5 Minutes With…
Sept. 12, 2012, 5:25 p.m. by LBB Editorial
5 Minutes With… Amir KassaeiChief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide
In the last 16 months, DDB Worldwide’s creative chief has visited every one of the network’s offices. But then that’s just the kind of relentless obsession that we’ve come to expect from Amir Kassaei. After all, you don’t become one of the youngest CCOs in Europe by dawdling. We caught up with the outspoken Kassaei to talk about reinventing advertising and the legacy of Bill Bernbach.
LBB> Could you tell us what makes DDB so special and unique, but also about bringing back some of Bill Bernbach’s (founder of DDB) philosophies?
AK> The whole purpose of the company when it was founded back in the 1950s, was that there were three people who wanted to change the world for the better.
Being an agency that has been involved in reinventing advertising means we have a tradition of being the inventors of the creative revolution. That helps a lot. Our mission, in the upcoming years, is to use this legacy, not in terms of looking backwards but translating it into a new age. We need to focus on the right things and forget about a lot of stuff that is not really related to our mainstay.
LBB> You have said that DDB’s strength lies in the idea of being bold and brave and having amazing solutions, creativity and intelligence and aiding business problems…
AK> The whole idea of how we redefine advertising or the role of an agency dates back to the 1950s. It was always about creating relevant data for our clients, products and brands. That is our speciality now and in the future. I don’t believe that the purpose of an advertising agency has changed. The only thing that is changing is the playground that you work on and all the different tools that you have.
We have a special responsibility at DDB, in terms of being at the forefront of the industry. As I said, being bold and courageous means that you have to have certain values. So it’s a different game being at DDB rather than another company because of the heritage that we have.
LBB> Following on from heritage is the idea of loyalty. For example, it is amazing that a client such as Volkswagen stays with one agency for so long. You repeatedly have members of staff that leave over a period of time and they always come back. People have spoken before about the ‘DDB family’, and even you have been with the agency for a very long time. What is it about DDB that spurs this type of loyalty?
AK> That is one of the fundamental criteria at DDB, in terms of the structure and how we hire people. We want talented people, but we also want nice people. The combination of the two makes for very great people. That’s the reason we have this wonderful family feeling. It makes DDB a special place.
But you have to work at it every day. It doesn’t take care of itself. You have to give the people the feeling that we are a special place everyday. It is like a relationship – you have to work to make a relationship function.
LBB> At 33 years of age, you were one of the youngest CCOs in Europe, ever. Could you tell me about how you got into the industry and how you have ended up where you are now?
AK> It was an accident. However I have done almost every job there is to have in advertising – account manager, strategic planner, art director, designer. I started as a planner, moved on to accounts and then I decided to become a creative. I think that having that kind of spectrum helps a lot.
I love what I am doing – I think that advertising is one of the most amazing industries. If I could be 20 again, I would definitely go back into advertising. It is one big learning process and you always have challenges to overcome. You need to pick a lot of skills that can’t be learned elsewhere. It is also amazing to be doing something different everyday. I am the kind of person who is not often satisfied with settling somewhere. I always want to have a challenge and to be able to change things for the better.
LBB> You have won a lot of awards and sat on a lot of juries. How important are awards to DDB? Especially in light of your recent criticism of Cannes 2012…
AK> Our main goal is not to win awards. I think winning awards only proves that you are capable of winning awards.
LBB> Your list of previous awards is ridiculous, there are so many.
AK> Yes, but how long your list of awards is doesn’t determine how good you are as a creative. I think the main purpose of an advertising creative is to find an intelligent way of solving business problems for a client, and if you are doing that in a suitable way that wins respect of the industry through awards, that is fine. But I think it is wrong for everything to win awards.
Regarding my views on Cannes this year, I think everybody in this industry should be careful and not forget the integrity and the responsibility that we have. If it is not about ideas but about politics, we end up portraying the wrong side of the industry, especially to the young generation. I believe that we need to be careful of this in the coming years to make sure that Cannes, as the world stage and the highest talent, doesn’t lose its edge and quality due to political games happening in the background. The responsibility of a jury member is to search and find the best candidate from the entries because they are the examples needed to show great work in advertising, regardless of the agency or client the work comes from.
LBB> You are the Spikes print, outdoor, TV and radio jury President and DDB has just sent you to Shanghai, is that correct?
AK> Yes, I spend 30 per cent of my time in Shanghai. We want to have the same kind of quality of communication and marketing in Asia that we have with the West. We are also working on educating the local talent.
LBB> Could you expand on working in China a little bit more and the possible risks involved with it?
AK> I think that China will dominate the world because of the simple fact of its size and population. I think it will be the centre of the world economically, but also in terms of the new development stage that they are entering. Over the past 20 years they were trying to catch up with the West, whereas they are now innovating and creating – it is set to be an amazing period of time just coming up. They have huge resources – if they want to achieve something they can do it. They are building highways in ten days, building an international airport in half a year. It’s insane.
LBB> You were born in Iran, raised in Austria, educated in France, you now live in New York. Where do you call home?
AK> It’s not a place, it’s a feeling. I am a lifetime refugee. I think this attitude is a good thing, in a global job like mine. I have to constantly adapt to the local cultures and it’s easy for me. I can be at home anywhere. It’s a tough life because you are always jet lagged and living out of a bag, sitting in airports. But that’s the only way you can do that job. If you take the job seriously it’s not about preaching it’s about walking the talk.
LBB> DDB is vast and the volume of work you do is huge. How do you remain involved and aware?
AK> Over the last 16 months I have visited every DDB office. There are more than 200 of them, and I was in every single one. You have to understand where you stand if you want to push the organisation forward. You have to make sure you have the right structure and the right people in the right places. It is about being there where the help is needed. My job is to be the service guy of the network. My job is to build the infrastructure and tools to unleash the potential of the people who run the offices. It’s difficult, but if you don’t enjoy the pain you shouldn’t do it?
LBB> Are you still involved creatively?
AK> Yes, but not in the way that I used to be. I still try to devote ten per cent of my time to it. From time to time, if there’s a need, I will step in and do the campaigns myself, especially for Volkswagen. I think it’s good to do that because your brain stays fresh and you trying to keep up-to-date, but the job far from the pure essence of daily development.
LBB> A lot of people have criticised agencies for creating their own brands and products in-house, saying it’s just a PR stunt, whereas others argue that its innovative. What are your thoughts on agency becoming client in that respect?
AK> DDB has always been about finding a relevant truth or creating a relevant truth. If you have a product which is not relevant you have to change something about it, and you cannot always solve the problem with a communications solution. It means that you have to think about product development, distribution strategies, and so on. So it has always been the job of an advertising agency, to think about things in this way. I don’t think there is something wrong with it – the question is: are you doing it because you believe in it or are you doing it to be funky? There’s a big difference.
If you go to New York and sit in the old office of Bill Bernbach, which is holy ground, you will see the original DDB presentation to Volkswagen back in 1958. The title is ‘How to Sell a Nazi Car to the Jewish Manhattan’ – it was about creating relevance. It was not about advertising. It was about ‘there’s a huge problem with the product that it is not relevant to the target group, what shall I do with it?’. Back then the solution was an advertising idea, but today the possibilities are endless. In a broad sense that should be the aim of any advertising agency, but you have to live it.
A lot of people are trying to do, but they don’t believe it.
LBB> Spikes is next week – can you talk to us about what you hope to see while you’re out in Singapore?
AK> I think the special thing about Spikes is that it only features ideas coming out of the Asia-Pac region. The special responsibility of the jury members is to really look at the work and to choose the milestones which will give strong signals to the industry in Asia about where they should aim to develop themselves and what they should learn from Western standards – and what they shouldn’t. They need to find their own voice. I don’t believe that Asia should copy the West; they should find their own way.
I hope that I will see lots of Asian creativity, especially from countries like China, India and Singapore. These countries are known for their great creative standards, but the work is still very Asian. You can feel it and see it.
LBB> In the last 12 months has there been any work that’s come out of DDB that’s really resonated with you?
AK> There are some really great pieces of work from the last 10 or 12 months, and it’s coming from all over the globe. We are doing a lot of great advertising ideas, ‘finding the relevant truth’. What I’m looking for over the next couple of years, is for us to become known not only as a very creative ad agency but also a very innovative company.
LBB> Can you talk to me a bit about the merger with Adam & Eve in London? A lot of people were quite surprised and didn’t really know what was going on.
AK> DDB in London was always something of a flagship in terms of creative work and it has a very important strategic role because a lot of the multinational and global brands have their headquarters in the English market. The challenge that we had was to develop the agency and bring it to the next level. We thought Adam & Eve was a great fit because there was a lot that we could learn from them. The first signs of combining the culture and ways of working are very promising.
LBB> You’ve also talked about responsibility. It’s something we’re seeing with the D&AD’s White Pencil, Cannes has the ‘Chimera’ project and the One Show has the Green Pencil. What you thought about the influence the industry has and how the industry can change things?
AK> That’s something that’s easy at DDB because the idea behind the company was that if you use your creative talent and the right insight you can change the world for the better. That was always the purpose of the company – for us it’s easy to say we can use our creative talent to make a difference and shape society in the right way. It’s a special responsibility, not only in the stuff we are doing in terms of social space, but any work that we do for a brand or a product. But again it’s something you have to live every day and it shouldn’t just be a marketing trend that sounds great.
LBB> Do you love what you do?
AK> Yeah, otherwise I couldn’t do it. Life is too short to waste it on the stuff that you are not really dedicated to. I’m an obsessed guy. I’m a fatalistic guy because either I will do something completely with everything I have to give or I’m leaving.
I’m still loving it. I’ve now had over 20 years in the business and its one of the most exciting and interesting categories of work. But we have to remind the young people again about the exciting element of the industry. A lot of them don’t think advertising is as sexy as I used to, so we have to change that perspective.
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