From child soldier to creative chief: DDB’s Amir Kassaei’s hard-knocks guide to an ad career

DDB creative chief Amir Kassaei is a man of the world. Kassaei was born in Iran, raised in Austria and educated in France. It was only after stints at agencies including TBWA, Barci & Partner and Springer & Jacoby, that Kassaei found himself at DDB, where he was entrusted with the task of reshaping DDB Germany back in 2003. He has been the agency’s global chief creative officer since 2011.

Here, Kassaei tells us in his own words how he got into the business and shares some of the biggest lessons he has learned along the way.

I was born in Iran. I was a child soldier at the age of 13 and fled to Austria at 15 — all by myself with no money and no parents. More than anything, it was about survival and building a life. I had no option. I did everything you can imagine to survive. I was cleaning the streets, working as a delivery guy and every other odd job. I didn’t have any ideas about advertising then and the luxury to think about what I wanted to do.

I realized I wanted to be in advertising when I realized the power of an idea, the power of a great advertising idea to really change and impact the world. That moment for me was when I saw the Volkswagen Beetle campaign from the ‘60s, which changed everything. In advertising, I was a financial guy, an account guy, a strategic planner, a media consultant — and only then did I decide to be a creative. I thought if not the talent, I had at least the passion for the business.

Being a refugee definitely helped me understand a range of different societies, cultures and environments better. If you want to work globally, it helps shape your mind and also your focus. I’ve been through the best school, which is the school of life. It is the best school you can have, especially if you land up in advertising, where there is this tendency of confusing the world that you’re in — the world of advertising — with the real world. A lot of people in the business get caught up with the superficial. But the best advertising is based on relevant truths from everyday life and has a connection with real people.

Creativity for me is more about solving problems. For me, it’s always been about being in a place where you can change things for the better. Advertising is interesting to me because everyday you’re doing something different, and using your passion and talent to help companies add value to their business. Almost 30 years in, I still love it.

You have to be able to create human insights out of facts. It’s also important to have a holistic view of what we do, because if you don’t understand each part of it, it’s hard to be successful. It’s not necessary to do all the jobs, but it’s good to know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it: from creative to planning to strategy. What makes people great in advertising isn’t talent, it’s the will to fight for an idea. I’ve met a lot of talented people, but they did not have the drive to succeed.

The toughest moments are when you’re failing more than you’re succeeding, especially when you’re trying to do something new. The nature of the business is that people are always rejecting your ideas. When that happens, it’s easy to give up. Of 10 of my ideas, nine would get rejected. The lowest point of my career was when I first tried to move into creative from accounts, and the small agency I was working at in Austria fired me. But you have to fight for your ideas.

More in Marketing

With the rise of the chief AI officer, it’s time to examine ‘czar’ culture

Even if it’s a familiar pattern — hot new thing, new C-Suite exec to tackle said thing, a few years go by and that C-Suite position no longer exists as everyone is now doing said thing (or it was a fad that has since faded away) — does it make sense for businesses to continue to appoint new czars with every new trend? 

Why Cava’s bid for brand awareness means prioritizing streaming ads

Fast-casual restaurant chain Cava has been in growth mode over the past year and is leaning into streaming ads in an effort to boost brand awareness.

A history of middle manager stress: The Return podcast, season 3, episode 1

In episode one, McKinsey partner Emily Field tells us more about why middle management is critically important to the workforce.