Idea Spice brings flavor to UAE marketing scene


- Hisham Wyne

Not many businesses have been founded on the back of a certain budget furniture store’s return policy. But without it, Sajith Ansar wouldn’t have had the funds to open up design agency Idea Spice.

When Ansar visited Dubai in 2002, he had no intention of settling in the city. He was newly married, and was setting up a lovely home in India to surprise his bride. The Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) was in full swing, and he says he pretty much cleaned out a particular store of all its furniture.

Change was in the air though. The first freehold projects were being announced. Freezones like the Dubai Media City were being marketed extensively. Ansar decided to stay. “At that point, Dubai had ad agencies, but no creative design companies. I had always thought that made it a bad market for us. But suddenly, I flipped my thinking around and realized that translated to a market opportunity.”

Never had a furniture store’s seven-day return policy proved so serendipitous. “We would never have had the funds to start if they hadn’t allowed me to return all the tons of furniture I had bought for shipping to India!” he recalled.

Idea Spice was born. And very soon had its first client – the Arabian Radio Network (ARN). Ansar said that he met an old friend working for ARN, who was bemoaning the lack of creativity on offer from conventional firms. “I asked him if I could pitch for the account. We ran out, bought laptops and started working,” he said.

NURTURING A STARTUP CULTURE

Ansar quite deliberately describes current-day Idea Spice as a 12-year-old startup. “We’ve deliberately kept our startup culture. We have an open door policy with clients. We are completely accessible, hands-on. There is a fun element, a bending of the rules.”

But there are other parts that come with being 12 years old – the experience, the wisdom, the systems that have been put in place. “Boutique agencies are seldom on time. But we are. We’ve tried combining the best of experience and enthusiasm, and also the rational left hemisphere of the brain with the maverick right.”

It’s all very well being creative. In fact, it’s very important. But at Idea Spice, all creative types are pushed through a process of client comprehension. “We tell them to remember why the client has hired them, and to keep in mind the client’s core business when creating new ideas. We also rotate people around on projects so they don’t get overly attached to their own creations,” Ansar said.

Idea Spice is a full-fledged, no nonsense agency. But the office is playful, and Ansar’s door is always left ajar. Then there’s the coffee. Visitors are greeted with a cup where milk has been frothed and teased into a flurry rising high above the confines of the cup. The recipe is apparently an Idea Spice secret, though not a very well kept one.

“Everyone in the office knows how to make this special coffee. Each new employee is put on coffee duty for a month. It’s a great way of introducing them to our office culture, and breaking down barriers. Regardless of what post they’re hired for, they’re put on coffee duty. That drums in the idea of a flat organization.”

The handmade cup of frothy milk is an artefact from Ansar’s college days. The trick, he says, is in whipping the milk to a tizzy. It’s one of the many ways Idea Spice tries maintaining a startup culture.

QUICK ROUTE TO SUCCESS

Success inevitably led to growth. Spice Works launched in 2005 as an interior design company. Like many things in Ansar’s life, it was sheer serendipity. “We [were] shifting offices and redoing the interior of the new ones. The plan was for the interiors to be done in 20 days. Our contractor took over three months, which means we were stuck at home and lost our clients,” he said.

That’s when he realized the market opportunity. “You have the very expensive interior designers who are on time, but require huge budgets. Then there are the cowboys. But there are no middle-tier interior designers adding genuine value. And we were doing design anyway. The idea was to express it through interiors.”

But Ansar notes that growth can sometimes come too fast. “Every business owner goes through a phase where they think they’re serial entrepreneurs –that everything they touch will turn to gold. I became involved in lots of unrelated businesses, from IT security systems to a retail chain in India.”

In retrospect, he said that wasn’t a good idea. “I quickly realized the futility of it. I recalled that we had set up Idea Spice for a reason – to do work that we enjoy and that the clients love. Moving away from those roots didn’t make me happy.”

In fact, untrammeled growth remains one of his regrets. “If I could go back, I would stop the non-related diversification. It was sapping my energy. I would tell my past self to stick with what I’m good at, and what makes me, and my clients, happy. That’s what we’re focusing on now – coming back to the core of who we are as a business.”

SHIFTING DYNAMICS

Ansar has wound down his association with most of his ancillary businesses. And he says the most exciting times may still be in the offing. “Many old businesses, where the founders came in 30 or 40 years ago, have been a bit complacent. The old-fashioned traders used to compete on quality and price. But that game is over – everyone knows which exhibition to visit to find the best or cheapest suppliers.”

486799927_640Differentiation is becoming important for these old economic monoliths, Ansar said. “And the second generation of these family businesses recognizes this. They are under threat from new international competition. And they want to be able to create customer loyalty through emotional connections. That old market is opening up to new ideas.”

Idea Spice is also moving to digital, where most of the action currently is. “Digital marketing defined by engagement and traction, not by how many people you have on your Facebook. We’re getting into that space now.”

The market is promising. But for young entrepreneurs wanting to set up their own design houses, Ansar has a few words of advice. “There’s got to be a strong enough reason to start. Envision the endgame. You’ve got to be able to close your eyes and see what you want to create, smell the leather of your office chair. That’s the only way you’ll stay focused and motivated. And ensure you have something unique. Differentiate or die.”

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here