J. Walter Thompson’s Gulf CEO on the industry’s creative DNA, fixing the client-agency relationship and why talent is more important than revenue
Sasan Saeidi really cares about the industry. Like, really cares. He thinks deeply and writes extensively about the challenges facing agencies, the path ahead and why, whatever one’s job role, creativity ought to be cherished.
For over 12 years he’s been based in Dubai, after starting his career in North America. So not only is he helping lead his teams through a time of enormous global change in the industry, he’s also navigating the economic, political and creative shifts happening in the Gulf region.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Sasan to unpick his views on the state of the industry and find out what keeps him going.
LBB> What drew you to the ad industry?
Sasan> I always loved advertising from an early age and grew up with great brand stories. So I guess it was a natural pull factor. But I fell in love with advertising in my first year at uni. I took a couple of Comms 101 courses and did an internship in an ad agency. And I did not want to do anything else from then onwards.
LBB> You started your career in Canada and the US – what was it that that appealed to you about moving to Dubai?
Sasan> I came to Dubai to work on a global piece of business for Saatchi & Saatchi. I was handling P&G in Canada and was part of the North American team that was handling Toyota. There was a need for someone with car experience to join the team here on a pitch. I joined, finished my project and then decided to move back; but we liked the city and what it offered so when BBDO came knocking, I decided to take it up and the rest was history.
I’ve been here for over 12 years now and loved every year of it. Dubai has its challenges like any other market that is a centre for business and trade. It’s busy, it’s intense, it’s fast and all these elements offer both opportunity and tension. But what this city has done during the course of the past 10 years has been nothing but astonishing. And it has been a delight to be able to be part of it.
LBB> What was the best piece of advice that you got when you started your career?
Sasan> I have had excellent mentors in the beginning of my career; and I learnt a lot from them. I have an excellent mentor now in Roy Haddad.
But things that have stuck with me:
Don’t assume anything.
There is always someone better.
Be honest and always treat the client like a friend.
Fight for happiness.
Treat everyone how you want to be treated yourself.
It’s about the people.
LBB> And how has the industry in Dubai changed since you moved there?
Sasan> Dubai remains to be a great hub for creativity today in our region. Its cosmopolitan and balanced society allows for a lot of great talent to choose it as a place of residence and eventually career. This is very much our story in JWT and it’s a great time to be part of this story.
Dubai and the wider region have, of course, experienced growth and maturity in terms of creative excellence and reputation. Today Dubai competes with some of the biggest cities in the world of advertising. This is credit to the industry and the talent that call Dubai home. Keep rocking.
LBB> Dubai’s a place that is home to people from all over the world – what advice do you have for ad folk moving there for the first time?
Sasan> Dubai is a very ambitious city. It’s fast paced. It’s demanding. But it also comes with a lot of opportunities. My advice would be to prepare yourself for a very dynamic but hectic work experience. Like any global market and city that is a hub and crossroad for business, commerce, culture and more… things are always fast and dynamic. It never sleeps; you need to be able to appreciate it and ride the flow. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.
LBB> In your role, you oversee the Gulf region – what makes the creative/advertising industry in the Gulf so distinct?
Sasan> The region is very diverse, rich in resources and culture, extensive in terms of opportunities for growth; but we are also going through some difficult and turbulent times. I am cautiously optimistic that growth will be there and we will continue to experience positive nuances. Of course our creative industry has tremendous opportunity to grow and to further shed light on the region, its talent and its ambition.
LBB> It seems that there is a lot of change happening in the region – I guess most dramatically in Saudi, with the changing economy and burgeoning entertainment sector. How do you characterise those changes and what do they mean for the ad industry?
Sasan> KSA today provides a great opportunity for some of the brightest ideas to come to life and for brands to show innovation with scale. What this means for us - and we are already doing this with JWT KSA - is to create memorable communication that becomes the benchmark of the region.
LBB> Which recent creative projects are your proudest of and why?
Sasan> We are doing a lot of great work with all our clients across markets. And also building some foundations with some. Dubai Holding, Unilever, Zain, Coca Cola, HSBC are all producing work that I am proud of and there is more to come.
LBB> You’re someone with a lot of passion about the industry – I’ve read quite a few of your articles on LinkedIn and I can see that you’re frustrated by some of the changes over recent years with regards to the relationship between client and agency. In an ideal world, what would that relationship look like and do you believe it’s possible for agencies to get to a place where they’re not in such an unequal relationship?
Sasan> I am not talking about anything nobody already knows. Our relationships in general have diminished across the industry. We talk about partnership but seldom apply the essence of what it actually means. Our industry, to a large extent, is being commoditised. But there are both good and bad examples out there. I am hopeful that as the world gets more complicated, the power of creativity and change will be in more demand.
Great ideas are priceless. And great agencies that offer great thinking need to ensure they fight for that respect and ask for it. I think it’s a two way street and brands and marketers will get what they pay for. At the same time we need to understand that not all agencies have helped this cause. We also have a lot of bad work and bad work ethic out there that has not helped the relationship gap with clients. But we do need to speak about it, highlight it and realise that the only way to fix and improve a problem is to admit it exists. Yes, we have a problem, and yes we all need to work at it, and collaboratively improve this gap.
LBB> You’ve got some strong views about how account management people should perceive and approach their roles, to behave more like consultants and to engage in the creativity. How do you work with your teams to make sure that they embrace this mentality?
Sasan> The first point of observation is that we are a creative industry and as creative agencies our DNA, our culture, our people and our product are much different than that of consultancies. I don’t believe we should compete as we do different things. Can we learn from each other? Yes. What I love about the consultancies is the rigour and subject matter expertise that they bring on board from a knowledge front backed by data and facts. I don’t ever think they can replace creative agencies and nor can we become them.
But in terms of account management and what I am pushing to create, it’s about building more business minds that can manage brands like marketers do. Think like consultants and be informative, and then act as creative strategists because that’s what will eventually be the driver and catalyst for change. Today we are going through constant upgrades on this front and we’re ensuring that we adopt more strategy on our day-to-day account management offering than a normal creative agency would.
LBB> These days you’re also quite involved in the International Advertising Association – what does that role entail and why do you enjoy it?
Sasan> I believe that the IAA has a great responsibility towards our industry. The industry includes talent, clients and brands - and we eventually and ultimately effect consumers. So the collective effect is a big one and it’s important to ensure that we are doing all we can when it comes to governance, quality , privacy, originality, effectiveness and more.
IAA can be, should be and must be the global compass of marketing communication. It needs to be that true north for brands, talent and agencies. I believe in this and try very hard to contribute to this mission both globally and regionally. And of course as the IAA we have been very active across one of my personal passion points in the industry: youth and the younger generation. Talent and talent loyalty is the biggest opportunity and challenge we face as an industry. Not revenue. If we don’t have talent, we don’t have revenue.
LBB> I also read a really touching letter you wrote to your younger self – it was so full of wisdom and it seems that you’re someone with a good sense of perspective (something that can be hard to find in the industry!). Looking back, how do you think you’ve navigated the tough times in life and your career?
Sasan> Thank you for the comment… I think the best advice would be to never get disheartened when you don’t get what you want. Sometimes not getting what you want is the best thing that can happen to you. This is something I truly believe today. I also believe that the notion of success is relative, we always need to do the right thing at all costs and care for people.
LBB> Outside of the agency, what do you do to unwind or inspire yourself? Is it important to you to take time to do that?
Sasan> I have to do a better job at that. I have not yet fully grasped the notion of balancing work and life. That’s the truth. I love my work and I love what I do. In the same token spending time with my boys is critically important. For many reasons. Spending time with them keeps my young, keeps me happy, and keeps my fit. And that inspires me.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
Sasan> I don’t think I can do justice to this question by just naming a few as the list is endless due to the fact that heroes are plenty; you just need to define the context.
I love what the Saatchi brothers did for our industry.
I love the mind of Paul Arden.
I love the wit of Bill Bernbach.
I love the advice of George Louis.
I love what J Walter Thompson stood for.
I love the grace of Ogilvy.
I love how Steve Jobs changed our world forever.
I love how Ridley Scott and Spielberg changed storytelling and cinema.
On a personal note I love the values that my parents have passed onto me, so they are my eternal heroes and I’m grateful for their advice, love and guidance.
And Alexander Saeidi is my everyday hero.