Ahmad Salim of Deloitte Digital Creative NZ

In the midst of Covid-19 lockdowns, this award-winning business director took up the role of Managing Director at the newly launched creative consultancy. Here, he shares why 2021 was the time to make bold moves, and what the future holds for creative marketing in NZ.

On making big decisions in 2021

In 2021, I finally worked up the courage to get out of my comfort zone and build something new. I loved my time at Colenso BBDO and will forever be grateful for the work and relationships I built there, but there were clear limitations of the ad agency model that even Colenso couldn’t break free from. So, it was time to try and create something new where we could break out of the corner that our industry has backed itself into over the past decade.

Everything just clicked into place at the right time. The work we’d been doing for Mars in my last few years at Colenso had a seismic impact on my world view because it taught me that purposeful creative thinking can influence and truly integrate everything in a business from C-suite decisions, all the way through to tech, infrastructure, product design and of course communications. I got to experience what it was like to apply our thinking at the top of the funnel and watch it cascade effortlessly through a global business. Making everything more integrated, more innovative, and ultimately helping them get more consistently high performing creative work across all of their brand touchpoints.

Naturally being in an “ad agency” meant that those kinds of trusting client relationships were hard to replicate because no matter what we’d achieved, we were only credible to a point within a client’s business.

Then Deloitte came along, saying they wanted to integrate creative excellence into their entire business and work with senior decision makers to drive real change where it matters in New Zealand. It’s an extraordinary proposition and we’re so lucky to be part of it.

On impact and legacy left behind at Colenso BBDO

I really did love that place from the moment I arrived, and I worked with some of the most incredible people in the world over my seven years there. I know I was technically a suit, but I took the job to work with Nick Worthington. I loved his belief that great creativity came from everywhere in the business, not just the creative department, and having always been under the illusion I was quite creative, that appealed to me. So, I came [to Colenso] and built a team that really understood great ideas and craft, and how to help clients and creatives work in harmony. We were all a little crazy, we worked hard on things we loved and we had a lot of fun together. If I left anything behind then I’d love for it to be a team that inspires those values.

On producing creative in locked-down 2021

2021 was the year that we looked back on the outcomes of the past five years and really tried to find the threads that connected all of our most impactful work. We realised that when the work was really making a difference to our clients’ businesses, to culture and to our creative reputation, we weren’t doing ads. We were getting to the core of the most valuable role brands can play in the lives of their audiences and working with them to make that true. For Pedigree, we weren’t selling dog food, we were selling the love between pets and their owners, which meant helping to end pet homelessness with initiatives like the Child Replacement Program or MyHooman, and strengthening the bond between pets and their owners with platforms like SelfieSTIX. So, recently we really leaned into bottling up that magic and finding a way to deliver it consistently for brands, throughout their whole business ecosystem, no matter how complex their organisation is.

On evolving this approach to creative marketing in 2022 and beyond

I think the penny’s finally dropped about how apathetic humans are to brands, and how marginal the gains have been on both sides when relying on systems capabilities and cheap content to drive efficacy without the foundations to drive culturally significant brand building.

The bedrock of that shift is knowing your brand’s role in the world beyond its own product and profit. We prefer to call it a purpose, but that word has been sullied by the idea that purpose means saving the world. You just have to know what your brand offers when your core product or service isn’t in play. All of the world’s great brands provide layers and layers of value to their audience, and their core products and services are only one of those layers. Their purpose is just the thing that unites it all, and I look forward to seeing more great brands and their creative partners bringing that kind of value out into the world.

On brands that did well in 2021

So many good options, but one of the standouts for me last year was ‘The Uncensored Library’ in MineCraft, by Reporters Without Borders. Granted I’m a bit obsessed these days with how brands are going to play in the AR & VR worlds, but it gives me hope to see how these online communities and “emerging tech” can be used to tackle the big problems of our time. With objective journalism never having been more scarce, you could argue this work was genuinely important and no-one would have guessed you could take on such an issue on Minecraft. Could be a bit of fun too, like Van’s building a skatepark in Roblox. That’s just smart.

On what makes the Deloitte model different

We’re going to be structured quite differently from an agency model because our focus will be on high level creative problem solving and business transformation through brand. We’re also going to avoid building out high volume delivery capabilities – opting where possible to provide opportunities to New Zealand’s many awesome independent creative, design and production companies.

So we’re going to be a smaller and more generally senior team by design, and will operate as individual consultants sometimes and as a team at others depending on the project at hand. It means less of a microscope on managing people’s time and more focus on getting people engaged in projects they love and will devote themselves to. Between that, the types of work we’ll be doing, and flexible working being accepted as a fundamental principle, it should feel very different from what most of us have grown accustomed to.

On data, privacy and personalisation in marketing

I honestly think people need to stop looking at these things as leading factors for creativity and realise they’re delivery tools. Our job has never changed and we’re all here to inspire behaviour change with initiatives that move people to an outcome that helps our clients realise their ambitions. The tools have just changed. For a team who know what they’re doing, data is of course an awesome tool to inform the design of amazing problems and solutions, and yes it can be used to power hyper targeted, automated and personalised comms at scale. But these days most brands have access to the same data, tools and channels and unless they stand alone in a category, it’s all wallpaper in the absence of an insightful and generous creative platform.

The outcome of the past five years is that most creative conversations have become about how much output brands can get for their money rather than what outcomes they can achieve, and its commoditised creativity to the point where I think many have forgotten it’s the number one multiplier for organisational success. If we see anything this year, I’d hope it’s the beginnings of a shift in that mindset.

On plans for the future

Getting our team up to size and really getting our teeth stuck into some dynamite problems. It’s been amazing to discover just how integral Deloitte is in the fabric of New Zealand, and there are so many opportunities for us to tackle creative problems that will really impact the country, or to work with clients businesses to help them get the most out of their business ecosystems by bringing purposeful creativity in at the top of the funnel.

The other thing that excites me is finally getting re-connected with the local creative community, and ideally over a beer without worrying about Covid.  

This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

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