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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Kash Sree
Kash Sree

kashinside Kash SreeExecutive Creative Director
Pereira & O’Dell

Kash Sree is one of those guys who could tell you how to make your ads better and then proceed to kick your ass.

You see, before he made the logical transition to copywriter, Kash spent his time studying and teaching martial arts, while moonlighting as a designer at Ogilvy in London. His journey then took him all around the world; first to Singapore where he helped Batey Ads become agency of the year in Asia, then to Australia, where he helped DDB Sydney become Campaign Brief’s agency of the year, and then to Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, where he worked on some of Nike’s most memorable campaigns and helped them become the most awarded US agency at Cannes in 2002. So yeah, you get the picture, he’s won more awards than most of us have had commutes, so there must be something he’s doing right.

These days, you’re most likely to find him in and around San Francisco where he acts as Executive Creative Director at Perreira & O’Dell, and oversees clients like Lego, Corona, UBISOFT and Yahoo!

ihaveanidea recently had a chance to catch up with him to hear about how his phenomenal career came about and pick up a few pieces of wisdom along the way. Oh, and he speaks with an East London accent, so please read the interview accordingly.

ihaveanidea: You started your advertising career at 30. How much of a different perspective do you think it gave you as opposed to the other juniors in the department?

Kash: There are a couple of answers to this one. One, everything I’ve done before had shaped the way I think. Most of my life before that was martial arts, even though I was a designer. That shaped the way I think and look at things. People are sick of the martial arts analogies I use for everything. A lot of what I write, and a lot of what most people write is shaped by their previous experiences. You have to have done something first. That’s why when I see students I say “For Christ’s sake go and get arrested or go and run naked somewhere. Do something, because it’s going to change the way you write.”

Finally, it left me desperately hungry to catch up. I would work myself to death to catch up – and I still haven’t. I think it’s a great thing because you just try harder.

ihaveanidea: And did that experience prevent you from making mistakes other juniors were making around you?

Kash: Well I’ve made some really big mistakes, so I am not one to talk. I have a volatile nature and I’ve had episodes of shouting. It felt good for five minutes until I couldn’t sell a piece of work for about six months after that.

One thing that I am noticing now, and I hope it’s not true, but since the advent of specialised advertising colleges, there seems to be a propensity towards self-entitlement. The whole “Now I know advertising, so I won’t do that; I want to do this” or “I am not gonna do anything unless it’s gonna win me a One Show gold”.  All they think about is “that’s not a good enough brief”. I think most people forget that nothing is a good brief to begin with. Or very rarely at least do you get a good enough brief to begin with.

When you do something great, people get jealous and start asking “how the hell did they get such a good brief for that?”. The reality is that you made it into a good brief, and you made that into a good client.

Another mistake I’ve seen is people being in a rush. It’s good to be in a rush, but it’s also how you go about it. It’s good to be in a rush when you work yourself to death; it’s not good when you start to take too many shortcuts.

There was one guy who was pretty close, I was helping him put his book together, asking him to make changes and I think he felt that he wasn’t progressing fast enough. So he went to my boss with his book, who gave it back to me and asked what I thought.

Even if he was in a good position, I could never hire him because I could never trust him. But I can’t really point fingers at people for being stupid because I’ve done all kinds of stupid myself.

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ihaveanidea: Do you think those who get into the business a bit older get to move up the echelons faster?

Kash: That’s entirely dependent on you. I’ve seen people join late and do nothing. Sometimes because they just don’t have the energy or because they become set in their ways. But no, I think it depends on the individual, how hard they work and on how they keep their minds young and stay fresh.

That’s why I think old people have more difficulty, because they say “I know how the world works”. And as soon as you say that, it means you’ve stopped growing.  The same goes for companies; you can see when they start thinking they know it all. You can go okay, that company is stuck in 1997, that one is in 91, that one in 2003. And that’s when they’re screwed. That’s when they need to tear it off and start again.

So I thought “You know what, screw all of you. I am going to do exactly what you say”. I was just being a baby. “I’m gonna stop working, I’ll just play video games all day.”

ihaveanidea: When you got to W+K in Portland you said that you had to forget about the work till you bleed mentality you find in most agencies, especially in Asia, and that the quality of your work got better once you started taking it more easily. How does that work exactly?

Kash: I think it’s stages.

That story goes back a little bit further. It goes back to where I first started in London. We were trained in the old GGT style and approach towards the work, which is “you work yourself to death. You do a thousand ads, of which 100 might be good, of which 10 might be great.”

So I came from that school of thinking. I used to think that you built brain like you built a muscle. You do all the work, and even if you do it wrong, you’re still building the muscle, and that’s why when people come to you, you come-up with ideas fast because you train your mind all the time.

But when I got to W+K, I was petrified. First, I felt that I’d been hired as a clerical error. My art director (Andy Fackrell) had 10 yeas more experience than me, so I got there and I was expecting to be fired at any moment. It’s funny, there was this phone list at W+K and it had my name on the same list as Jim Riswold, Dan Wieden and Jerry Cronin. So I kept thinking “even if I get fired, at least I’ve got this now!”.

It’s good to be in a rush when you work yourself to death; it’s not good when you start to take too many shortcuts.

I would work myself to death to try not to get found out, and at one point I was working with a partner who wasn’t working as hard. So I wanted to complain that he didn’t want to work at 11 o’clock at night and went to Melanie Myers who said “no, you have got calm the fuck down”

So I went to somebody else, and they said the same thing: “You’re too intense, you’re burning out your partners.”

This is maybe two years into W+K, and I was having some success, but I still didn’t have the feeling that I was where I wanted to be. So I thought “You know what, screw all of you. I am going to do exactly what you say”. I was just being a baby. “I’m gonna stop working, I’ll just play video games all day.”. I even started a video games tournament for people to take part in. We had Soul Calibur tournaments and were just fucking about all day, and the funny thing is that my work got a hundred times better. I got into a playful state of mind, and in that state of mind, solutions come easily, they are more surprising and you can feel the work. You surprise yourself.

I compare this to Bruce Lee. He used to say “You train 100%, and then you fight completely relaxed. That way you don’t hold yourself up, you’re faster and you’re more spontaneous and relaxed”.

So I was ready to fight relaxed.

ihaveanidea: You also said that when you came up with the best work in your career, you had to convince yourself to hate every ad ever made before and everything that’s too “addy”…

Kash: That what I learned from Wieden. When we came in, Andy and I were the hottest team in Australia. We had 23 finalists in the Australian and Asian awards and we’d just taken five pencils. We were on top of our game. We knew how advertising worked. Or so we thought. And when we got to W+K, they told us they hated advertising and all those formulas you do.

It left us completely vulnerable, but it made us step out of ad language. Even award winning ad language had its formulas. And when you do that, you start trying to find your own voice.

If you think about advertising, it goes something like this: there’s the Cannes visual pun formula, in America there’s the headline full of product pay-offs ones, and for D&AD there’s the “let’s make it like art” formula. And then you say “where do I fit in?” “What can I offer, and what can this brand say that’s different and feels honest?”

Usually when you go there, you don’t know how to judge. And this means you could either fuck up royally, or do something spectacular. But even if you fuck up, if you do something spectacular right afterwards, people tend to forget about the fuck ups.

ihaveanidea: For the people who aren’t lucky enough to work at W+K, what would you say are the best tricks – if any- to get into that mindset?  How do you make yourself completely forget about ad formulas?

Kash: Always be unhappy with your work. Look at work that inspires you, but don’t emulate it. Get involved in more things; more life experiences. See art, see movies, talk to interesting people, get yourself in situations that are outside of your comfort zone.

Look at other things that’ve got nothing to do with advertising. Go and talk to someone who makes kites, or to someone who’s obsessed with dogs. Why don’t you get into their world? It’ll affect the way you think.

Not everybody is gonna get into W+K to begin with. But if you can get into a good group, or you find a good mentor and MILK THEM. Pick their brains until they don’t take your calls anymore or until they throw you out of their offices.

There’re many people out there who want to help, and who want to help you get better because they get a sense of pride and a sense of giving back.

So the first day I got there, I thought: “Oh, fuck”

ihaveanidea: Yeah, most senior people in the industry are way too nice and helpful for their own good.

Kash: It’s funny you say that. I find that at the top of the business there’re two types of people: You’ve got the sharks, who got there by politics and usually aren’t particularly talented.

And then, you have the really talented people who are usually quite nice and innocent. They don’t have to resort to games. I believe that most people who are really good are like artists. And most artists need to stay pure and honest. That’s why so many great ad people don’t make money.

PJ (Perreira) is one of those rare exceptions since he’s really good at the business side as well as being really good at the concept side. Me? I can barely dress myself without thinking about advertising ideas, and art ideas and just ideas in general. So i’m trying to learn more from PJ on that. I recently bought some clothes that wouldn’t embarrass PJ at client meetings. I’m almost trendy. Almost.

But back to your question. Even at JWT there were some good people. You can be at a an extremely challenging agency (or what’s perceived as a bad agency) and find a good group or a good person to work with. What you don’t want to do is learn bad habits and think that’s the right way. So even if you’re in a less than ideal situation, you can find people in your town at least who you respect and who can teach you how to do good work. It might involve doing extra-curricular activities . But it’s like going to the gym; that’s extra curricular work, but it’s there for a reason, and you’re getting better for it.

ihaveanidea: You’ve worked on both sides of the spectrum, on some pretty cool clients and on what are admittedly some pretty boring ones too. Is it easier to sell crazy ideas to the so called good ones?

Kash: There’re two parts to that question. Yes, it’s easier to sell good work to good clients, but if you’ve got any pride and if you are like me, and constantly in need of validation (because I am really sad), you don’t want to be the person who did the ordinary Nike ad.

So my greatest fear when I was at W+K was being the guy who followed up that great spot with something mediocre or just ordinary. In some ways it’s harder because you have to beat the best in the world.

ihaveanidea: Post-Wieden your partner Andy went to another boutique agency in 180, whereas you went to Leo Burnett. So what do you think is the difference between working at a hot shop and at a big agency?

Kash: The way your ass whistles afterwards.

Kidding aside, I nearly went to 180 a year before Andy went there, but I decided against it for several reasons. One: financial. I’ve always been really consistent with money in that I’ve always lived 10% beyond my means. (laughs)

What happened was that Dan had to fire people. And he hates firing people. So he gave us all a pay cut overnight. What that did for me, since I didn’t have any savings, was that all my credit cards bills went unpaid and the interest rate jumped from 6% to 27%. I very nearly lost my house, and had to take all sorts of debt just to keep it. So that was one factor; I needed to make more money.

Another one was that when I was at W+K, people would say that it was all very well and good doing great ads on Nike since it’s an easy client. So I needed to find out if I could do great work on ordinary brands. And that’s partly ego, but it was also uncertainty. Maybe I was crap without Wieden’s team around me.

It took people like Jim Riswold and Dan Wieden to say “Now where’s your voice?”, and I thought “Wow, you’re talking like Bruce Lee…”

So at the time, I was choosing 180, Leo Burnett and another agency. I knew a guy that was already at Leos who kept telling me how great they were and how they wanted to change things. So I thought at least I’d have a partner if I went there. But when I got there, it was horrendous. I realised that they had never interviewed me outside the agency, they always interviewed me in restaurants and bars but never in the agency. So the first day I got there, I thought: “Oh, fuck”

I do believe that everything happens for a reason and I learned so many lessons there about how certain types of people work and how some parts of the business work.

In a sense, W+K is great, but it’s also its own cage. It’s a creative haven that keeps you barefoot and pregnant. You don’t really have to understand how clients work or how business works. You can just remain an artist, protected from the business. I think many boutiques do that too. Which is lovely, but it’s not sustainable for the individual and it can leave you ill equipped for the “real world” if you leave. it doesn’t mean that i don’t miss that haven. but it would be like going home to mum and dad.

So I went to Leo Burnett and learned some very hard lessons. At the same time, I wasn’t gonna go there and just earn a lot of money. i didn’t go there to sell out. I was killing myself to get good work out. For Nintendo, even though there is that one good spot, we had to give them a whole new brand campaign of about 40 ads to get to that one out. and we had to go up against everyone one in the creative department, which was about two hundred people. it made me stronger though.

ihaveanidea: What are the differences between Asia and North America as far as awards obsession is concerned?

Kash: I wouldn’t say there’s a big difference, but I would say it’s harder to get caught at scamming in a market where judges don’t see it. Most jurors come from the bigger markets where the bigger work’s done.

If I am in America and you show me a scam from here, I’ll say I’ve not seen it before and that it smells fishy.

But if it comes from Papa New Guinea, Asia, or somewhere else, you’d go “Oh yeah, that’s pretty good” and you won’t know if it’s run or not. Also, when you’re in Asia – at least for me – you want to get to the big agencies. I wanted to get to W+K, I wanted to get to Fallon, to BBH. So I was doing whatever I could to get noticed. As small an industry as it is, there is still a lot of competition.

Sometimes you do work for the sake of awards so that you could get noticed. In America people do it too; Fallon built themselves on small clients. Saatchi & Saatchi in the UK built themselves on very small clients, and sometimes very suspect ones too.

It’s funny, but award obsession sometimes trains you to try harder. Once you become obsessed with awards, or something close to that, you don’t want to settle for what’s just good enough. You want to push it further and further to the point where you’re proud and your peers like it as well. And oddly enough, those ads will make you try harder with your real clients too.

I’ve got nothing against scam. I was caught for scamming, and myself and Andy Fackrell were the scapegoats of Australia for that. But at the same time, it gets you to a place where you can do some things for real clients. And if you can’t back it up for real clients, then you’re masturbating aren’t you?

It’s a creative haven that keeps you barefoot and pregnant. You don’t really have to understand how clients work or how business works.

If you’re in a bigger more traditional agency, and someone gets noticed by doing something on a small client, it’s infectious. Everyone wants to start working like that, everyone wants to work a bit harder, and everyone wants to think about things differently. And it can go two ways: It could be that then people don’t want to touch the big accounts OR that kind of thinking then infects the way people think about big accounts.

They then start to think about what would make the client do something great and different. And now is the perfect opportunity to experiment with clients. Because media is so fragmented, and because everything is so niched, there’s almost no need to spend much. You can say “I am going to do a web portion, or something ambient that’s not going to cost a lot of money out of your budget. Think of it as research and development. That’s what you do when developing your products, so allow us to do it when we’re developing our ads”.

Sometimes, if you allow us to develop something we haven’t had an opinion on, it will become brilliant because it’s fresh and pure.

I once asked Jim Riswold about research. He’s my mentor and still scares the crap out of me, even though he’d like to think he doesn’t. He said here’s the greatest thing about research : “You don’t ask people what they want. Because if you asked a bunch of kids what they’d want in a cake, it’ll be 99% icing and 1% cake. And then they’d eat the cake, be sick and they’d blame us”. Which is what often happens in advertising.

ihaveanidea: Since you’re an accomplished martial artist, how do you think the two disciplines cross, and where’s the bridge between the two?

Kash: If you think about martial arts, it’s pure effectiveness, taken to the point where it’s an art. If you could just do the art part of it, you’re gonna get your ass kicked. And if you could just do the effectiveness part of it, you’re not gonna get the respect of your peers and you’re gonna become predictable.

I’ll get back to Bruce Lee (laughs). At the height of his teaching career, he closed down all of his schools. People asked why he was doing this, and he said that they weren’t getting it : “You’re all trying to fight like me, and I am trying to get you to fight like yourself. Yes you can kick and you can punch, but don’t try to mimic me. Don’t try to be Bruce Lee. Try to be yourself”.

And I think that’s the other part of martial arts that most people forget. When you get good at it, you’re not fighting like anyone else. You fight the way your brain, your body and your education allows you to fight.

That’s a big part of martial arts that affected me in advertising, and I didn’t know it at the time. It took people like Jim Riswold and Dan Wieden to say “Now where’s your voice?”, and I thought “Wow, you’re talking like Bruce Lee…” (laughs)

ihaveanidea:  Knowing all this, who do you think would win in a fight between Dan Wieden and Neil French?

Kash: Dan Wieden. Because he’s real (laughs)

Neil French is a physical being, he’s been a bouncer and a matador before so he might be physically there. But I think Dan is one of those guys who would never give up, he’s got a strong spirit and he would fight like himself. Dan’s a big guy as well, so yeah, I think he’d win.

ihaveanidea: (laughs) Well I am sure they’ll both be very happy to hear that!

Interview by:

rafikcreditpic Kash Sree

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

  • Matt Felsman

    He will most definitely kick your ass… right into the emergency ward… I hear he’s assaulting women now.

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