Regional Creative Director at BBDO Dubai and Pakistan on the growth in Pakistan, the shocking Child Bride Uniform campaign and riding the Silicon Valley waves
BBDO’s Pakistan office opened its doors in 2012. It’s a new office that has rapidly made an impact with the international advertising circuit. Projects like anti-drone campaign It’s Not a Big Splat from 2014 and this year’s The Bridal Uniform for UN Women have won the agency plaudits – and this summer it was named Ad Stars’ agency of the year.
At the helm is Ali Rez, who is regional creative director at Impact BBDO Middle East and Pakistan, and who splits his time between Lahore and Dubai. After graduating, Ali started his career in San Francisco, spending the years between 2000 and 2010 at agencies like Y&R and Goodby Silverstein – and riding the waves of Silicon Valley have stood him in good stead for making the most of the rapidly evolving market in his native Pakistan.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Ali to find out more about the market in Pakistan and to talk to him about his vision for creative leadership.
LBB> BBDO Pakistan has been doing phenomenally well with the Bridal Uniform this year. What’s the story behind that momentum?
Ali> It’s been a really good year, actually. We’ve won at every festival that we’ve entered. Ad Stars Agency of the Year was pretty amazing, but also Dubai Lynx to get into the top three - that was a huge thing for us. We were relatively much, much smaller than some of the bigger cats in the region, so to be up there amongst them was pretty amazing.
It’s part of a trend that started off a few years ago. We just started off with a mission. Nothing from Pakistan even made the shortlist at Cannes Lions and we set out to change that, and we have, to a large degree. And we’ve started to have that impact on other agencies in Pakistan, so we were delighted at Spikes that another agency won a bronze, Leo Burnett Pakistan. It was really great to see another agency step up to enter work. Now they’re thinking about it and it pushes all the work.
LBB> When you and the team came up with this mission, had there been a lot of changes within the agency to achieve that?
Ali> No, it was a new office that started in Pakistan. BBDO decided to open an office in Lahore just specifically to service PepsiCo. The first couple of years were slow going, but we got a few projects that gained recognition and there was no stopping us. Once we got recognised for the first big project, the network started backing us. The snowball just became bigger and bigger.
LBB> This year the UN Women Child Bride project was a really big one for you, winning two Lions at Cannes and three Golds in the PSA, PR and Promo categories at Ad Stars. How did the project come about?
Ali> UN Women are somebody that we have an open partnership with. They have a list of things that they do address; there are a lot of tension points in the country that they want to address. Last year we did something for domestic violence. This year we wanted to take a different approach and go for the child marriages situation, which is also pretty rough in Pakistan. Next year, we’re doing another item on another tension point for women in Pakistan. Every year we change track a little bit but it is within that area of empowering women in Pakistan and raising awareness of the issues.
LBB> So within the region, Pakistan is sometimes grouped with MENA and sometimes with APAC – practically, what’s the set up?
Ali> It’s odd, because we get both, depending on who you talk to. Sometimes the publications will pair us with the MENA region, sometimes it’s within the APAC region. I think that’s because we work with both sides. There’s stuff we do that runs in the Middle East a lot, and there’s stuff we do that runs all the way in the Far East and translated into Vietnam and Thailand. We’re right on the borderline.
LBB> So you split time between Dubai and Pakistan, how does that work?
Ali> It’s mostly Pakistan but I’m based out of Dubai and I travel back and forth. It’s mostly Pakistan – I enjoy that, it’s a crazy little office that’s doing its own thing big style.
It’s more challenging and it’s more fun. Plus I think there’s more to work with. There’s more freedom to pick the projects that we want to.
Ali Rez and Hira Mohibullah celebrating their victory at Ad Stars
LBB> And what is it about the market in Pakistan that makes it different from any other market you’ve covered in your career?
Ali> Pakistan is an interesting market because it’s developing very rapidly, both in terms of its population growth and the expansion of the middle class and the income coming in – and with technology coming in as well. It’s behind the rest of the world but it’s growing exponentially within. It’s cool to see that it’s happening. I’ll give you one example: consumer spending is phenomenal in Pakistan, it rises every year. It’s one of the few populations that spends half its income on food.
We use those learnings much to the benefit of the brand we work on. Pakistan, for example, has become one of the largest markets for 7Up in the world. It just becomes big that way, it’s a massive population that’s almost 190 million people so it’s a lot to work with. But it’s challenging.
The other side of it is that traditionally Pakistan has had more conservative forms of advertising and it’s still very heavily reliant on broadcast media. Clients are very risk-averse, but it’s slowly changing because they’re seeing that things are evolving and that means that the power is transferring to the viewer, and that means the content needs to get better. It’s starting to happen now; they’re giving more freedom to the advertiser to do more stuff.
LBB> About your own career, you attended college with a Leo Burnett Scholarship – how did that kick start your advertising career?
Ali> I went to art school in the US and Leo Burnett had a scholarship competition where they asked us for our three best ads. And I thought, this sounds interesting. It was a completely open brief – which is the most difficult thing! Anyway, they picked me and they gave me a scholarship and it helped me a lot.
When I graduated I didn’t want to move to Chicago, I wanted to stay in San Francisco. So I went to a few smaller places then I ended up in Y&R.
LBB> Being in San Francisco at that time, given how much it’s changed with the major tech and social media companies, must have been interesting. What did you learn from that?
Ali> Even when I was there, I saw the Dotcom boom happening and, in fact, Adobe was my biggest client when I started at Y&R. Half the week was spent in Silicon Valley. So I saw that Dotcom boom develop and then crash and then the second wave of technology with Sun and Oracle, then it dipped again. I’ve seen those waves happen, but it always had that sentimentality of this is where innovation happens.
LBB> And what led to the decision to move away from the States?
Ali> Oh, family. My mum lives in Pakistan and she lives by herself. So I wanted to come back and I wanted to be close enough to Pakistan. I’ve got that situation where I live in Dubai but I go back and forth. Plus I love being in that region; there’s so much to build. It’s a playground where you get to construct your own devices and playthings, which is an amazing thing as a creative.
LBB> In your role now, creative leadership is a big part of what you do. It’s something that up and coming creatives are often not taught, so how did you learn it?
Ali> I guess just by being around both good and bad leaders. You learn from both. You learn what to do from good leaders but, more importantly, you learn what not to do from bad leaders.
Most of it is taken from personal experience as well. I’m a firm believer that happier creatives create better work and we foster that at BBDO as well. I will be sending junior creatives to award shows – no one else in Pakistan does that. We like to mix it up and get people on juries. The most important thing I’ve learned in leadership and motivation is to have a really clear path of growth. If you can give someone that and say, look, this is how you grow, they’ll be forever motivated.
I’ve learned that through my own life. Every time I’ve felt unhappy, it’s because I’ve been stuck and stagnant. But if I see, ok, I need to do this to get to this point then I’m very motivated. So I think that’s something I try to instil in people.
LBB> And across your career, which projects are you proudest of?
Ali> I think the one big one that started the whole wave of work in Pakistan is ‘Not a Bug Splat’. It was an anti-drones campaign in Pakistan and we collaborated with the artist JR. it worked out really well. It was unnerving how quickly it became big.
As far as clients go, I did a lot of stuff with Adobe when I was fresh out of college and I think I got lucky that I worked with an ECD who handed a lot of responsibility over to me as a junior designer. A lot of the stuff I did back then, for the most part, worked out pretty well.
LBB> Outside of work, where do you look for inspiration?
Ali> Travel. I love looking at new things and learning new things. At the LIAs we went to the Neon Museum and I had never seen anything like that and it builds your mind. I had never seen that side of Las Vegas. Also the desire to go to places that are just waiting for you to come visit.
LBB> Now you’re on this amazing momentum, what’s the plan to keep it up?
Ali> The goal is to keep expanding the work. As a creative if you write a really good film that someone else directs, the next year you want to direct. You want to be just a step ahead. If you win silver, you want to win gold. If you win gold, you want to win a Grand Prix next time. It’s a case of pushing it a little bit more – but I think what I’d like to see most is accomplishing this goal of changing the landscape of how advertising is seen in Pakistan, and how the global community sees Pakistan as well. A little bit of that has happened now. I’ve seen it whenever I talk about BBDO Pakistan, people say, oh yeah I’ve seen the work coming out from there. That is the best thing a creative can hear. Seriously. More of that really.
And on a personal side, it’s to get to all the countries in the world!