This much I know: Zaid Al-Zaidy

17 December 2014 -


One of the UK’s leading figures in advertising tells us about getting started at Unilever, why breakfast is important – and the inspirational power of Captain Kirk

Colin Marrs

Zaid Al-Zaidy is chief executive officer at ad agency McCann London, with clients including Coca Cola, Microsoft, Nestle, Unilever (where his career began), MasterCard and Premier Foods.

I originally wanted to be an art dealer. After my first degree I wanted to learn more, so I did a masters in Middle Eastern art at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I then decided to do a year in marketing at Unilever to learn about the commercial side. By the time I realised that the Iranians had cornered the market in Middle Eastern art dealing, I'd already fallen in love with marketing.

I love travelling – but hate the travel. At the beginning, my work at Unilever involved introducing brands to untapped markets, such as taking soap to Peru and the Andes. I’m interested in finding human commonality through the lens of the religious and cultural differences we see. But airport and travel time is awful.

My work is inspired by Star Trek. We have a “Captain Kirk” manifesto, which is that we should explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations, and boldly go where no man has gone before. It is a way of setting our growth agenda, and helping us find new ways to solve problems for clients. It is as much a business strategy as a science-fiction quote.

Breakfast is important. I have breakfast with 10 people from McCann every month to try and find out how people in the company are feeling about things.

Social media is an opportunity. I have always believed that advertising is the humanisation of an inanimate object or organisation. Technology is just a way of extending that, so that brands can talk, listen and respond.

Steve Jobs is one of my heroes. He was so passionate and clear. He designed a product that was intuitive rather than needing a huge pamphlet before you started using it. That was a breakthrough.

My creative partners are my favourite muses. They are super smart and have an incredible knack of making things seem simple.

Success drives success. When I was at Unilever, I was the lead client on a TV commercial that won lots of awards. When you have been part of something special like that, you know what success is going to feel like, and that helps you fight to have that feeling again.

Science fiction inspires me. I love sci-fi movies. I am struck by how, if you watch them, they will usually tell you about the future – and get it right. I’m looking forward to the new Star Wars film – it looks like it will have a dark edge and that will be awesome.

One of my greatest challenges is managing in the short term, but planning for the future. That is difficult. Short-term decisions affect the future, and can be all consuming. But how you keep focused on the future is how you get sustainable growth. I love that challenge.

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