Q&A: Tahaab Rais – What Movies & Politics Can Teach Us About Marketing


Whenever a Star Wars film premieres, people will queue for miles, but no one would ever queue to watch an ad. Tahaab Rais believes filmmakers – and even politicians – “are better at marketing than we are as a communications industry”. Last month at AD STARS 2018, he challenged agencies to be more like the film industry.

Branding in Asia spoke to Rais about what ‘ad ‘land’ can learn from Hollywood’s best filmmakers. Rais began his career as a strategist in India, later moving to Dubai. In 2012, he joined FP7/McCann Worldgroup where he is Regional Head of Strategy for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. He also oversees ‘Truth Central’, McCann’s global intelligence unit.


How did the idea for your Ad Stars session come about?

I believe we have a lot to learn from movies and politics about being creative with our content and marketing. We need to create more work that people in the real-world will watch vs. award jurors and ad folks.

Movies do a great job of following idea archetypes, creating memorability through music, being entertaining and having immersive storytelling that keeps people wanting to watch more!

Movies like ‘Deadpool’ are content and marketing master-classes. As a character, before the movie came out to the masses, Deadpool was a B-grade superhero. No way was he in the league of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Iron Man or Captain America. Very few people knew of him. And as a product, although the movie was fun, it is by no means a classic you’d re-watch. However, it rocked the box office because of the buzz generated by its content marketing before and after launch.

What can our industry learn from politics?

When President Obama faced challenges selling his Affordable Healthcare Plan, he didn’t implement a conventional campaign. He went on ‘Funny or Die’. It was hilarious, broke the ice and made people more favorable towards his plan – and towards him.

Next up, Pope Francis. He came into the office at a very tough time for the “brand” as there was a lot of unfortunate PR around the paychecks of bishops, around abuse, etc. And this man turned it all around. He was spotted feeding the poor in the middle of the night. He was even spotted washing the feet of Muslim refugees. The photos were sent to media. He acted like a modern-day CEO who was acting to solve problems and ensuring people knew about it.

I’ve always believed that “Strategy” is the best job in advertising. A strategist, according to me, is like a master conductor orchestrating the success of a brand and of the business.

He ended up also being the first religious leader to be featured as “Person of the Year” in The Advocate Magazine, an LGBT publication. And he now has a movie about him called, “A Man of his Words.”

If a President of the United States and a renowned religious leader can be that daring with their creativity in marketing their own brands, and be fast at it, why can’t we, as marketing heads, and we, as agencies?

Why did you choose to become an advertising strategist?

I was destined to work in advertising. I caught the bug while growing up in 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.

In 2005, I got my first job with J. Walter Thompson in India. I found that I had a knack for presenting my ideas with a little romance. I learned to add a little Bollywood to my presentations, although fortunately with no singing or dancing.

My next stop was Dubai, and since 2012 I’ve been with FP7/McCann Worldgroup. I head up the Insights and Strategic Planning Network, which looks after “the fun stuff”: research, trend spotting, insights, strategy, customer experience and connections planning.

I’ve always believed that “Strategy” is the best job in advertising. A strategist, according to me, is like a master conductor orchestrating the success of a brand and of the business. They sit at the intersection of everyone – people (who we call consumers), clients, data, partners (other agencies) and importantly, your own creative-tech-production. You make sure everyone is in tune and the true north is being achieved. That role will only get more meaningful and more necessary in this constantly evolving world.

Unfortunately, the role of strategists is frequently misunderstood. We are not brief-writers, nor do we only package presentations. Not enough strategists actively contribute to the actual creative product produced, or elevate the value of strategy to clients and agency folks alike.

You say that you’re “anti-theory”. What do you mean?

I’ve often seen strategists get a bit too theoretical when it comes to the work we’re supposed to be doing – which is making ideas that solve problems. They miss the “making” bit. And their role often ends with the brief or the presentation.

There are two schools of strategy: one is the Washington school, which is the really hard-core theoretical stuff. And then we have the Hollywood style of planning, which actually leads to the creative idea. I believe a good strategist is one who’s able to marry Washington and Hollywood.

If a President of the United States and a renowned religious leader can be that daring with their creativity in marketing their own brands, and be fast at it, why can’t we, as marketing heads, and we, as agencies?

The way I enjoy working is quitting being theoretical and philosophical strategists and instead, being obsessively involved throughout the process. It’s a culture we’ve built together at FP7/McCann Worldgroup across MENA. After identifying the real problem, we look at all the research and data available.

Then, putting that aside, we get away from our desks and talk to real people and uncover untapped and untold truths that just feel right. After building and defining a distinctive, meaningful strategic platform, we work conceptually with the teams to make sure that the idea comes to life across a data-driven journey and connections plan. We’re also involved in measuring it, to ensure it’s effective.

Your role covers the MENA region. How is creativity evolving in these markets?

The MENA region is an exciting melting pot of cultures and ideas. This cultural cohesion (and at times, conflict) helps spur better creativity.

This region has had its fair share of failures in its journey to discovering what it should be good at. It reminds me of the journey 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.

Agencies and brands are beginning to reconnect with local culture and focus their attention on solving regional problems. We are seeing markets like Saudi Arabia 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.

Agencies have the potential to become “co-authors” with the people of the region. To tell great stories, push our imaginations, stretch our brains, and create our own Oz. Since brands want that too, that’s the opportunity for us!

MENA is also a very young region. In Saudi Arabia alone, over 50% of the population is under 25 – and young people tend to be the most skeptical 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. Brands must make a positive contribution to local culture. It used to be a ‘nice to have’, but now it’s a business imperative.

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