5 minutes with… Adrian Farouk
As CEO of Digitas in Australia and New Zealand, Adrian Farouk believes his role is a combination of steering, empowering and removing obstacles for the team. But with a degree in industrial design and a masters in what he calls ‘an MBA for design professionals’ his career path has been unconventional to say the least.
Adrian was instrumental to the launch of Digitas in ANZ in 2013 when it was LBI Australia. During this time he’s worked on campaigns to revive Australia’s tourism industry after wildfires devastated almost 20 million hectares of land and has had to overcome the hurdles of dealing with a global pandemic.
LBB’s Natasha Patel found out more from Adrian about his extremely varied career and how he believes investing in talent is instrumental to the company’s long-term plans.
LBB> Did you always want to go into the creative industry?
Adrian> Even during my earliest school days, CDT (Craft, Design, Technology) was my favourite subject. It soon became my focus and my only consideration for university. Since then, every role has had creativity, design and problem-solving at the core.
I’ve had roles in product design, user experience, art direction, strategy and client service. The common thread in all of these is creativity and a human-centred approach to design. With such a varied set of roles all tightly focused on that common thread, it is not surprising that I have always felt most at home at Digitas.
From my first stint in London 20 years ago, to my current second stint launching Digitas Australia, the focus has always been to orchestrate disparate disciplines together. Back then, we used to call it Blending. Now, we call it Connected Marketing. Ultimately, they are all variations of how we bring our diverse creative, data, media, strategy and technology capabilities together. This is what we believe is at the heart of creative excellence.
LBB> Before embarking on your career you studied for a masters in design, strategy in innovation. When you were doing this did you have any idea your career would pan out the way it did?
Adrian> I had [initially] studied industrial design and, while I loved it, I soon realised that real-world product design isn’t quite as exciting as the briefs we would tackle at university. Back then, apart from companies like Dyson and a few trail-blazing agencies like Ideo and Frog Design, I didn’t really see an industry brimming with creative excellence. So, after a couple of years designing housings for voltage protection boxes (I kid you not), I decided to pivot by going back to university.
I had realised that it wasn’t products that I was passionate about per se, it was the whole approach and ethos of design-based thinking. I loved the problem-solving nature of it, the need to understand audiences, the process to find creative solutions, refine them and communicate.
Brunel had a brilliant master’s degree in design, strategy and innovation which was dubbed as ‘an MBA for design-based professionals’. It was everything I needed it to be to take all the elements of what I loved about design and point them in a different direction. It wasn’t long after that I started working at Digitas in London (formerly LBi).
LBB> Your career has taken across the world - literally! How did you feel about these moves?
Adrian> I am very fortunate to have seen so much of the world through work. For many years Digitas HQ used to be in London, so I would be there regularly. Now, I find myself in North America more. We have offices all over APAC, which I have seen several times over given many of our clients’ regional remits. For years we even had clients based in Singapore whom I visited every quarter.
When I first left the UK, I actually worked in New Zealand for a year before coming to Australia. I absolutely loved my time in Auckland – it is such a brilliant city full of talented people. I was thrilled to be able to launch Digitas in Auckland last year and we now have a team of around 50 people creating outputs that would rival the sophistication of anything I have seen outside of North America.
When I first arrived in Australia 17 years ago, the creative industry was booming. Australian agencies always seemed to punch above their weight in international awards such as Cannes and there was an incredible feeling of innovation which really drew me in. I have a theory that, through various global financial crises, brands have tightened spends and reverted to ‘safer’ territories only to forget to switch back again.
I think that is why I have had so much success launching Digitas in Australia – I was able to bring the best talent, thought leadership and innovation from around the world. Back then, we were half a step behind the UK. But these days, I don’t see any market in the world, with the exception of North America, doing anything more sophisticated than what we are currently doing. If anything, I feel we are leading the way internationally.
LBB> Who is your creative hero?
Adrian> While it is tempting to say a more conventional hero, such as Leonardo Da Vinci (whom I have studied and am fascinated with), I can’t really look past the person who has had the most profound impact on the growth and success of Digitas Australia. While he probably doesn’t need any more ego-fluffing than I am sure he gets already, that person is former Digitas global CCO Chris Clarke.
Chris was a brilliant, deep and articulate thinker that constantly questioned existing norms about the industry. From provocations such as “why the internet is shit” to “the impact of Donald Trump on data-driven marketing”, Chris always had an ability to make you think about what you were doing and how you could do it better.
He gave us the licence to push boundaries and instilled the creative spirit that still burns brightly today. I look back at the industry 20 years ago where we took nine-plus months to build even the simplest of websites and think we had no idea what we were doing. I truly believe we will look at ourselves 20 years from now in the same way. Digital marketing is still so immature, so if we are not taking the industry forward and doing things never done before, then we are not living up to our full potential.
Whether he realises this or not, this is the belief that Chris drove into all of us.
LBB> Which Digitas project makes you most proud?
Adrian> The Battlefield V launch for EA Games was a fun time at the agency. It was the first time that Digitas Australia made a Cannes shortlist and that initial taste of it gave us the confidence to go searching for more.
We believe that we are at our best when we bring our whole selves to our client’s problems and this campaign was the epitome of our creative, data, media, strategy and technology capabilities coming together.
What I love about it was the way it engaged the entire agency throughout the five-month campaign. We became obsessed with monitoring the activity live and devising new ways to outsmart the community. Watching the community forums explode with activity and the sheer volumes of people working together to crack our missions was amazing.
Once the game launched, we were able to attribute our campaign engagement to 35% of sales within the first two weeks. A huge return on a global scale for EA Games.
LBB> The recent Tourism Australia campaign is a great project - and one that will bring a lot of joy to those stuck indoors. What do you hope is the impact of this campaign?
Adrian> From September 2019 to March 2020, the entire world watched as hundreds of fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares, killing at least 34 people and an estimated 1 billion animals. Australia’s peak tourism body estimated the country’s bushfire crisis cost the industry almost $1 billion.
Just as the fires were brought under control and Australia began the long process of rebuilding, Covid-19 hit. Tourism accounts for more than 3% of Australia’s A$1.95 trillion economy, with nine million foreigners visiting the country annually and domestic tourism growing. That industry is now on the brink of disaster.
“Live From Aus” was a world-first interactive multicast introducing the world to the best of Australia streamed live across the world’s most popular online platforms over an entire weekend. We created a stage for Australian tourism operators to inspire the world to see Australia once more and rally the nation to “holiday here this year”.
Our 32 live streams drew an audience almost four times the population of Australia (95m impressions) from 40-plus countries, with many individual live streams beating peak Australian TV viewership. As we slowly begin to move out of lockdown, I truly hope we have done our bit to kickstart this industry that is in desperate need of repair.
LBB> What does a typical day in your role look like?
Adrian> As CEO of Digitas ANZ, my focus is on steering leadership teams, empowering them and removing any obstacles they may have to performing at their full potential. Strangely enough, while we are all dealing with video call fatigue, aching backs and out of control hair, I find myself more able to do my job in isolation than I ever did in the office.
I have a mixture of daily, twice weekly and weekly stand ups with the leadership of Digitas AU and NZ, where I get a temperature check on the wellbeing of all of our people and clients. The Publicis Groupe ANZ Leadership Team meets every other day for updates and knowledge sharing and, every fortnight, there is an APAC Q&A with the Publicis Global CEO. Before this period of isolation, I couldn’t even book a time to speak to people I sat next to without waiting a week.
Like many people, I now find myself questioning how we worked before and whether it was any more efficient. The sheer amount of time I used to spend commuting or on planes has been rediscovered. I find myself more able to safeguard essential thinking, planning and strategy creation time, all while being more connected and more able to orchestrate disparate teams in different locations.
LBB> Where do you hope to steer Digitas in the next year?
Adrian> Digitas is an ever-growing beast. Even in lockdown, we have expanded by over 15 people at a time when others in the market are shrinking. Maintaining the connected ethos of the business as our superpower through this growth takes continual effort.
In New Zealand, bringing together the key investments that the Publicis Groupe has made is going to be crucial over the next 18 months. The talent we now have across the Groupe is seriously impressive and genuinely best in class. The stage is now set for them to dominate the market and take the industry forward to new heights.
Across both businesses we are well set, with the right capabilities, to help our clients manage their post-Covid-19 recovery. We have all the skillsets they require to help them understand their audience needs in real-time, pivot their plans, manage their communications and future-proof their infrastructures for whatever comes next.