An Hour of Advertising with... The Beyond Collective's Zaid Al-Zaidy

In an Hour of Advertising, Matt Williams sits down for a drink and a chat with some of the industry's most inspirational people. Then he publishes the results pretty much verbatim. Illustrations by Guy Sexty.

Zaid Al-Zaidy

It should come as little surprise that Zaid Al-Zaidy has had such a varied and interesting career. He mixes burning ambition with boundless exuberance that lends itself to most areas of our industry.

The first decade of his career was spent client side, working for Unilever. There he rose to become global marketing manager for Lynx, at a time when Lynx was one of the most notorious brands in advertising.

Zaid’s first agency role came in 2004 when he joined Mother as strategy director. He switched Shoreditch for Camden four years later, combining an international planning role at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R with the responsibility for driving the growth of Saint, the agency’s emerging digital offer.

Next up were stints at TBWA (as chief strategy officer) and McCann London (as chief executive) before Zaid waved goodbye to network life to take on the leadership of independent creative agency Above + Beyond.

Today, Zaid’s chief exec of The Beyond Collective, which is home to Above + Beyond, as well as Frontier and Yonder Media. His experiences have stood him in good stead to understand how relationships between agencies and clients are evolving, how groups and networks operate and how great work gets made. In our Hour of Advertising, we covered all that and more, including the favourite opening question…

Part one: facing up to network politics, learning how to pitch and counterproductive agency relationships as a client…

Do you remember a time in your career where you really fucked up?

I’d just been made chief exec of a big ‘unnamed’ network agency – look at my bio and you’ll probably be able to work it out! – and I had this beautiful analogy that described my strategy for the business. It was a big, global network, and my bosses in New York were really proud to walk into pitches calling their network ‘the equivalent of the US Army’. Because why wouldn’t you want to hire the US Army?

So, at my first annual planning meeting with the ‘big boys’, I used what I thought was a powerful visual analogy for my strategy – a big, graffiti-sprayed pink tank. And I said that my objective was to take all the power and capabilities of this huge network and inject the creativity, energy and vitality of an independent, creative business. I had after all worked in both independent and big agency networks, so I naively posited the thought that there was merit in blending the pros and cons of both worlds. But I realised that though it was the right metaphor [and subsequently used, minus the tank], it managed to offend my superiors, who saw it as an attack on their personality. Somehow, they thought it was me suggesting that they were the old guard. I realised at that moment that being right isn’t always the answer, and it was a pretty sad realisation.

You were having to adapt your approach for a different role at a different type of agency?

I remember learning how to pitch when I was at Mother. It was all about getting to the right answer. That was the only consistent strategy for growing business and winning business. The way it worked in network agencies was more political and chess-like. It wasn’t always about having the right answer, sometimes it was just about winning the pitch. I found that so alien. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to operate through the rest of my career not going for what I felt instinctively and intellectually was right.

Building brands and brand strategies, as was my background at Unilever, you really had to put forward the best strategic answer. Being an agency planner, you always had an obligation to put forward the best creative strategic answer. But being a general manager of an agency, I then realised that doing the right thing isn’t always the most successful thing.

It was more political than that?

I just didn’t like the chess games. And as I got introduced to more ‘account barons’ and saw how they survived change, I increasingly realised that there was a very different way of thinking for those who saw their future being at big network agencies. I guess, as with all these things, even though I ‘unsuccessfully’ refused to adopt these new corporate survival skills fast enough, it wasn’t really a failing as it helped me learn a lot and has led me to get to a really good place in my career. But admittedly, back then I was so stubborn, purist and driven by my individual vision for the business perhaps, that may have been counterproductive to moving the whole organisation with me. You argue whether that was a big failing or not, or entirely in my control, but it was certainly a big realisation.

You mention working at Mother. It feels like this being your first agency job may have affected this mindset. They have a very unique and fierce independent culture. Is that fair to say?

I think Mother informed my view on how great agencies behave and what values they hold. I loved working there. When I joined it was in its ‘agency of the decade’ era. We were working on some awesome things and I was struck by how united every single person was around an idea and a strategy, and how we were never off brief because we took clients on a journey with us, around an incredibly powerful shared view of what the work needed to do. Somehow, the entire team always managed to work together and rocked up to present it as one. It’s something we work hard at here, at The Beyond Collective – but I think it’s hard for some agencies because there is often such a palpable divide between the commercial and creative side of their culture.

And you saw success with doing it right at Mother?

Mother did it consistently well, but network agencies also have their moments of brilliance. I saw it at TBWA – a business I loved, with the Steve Jobs gene and definitely a ‘pink tank’ – where we all sang from the same hymn sheet, from Dede Laurentino who was executive creative director to Gary Smith, our chief finance officer. Great agencies pull together beautifully. It fundamentally comes down to doing the right thing. And doing the right thing breeds great work, doing great work brings great results and getting great results gets you really well paid. It should join up for everyone, but large agencies often struggle a lot with this, with their great complexity, and hierarchies and international geographies, some have managed to lose touch with the very thing that made them great in the past.

You started off as a client. What was your relationship like with your agencies when you were there?

When I was a client, I was there at the tail end of, shall we call it, the ‘infallible agency’ era. Where agencies were just making so much money, operating with so much swagger, yet still making great creative work and having business impact. So my time spent with agencies was often a bit ‘master/servant’, but the wrong way around! You’d think as the client you’d be in power, but actually, agencies controlled it. They wouldn’t let you see the creatives or meet the rest of the team. I remember working with a PR agency who were regularly trying to pull a fast one on me when it came to budgets and invoices...they were incredibly talented hustlers but it extended too far!

So, there was a lot of amazing stuff, but some bad stuff too that agencies got away with. I had an inherent love of agencies, and a love of the craft and creativity that they offered. I loved how quickly they got to the answer, eliminated the corporate bullshit that gets in the way of clear thinking, and kept things both simple and amazing. But their overpowering swagger for me also bred a lot of distrust. Which is why now I really want to make sure that our clients feel like we genuinely do care about their business and that we have integrity and respect for them. That we are genuinely close partners to them.

Part two: crossing the client/agency border, the importance of loving brands and the Shoreditch revolution…

At what point did you want to move agency-side?

I was working on Lynx at Unilever. And it was in that Maxim/GQ era where Lynx was one of the few big, iconic brands. It was the holy grail of brands to work for at Unilever. And I was the closest I’d ever get as a client to developing great work. Everything else beyond that point was going to be about supply chain management, general management, working more with commercial teams and worrying about organisational awareness and networking.

I just felt inherently closer to craftspeople, and their sensitivity around work. I thought I’d be a lot better at problem solving, and not the rest of what being an accomplished and senior client meant. So I got closer to my agency partners – which was mainly BBH at the time. Bill Scott, who’s now at Droga5, was my account man. I remember going with him on a shoot to South Africa for my final Lynx commercial and we got on really well. And it was during that trip, plus the fact I’d just met my now wife at work, which got awkward, that I knew that I wanted to make the transition!

How did you make it happen?

In 2003, I remember going to see Jim Carroll at BBH, and I said to him ‘I know you can’t take me at BBH, but can you give me advice about how to get into the ad industry?’ And he sat me down with the Campaign School Report, and we went through various agencies. I told him I wanted to be a planner, so he said to me, ‘well you should maybe think about Fallon and JWT as they do good planning…don’t go to Mother because they don’t’…and of course I ended up at Mother!

Mother’s definition of strategy, when I experienced it, was a hybrid of ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’, which complemented my client skills pretty well. And when they won the Boots account, I was hired, and I knew I was able to hit the ground running. It was a brilliant move. It was really liberating. Going from working on one brand in one category to working on multiple brands in multiple categories was exactly what I wanted.

When you’re a client and you’re working on one brand and one brand only, how important is it that you’re ‘living the brand’?

When I was the planner on Pot Noodle, I worked with creatives, Rob Potts and Andy Jex, who were fresh out of Fallon. When they arrived, they didn’t get my ex-client thing and they asked me in thick cockney, ‘what are you about?’. I said ‘well I just love brands’. And I remember them really taking the piss, forever! But fundamentally that’s always been my guiding thing – you love the brand first, versus any channel or means of communication. I love brands, because it’s just a brilliant intellectual exercise. You take an inanimate object and you turn it into a living, breathing thing. And technology now allows you to do that to the nth degree. It’s a brilliant mind game, with serious consequences.

I love the maths and emotion around brands. I love the way that they blur business and personality and creativity. I think in every agency I’ve worked in, I’ve always tried to connect with the brand first, and always been frustrated if the agency environment leads to a preferred outcome or output instead.

I guess it’s easy for an agency to make that mistake?

Absolutely. At Mother, who you can see I loved, it was predominantly TV-led. The same with Rainey Kelly, which was very traditional stuff, beautiful but very traditional. I was frustrated that there would often be a really big brand opportunity that was way bigger than any of the answers we were giving.

When I was at Unilever, there was this guy we employed as a consultant called Richard Seymour, who’s this incredible designer who actually trained Jonathan Ive. He designed the cordless kettle and other mad shit – he was a Jedi designer. And he taught me so much about product design, about emotional ergonomics, getting obsessed over detail like texture and how, whilst at Lynx, the aerosol can itself would feel in the hands of its user. What would be the different emotional takeout from a rubberised can versus something with a gloss finish? Why was one expression more on-brand than another?

Did you enjoy going on the shoots as a client?

I only went on one ‘fancy’ shoot, and it was in Cape Town, they put me up in a villa, we flew first class and ate sushi. We watched a cricket match and went on safari…it was so excessive it was ridiculous. And I’ve never been on one since.

The industry always seems to be breaking into little geographical pockets. There’s a Soho lot, a Southbank lot etc…when you started at Mother it was before the Shoreditch scene really exploded – what was that like watching an area grow?

I didn’t really know the other areas because as a client we weren’t based around there, so really my only frame of reference was when going to visit BBH on Kingly Street. However, first going to work at the Tea Building was an experience! It could feel pretty dodgy, especially at the weekend. When we’d do weekend work there, you’d see an area really down on its heels. You’d look to your right down an alleyway and there’d be needles and condoms on the floor.

What I’d loved about that was that it was urban, it was real. It was still an emerging area and we felt really counter-cultural. We were against the highly polished ‘Death Stars’ that were in Soho. That really suited me, because I’d walked out of that client position, where I’d seen all that privilege that agencies had, and that felt quite wrong. Here was a place that was a lot more raw, creative and free.

Part three: joining the new wave of digital agencies, working with Creative Directors and building the perfect office environment…

How did you find the transition of moving from being a client to working at an agency? Did you feel exposed?

I found it incredibly easy, if I’m honest. Because I was really lucky to have 10 years of brilliant training, delivering global work and working with some of the finest minds in agencies. So I was confident that I knew my shit. And the sense of ‘team’ that I experienced meant that I never felt alone.

You moved from Mother to Y&R, and started running Saint. That felt a bit like having a startup agency within a network. Is that fair? And how did that move come about?

Saint came about because Simon (Labbett) and Dave (Gamble) were incredibly ambitious and were given the space at Y&R to do what they wanted to do. And because they’re good, they created positive momentum and great things started happening. Originally, Saint was a digital studio within Y&R, but then we won a project with the Victoria & Albert Museum, started hitting the headlines and appearing in the Digital New Business League in Campaign, and finally becoming NMA Agency of the Year.

That was great, but the more it became an individual thing – we started just calling ourselves Saint, rather than Saint@Y&R or Saint RKCR etc – the more I sensed that the C-Suite were displeased. There was a danger that we were making the mothership look old fashioned. We were creating a sub-culture that was no longer useful. Eventually Ben Kay (the Rainey Kelly chief executive at the time) merged, probably rightly, the discipline back into the agency. It was at the cost of some of the cache that Saint had created, but it was ultimately to the benefit of the agency as a whole.

There was very much a ‘digital industry’ at that time – as you say, there was the digital new business league, and lots of specialist digital agencies like Glue and Dare. Did you embrace that industry?

I always felt like I was the ad guy rocking up to this industry. I initially felt uncomfortable, but the more I learnt about ‘digital’ as it was then, it was pretty fucking basic and nothing to fear. Fundamentally, all the same old principles around brands and brand behaviours remained the same. To begin with, I was in awe of those agencies, but it became clear that they would be crippled by the lack of perspective and vision. They were so obsessed by the micro-details of how technology worked, that they’d lost sight of what it meant for brands.

It was easy at the time for people to say that I just had an ‘old school’ view, but technology needs pointing in the right direction. Only then was I able to look at those people who walked around giving ad-people grief, and realise that it was more like a chip on their shoulder and driven by an insecurity. Because a lot of them had never worked at the big agencies. It was an interesting insight into how cultures and businesses form identities out of not just what they believe in, but what they couldn’t do and who the enemy was.

What do you look for in a Creative Director?

People who don’t define creativity as a department. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. The best creatives I’ve ever worked with have been open to sharing and shaping creative ideas with people who don’t hold the same title. And the ones that are the worst are the ones that create the walls, put their department on the top floor and treat it as something that only very few people can do. Which is something I think is fundamentally bullshit.

I remember as a client, I was made to fear creatives. They were put on a pedestal. They were out of sight and you couldn’t speak to them. I was fearful of walking past the creative department – it’s incredible thinking about it really. BBH as I experienced it in the noughties, for all its genuine amazingness, created a massive distance between the creative people and their product and their clients. Space from clients at times is an imperative and was needed, to some degree, but it was too severe and as a client it made me uncomfortable.

When you’ve walked into agencies over the years – whether that’s agencies you’ve worked at or not – can you feel quite quickly whether it’s a ‘creative-led’ or ‘suit-led’ agency?

Yeah, in seconds. There are places I’ve worked where you can’t tell one department from another. Where there’s no sense of hierarchy or fear. There’s lots of work on the wall and everyone feels comfortable, with no major cliques. Pure positive energy and team. Then at others, it’s easy to see when everyone is being commanded by senior account people. Where the clients are protected from speaking to planners and creatives, unless it goes through a certain channel. I’ve learned as much from bad agencies as I have from good agencies.

What about the environment itself? The Tea Building, where you worked at Mother, is very different to Greater London House, where you were at Rainey Kelly, to the building you’re in now in London Bridge…

The office space is so important. At The Beyond Collective, we worked with Jackdaw Studio to build an environment that would inspire the collaborative behaviours we want to see in our business. We have huge work walls and our people sit somewhere new every day. We attract diverse talent from different creative industries. Music, film, media, fashion, strategy and production. We have cathedral height ceilings to stimulate great thinking, and our space is purposefully open and fluid. We also want our clients to feel welcome, our space lets them mix in too and really feel part of the team.

Is there a point where having clients become part of an agency goes too far?

We may find that it could end up going too far, but right now it feels like the right thing to do. Putting up walls in an era where the lines between everything are blurring feels wrong. I just really, really hated it as a client not feeling like we were part of the same team. And in big, network agencies I genuinely felt like the client was a number. The client needed to be ‘managed’. That culture was the enemy of doing the right thing for me.

Part four: the farce of planning awards, the industry’s diversity problem and arse-sniffing interviews…

You’ve tackled various job roles – so during your time as a planner, did you ever feel like you were part of the ‘planning community’?

I think I’ve felt uncomfortable with most of the advertising cliques or groups, to be honest. There was that moment where every planner had a blog, everyone was banging their own drum, really proud of their profanity and how verbose they were. And then there were the planners who were behind great work. I have great respect for the planners who earned their place by creating great work for clients. They tended not to be the ‘noisy planners’. Or the planners creating their cartel of intelligence.

Does that also affect your mentality to planning awards?

I’ve not written one IPA Effectiveness paper or one APG paper. I’ve run teams where people have written them and won them. Effectiveness has to be an outcome of creativity, more tangibly now than ever. And perhaps writing a paper after the event is the only way to celebrate achievement and to share industry best practise. I can see that. Equally I’ve always seen it as post-rationalisation, the process of strategising and creating is not a linear one, and yet many of the papers I’ve read behave like it is. Sometimes it can breed egotism in the way that individuals are named, rather than just the agency. I remember working on Somers Town, a full-length feature film we shot with Shane Meadows for Eurostar. The planner who took over from me, wrote the associated awards paper, was named, won an award and that felt like a kick in the teeth.

We’ve already spoken a lot about diversity and the importance of hiring diverse people. But how do you do it?

I feel that the talent industry is geared towards finding similar people from similar places, rather than unusual suspects. It’s also not helped by the industry’s current ‘trust and reputation’ issue. We’re not the talent magnet we once were. Fundamentally then, being able to hire from diverse backgrounds comes down to your own network. How genuinely curious are you as an individual in people from diverse backgrounds? How well networked are you in other areas?

So that mindset really does have to come from the top?

Our two founders, Dave (Billing) and Nic (Ost), and myself have always felt like outsiders. I’ve now spent more time agency side than client side, but my enduring feeling is that I was never born out of the advertising cult. So in our DNA we always felt like we were diverse newcomers to the industry. Initially that was a point of insecurity – we were surrounded by incredibly confident ad people. But soon we realised we have a huge advantage. The world is working in our favour, where ideas have many more different forms of expression than before and the awards juries aren’t really as important as they used to be. Life is more interesting when you surround yourself with diverse, lovely, entrepreneurial people. It’s gone from being something we were scared of to something we see as a huge strength.

Is this something you’re trying to educate the industry about? Do you feel able to do that?

There’s diversity in terms of representing ethnic minorities, championing gender equality etc. Then there’s diversity in terms of having different skillsets and bringing in qualities from outside the industry. I’ve been involved in a bit of both. With the IPA I think I’ve been more of a pseudo-figurehead around people from an ethnic minority background. But from a diverse skillset viewpoint, no, I don’t think we have done enough yet as an agency actually. To bang the drum very loudly, we need to produce even better work and hire an even more diverse team, before I’d feel comfortable preaching to others. There are many people who seem to be good at building their career from their ‘diversity’ soapbox, with very little to their name. That feels fake to me.

Going from a chief strategy officer to a chief exec, did you ever find it hard not treading on the CSO’s toes and not wanting to get too involved in the strategy?

David Frymann is our Strategy Partner who joined The Beyond Collective last year – and this is the third time we’ve worked together. So he’s used to me! And I think we both like it when we work together. We’ve both got very different styles, so I think that means you get better thinking. Yes, with the wrong person it could cause problems – but that’s why you hire well.

I remember going for an interview once thousands of years ago and I met the agency’s CEO at Charlotte Street Hotel. I was asked if I had any questions, and I asked the CEO: ‘what makes you so good?’. And his answer was ‘I’m the second best at everything I do’. And I thought, even though it makes you sound like a bit of a dick, that’s actually a really good answer. I do think that being a good CEO is a bit about being the second best at everything that everyone does. It gives people room to be the best, but equally it keeps them on their toes.

You mention interviews – what’s your interview style?

One thing I learnt moving from client-side to agency-side is that agencies are really bad at doing interviews. Client organisations employ Search Consultancies who put in rigorous processes where you’re vetted by multiple people, you’re given lots of psychoanalytic tests, you’re given live exercises, and everything is very structured and the role is very clearly defined. It’s all done really well.

In creative agencies, it involves hanging out on the sofa, sizing each other up and sniffing each other’s arses like a dog would in a park. It’s just this really weird dance. The thing I’ve had to learn to do over time is put some discipline back into my interview process. But having read books about management and done coaching training, I think that simply getting as many people as possible involved in the hiring process breeds the best results for the candidate, and for the agency.

Do you go in for management books, then? What do you read?

Sometimes I do. But I think you can get so much learning in life by being present and soaking up the vibe. I’m comfortable with silence. I think it’s ok to say very little and listen. Noisy people with no substance are not my favourite type of people. Being surrounded by so many diversely creative and wonderful people in our industry is a great source of inspiration and learning for me. And I’m lucky to live with two ethnic cultures in my life that bring colour everyday: cool and discerning Northern European vibes mixed with the fire, love and emotions of the Middle East.

So you love brands, you seem to love the industry… will your kids go into advertising?

Well they came in the other day and we gave them a Subway brief to work on, and they were dreadful! I had this romantic notion that it’d be the beginning of something! That they’d go on to have these incredible careers and we could look back and say ‘the genius was there from ages 9 and 11’…I think they do want to be in advertising, though my eldest keeps asking if ‘the business is big yet’ – he’s a taskmaster!

Artwork by Guy Sexty

For more from the Hour of Advertising series, click here

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.