Appointed DDB Worldwide Chief Creative Officer in February 2011, Amir Kassaei is one of the most lauded creatives in the world. Amir and his teams are the recipients of more than 2,000 national and international awards, including 40 Cannes Lions in the past five years. Amir was named The Big Report’s ‘Top Chief Creative Officer’ in 2009, and has been selected as the The Big Won’s ‘Top 3 Chief Creative Officers’ for each of the last three years.
chinaSMACK spoke with him following the DDB Worldwide announcement that he would be establishing a Global Creative Hub in Shanghai and be part of driving the ‘Fit For Excellence’ creative leadership program in China.
This is part two of a two part interview with Amir packed with insights and experiences from one of the world’s top creatives.
We’re interested in your personal journey into advertising. You mentioned before you were a refugee from Iran, how did you get yourself to Austria?
I flew from my country all alone, without parents, without language, without money, and grew up in Austria as a refugee. I learned the language, I went to school, I was working on every job that you can imagine then I finished school and went to France. In France I learned French, studied in French, and started my career in marketing as a product manager at L’Oreal. Then I changed sides and I joined an advertising agency as a controller, then I was a strategic planner, media consultant, then I was an account director, then I decided to be a creative, so then I made my way as a creative.
You took a quite non creative path up until a quite senior position and then made the switch. How did you do this?
That’s the wrong definition. In advertising everyone’s creative. Look at me, I did every job and I did it in a creative way. There is no differentiation between creative people and non creative people in advertising. That’s wrong.
So do you think that anyone can make the switch at any time?
If I can make it, everybody can make it. The question is ‘can you enjoy the pain?’ That’s the only question, really, if you can enjoy the pain there is no goal that you cannot achieve. The problem is are you enjoying the pain?
What’s the biggest success you’ve had in your career?
It’s coming. I’m waiting for it, we are working on it. No, if you have had the biggest success in your life already then I would not do the job and I’m not doing it because of the success, it’s because I’m loving it. I think that we have a lot of great things which are waiting for us. If we are sticking to our core strengths, we are not losing focus and we are going our own way, we will be there.
We would like to ask more about the team you’ve got based in China. How would you describe the creative in DDB in China compared to others?
Great. Look at what they are doing. I think DDB China is one of the best creative agencies in the network and they are getting better every day but I don’t care about what the others are doing. And it’s not about being arrogant; it’s about focusing on the right things. We have to go our own way, other companies are doing it a completely different way, so if we are better than all the others then we will dominate the industry and that’s the only goal.
What’s your favourite piece of work that you’ve seen come out of DDB China?
A lot of great work. There is not one of them, I can tell you about ten or fifteen of them but it would take another two hours. The keyboard of isolation for example, I believe and the purpose of this company was always around use the creativity that you have and try to change the world for the better and that to me is a great example of how creativity can change the world for the better by giving the people the understanding that they should also take care of your real life and not only be stuck in the digital world and that’s a great piece of work. The outdoor campaign for the art supermarket for example is an amazing piece of work.
When you guys are working on integrating a campaign is the creativity equally strong across the board?
We have different disciplines under one umbrella but the approach is not about having different people working on different pieces. The idea is about finding the relevant truth about the product, delivering in a fresh way and if you find the most efficient, most intelligent way to communicate it then the people will start to care. The integration is already happening in your head and it should start in your head and it’s not about how you’re structured, how the process is, it’s about how you’re thinking. Yes, we have specialised people and specialised companies but in terms of working to integrate it you should do it anyway. In the world of 2012 you cannot differentiate between channels anymore, it’s the wrong approach from my point of view.
And can we ask another more personal question?
Sure, whatever you want.
You are the top of the top of the creative pyramid. How do you get there? How do you distinguish yourself from other people?
It’s very simple. If you don’t have the goal to get there then you’re not getting there. If you have a goal just to wear the title and have a nice life you will never ever get there. It’s about loving what you are doing and it’s about enjoying the pain. As I said, very simple it’s enjoying the pain. If you can enjoy the pain more than any other you will make impossible things possible. That’s how I did it, and again my intention was never to be in a worldwide position. I only wanted to be in a position to use my passion and talent to make things better. That was my goal, all the time; make the best out of my life. That’s it. I’m not interested in the money, I don’t care. If you’re dying, you can’t take the money with you.
But I didn’t have the goal to be there and I think you cannot also define the role, I think you also have to define it by yourself and the way that you are approaching and am I approaching it differently than a lot of other people in the same position in other companies. The nice thing about DDB is that you have something that nobody else has which is the fact that we are the inventors of the creative revolution and we tell it to all the people around the globe. We are the Apple of the advertising industry; it makes life much easier than to be Microsoft of the advertising industry. That’s the nice thing, the additional benefit that you have, because we have a very strong creative culture and a very strong creative history and a very strong creative DNA. We are the inventors and it makes life easier than to be a copycat like all the others.
Are you seeing a lot copycat situations in the Chinese market?
No, I think it would be arrogant to say that the Chinese people are copying. I think it’s about learning and learning means that you are taking the existing and you’re playing with it, and that’s exactly what the Chinese are doing. But the arrogance and the point of view of the old world, the Europeans, the Australians, the Americans is Chinese are copying. They don’t understand that they are preparing themselves for the next stage which is being innovative.
The attitude here is a completely different one because they are still hungry, they are still foolish, they are still childish and we are not. Look at Europe, we are messed up. You know why we are messed up? Because we are not hungry anymore. You have everything, you are not fighting anymore. The Chinese will rule the world because they have the exact attitude that we do not have anymore, that’s the huge problem. You won’t understand it if you are looking at the world from the point of view of the old world which is Europe, US and all the other guys, and that’s a fact. If you understand that, you can learn a lot of things and can see where China is developing itself and you are going with it, you could be part of it and I swear to god China will dominate the world in terms of having the most innovative companies. It’s a matter of time, they can enjoy the pain. You’re not interested in enjoying the pain anymore. Why? Europe, we have everything, let’s make party every night. While we are making party, they are working hard. It’s the history of the human beings since the beginning, it was always like that.
What is also very very arrogant from the point of view of the old world is they think that China was not existing 50 years ago and if you look at the history of China, its 5000 years old. They were dominating the world 5 times already, so they will do it again. Respect it and understand it then you can be part of it. If you don’t get it then you’re part of the old world and you will disappear and it’s happening now. Looks at what is going on in Europe at the moment and in the US, it’s not a financial crisis, it’s a system crisis. It’s true, look at Europe, it’s done. If you look at Spain for example over 50% of youth unemployment in Spain and I’m talking about people who are highly educated and they are leaving the country because they don’t have any kind of future anymore. So it’s really dangerous, but maybe that’s the story of human beings, I don’t know.
In your view do you think that China is going to develop beyond the third largest economy for advertising?
Yes, definitely. It’s a question of time. It will be the biggest market on the planet.
How long do you think it’s going to take to get there?
I don’t know. Maybe 5 years, 10 years.
Really? So short?
I think everything is going faster in China. Look at where China was 5 years ago. It’s a great story to understand from my point of view to try and understand Chinese psychology. I remember in 2004 as they got the Olympics for Beijing, they said that they will win the most gold medals at the Olympics. At the time, where they were nowhere in sports, they made it happen and if they want to achieve a goal then they will achieve the goal. That’s the Chinese mentality I think, if they want to achieve something then they will do it. You have to be careful to not do the same mistakes that we did, I think that’s the most important lesson for the Chinese people, to build something on their own, which is different and better than what we have. If they can manage to do it then it will be one of or even the biggest market.
What things do you advise young Chinese who are wanting to get into the industry and make a career? What’s your career advice for them?
I think it’s only one lesson and I think that it is as a young man or a young woman you should try to find something that you love. If you love what you are doing you will be great at it, and if it’s advertising then you will do it automatically great. Go your own way, that’s the most important lesson. You should be obsessed about it, and if you’re not obsessed about it, you will not be good in it. It’s also a question of attitude, but I don’t think I have to educate young Chinese people because they have the right attitude. I have to educate the European young people to get back the attitude of being hungry again. That’s what I would say.