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BW Businessworld

'At The End Of The Day, Creativity Is A Team Sport'

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Amir Kassaei fought as a child soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, before taking refuge in Austria. Now as the worldwide chief creative officer for advertising giant DDB, Kassaei sits in the hallowed precincts of Madison Avenue in a cabin that old timers say is still inhabited by the ghost of advertising legend Bill Bernbach.

For more than seven decades, ad agency Leo Burnett has been the driving force behind many of the world’s strongest creative ideas. But the agency’s current worldwide chairman and CEO Tom Bernardin believes that his job is, “to ensure that we never think we’ve ‘arrived,’ that we keep reinventing ourselves and, in today’s world, that we all know there is no time to rest”.

Both Bernardin and Kassaei were in India recently for Goafest 2013, the country’s primary advertising festival. In an exclusive session moderated by BW Businessworld's  Prasad Sangameshwaran, two of the greatest advertising minds interview each other for Businessworld. Excerpts:

Tom Bernardin: I Have been fortunate in my career to work with extremely talented creatives. What is the most valuable thing you look for in a partnership with the account management team?

Amir Kassaei: at the end of the day if you define creativity in the right way, everybody in the
Kassaei: Looking at where technology is heading will be a big challenge
agency should be creative. In terms of coming up with the right solutions for their client’s business, even people who are working in the account management should see themselves as an equal partner in terms of creativity. Then, as you say, the job of account management guys is changing a lot. Looking at the challenges the industry is facing, they should transform themselves to be business consultants. What I mean is, their understanding of the client’s business should be deeper to enable them to come up with insights and perspectives to help the client’s business. This is kind of a mix between a planner and an account guy. That would be a big transformation, but that has to happen if the ad agency has to make a comeback as an equal partner for its clients. A lot of great account people have a mix of all the qualities – they are great creatives, great motivators, great salesmen and they are great clients because they have to anticipate a lot of stuff. So at the end of the day, creativity is a team sport. It’s becoming more of a team sport because we have to collaborate with a lot of people outside the industry. Looking at where technology is heading will be a big challenge, because as an industry we are not used to that. We are still like everything inside the agency is great. We are not quite getting what happens outside. You cannot have all the experts and all the expertise under one roof. That could challenge us also as an industry.

Amir Kassaei: What are the challenges for industry in the upcoming years?
Tom Bernardin: You know what I am going to say probably. The quest for getting the best talent is the biggest challenge. Today more than ever there has never been a higher value based on creativity. But now they are all after the same thing which is talent. That’s one of the biggest challenges, because not only we have to reach for each other’s talent, our clients are after our talent too. We are losing our people to other industries, we are trying to grab people from other industries and bring them to our industry.

Tom Bernardin: How would you address the challenge that we all face together, the pressure from clients they want more from less, faster cheaper. That puts more pressure on us on how to go after talent. Do you have a magic answer for that?
Amir Kassaei: No. I don’t. But I think our challenge is also about how we are regarded as the truthful and valuable partners who are adding value to their business and can be measured for what we are doing. If we do that it will change the way we do business where we will be paid for our ideas and innovation that we are adding to the client’s business. That will help to invest into our talent. But for that we have a lot of homework to do as an industry to gain back this reputation which was there when giants like Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett ran the business several decades back. I would not say we lost it.

Amir Kassaei: Big Data is the next big buzzword that everyone in the industry is talking about. What’s your point of view on that?
Bernardin:  Data fuels creativity
Tom Bernardin: Data, and all the definitions of that, used to be a scary negative term in a creative business like ours. All that data now means something. What data means in its simplest form is how to get a better connect with people on a one-to-one basis. Data fuels creativity.

Amir Kassei: If you were to start all over again would you still consider gettinginto the advertising industry?
Tom Bernardin: I would

Amir Kassei: And why?
Tom Bernardin:: Because it’s fun. It’s an industry that opens up doors to so many different kinds of experiences. So many different kinds of cultures, brands and products. It’s different every single day. and that’s what I love about it. I lover interacting with people, I love helping people match their talents with what they are good at.

Tom Bernardin: And you?
Amir Kassei: Yes, I think so. I started as a client. I would do advertising all over again for exactly the same reasons that you mentioned. Advertising is a fascinating industry. You are starting every day as a new day. Even if you are twenty or thirty years in the business, you will still have to learn, every day.