Facebook ($103bn). AT&T, valued at $107bn and ranked fourth, is in telecoms. All the brands we have advertised over the year or that have won multiple Cannes Lions for instance, have fallen in the rankings. Look at the greatest places to work that are most desired by the workforce of today and of tomorrow – the above top valued brands feature on top of that list too. Not the brands we typically advertise and win multiple Lions for. And definitely not advertising, media and PR agencies. The honest truth is, regardless of how many Lynx, Lions we win or rankings we rake up (as individuals or as companies), we as an industry remain undesirable to those beyond the areas surrounding the Madinat at Lynx or the Palais in Cannes. And that’s because of the work we do.

The good news and the opportunity is that because of that influence awards have on our people, we can channel our creative talents positively; the categories can get more relevant to where we need to head to as an industry. The categories and a rejig of them can set the tone for the Cannes and the Lynx festivals of the future and the industry of the future. Reduce the irrelevant ones to our time. Make them more forward-thinking. Push us to be uncomfortable and nervous. I, for one, loved the addition of the Creative Data Lions at Cannes. And adored the Entertainment Lions. It’s brilliant because we have so much to learn from entertainment brands. More is needed so we stop hiding behind the glory of print and publishing, radio, design and standard outdoor.

 

Tahaab Rais
Regional Head of Strategic Planning
FP7/MENA (A part of McCann Worldgroup)

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