Tahaab Rais believes that strategic planning is the best job in advertising, although he admits he’s probably biased. “A strategist is like the conductor of an orchestra. You’re conducting the consumer, the client and your own creative teams. You make sure everyone is in tune.”
Tahaab was almost destined to work in advertising. He caught the bug while growing up in what he describes as “the happy chaos” of India. “I had a lot of uncles who worked in advertising as creative directors. Seeing them create ideas was what I found most fascinating about advertising. To me, it has always been a business of ideas.”
He studied marketing at university and took his first steps by interning as a copywriter “in a couple of small hot shops”. “Obviously I was a complete failure as a copywriter,” he jokes, “so the next best thing was strategic planning.”
In 2005 he joined J. Walter Thompson in India working on CRM and connections planning – which later became digital planning. “It was interesting to look at advertising from a different perspective in a country where, at that time, CRM and digital marketing weren’t really that big.” He also found that he had a knack for presenting his ideas. “I learned to add a little Bollywood to my presentations, although fortunately with no singing or dancing.”
His next stop was Dubai, initially with JWT and since 2012 with FP7/McCann Today he heads up the Insights and Strategic Planning Network, which looks after “the fun stuff” at FP7/McCann: research, trend spotting, insights, strategy, customer experience and connections planning.
He doesn’t believe in intellectual meandering for its own sake – he prizes research and reflections that lead to concrete ideas. There are two schools of planning, he opines. “One is the Washington school, which is the really hard core theoretical stuff. And then you have the Hollywood style of planning which actually leads to the creative idea. I think a good planner is one who’s able to marry Washington and Hollywood.”
So what’s it like overseeing the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, which is as diverse and complex as it is challenging? “This region has had its fair share of failures in its journey to discovering what it should be good at,” he says. He compares this evolution to the work of L. Frank Baum, writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who had a decidedly uneven literary career before creating his mythical wonderland.
“One of the problems was that we tried to be too global and universal in our ideas. We wanted to get recognition on an international stage, and in that process we lost our soul.”
More recently, he says, agencies and brands have reconnected with local culture and focused their attention on solving regional problems. “We are seeing markets like Saudi Arabia now becoming broadcasters and programmers of local culture, of our lives and what makes us so unique. We are seeing ideas that are spreading, projecting the region in a positive light to the rest of the world.”
He adds that agencies can become “co-authors” with the people of the region. “To tell great stories, to push our imaginations, to stretch our brains, to create our own Oz. And since brands want that too, that’s the opportunity for us.”
He points out that MENA is a very young region – in Saudi Arabia alone, over 50 per cent of the population is under 25 – but that young people tend to be the most sceptical of brands. “However I believe if brands can be genuine, if they can be culturally and positively provocative, it’ll help them be more meaningful – and successful. Brands that can show they have a purpose tend to do well here.”
In other words, brands must make a positive contribution to local culture. “It used to be a ‘nice to have’, but now it’s a business imperative,” he says.
Tahaab’s own team are encouraged to steep themselves in local culture. For one report they literally hit the streets – in the backs of taxis. “The study was called The Taxi Driver Diaries. We got all the planners and the account guys in our region to step into taxi cabs in all the key cities and have conversations with the drivers about what was happening around them. They have their fingers on the pulse of the region far more than we do.”
As part of McCann Worldgroup, FP7 contributes to its global Truth Central insights and intelligence unit, which aims to uncover “untold truths” that may help clients grown their businesses. FP7 will shortly release a report designed to explode a few myths and assumptions about the MENA region. “It’s rather provocatively called Uncovering the Veils,” says Tahaab.
The title is typical of the way he adds a dash of poetry to intellectual pursuits. A maths fan, he grew up playing the video game Age of Empires, which he says combined tactics and strategy with creativity. “The game had data, coding and maths at its core, but creativity was how you won.”
It’s a useful analogy for agencies, he adds. “Combining numbers with cognitive science, and then combining that with the human need for beauty that creativity brings to the table, resulting in something entirely new. For me that’s the exciting part.”
by Mark Tungate, Editorial Director