Lürzer’s Archive finally caught up with Ali Rez, one of the world’s most awarded and well-travelled creative leaders, recently appointed as Chief Creative Officer at IMPACT BBDO for the MENAP region.
L[A] What does your elevation to the CCO role mean day-to-day?
AR The main change is my remit has expanded across the region. There is a goal to elevate the creative work even more than where we are. BBDO Dubai is now world-famous in a lot of rankings, and the desire is to extend that to other offices in our regional network. The dream is that all offices develop to a point where everybody’s creating the best stuff in the world.
L[A] We saw last year and the year before growth in awards going to agencies in the MENA region …
Why is that happening now?
AR I think it’s been there for a while and now more agencies from the region are entering awards. There is genuine appreciation for the fame you generate through winning at shows. Nobody wants to be the one left out. We are in the recognition and media business and so we have to be at the forefront of it.Once the region started winning awards, it started attracting more and better talent, and now there’s a wealth of talent here. This produces even better work, that better work wins more awards, more awards bring even better talent in and it just keeps feeding itself, which is great.
L[A] How do you make it more organic, generating talent in the region?
AR The good thing about – and I’m speaking specifically about Dubai – is that culturally speaking, this is quite the melting pot. I’m speaking from the perspective of somebody who’s lived in San Francisco and New York, very obviously diverse cultural places, but I’ve never seen what I see here. We’ve got more than 45 nationalities in our office. It’s absolutely fantastic.
L[A] How big is the office?
AR We have about 300 people and it’s very diverse. Culturally, everybody speaks English here. Obviously, you gain the knowledge of Arabic as you live here. But if I had to define a culture for the place, I would truly define it as just diverse. Of course, it’s an Arab country and we are in the Middle East, but Dubai itself feels so cosmopolitan culturally and diverse that it’s just hard to pinpoint one thing.
L[A] How do you encourage young creatives to emerge, and creative cultures and strength to develop?
AR It’s really magical to see cross-fertilising happen. You’re in a room and you’re brainstorming, and you’ve got somebody from Mexico and somebody from New Zealand and somebody from India and Lebanon and the UAE. And everybody approaches a problem from a very different perspective, and they bring a different kind of an insight to it. It’s the opposite of an echo chamber.
L[A] How did you start your journey into and through creativity?
AR I was always into drawing and art as a kid, but for some reason started taking up science. I was studying physics at uni but during my final exams I decided not to pursue it! [Laughter]. There and then I sketched the examiner’s face on my exam paper and I handed it in to him and he was just, as you can imagine, shocked. I went home and told my parents: “I don’t want to do this, I want to pursue art.” Credit to them, they were like: “Sure. I mean, you walked out of your paper anyway, so I guess there’s no turning back here!” Bridges burnt and all.Then I joined an art school, I found an internship at a local ad agency at a young age, and it was just never looking back.
L[A] That was where?
AR Pakistan initially. Then I went to the US, continued art school there, graduated, found a job immediately and have worked in advertising ever since. How I came to BBDO is a story, too. I was freelancing at that time and I had an idea that I wanted to create. So I took it to a couple of people but they said, no, it was too risky and bold for them to do. Then I took it to somebody I knew at BBDO in Pakistan and, true to the BBDO spirit, they said: “Sure. We’ll help make this happen.” They did and that idea became very famous and won a couple of Gold Lions, just out of nowhere. Then I got a call from the CEO at BBDO and he said: “Why aren’t you working for us?” And that was that.
L[A] That work was … ?
AR The project was called Not a Bug Splat. It was a poster campaign we did against drone strikes in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan that were killing civilians, especially children. The problem that for a drone operator thousands of miles away, the people on the ground were nothing but anonymous dots, making the kill process completely devoid of emotion. So we printed really large portraits of children and put them in positions where a drone camera would see the face of a child, not just a little tiny dot. It was very impactful — even drone operators spoke up for the campaign. That was about eight years ago.
L[A] Can you give us some of the other highlights in your personal journey, or in the broader work of BBDO while you’ve been with the group?
AR From a people perspective, I’ve been fortunate to have really amazing people to have connected with here. People make the place, of course. I find myself blessed that this is a place where our CEO and Chairman Dani Richa comes from a creative background. He knows the value of really good creative, he pushes for big thinking, and he backs you up all the way. That trickles down into all the leadership through the region. Everybody understands the value of that, that the creative product is everything. And the previous CCO that was here, Paul Shearer, I learned a lot from too. Everybody has been really kind here. I think there’s a cultural value of that kindness towards each other, and everybody knows that you’re here to do good work and be good to each other.
L[A] That’s terrific.
AR Workwise, the icons… there are a few things. For example, I find myself fortunate to be involved with a client that is the newspaper in Lebanon called An-Nahar. They are incredible. Not only as a brand partner but just as somebody who’s out there to influence culture positively in Lebanon and fight the good fight. They’re fearless. Every time we do something for them, they expect something that’s risky. “Unless you’re scared of it, it’s not going to be that great” is the attitude.
With them we did a wonderful project this year which picked up a Yellow Pencil at D&AD, the only one for this region this year, then followed up with a Grand Prix at Cannes. It was called the Elections Edition. It’s a spectacularly bold move. The Lebanese government was talking about how they might have to delay the elections in Lebanon because there was a shortage of paper and ink to print voting ballots. So An-Nahar stepped in and said: “Ok, we’re going to launch a special Elections Edition which is not going to be printed.” They shut the press and they sent all the paper and ink that was going to be used for that to the elections commission instead. The message was clear: ”Now you don’t have an excuse.” To have a newspaper not print their daily edition, that’s a big sacrifice. And that’s the thing with An-Nahar: they are in it for the greater good. The moment we took the idea to them, they said, “Absolutely. We’ll do this,” and they did it within one week. They’re one of the biggest papers in the region, I can’t think of another paper at that level that would completely shut down their operations for a day.
L[A] What are the big challenges then for the agency and for the region at this time?
AR The challenge for us is always the same. We’re in a region that — even though the UAE and some of the other markets are stabilized — has places around it that are volatile. A slight shift affects us. So one thing we have to do is always be ready to adapt and pivot. How we handled the pandemic here was a good indication of how quickly we can manoeuvre.The other challenge that I would personally love to see — and it’s started to happen — is for global work to get generated out of here, out of the region, rather than the other way around. As we like to say: “We’re a global agency even if we’re in Dubai.” We have done that with some regional clients as well.
L[A] Any specific examples?
AR One example is on Seven-Up. The Pakistan market did really well with a Foodies strategic platform we built and then the model was so successful for them that they took it to many other markets — in APAC, in Europe – and it started from that particular spot. Another good example you may be familiar with is the Lay’s smiling face packaging that came out of Egypt. That became a global packaging standard for them.
L[A] As the CCO, you are incredibly influential but also slightly less hands on than you were when you were coming up the ladder. How do you now make your influence felt and know what’s going on? I guess I am asking: how do you do the job?
AR I once worked for a creative director who put it really well, and I use that as a mantra all the time: “I’m not going to be the one to come up with the all the ideas here, but I’d like to be the one that creates the environment that generates the best ideas.” I need to create an environment to support that. One vital thing is to understand everybody’s purpose, and I keep asking that of everybody on my team. If I’m bringing somebody new on the team, that’s the first thing I want to understand: what is your purpose and what do you want to achieve? It’s that purpose — if you keep reminding people of why they came into the business — that will elevate their work. I think a lot of times, the daily grind can distract... this is a business of rejection, let’s be honest. Advertising has always been a business of rejection. Out of the 10 things that you present, nine things get rejected, and one thing gets produced. You just have to make sure that that one thing that gets produced is something that you’re really proud of. You need to deflect all this other stuff that happens and help the focus on that purpose that brought people into the business. If you can give people that confidence that they can achieve it, then it truly does magic.
L[A] We are living in interesting times for ‘brand purpose’. Today, it seems that we know to be talked about, for a brand to have a meaningful role in the world, you have to have a lot more depth to what you say.
AR Yeah, I think that’s very fair. You’re spot on. Even when I started, there was a very distinct division between the work you’re doing to generate commerce and what used to go up to ‘special purposes’. I have a book from Saatchi that’s called Social Work that was just a different process of work for the agency.In the past you might say: ”OK, we’ll favour this cause and then we’ll make a specific ad for that.” But now I think the line’s just evaporated. Last year we had to launch a product for our client Tena, which was incontinence pads for women approaching menopause. The launch project, which is commercial in nature because obviously, it’s a business, became a social cause because it attacked this quirky but insightful cultural problem. And that is that in Arabic, the term for menopause was the ‘Age of Despair’.
L[A] That’s heavy.
AR Exactly, this idea that you can come to a place where a woman’s usefulness is done when she’s approaching menopause! We reached out to all the women we could in the region and said: “Time to change this. What do you think menopause stands for? And you get to call it whatever you want to call it!” Of course, we had thousands of responses. The term got changed to ‘Age of Renewal’.
We had a dictionary change it. Of course, TENA sales did really well too. That’s a perfect example of brand purpose. In order to sell the product, we had to do something as a movement that is positive for the culture. And I think we’ll just keep seeing more and more of that.
L[A] It’s exciting that we now put more significance, take more responsibility, around the fact that this industry has huge influence on values. It’s not changing behavior simply to help commercial success but changing behavior that helps change society.
AR Absolutely. I was reading somewhere that by 2030, about 90% of advertising will be ‘green’… it will be socially focused. Advertising must become more responsible and be involved in really solving the problems.
L[A] What inspires you personally? What do you do when you’re not at work?
AR I spend a lot of time with my son who’s approaching six now. It’s a wonderful age because it’s an age of total curiosity. I love that reminder on a daily basis that it’s really awesome to just question things. It’s great to be unafraid of trying to build something that might collapse… you’ll just build it again. There is a certain fearlessness when a child approaches a task.In my personal time, I mountain-bike a lot. I’m into cycling generally but especially mountain biking, and it teaches you a lot of things. It’s good for the adrenalin too. Mountain biking is a lot about overcoming your fears. Every time you do a difficult slope downhill, you want to do a more difficult one because you get bored otherwise. You just keep pushing yourself up the level of risk-taking. It’s a great confidence builder.
L[A] And cultural influences …?
AR I’m what you call a third culture kid. I was brought up in several different countries when I was growing up. My father was an aviator and a diplomat, so we lived in various places around the Middle East. I grew up in China, so we traveled around the Far East a lot – Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong. I went to international schools where I met people from different cultures. It teaches you firsthand that there is a world outside your own world, that there’s so much more to explore. Even now, I dislike going back to the same place I’ve been before. I always tend to look for newer places to go to.
L[A] You have visited many countries. Are you keeping count?
L[A] How many in total are there?
AR It depends on who you ask. I have 210 on my list, the UN has 193, so I’ve a few extra ones.
L[A] Is there a big objective?
AR Yes, to get to 210 one day.
L[A] Is there a particular country, a priority, that for some reason you haven’t yet reached but is high on your list to go to next?
AR Yes, there are a bunch. I am going to one this summer that I’ve been meaning to go for ages, Panama. I’ve always wanted to see the canal as I have always been into engineering. The other one I get dinged on with “Oh, you haven’t been there?” is Nepal. I haven’t been there because it’s the kind of country you want to spend a long time in. But my brain, the way it computes, asks: “Should I spend 10 days there or should I go to three countries in those 10 days in…?”
L[A] This year, among other things, you were a juror at Cannes in 2022 and the Jury Chair of Cresta Awards. What’s the value of creative awards?
AR The value of creative awards is that it forces you to do better work. And by “better” I mean not only better than everybody else out there but better than what you yourself were doing. You’ve done one great piece of work, how are you going to beat that next year? You need to know that everybody else is producing better and better work every year. Every year, the standard gets slightly higher, and you get to see a little bit of where things are headed in the future. Taking part in awards disciplines you to really put your heart into your work.
L[A] If you weren’t doing what you do today, what different role would you like?
AR The one thing that I’m very tempted to start learning is to be a pilot, I’d love to do that.
L[A] What kind of pilot?
AR Oh, the big planes.
L[A] … not a Top Gun Maverick role?
AR No! The big plane, probably a commercial pilot. It would be a dream to be flying all over. I think that is a remnant from my childhood because I was constantly on a plane. Even now, I sleep best on a plane.
L[A] That is your natural state?
AR That’s my natural state.