What would MacGyver do?
How honest hustling, commercial rigour and a broad point of view help you prosper in the creative industry.
WHEN SOMEONE SMART TALKS, IT IS WISE TO LISTEN. We did just that when we sat down with Niku Banaie of The UpSide, to understand what it takes to prosper in the creative industry.
Q: What lessons have you learned from previous companies, that you still use to this day?
Niku Banaie: The overarching lesson is simple:
“Seek out the wisdom of people smarter than you.”
Let me explain the lesson in two parts: at Naked and at Isobar.
Before I joined Naked I’d been in advertising for two years. I grew up at Naked, so to speak. They had a loose structure. You learned by being proactive. The culture was all about empowering people to do new things.
While I learned a lot, I also learned that this type of culture, like a star, only shines for a certain period. When you hit a certain size it is difficult to keep that culture.
You can see it everywhere. Football teams that play amazing for a season to then fall apart and nobody knows why?
Naked went through a similar process. In part, because the industry just caught up and because the company was expanding fast overseas.
That taught me that you have to extract as much from the most experienced people you work with, because it might not last forever.
Plus I had the privilege of working with some of the best people in the industry. It would have been a shame not to learn from them.
Working for a large organisation like Isobar, with a global responsibility was a new challenge. Especially after Naked.
It takes a certain type of person to work in a huge organisation. A patient person, because there is some politics needed to make things work in a big organisation.
Again, here I found that reaching out to people, who might have 10 to 15 years more experience, can only benefit you.
Another thing I learned, especially at Isobar, was that when working on a global scale, you have to be humble.
When working with colleagues from Latin America or China, you have to change your point of view. Some people find that hard, but make the effort or you’ll miss out on insights and nuances to help make great work.
I’d tell anyone to spend time in key foreign markets. You don’t have to live there, but go and learn. The world is bigger than your neighbourhood.
Q: How do you put those learnings to use at the UpSide?
Niku Banaie: A classic way of bringing knowledge into a company is to have a chairman and executive directors. We aim to have an informal network of advisors to tap for knowledge.
One of the most effective and simplest ways of solving problems is through conversations. Plain face to face conversations. They can take you down so many different paths and help you to stay human.
We forget that sometimes in today’s multimedia world, but a humble conversation is very powerful.
Q: Both your co-founders Tom and Sam, share your philosophy?
Yes. Sam’s previous company was a creative collective called Guided. They had a pool of creatives who joined briefs, as needed. We all agree that creating bespoke teams for bespoke problems is the way forward.
Q: Tech allows you to experiment with organisational forms. What are some other threats and opportunities facing the creative industry?
Niku Banaie: When reading what is high on CEO agendas, innovation is always there. And often we think this means coming up with a new product.
But it could also be a new service, business model, communication format. That is a great opportunity.
But because you can innovate in so many ways, picking the right partners to work with becomes complicated.
You have so many agencies saying they do everything. Everybody does service design, everybody is agile. Picking your partners can be a real problem.
Q: Is a client like Coca Cola, with a stable product the ideal client? Are they more open to non-traditional innovation?
Niku Banaie: I think so. Such stable companies have the luxury of innovating in many area’s, because the core is stable.
Packaging for instance. They do a lot of innovation in that area. Distribution and content creation are also some area’s that they innovate in.
The big lesson is, that you can’t rest on your laurels. You must look for new frontiers and take advantage of them.
If taxi drivers had spotted their new frontier, before Uber or Halo, they could have been a step ahead.
Q: You mentioned how hard it is for clients to pick partners. Is it a must for agencies to show proof of innovation?
Niku Banaie: Yes. You have to walk to talk. You need to show prior learnings. Good and bad. You can’t just rely on the magic of a line or idea, without commercial rigour behind it.
You have to de-risk things for clients. You do that through experience and rigour. A balance of magic and rigour is always the best combination.
Q: How is the creative industry adapting to the need for accountability?
It depends on the area. Let’s look at Social. They debate a lot about how to attribute value and ROI, so it is on the agenda of many agencies.
As a whole I do think that the advertising industry has lost some of the rigour of the past. And it needs to return.
Q: Is that one of the points you test for when interviewing people; rigorous commercial thinking?
Niku Banaie: Two key things we hire for are attitude and brilliance.
Brilliance can be academic, personal achievement. Something that shows an ability to perform at a high level.
On top of that we look for people who can come up with a robust argument, supported by facts and rigour.
It is an undervalued skill, but in the real world people will always ask “why am I doing this? What is the return”? We need to see that our hires are creative and analytical.
Q: What other areas would you tell grads, looking to break into the industry, to focus on?
“Show us that you have a radar and that it works. By radar we mean, the ability to pick up signals and trends and to infer points of view from that, to the benefit of the client.
Secondly, be like MacGyver*: have a bootstrapping mentality. The ability to improvise and get the job done in an imperfect world, is a critical skill. You will never have all the answers or resources.”
*for the younger readers.. If you don’t knowMacGyver, now you know
Q: In his essay on how to build brands in the digital age, Martin Weigel writes: “There is as much to unlearn as there is to relearn”. What are you unlearning and relearning?
Niku Banaie: I am relearning how to rely more on my intuition. Again it comes back to that balance of magic and rigour.
And I always look to learn from people who are breaking the mould. You have to be a bit of a magpie to avoid having one solution for many problems.
So unlearning some of the old ways of thinking and trying to be more like MacGyver are my daily relearning and unlearning exercises.
Q: With the way that tech, design, comms are merging, what would you tell 20 year old Niku, if he asked you where to work?
Niku Banaie: Start by asking yourself: What you are passionate about?
Secondly, what I did was throw myself in as many situations as I could through work experience. Some paid, some unpaid.
There is no point in having your ambition set on being a car designer without knowing what the work entails.
I thought television was a cool world. I knocked on doors and ended up a runner on a TV show as a work experience. I did one at British Airways and at an advertising agency.
We call it honest hustling at The Up Side.
Using whatever resources you have to test your assumptions.
I might be dating myself a bit, but I actually used to write letters to get work experiences to test my hunches about where I wanted to work.
So to answer your question: I’d ask: “What are you passionate about?”
Then I’d say “Knock on as many doors as you can and test as many areas as possible to see if you want to work there.”
Thank you Niku