How to strengthen creative ‘currency’

After his talk at FFWD Ad Week, DDB global CCO Amir Kassaei discusses what has to change in the industry's business model.
Amir Suit

DDB Worldwide chief creative office Amir Kassaei has been making waves recently, following his opinion article in Campaign about the flaws in the ad awards system. Earlier this week, strategy sat down with Kassaei at the ICA’s FFWD Advertising and Marketing Week in Toronto, following his talk with Heidi Ehlers as part of her “Diary of a Creative Director” series, to talk about what needs to change in the industry.

How do you measure success in terms of your work?

It depends on what is the actual goal of the client. If your client is able to define the goal really clearly, you know what is the bar you have to achieve. Besides that, which is the economical part of it, I think every piece of advertising that is great, every piece of communication that is great, is influencing society, it’s changing culture and that should be the real recognition – changing the culture, influencing people in the right way. And being part of the culture. That should be part of the real recognition, with the real people and not only advertising people.

So, the average person on the street?

Exactly. Because that is what we are doing. We are not doing it for ourselves.

What are you seeing a lot of in advertising that you don’t like?

I think 95% of advertising is annoying, to be honest, but it was always like that. Because it’s dumb, it’s boring and it disturbs you and it doesn’t really add value to your life. But I think it’s [true] in almost every category – if you go to music, if you go to cinema or to movies, you to go art, it’s always like that. You have only a very, very small amount of work which is really outstanding, which is really game-changing and it’s the same with advertising.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

There’s still a way to go in terms of transforming ourselves and being prepared for the new age, by having the right structures, by having the right people, by having the right processes, by having the right tools to create influence. And the other thing is, in general as an industry, we have to come up with a different business model, because at the moment I think the business model is getting outdated and I think it’s getting tougher and tougher to actually have a solid and healthy business. I believe we have to move to a model where you are getting paid by the ideas and innovations that you’re delivering and not by the hours that you’re spending coming up with the ideas. I think that is the biggest challenge, not for me only but for everyone in the industry.

So what would that look like – getting paid based on sales increasing?

You can define it with your clients, but getting appreciated by the fact that you are actually coming up with something which is adding value to the business of a client and you should participate in the success of it. That’s not the fact at the moment.

Would that hinder creativity at all?

A lot of people are confusing why they are in our industry. “If I’m an artist, I should not work in advertising. My job is not to do free art.” But if you are in advertising, you have only one purpose – adding value to the business of your client. That’s the only reason. We are getting paid for that. You can be free and say, I want to be an artist, whatever. But that’s a different game. If you are in the industry, you have to follow the rules and you have to understand which context you are using your creativity. Bernbach said it back in the ’60s, it’s the art of salesmanship. We are trying to seduce people, we are trying to educate people, trying to influence people, to see something and a brand, product or service which actually helps them having a better life, easier life, more efficient life. That is the job that they are doing. We are not artists. I don’t see it that way, as long as we are in the context of advertising.

One term Heidi used in your interview was awards being “currency” for creatives. Do you agree with that?

If the currency would be strong and tough enough, yes. As I said also in the interview, we don’t have a problem with award shows. Our problem is the way that what they are awarding and the context of it is devaluing creativity, the real creativity. I think that is something that we have to recalibrate. The goal cannot be that you should aim and work and live for winning an award. As I said, your job is to use your talent to come up with an innovative idea to solve the business problems of your client. If you do it in an exceptional way and in addition to that, you’re getting the recognition from the industry, it’s fine. But in that order.

How is that going to have an impact, given you’ve been on juries before?

They will not invite me any more, which is great. I can understand that, it’s okay. You have to walk the talk. I cannot just stand there and say I don’t believe in the system or I want our system to be changed, [and then] participate in the system any more. It would be wrong for me to sit in a jury in a system which I don’t believe in.

Other than you taking this position, what else needs to happen for things to change?

I hope that if we as a company, and we are one of the most important and influential ones, if you look at it in terms of awards, we are the most awarded company in the history of advertising. Nobody’s even coming close to us. So if these guys are saying stop it now, I hope that it will have an influence on a lot of people. We’re doing it because we believe it and we hope that we will make an example and a lot of other people will follow us. They will say, we are right and we need to recalibrate. If that’s not happening, it’s fine, we are going our own way. We always went our own way.