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Saturday January 19, 2013

Ali Mohamed leaves Leo Burnett

Ali: ‘Ideas come when people are free to express themselves.’ Ali: ‘Ideas come when people are free to express themselves.’

THE advertising veteran whom the late Yasmin Ahmad described as her “soul mate” has retired.

Ali Mohamed, widely viewed as an advertising legend in his own right, has stepped down as chairman of Leo Burnett Malaysia, the advertising agency that they together helped build into a creative powerhouse through work such as the Petronas festive commercials.

Leo Burnett Singapore chief creative officer Ted Lim, a Malaysian who himself has won numerous creative awards, says he has long admired Ali and Yasmin's work. “The ads they did together for Shangri-la Hotel inspired me to join advertising. They stood out in a sea of sameness,” he writes in an email.

“Ali is the consummate art director. His craft is second to none. His retirement is advertising's loss. The art directors of today have much to learn from him.”

BBDO Proximity Singapore chief creative officer Ronald Ng, another internationally-recognised Malaysian creative talent, views Ali as “one of those strong, quiet characters that has created some of Malaysia's best ideas based on life stories. Real humanity. And Ali's crafting is near perfect. You can't think of Ali without thinking of Yasmin. And vice versa. They were the dream team.”

StarBizWeek went looking for Ali, 63, at his house in Section 11, Shah Alam after learning of his retirement last month.

Ali and Yasmin had joined Leo Burnett together as co-creative directors from Ogilvy & Mather back in 1992 and even shared an office.

The teak table and chairs that they bought together with their own money to furnish their then-new office have been brought home by Ali following his retirement. After two decades at the office, these furniture are now under the porch and at the patio of Ali's house.

Ali did not take home any of the countless creative award trophies that they and their team had racked up over the years. Like Yasmin, he believes the most meaningful impact of an advertisement happens in the marketplace when people respond to and talk about it, not at the award ceremonies.

The interview with Ali is conducted in a relaxed atmosphere at the patio on the very chairs Ali and Yasmin had purchased together. It is the kind of relaxed atmosphere that Yasmin and Ali had tried to bring to Leo Burnett when they first came there.

Yasmin has what Ali calls the ‘sense of ridiculous’. Yasmin has what Ali calls the ‘sense of ridiculous’.

Ali's 40 years in the advertising industry was mostly spent at Ogilvy & Mather (13 years) − where he rose to become associate creative director and met Yasmin − and Leo Burnett (20 years), which he and Yasmin joined on the invitation of then-managing director Phil Fiebig.

At Ogilvy, the team of Ali and Yasmin won many creative awards, mainly in the print category. It was at Leo Burnett that they started being recognised for their TV work, especially the series of touching Petronas festive commercials which began with the revolutionary “Little Indian Boy” Merdeka ad.

On his decision to retire, Ali explains: “When I reached 55, they (Leo Burnett) asked whether I wanted to retire. I said I still believed I could contribute then; in fact, I still enjoy doing communication strategies. But at that time I relinquished my directorship of the company. I just wanted to remain as a consultant.

“I thought this could be my last year I wanted to do consultancy maybe two to three days a week. I guess Leo Burnett management had other plans, so I might as well call it a day.”

Ali says he used to like his work to the point of feeling like he was getting paid while having fun. “The feeling started to gradually disappear after Yasmin was no longer around,” he admits.

People's respect for Yasmin was such that for one or two years after she passed away in 2009, her desk was left as she had left it. Even the last note that was stuck on the computer was not removed.

Ali says he prefers to concentrate on thinking of creative communication solutions and doesn't want to get bogged down in other nitty-gritty such as looking at other people's work and attending numerous meetings. “Enough of that,” he says. “Just like the late Yasmin used to say, Li, dia orang semua dah besar-besar (Li, they're all grown ups).”

On what he would do now, Ali says he is in the process of doing something (“nothing to do with agency, completely different”), but he can't disclose it yet.

“I don't mind being a freelance consultant to any agency if it needs my services,” he says, adding that he looks forward to spending time with his grandchildren and doing gardening.

Ali says he would not mind teaching once in a while but doesn't want to be locked into a routine.

Ali says the process of getting around the idea is the most rewarding thing, along with convincing the clients of the idea and getting good response from the public. “When the industry gave us awards, it's okaylah. That's a bonus,” he says.

Elaborating on the process, he recalls that when Yasmin and he first joined Leo Burnett, the agency wasn't known for its creative work and they thought something needed to be done to turn it around.

“We went to see P.Lal Store (in Kuala Lumpur). I told Yasmin I liked what they did with their ads. They showed the shoes and the prices, with the tag line Lowest fixed price. Perhaps we could do something for them without losing all those ingredients.

“When we first got our salary, we decided to buy shoes there and saw the owner to ask whether they would like us to do their ads. They said they didn't have money (they had been going direct to the newspaper to place their ads). We said we would not charge for the creative work and would only charge for making the engravings. Yasmin then did a lot of interesting stuff for P.Lal and the public response was good, with people talking about it even in Penang. At the awards show, we surprisingly got something.”

On the Petronas campaigns, he says Leo Burnett started off working with Petronas by doing a simple brochure. Then the oil giant asked the agency whether it was keen to pitch for its festive advertising account.

Ali and Yasmin met then-Petronas president Tan Sri Hassan Marican and talked about going back to the roots about not forgetting our values − as the oil corporation's communications strategy.

The Petronas business has since opened the doors for Leo Burnett to win other businesses.

Asked his first impression of Yasmin when she first joined Ogilvy a few years after him, Ali says he couldn't quite remember. “But I knew she was the kind of girl who was very vibrant, playing guitar in the office.”.

They had the opportunity to work together on several accounts including American Express. “When we were asked to pitch for the Regent Hotel account, that's when we really worked together,” he recalls.

“Yasmin was a very fast thinker, and we kind of clicked. When we discussed and I proposed something, she could see it quite quickly. Things became very fluid. We had a lot of debates and arguments, and she always came up with interesting points, which was refreshing to me.”

When they (along with a few other Ogilvy employees) moved to Leo Burnett, Ali and Yasmin decided to create a more relaxed atmosphere at the office as they would spend much time there.

“We're dealing with ideas. Ideas come when people are free to express themselves, when you're not intimidated. It doesn't matter how good your English is; I just want to know what you're thinking. Talking in a conference room can be intimidating, so at Leo Burnett there are a lot of open areas with coffee tables where people could put their legs up and just talk and just express themselves. During the process of getting ideas, forget your titles, whether you're a creative director, a producer or in account servicing,” he says.

Both Yasmin and Ali believed that everyone has the right to express himself, including disagreeing with him and Yasmin.

What does Ali look for when interviewing job-seekers? “I want to know what he likes and believes in life. For a copywriter, I would expect all the basic skills. What I'm really looking for is your thinking, the way you look at things in life, the way you solve a problem.”

Among other questions he asked is “Are you interested in people?” “When you deal with communication, you must understand people well -- whom you talk to,” he says. (Incidentally, one of Ali's sons has followed his footsteps and works in account servicing/strategic planning at ad agency McCann Erickson Malaysia.)

Asked why Yasmin described him as her “soul mate”, Ali says: “A lot of people asked me why she called me her soul mate. I don't know, but she gave me a hint by saying, Aku belum cakap, kau dah tahu. Aku tengok muka kau, aku dah tahu kau suka, tak suka. (I haven't said anything and you already know what I'll be saying. I look at your face, I know whether you like or not my idea'). When I read the first three sentences (of the idea she proposed), she would know if I liked it. We had that understanding.”

Ali loved Yasmin's “sense of ridiculous.” “Just imagine when we interviewed a senior copywriter (who's seeking a job) and Yasmin was putting on her make-up, ready to go somewhere else...The person didn't know what to do, but at the end of the interview, she said please take me because I really like this atmosphere!” he says with a chuckle. “We didn't like formality. We were very casual.”

What advice would he give someone just joining the industry? “Enjoy what you do and be honest with yourself. At the beginning of your career, don't think so much about money. What you learn is more important than what you earn. Yasmin and I believe rezeki (sustenance) will come when you enjoy and do your job well. The same thing applies in advertising: if we do our work well, business will take care of itself.”

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