Creative My Creative Career

My Creative Career: Ajab Samrai, founder of Blitzworks

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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

August 2, 2023 | 10 min read

As part of the My Creative Career series, Ajab Samrai tells us how secretly squatting at Saatchi & Saatchi paved the way for a 25-year career.

Ajab

My Creative Career / Ajab Samrai

What defines Ajab Samrai’s life and career comes down to his upbringing in the industrial heartland of the West Midlands. His father immigrated to England in the 1950s from Punjab, India, and after the arrival of his mother a few years later they got married and family life began.

“It informed my background, psyche, visual, everything,” says the creative. “I mean, we were raised in immigrant poverty, but we never went without anything.” His father worked in the foundries for 45 years, bashing molten metal without complaint, but in his heart was a creative person. This creativity, along with a robust work ethic, was instilled in his son at an early age.

Ajab - 03
Young Ajab

“He was an incredible Punjabi folk singer, a wonderful chef and also a poet,” says Samrai adding that at the weekends he would use these talents at various weddings to supplement income. “He would take me as a little child, alongside my mother, brothers and sisters, give us a couple of packets of crisps and a Coca-Cola in the corner and we’d watch him.”

Those experiences shaped Samrai and sparked his artistic flair. During his school years, he felt a little lacking in the academic department but he could confidently paint and draw, which led him to art college in 1981.

Sarwan Samrai
Sarwan Samrai

“I went there to be a fine artist, as everybody does,” he laughs. “Then you soon realize you’re not really a great fine artist. And then I wondered, how do you make a living out of painting canvases? I thought I was going to be Picasso or something.” Reality soon crept in and in his second year, he focused on graphic design, which was the start of his journey to becoming an art director. In his final year, he was put on placement for three months at an ad agency called Cogent Elliot and the rest, as they say, is history.

“My first day of placement, they threw me in a room with a guy who was just starting his first day of work. And that was Paul Brazier [D&AD president and former AMV BBDO creative chief and chairman]. It was his first day of advertising. He became a legend.”

After graduating, Samrai worked at a small agency in Birmingham for six months but the lure of London’s ad scene was too strong to resist. Despite protests from his mother and little in the way of money, he found himself in a bedsit in the big city. “My portfolio was beyond crap; I mean it was terrible” he admits. “D&AD workshops saved me; they taught me how ads worked and you learn from the best people.”

In 1987, 18 months after arriving in London, he got his foot in the door at Saatchi & Saatchi on a two-week placement alongside his copywriter partner David Hieatt.

“We were both quite feral, he was from the valleys and I was from the Black Country,” says Samrai. After the fortnight was up the duo made the decision they weren’t quite ready to leave just yet. “We snuck back into the building on Monday morning and just went up to a different floor. There was an empty office and we just carried on. I think there were about 1,000 people at Saatchi. Nobody noticed.”

They were both on the dole at the time and lived so far away from the offices. Simultaneously, Saatchi was acquiring so many agencies that every week hundreds of new staff would start work on different floors.

“We actually moved into the building, nobody paid any attention,” he laughs. “We would use the showers downstairs. Tim Mellors, who is one of the great legends of British advertising, said there was always a smell of food in the morning and questioned what was going on.”

Ajab at Saatchi & Saatchi in the early days
Ajab at Saatchi & Saatchi in the early days

Eventually, they were found out and Mellors questioned the pair on who they were and what they were doing in the agency. They begged not to be thrown out and showed him their portfolio, which had come on during their time squatting. They could stay, though there would be no pay or actual client work. Instead, Mellors gave them the opportunity to use the office to get their work up to scratch. He liked them and believed they had spirit.

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But it was a chance encounter with Paul Arden, the agency’s then-executive creative director, that finally landed him his first job. For reasons still unknown to Samrai, Mellors marched the pair from his floor in the building and asked Arden to “hide them.” And there they stayed.

To Samrai, Arden was the greatest ECD in the world at the time and, next to his father, remains the person that’s influenced his life the most. He was brilliant and terrifying, charismatic yet demanding, he says.

“Saatchi was very free and open in terms of the kind of advertising he wanted to do,” he explains noting that he once asked Jeremy Sinclair, who was the chief creative officer at the time, why they were so successful. “And he goes, ‘I’ll tell you why. Because if you look in every office, there are different types of people. We don’t have a style.’ At the time, a lot of the agencies had a very specific style.”

It was organized chaos but an amazing time for advertising, the creative adds. And you didn’t survive for long if you couldn’t deliver. Samrai admits he felt that what he might have lacked creatively, he made up with energy and the hours that were put in to keep up with advertising’s most brilliant minds.

At the time, he was one of the first British Born Asian people at the company. “That’s very close to my heart,” he says, adding that things were changing and agencies were starting to become a little more diverse. “Would I have been hired if I was an account man? I doubt it. The industry was very much a certain way at that period in time. But really, I was lucky, I've been judged on my portfolio. I was a rarity. Not many people that looked like me were in the business.”

At the time Samrai didn’t think much about it but he has reflected on it in the years since. He’s always championed diversity and anti-racism. In 1995 he accepted a job with the Commission for Racial Equality representing the British government. This position gave life to the ‘One Britain’ campaign otherwise known as the Saatchi & Saatchi Anti-Racism campaign. It came from the personal experience of his own home being set alight. He went into a mode of writing he had never done before and it ended up winning lots of awards.

He’d go on to spend 25 years at the agency that took a chance on him before stints at WPP, Ogilvy and now Blitzworks – which he founded in 2019. Recently, the agency’s work on Coca-Cola’s ‘Masterpiece’ campaign gained global recognition.

“I write every day,” Samrai says. “Because I love it. That’s why I got into this. It makes me feel like a kid again.”

His advice to young creatives? Embrace AI, it’s already changing the business. For more seasoned adland execs, he’d encourage them to keep ideating every day. “It keeps you sharp, in tune and relevant.”

Like this story? Read our interview with Uncommon’s Nils Leonard.

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