October 2, 2018

As one of Asia’s most awarded creative directors with over 20 years of experience, Mr. Ali Shabaz joined Grey MENA in February 2017 from Grey Singapore. His work has been recognized at every major award show globally, with over 30 wins across Cannes, Webbys, FWA Awards, D&AD, Effies, AMEs and One Show. He is a highly sought after judge and was selected for numerous jury panels including; Cannes, D&AD, Spikes, Adfest, and Facebook Awards.

Mr. Ali Shabaz’s strength lies in guiding brands to success in the digital, mobile, social and shopper marketing space. Grey Group Singapore has been ranked among the top two creative agencies for the last 3 years and under his leadership they were the most awarded agency in Singapore at Cannes Lions 2015.

Passionate about fostering minds, Mr. Ali Shabaz often gives talks and conducts workshops to train the new generation of creative minds. He is also a member of the Grey Global Creative Council.

Mr. Ali Shabaz was a keynote speaker at the Communication Summit 2018. During the summit, he sat for an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand forum. Following are the excerpts.

Bangladesh Brand Forum: How has your visit to Bangladesh been like?

Ali Shabaz: This is my first time visiting Bangladesh and in Dhaka. However, I am quite familiar with Bangladeshis and I love them for their energy and sincerity for how they approach things.

Your career spans over twenty years across three markets, India, Middle East and Singapore. Could you talk a little about how creativity varies from one market to another?

My career started in India, then to Singapore and now I’m in Middle East and I think the big difference really has got to do with the nuances in cultures. India has a different way of approaching problems and that has a lot to do with the art forms. For instance, advertising specifically, draws a lot from these art forms ingrained within their culture, like from Bollywood.

Singapore on the other hand, is very cosmopolitan. It has ethnicities from all over the world, while people think it is predominantly Chinese and it is, to a large extent, but you have Indians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Westerners. So that gives a diverse outlook to problem solving and to business, giving it that label – cosmopolitan, if you will.

Middle East again is similar to India. It is only starting to, in my opinion at least, find its own voice, again as a region which is rich in culture and heritage. But, for one reason or other they have been unable to express it, but now that is changing as you can see in the Middle East. It is a really interesting time to be working there because I think that the Middle East is going to be the most exciting region in the next few years because of recent efforts taken.

So, all in all, it mostly has to do with the cultural shades of every region that changes the way we work.

Your work has been recognized at every major show globally, could you give us an insight of one such work of yours?

There is actually a bitter sweet memory I would like to share and it has nothing to do with winning at the Cannes. This campaign was one of the firsts that I did from Singapore that got global recognition. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to pick up any of those awards because after the campaign released, it was awarded multiple times, so on and so forth, but the client, Fedex asked for it to be pulled out. They had very good reasons and it had nothing to do with the campaign per se. But, they had no choice but to ask for it to be taken out of circulation and we had to turn down every single award. This was kind of sad for me and my art director because we were still senior writer and senior art director and receiving those awards would be life changing. Yet, it inspired me in a way that my partner and I realized that if we could do it once, we could do it again and again. This I suppose, is what is hard about creativity, it is being able to go back to the drawing board, reach down deep inside, even when you have failed to come back with something better. That memory is a game changing moment of my life. 

Would you like to share few advices for brands to succeed in the digital, mobile, social and shopper marketing space?

That is a big question! That is pretty much the hot topic so far – the workings of the digital space. I think, essentially, the need for a brand to be successful with consumers has not changed much in the last however many years advertising has been around. However, the means to be able to tell its story has evolved and changed constantly. I firmly believe that it has only gotten better. While I understand the complexities of the digital world, I think it’s also time for agencies and brands to really sit across the table and discuss this out. There is a massive opportunity to capitalize on and do something beautiful with the digital and tech space. A piece of advice to the brands from me would be that at the heart of it is a great idea, great storytelling and for you to know as a brand what problems you are solving for the consumer. If you do not know these three things, does not matter if it is digital, print or outdoor, it is still going to be a struggle.

Would you say that there is an existing gap between what the brands want and the communication the agencies are putting forward and could these said differences be mitigated?

I think scope of improvement from both ends is possible. Speaking from the agency’s end specifically, I think agencies need to understand the client’s problems a little better because agencies are far too quick in coming up with a creative as a solution without actually understanding the depth of the problem. It is not a simple issue anymore; we are not living in the old days when customers had incredible brand loyalty. If you have followed what has happened to Nike recently, it has completely divided the world between people who love Nike and people who hate Nike. So, how does a brand deal with that? You are going to lose a lot of your customers by taking such political stances. So, I think that agencies understanding the depth of a client’s problems is really important. Sometimes it is not about creating just an advertisement but coming up with a viable solution, like a solution to a marketing or distribution problem. All of these can be impacted by creativity and that is where the agencies come in.

From the flip side, the client’s end, I have spoken to a lot of clients and I think that you will have to be brave enough to accept that your brand is not yours alone – it also belongs to consumers. The consumer holds the greatest power to shape a brand, as we can see with things happening in the world. So, holding onto those values while being flexible to let consumers voice their opinions about the brand, gives the brand room to improve and that is what I think clients need to do.

How has your Communication Summit experience been like?

I think some of the talks have been extremely insightful. If I had to single out one thing that stood out for me, it was the case study on, ‘Child Marriage’. I was really moved seeing it and I have to say, if that is the kind of creativity Bangladesh can offer, Bangladesh has a really bright future creatively, I loved the work and I think it was amazing.

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