VMLY&R COMMERCE Dubai’s senior bilingual copywriter on finding the “twist” that makes all the difference and showing the audience why they should care, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani
Ahmed Samir Salama, a senior bilingual copywriter at VMLY&R Commerce Dubai, has always had a passion for literature and music — so much so that he made it a point to turn it into a career.
As a copywriter, it was only natural that Ahmed started reading and writing stories at a young age, “And in many ways, I still am. I never stopped,” he says. With a passion for all things words, as a child, he befriended his school librarian, taking out books on several subjects. He says, “You can’t write if you don’t read, and I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember.” But that wasn’t Ahmed’s only passion, gaming was a big part of his childhood. “I belong to the generation that was lucky enough to witness the tail-end of the PlayStation 1 era and every console after it, which in gaming terms means you’ve witnessed gaming go from being a niche interest to a global phenomenon,” he says. To make his journey even more surreal, Ahmed has had the chance to work on advertising the PlayStation 5, “even launching it in Egypt!” Reflecting on this, he says, “It’s funny how these things go.”
“I’m a third culture kid, proud Egyptian, outspoken Arab, and a devout lover of cultures,” says Ahmed about his background and how it’s influenced him. He describes being Egyptian as putting him “at very interesting crossroads” as he’s grown into a culture that has both influenced and been influenced by worldwide events. He says, “Did you know that World War 2 was partially fought on Egyptian soil? It was the first major Nazi defeat in the war and led to the German retreat from North Africa.” Alongside his heritage, Ahmed grew up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, making him what he describes as “a melting pot of cultures,” with friends from around the globe, which has given him “cultural sensitivity and understanding.”
“I think I’ve grown into an extrovert with an introvert’s sensibilities,” says Ahmed when describing his personality, he likens it to “a Pokemon evolving.” While he says he will never lose the “introspective, empathetic introvert” side of his personality, it now features more in the background, while the energetic side shines. Currently based in Dubai, Ahmed didn’t study for a career in advertising; instead, he took up journalism and mass communication, working as a journalist for two years before finding his way into the industry. “My first agency job was in a regional social media agency, after which I joined BBDO for about three and a half years, then my latest and most exciting stint so far, VMLY&R Commerce.” Describing his journey into the industry as “entirely accidental,” a friend and former colleague recommended him as her replacement and Ahmed went for the interview. As he puts it, “the rest is history.”
Once in the world of advertising, Ahmed learnt by doing things, working on “incredible projects with amazing people.” From his experience on the job, he learnt a valuable lesson from one of the creative directors he was working with, “[he] would always ask me: ‘What’s the twist? What’s the twist?’ and what he was really asking is, ‘Why should I care?’” Ahmed takes this with him on every project now as he asks why people should care and how he can shake them out of their apathy. “The ‘twist’ is what makes an okay idea, great.” He continues to champion this attitude and hone it with his motto “Keep reading, keep listening, keep watching.”
The moment Ahmed felt like things had changed was the first time he wrote a song for an ad. “It was a Black Friday song for Jumia (Egypt market), and I did it as a freelance job. I didn’t know it at the time, but that ad would launch me into a completely different trajectory advertising-wise. I started digging deeper into the intersections between advertising and culture, and making ads that people actually like.” This turning point was significant as he found some advice which really spoke to him and gave him a goal for the work he was creating. “There's this quote that goes, ‘Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad.’”
Part of Ahmed’s job is the joy he finds within his work, which he narrows down to two main things; enjoying writing and seeing his work come to life. “I actually enjoy writing, so it very often doesn’t feel like work at all. And that's a lucky place to be in; to love what you do so much that it taxes you (positively), but doesn't drain you,” Ahmed continues, “And seeing the work come to life. It’s one thing to write a script and imagine it in your head — but then you see it come to life on set and it’s surreal. It's almost unbelievable — you mean the stuff I thought of is actually going to become reality? No way. I still get excited on set like it’s the first time.”
For Ahmed, keeping on the edge of creativity and constant learning are the biggest challenges of the job, “Just like you can’t write without reading, you can’t advertise (or advertise well) without having a kaleidoscopic view of the industry and the creativity going around.” While he wants to create work that changes people's lives, Ahmed also wants to create memorable pieces which stand the test of time, “A song that you keep humming. An ad that makes you laugh your heart out. A campaign that makes you go: “Woah! That’s smart”. Stuff that makes people want to share it.”
Reflecting on his experience so far, there’s something in particular that gets Ahmed riled up, and that comes from the perspective of translation. “Too many clients and agencies have fallen into the trap of thinking English first, then translating towards the end of the journey. And you can always tell when work is just a translation because it has no soul (or just sounds off),” he says. Ahmed urges people to understand that Arabic copywriting is not “an exercise in translation” but a conceptualisation that should be given its time to shine.
Important to Ahmed is his work relationships, which he actively makes an effort to foster. He also values the balance between work and his personal life, “giving is a two-way street, and people with little work-life balance will inevitably burn out and have nothing left to give.” Part of this attitude comes from the people he looks up to in the industry, which are “too many names to mention.” He says, “the question of ‘who’ is far less important than the ‘why’ and here’s why, they’re all sincere professionals who’ve established a reputation for taking risks and doing work that's authentic, real, daring, and memorable.”
When not at his desk, Ahmed has several ways he relaxes and unwinds. “I love travelling, music, and food. An incredible trip is one where I get to do all three,” he says, and continues, “Film. Literature. Language. Psychology. Mythology — especially the Ancient Egyptian.” While consuming a vast renege of media, hip-hop culture is the one that stands out as significant in his life, “It really speaks to me — there's something incredibly raw and honest about hip-hop that's rarely conveyed in other genres. On the American side, I love J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, and outside of North Africa, I love Egyptian rappers Abo El Anwar and Wegz.” Music-related projects are always on the backburner for Ahmed, as well as voiceovers, which he continues to hone.
When it comes to what motivates him, Ahmed says, “Sincerity and being authentic to who you are.”
He continues, “If I look back on everything I've done (advertising-wise and not), it's always been the sincere stuff that wins. People are much smarter than you think — and their gut feelings, doubly so. So my mantra became, ‘Say what you mean — mean what you say.’
“If I'm selling a piece of work, I sell with heart — so I try to only go with something I believe in. And people pick up on that energy.
“In fact, let's go one step earlier: as early as the first brainstorm, you must approach the ideation with sincerity. Work that's honest sells itself because people instinctively separate the wheat from the cliched chaff.”