On being named Dubai Lynx’s independent Agency of the Year, founder Fadi Yaish talks to Laura Swinton about why creatives should take the lead in business, why agencies need to respect their team and their product, and why award-bait CSR has brought the industry to its lowest point
For someone who never really fostered a burning desire to launch their own agency, Fadi Yaish has had some impressive success within two short years of launching his creatively-driven indie ‿ and us.
Last week the agency was anointed Independent Agency of the Year at the Dubai Lynx, taking home a clutch of Golds for their ingenious Self-Timing Soap collaboration between Deliveroo and Lush. There’s also been a host of witty ideas and sharply-crafted campaigns for big brands like Hardee’s (a bombastic 'Go All In' rebrand campaign and a tasty-looking fashion collection), Batelco and Coca-Cola… that aren’t afraid to sell.
So where did ‿ and us start? Fadi set it up after leaving Impact BBDO, where he had been regional ECD for over five years. After leaving, he found himself with no real plans for the first time in his life, but a burning certainty that he never wanted to work ‘for’ another agency in the Middle East region again.
Building something fresh and from scratch seemed to be the only way to avoid entrenched bad habits. “Why? Simple - I did not believe in what we were doing and how we were working internally and with clients - that was not what advertising is. Despite my best efforts, certain habits could not be unlearned. And after decades of working to multiple network agencies I realised it’s a vicious cycle and that I would be stupid if I expected different results anymore.”
The foundation upon which Fadi has crafted the agency is, first and foremost, the primacy of ideas. That means understanding that ideas are the product and refusing to undersell their importance.
“Our strength is that we know what we do and why we do it,” he says. “Our clients know that our product is ideas – it’s not film, activations, digital or whatever else. Like everyone who works at Tesla knows they go to work to make the best electric cars in the world, we know that we go to work to come up with best ideas for our clients – ideas that help them achieve their objectives. Unfortunately, today the industry pays the price for ideas that were sold for free - agencies used to make money from media and film productions when clients used to spend millions. Now things are different - agencies started charging clients based on rate cards and ideas are not even on that list. Why would clients respect what you do and your time when you don’t respect your own product?”
Generally speaking, Fadi thinks the industry is its own worst enemy, often giving its product, ideas, away for free and engaging in exhausting, expensive and exploitative pitching practices. He mentions one pitch he was invited to last year that involved 11 other agencies.
“I passed,” he says, drily.
At ‿ and us, Fadi encourages creatives to engage in the business and to take themselves seriously – and to take the lead. Rather than isolate themselves from clients, he wants to see creatives be front-footed and direct – from his perspective the best agencies in the world are the indies that are led by creatives. And the only way that creatives can take the lead is if they understand the business.
“We want to change the existing taboo and culture that creative people should only focus on creativity and they can never be successful business leaders. This is almost whispered in creatives’ ears every day. The best agencies in the world today are independent agencies, all of which are creative led. They are all leading successful businesses and, most importantly, a healthy business. Why? Because there are no better business leaders in any industry than the people who know the product inside out. To that end, I believe there are no better leaders in advertising than the creatives themselves. Like Elon Musk - an ‘engineer’ at Tesla. You’ve got to know the product and be obsessed about how to make it better. You’ve got to be truthful to yourself, team and clients. And everything else will follow,” says Fadi.
The name ‘‿ and us’ speaks to the camaraderie and unity at the heart of the agency. “The thing that’s unique about us is that we are all there to do ideas. Period. There is no ‘us’ and no ‘them’, by which I mean creatives and client service. There is no one that can’t raise their hand and ask to share an idea if that person doesn’t have a business card with ‘creative’ on the job description. Briefing is part of the creative process; it all starts the moment a client tells us about their problem or opportunity. There is no system of a briefing phase, then planning, then verifying and validating, and then finally several weeks later a creative brief. We have one phase and one team,” explains Fadi.
To that end, when asked about key members of the team Fadi says that everyone is a key team member. He recalls an anecdote about a journalist visiting NASA who spotted a janitor hard at work – his guide pointed out that the janitor was ‘there to put a man on the moon’. An agency thrives when you get the right person in the right role – and little winds Fadi up more than old fashioned, faux-macho ruthless attitudes about talent.
“The old school cliché ‘no one is irreplaceable’. By job description everyone is replaceable, but talent is not a job description. Talents are characters, personalities and values that sometimes have no match and that what makes them irreplaceable is not only the work and only when agencies start to realise that they might then treat them better,” he says.
And talking of building good habits, Fadi isn’t afraid to tackle that head on. The gloopy, murky world of dubious awards-bait social purpose work is something he’s pretty firm on. “We don’t do proactive, and we don’t do CSR to win awards! We believe our best work comes from clients’ briefs only and when we do any kind of CSR it’s because we genuinely believe we can save lives,” he says.
It's an issue that he lists as one of the three biggest problems with the industry today (the other two being the aforementioned cavalier attitude to talent, and agencies’ self-sabotaging tendency to undervalue themselves).
“For me this is the lowest point of our industry, when Earth’s problems become a commodity and vehicle to win awards. It’s easier to approve proactive ideas with any CSR organization than commercial clients because they are desperate for help. Then our best creative industry leaders proudly say we are here to help humanity and we want to encourage any piece of work that can uplift humanity. Really! Which one campaign would ever help resolve any problem in the world? If you want to help humanity go sign an annual contract to help that organisation for five to ten years for free and keep at it until you actually drive a change.
“On other hand, I don’t understand how any creative talent or agency can be proud of their achievements when it is 99.999% all CSR – while everything we do every day for 365 days a year is for our commercial clients. Where is the added value in that? Where is the excellence in that? So, are you telling me and the industry you are good in CSR and not good in any of the commercial work you have been doing all year long?”
‿ and us’s success comes at a time when clients in the UAE are increasingly open to working in new ways and working with independents. There’s some education still to be done around indies’ value; lean, efficient and effective doesn’t simply equate to ‘cheap’. But having the guts to stick to their principles and unwaveringly back creativity is paying off. Fadi says the agency is growing fast, not necessarily through pitches but through client referrals, which might be a badge of honour just as shiny as any award show trophy.
“We are here to do the best work for our clients and to be recognized regionally and internationally as one of the top agencies in the world. We want to serve as an example for other creatives that they can lead their agencies and empower them to run successful and healthy businesses,” says Fadi. “If we can, they can.”