It’s been 18 years since you joined Media (now Campaign). Did you ever imagine you’d stay so long?
Atifa Silk: I joined Media as assistant editor in 2000 to launch the ‘one-to-one’ marketing section in the fortnightly magazine. My beat was to cover marketing strategy that used data collection and analysis, and digital technologies, to deliver ‘personalised’ marketing.
Advancements in marketing technologies have allowed this to become increasingly sophisticated, but in early 2000 it was still in its infancy in Asia and at Media our focus was on covering direct marketing, CRM and mobile marketing, and agencies such as OgilvyOne and Tribal DDB that were creating campaigns on behalf of multinational brands.
I had left a technology title to join Media. It was an exciting time to cover the marketing and advertising industries. Two developments in particular would change marketing over the next few years. One was the arrival of smart phones and mobile marketing. The second was the rise of Asian brands. Both of these developments contributed to the growth of the industry and the revolutionary changes that have taken place.
What were the biggest preoccupations of the industry back in 2000?
Atifa Silk: Improving the quality of real work for real clients, developing the region into an ideas-driven economy, and putting Asian brands and campaigns on the global stage. There was concern around the commoditisation of agencies, fuelled by the rise of holding companies—potentially at the expense of individual agency brands.
Just as I began to question Sorrell on decisions around his China acquisitions, he leaned across the table, swiped my notes and list of questions, taking me off guard and, of course, leaving me quite unprepared.
Procurement was coming into agency relationships at a time when those relationships were experiencing a major transition. Differentiation by quality of ideas was getting harder, giving way to price differentiation. Agencies were battling to demonstrate value, measurement and ROI, demanding a better process and transparency. There were calls for compensation to be linked to ROI.
What do you remember from your first ‘big-shot’ interview in adland?
Atifa Silk: I had the opportunity to interview Sir Martin Sorrell in Beijing not long after I joined Media. I was the newest and most junior writer on the team. I did my research and discovered his ambition was to grow WPP into the world’s largest communications service company by buying up a slew of advertising and PR firms the world over, including in Asia. In 2000, he had acquired over 35 companies. China was a priority. The sheer volume of acquisitions was impressive, but sources within WPP questioned how effectively those businesses were being managed and integrated into the WPP fold.
Just as I began to question Sorrell on decisions around his China acquisitions, he leaned across the table, swiped my notes and list of questions, taking me off guard and, of course, leaving me quite unprepared. Over the next hour, I fought hard to control the interview as he reversed roles and threw every question back at me, testing me and challenging my opinion. Toughest interview. But an invaluable learning experience.
In what ways do you see the industry as having changed for the better?
Atifa Silk: The global spotlight is on Asia. The region is now the biggest driver of global adspend growth, and expected to account for nearly 34% of global advertising expenditure in 2020 (according to Zenith). It will contribute 43% of all the new ad dollars added to the market between 2017 and 2020, accounting for US$32.1 billion of a total $75.1 billion.
Asia’s middle class is at the forefront of this shift. It will represent nearly 70% of the global middle-class population by 2030, and nearly 60% of its consumption. Asian brands are breaking down geographic boundaries. Homegrown tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent are leading the world with sophisticated products and services, data, analytics and developments in artificial intelligence. We are in the world’s fastest growing and most exciting market.
How about changes for the worse?
Atifa Silk: The importance of marketing in the boardroom has never been more critical. The chief marketing officer is not only the driver of business growth, but accountable for corporate risk and performance. Earlier this year, P&G’s Marc Pritchard implored marketers to take back control of the marketing system; they have divested too much responsibility to external partners and suppliers, he argued, and called on global marketers to reinvent media, reinvent advertising and reinvent agency partnerships.
What moment stands out as the most memorable during your time with Campaign?
Hosting an on-stage fireside chat with advertising rock stars Sir John Hegarty
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given relating to your job?
Earn the trust.
Did you always want to be a journalist? What would you have done as a ‘Plan B’ career?
I started my career as a copywriter in an ad agency. Journalism was plan B.
What was the most difficult interview you’ve ever conducted?
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web; his brilliant mind moves so quickly as he conveys his thoughts, skipping over words and entire sentences.
What one development affecting the industry you would like to have predicted?
The formidable advancements in technology by China’s BAT.
When P&G speaks, the marketing industry listens and indeed it’s been a mega year of pitches. Three-quarters of major multinational advertisers are reviewing their current agency partnerships, looking at whether they have the right mix of agencies and capabilities from external partners. There is pressure on agencies to rebuild credibility and demonstrate value. Marketing’s efficacy has never been as important or as complex and complicated as it is today.
Is the industry more fun now or then?
Atifa Silk: The industry is fun, largely for one reason—the people. This business still has the most interesting, forward-thinking, creative and smart individuals of any industry, who are looking at different ways of solving problems. In many cases, they are helping change the world with one insight and a big idea, whether it’s a big organisation addressing a problem in society or a non-profit that’s tackling an important issue. Fun breeds creativity and energises all of us associated with this industry.
Have you ever felt that your gender has been an issue in an industry dominated
Atifa Silk: Diversity is an issue and I believe, as an industry, we have reached the tipping point. While we have seen an increase in discussions around diversity and equality, we have also witnessed too many cases that continue to expose inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour. Which is why it’s important for Campaign and every individual working in this industry to take a stand, spark conversations and actions that set higher expectations and that motivate and drive change. Through programmes such as our Mandate for Change, Women Leading Change and Women to Watch events, we are working with agency and brand leaders who are committed to developing diversity of talent.
What one story or interview you have written or edited that stands out as having the biggest impact?
Atifa Silk: It took nearly three years to secure an interview with F1’s then-chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. Our first meeting was at the Singapore Grand Prix in 2014. I walked into his office as Niki Lauda walked out, and was warned by his minders that I could get two minutes or 20, depending on his mood. We spent 40 minutes talking about the Formula One brand, its future in the sports and entertainment sector, and challenges.
Journalism is experiencing a resurgence...The uncertainty and volatility in the world, and industry around us, demands that we create meaningful content that our readers value.
A month later, on Ecclestone’s 84th birthday, we met at FIA’s offices in London when we discussed whether F1 should actively attract younger fans to the sport to secure its future and the value of leveraging social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. The story went live soon after (see "Exclusive: F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone on his billion-dollar brand"). I could not have predicted the impact that article would have on the Formula One community. It received an overwhelming response from the media, and from F1 fans on social media who analysed every word featured in the interview and hounded me persistently for months afterwards. Ecclestone was removed from his position as chief executive of Formula One Group in January 2017, following its takeover by Liberty Media in 2016.
Journalism has changed a huge amount during your career. Is its future secure?
Atifa Silk: Journalism is experiencing a resurgence. That is, ‘quality’ journalism. The uncertainty and volatility in the world, and industry around us, demands that we create meaningful content that our readers value.
We must have a very clear purpose for our work and for the role we play in the industry we cover. Now, more than ever, people are looking to reliable and trusted content sources. The question for all media organisations is, have your business models changed? Because traditional revenue models are not sustainable.
What makes this industry so unique to report on? What are your hopes for its future?
Atifa Silk: Almost every facet of this industry is evolving at speed, leaving most of us to agree on one thing, if nothing else—that the landscape is going to look vastly different in the next two years. If I was to look ahead, I would hope that a client’s search for full service would be easier to deliver. That the way agencies service clients is radically different, but much more simple.That the value of agencies would be clearly demonstrated and we wouldn’t be concerned about the future of client-agency relationships—and whether those partnerships will even exist in the future. And that the leadership and teams within agencies and clients would reflect the diversity of Asia.