Walaa El Amin is one of the creative powerhouses at Dubai-based ad and media agency Tonic International. Here he tells us about game-changing new tech, how he comes up with ideas and why Mad Men is still an inspiration.

What does a modern ‘ad man’ do?

Our main objective is to build a client’s brand, and we do this through in-depth understanding of their audience. We use third-party tools like TGI, Ipsos, Nelson and Google to find out what really makes a brand’s target audience tick.

Why is this important?

After researching and looking at the audience we can then understand how they actually spend their time and think about what they like to do. This helps reach them at the right time on TV, in print, radio, out of home — billboards, for example — and digital to ensure that our ad is heard or seen and will resonate.

Once you know your audience, is ‘the idea’ still king?

Yes. I tend to get my best ideas when driving to work or sitting at a restaurant, listening to music. Of course the whole concept of a ‘good idea’ is very subjective, but as I am hired as an expert, I always push a client to at least test an idea if they’re not sure about it. If it works, then hooray! If not, we change the concept.

Creativity, technology and information make for a good ad, says Walaa El Amin

Does anything remain of the old Mad Men era?

Absolutely. We still need to focus on ‘the big idea’, otherwise the brand is lost. Our goal is always to tell a story; you want to have a ‘pull’ strategy — which is when your audience asks about your client’s products as they trust them or expect them to do what they are supposed to do rather than just buying something because it is cheapest. So we set out to find reasons why they would actually buy product A instead of product B.

Can you talk us through the planning process?

Once we get the brief we look at it to see if it covers everything we need to build a good strategy — the very best briefs are those which have a lot of information about the target audience.

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Next, we look at what we need to accomplish and why, and we then create the first draft of a campaign — without looking at the budget, to give us a kind of ‘dream world’ plan. Then we optimise our media plan to see what is ‘nice to have’ vs ‘must have’ to fit our plan with our client’s budget.

What’s next?

Once we’re done we then start building a full presentation for the client. Usually, the process takes up to two weeks — although it varies depending on the data we have or we need, as well as the client’s requirements.

What was your best moment?

I think it was when we decided to link both worlds — the offline and digital world — for our clients, instead of just focusing on one. People do not live online. We are living in the real world and online is only part of it.

What can be done when a campaign doesn’t go as well as was hoped?

We will look at the data and see how we can make it work — but you can’t turn back the clocks and do it again. Clients tend to leave their agency if a campaign didn’t go well, which is fine and I do recommend that clients change their agency every three to four years. But before they do, they need to understand why a campaign didn’t go well, and consider what they could have done to make it better. They need to ask what was missing in their previous campaign.

Does the data really help?

Sure. And the data and insights will help show the way to do things better — rather than just starting all over again. You learn and build on it.

Is tech helping?

Absolutely. We’re in the digital/technology era, a time where we need more than a human brain to help us make the best decisions. Even though we’re bombarded with data, some key information will always be missing, so AI and machine learning is starting to help us look at the full picture. It can help us go in better directions.

Where is the industry heading?

I believe that it’s heading towards programmatic/automation. By programmatic, I mean programmatic advertising, which is the algorithmic purchase and sale of advertising space in real time. During this process, software is used to automate the buying, placement, and optimisation of ads via a bidding system.

So it’s tailoring exactly the right ad to exactly the right client at exactly the right time?

Yes, but I don’t mean just being able to reach your audience online. Imagine where an agency is able to buy the right to show an ad on an LED screen on Shaikh Zayed Road because a particular kind of car or driver has been spotted at the lights. What if we had face-recognition installed on outdoor sensors where you can actually calculate how many people looked at digital billboards as they passed? It’s coming, and everything is possible.