The regional ECD at Impact BBDO MENAP on the region’s boundary-breaking ideas and why an international team is key for achieving them
BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s Middle East edition, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
Up next is creative powerhouse Ali Rez. The now regional executive creative director at Impact BBDO MENAP was always destined for a career in advertising and he knew it from a young age too. He tells LBB’s Natasha Patel about this realisation and why his day job never really feels like work…
LBB> Growing up, when did you first realise you were destined for a career in creativity?
Ali> Most likely when my schoolmates used to pay me to sketch their science diagrams (this worked until the teacher noticed that half the class was submitting papers with the same style of illustration). I also managed to find myself an internship at a local ad agency when I was 15, and even though I mostly made tea and photocopies for the creatives, I was very influenced by the amazing things they created.
LBB> You started your career with a Leo Burnett scholarship, tell us about that experience and what lessons it taught you that are still relevant today?
Ali> I’m still very grateful to Leo Burnett for that – they showed up one day at my art school in San Francisco and asked for three ads from each student’s book as part of a talent-hunt drive. So I sent in the craziest, wackiest pieces I had (one of which was a bloodied ear swab for JBL, which eventually became a real ad and I still keep it in my portfolio for sentimental value).
They then called me and said congrats, your tuition is paid – it was unbelievable. I even got a job offer from them once I graduated, but didn’t take it because I didn’t want to move to Chicago. I think the best lesson from that experience was to always take in the craziest work you have.
LBB> You've had a pretty international career and now split your time between Dubai and Pakistan, how has that shaped your creative thinking?
Ali> My role now actually extends over the entire MENAP region, so there’s a lot more time-splitting and less time. The region is fascinating – each country here brings a different insight, a different cultural approach, a different nuance. I learn something new every day, which feeds terrifically into creative thinking. In many ways, this still is a very international career, given that we have dozens of nationalities working in the same office.
LBB> The Impact BBDO office in Dubai has 48 different nationalities within it which must be great for working on international creative campaigns. Tell us more about this.
Ali> This is something we are very blessed with: a fabulous, diverse group of thinkers who bring incredibly varied viewpoints to the table. The thinking here is the very opposite of an echo-chamber, the diversity an ideal brew for rich creativity. For a brief, I like to mix somebody who has more of a regional background with somebody who has more international experience, and the result is always magical.
LBB> You mentioned that Dubai has a 'spirit of thinking beyond the ordinary', tell us more and what key examples from the region express this?
Ali> The UAE are an incredible example of the power of dreams. For us here, all we have to do to get inspired is to look around and see what the country has achieved within such a short span of time. And all because they dared to imagine beyond what was the ordinary: they were absolutely fearless in their ambition. I can see the Museum of the Future from my office, and I assure you, there are not many more inspiring buildings in the world.
I am often reminded of that famous quote by Rabindranath Tagore: “Everything comes to us, that belongs to us, if we create the capacity to receive them.” I love that the UAE truly believes that no dream is impossible to achieve.
LBB> How do you and the Impact BBDO team gain insights for what's driving communications in the country? Is there anything in particular that's prominent right now?
Ali> We gain regional insights through some really sharp social listening, and a team that is very experienced in local knowledge. A really robust strategy department has their sights constantly set on what is topical, engaging, and relevant, which in turn helps build disruptive content that resonates. We have frequent brainstorming sessions – even without a brief – where we identify fresh insights regularly.
A good example of this exercise was the insight around the recent weekend days change in the UAE, which we leveraged to build a highly integrated campaign for Snickers: the #ConfusingWeekend. The campaign went on to generate a lift of 11% in sales for the brand, even though some of us still showed up to work on a Sunday.
LBB> The UAE region – and Dubai – are key innovators on the world technology front. Tell us about any pieces of innovation that have been key for you in creating campaigns?
Ali> We recently worked with the UAE government’s endorsement on a fabulous tech campaign for Etisalat: one which makes the internet more inclusive. The web extension that we built allowed those on the autism spectrum to browse the internet without the difficulty of dealing with over-stimulation. This is a small example of something that has a big impact through tech innovation.
LBB> How do traditional mediums such as print and radio play a role in communications?
Ali> This depends on the country, really, but I feel that everything is very integrated now. Print or radio don’t exist as much in isolation – they can be great support channels or even be the base for a big idea. Take the work we do for AnNahar Newspaper. While the ideas are based on print, they extend to beyond the traditional definition of it; the work never really is “print,” and yet it is – the latest print campaign we did for them – the Elections Edition - resulted in the highest viewership of their online edition. Radio and the use of audio can be so wonderfully experimental to play with. Strangely enough, the very “traditional” nature of these media force you to be more innovative.
LBB> Tell us about your favourite campaign to have worked on and why.
Ali> For the scale it achieved, and the impact it had, this would have to be “Not A Bug Splat” which was put together in collaboration with a few artist friends – the campaign took on drone bombings in Northern Pakistan which were killing children in their indiscriminate targeting. We never thought the campaign would become as global as it did, and even though we did this back in 2014, we still tend to see it popping up every once in a while. I truly understood the power of purpose thanks to this work.
LBB> Outside of work, who is Ali? What does life look like for you?
Ali> Well, firstly, life for somebody in the creative department doesn’t have an “outside of work.” Two reasons for this: creativity doesn’t feel like work, and it’s the everyday that feeds into that creativity. Thus the famous “I came up with that idea while in the shower.” I travel a lot, which is great to learn things from. I also learn from my five-year old, who is fearless when it comes to creativity – everything is a science experiment for a toddler – take, for example, “What will happen if I drop an egg on this 100-year old Persian carpet?” Now that’s fearless.