The conversation: AMV's Snowball & BT's Al-Qassab on perfectionism and diversity

Top marketers and their agency partners interview each other in Campaign's new monthly feature. This first conversation takes place up the BT tower between Cilla Snowball and Zaid Al-Qassab.

Few brand-agency relationships are as enduring as that of BT and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO – so how has it lasted so long? Campaign went up the BT Tower with Zaid Al-Qassab, chief brand and marketing officer at BT, and Dame Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group chief executive of AMV BBDO, to find out.

Cilla Snowball So, tell me something about yourself I don’t know.

Zaid Al-Qassab I never intended to be in marketing. I never even applied to be. I was in my last year at uni, applied to a bunch of management consultancies and thought I’d applied to one called Procter & Gamble... but it turned out it wasn’t a management consultancy! Since they offered you jobs on the day, I walked out with one, not really knowing what the company did. So I’m in marketing by complete accident. 

CS What would you say has been the most significant moment in our relationship?

ZA-Q It’s probably today – we have the first major work of our new brand platform, Be There, launching. We’ve been working on it for 18 months and it’s finally seeing the light of day. 

CS I think I’d share that – today is the culmination of a lot of strategy, a lot of internal reorganisation at your end and a lot of silos coming together to work under a brand banner.

ZA-Q I’m really proud of the way AMV not only led the thinking but did so in a very generous way so it would work for all of our businesses, including our other agencies.

CS I think another feature of our relationship is perfectionism, that we always want it to be better. The strength of a good relationship is that push and pull of driving things forward but being open and immediate about things that could be better.

ZA-Q We’re pretty restless in search of perfection that we’ll never achieve. We don’t have many conversations that pat ourselves on the back.

CS We’re tough on ourselves and on raising standards but our conversations are civilised, open, constructive. Toys don’t get thrown out and fists don’t fly – although they did once a long time ago in our BT relationship. Though not between you and me!

ZA-Q We are a terribly complicated client, there’s no doubt about it. And we often depend on you, the agency, to be the glue that keeps us together and helps us appear like a brand when we’re a really complicated company with many products and services.

CS Yes – and that glue has to be administered and policed in quite a tough way. And I think sometimes we agonise about the best way to do that. We all believe in carrot not stick but, equally, we have a responsibility to pull things together coherently, and that’s a responsibility we take seriously.

ZA-Q We do have to intervene sometimes – there was a point last year when there was a proposal to use Jon Bon Jovi in one of the BT films. I intervened and said Jon Bon Jovi is not on-brand for BT and it was quickly removed from the table. 


ZA-Q So how do you think you’ve managed 23 years in partnership with BT?

CS Twenty-three years has not been a cosy club – it’s been a process of active selection at various points rather than passive inheritance. The relationship’s lasted because the team at BT has wanted to actively select us. 

ZA-Q I’d say part of the success is we do spend our time talking about the creative work – that takes up a large share of your thought space.

CS I think it is a strong team on both sides and one that invests in face-to-face contact. It helps that we’re a 10-minute walk away from each other’s offices but I don’t think a single day goes by without someone from AMV being in your office or vice versa. 

ZA-Q Definitely not. Probably not a single hour – even if you just count you and me, that’s probably most days of the year.

CS That’s why I want my own honorary security pass for your building, which in 23 years I’ve failed to be awarded. It’s harder than getting a damehood!

ZA-Q So, Cilla, tell me what you were awarded your damehood for.

CS Services to advertising, diversity and equality. And we’ll be here all night if I start on diversity and equality. A lot of the work that’s out there in the industry is just not diverse. With the things we’re trying to address – removing stereotypes, achieving a better ethnic mix and better recognition of disability – I think we both recognise the enormous challenge we face ahead. Even within our own realm of responsibility.

ZA-Q I agree. It’s well documented that diverse organisations perform better – but we work in a creative industry and diversity of thought is essential to the creative process. We should be more on top of this than other industries and there’s still work to do. 

CS I think there’s a will, but it’s very difficult to drive change quickly enough. The industry hasn’t got enough women in creative departments. We’ve launched some initiatives in AMV to try to accelerate that, but we’ve still got tons to do as an agency and an industry to get to anything like parity in terms of representation of senior women in creative departments. How about you, what keeps you up at night?

ZA-Q There’s a crisis around talent and skills. The world has changed so much. When I started as an assistant brand manager at P&G, my entire annual marketing plan fitted on one sheet of A4. Now you’d need several books. Today there’s a bunch of digital people who are brilliant at harvesting clicks but don’t really understand the whys and wherefores; and there’s a bunch of brand people who’ve historically been excellent at understanding their consumers but don’t know how to apply that in the modern world. 

CS There’s a very big price tag on the people who have got those sets of skills and a big imperative on agencies and clients to train up for both. 

ZA-Q If I think back to opening Campaign when I started in this industry, the news would be mostly about all the great new creative that had come out that week. Now the news is about adtech, data understanding, brand safety. I don’t need big data, I need big insight. They’re not the same thing and too few people understand that. 

CS What advice would you give people starting their careers?

ZA-Q Be curious. If you define yourself narrowly as a marketer, you won’t be successful. You have to think of yourself as a business leader, think about the people you interact with – the finance managers, sales managers, HR managers. Be curious about what drives them and why they’re in the business. What do you think?

CS My advice would be to understand the importance of relationships and cherish them because they have a funny way of repeating, developing and being enormously rewarding.

ZA-Q We’re in the relationship business, basically. 

CS Business is all about relationships – it’s a simple fact but it’s often forgotten. 

ZA-Q Do you remember where we first met?

CS I do. It was indicative of the relationship that would follow. I was doing a presentation at P&G and you were charged with sorting out my deck when I came down to present it.

ZA-Q I didn’t know that until now. You didn’t even put that in our notes for this interview!

CS That was the first time but we kept in contact when you left P&G and, one day, I got a call from BT asking what you were like when they were interviewing you. It goes to show that it’s a very small world in marketing and advertising. The PowerPoint presentation you helped me with led to a friendship and a relationship, and now we’re charged with some pretty big stuff together.

ZA-Q It’s lucky I had good PowerPoint skills.