By Jou Pabalate
It’s not an overstatement to say that Sara Al Tuwaijri is one of the coolest people you’ll meet in the city. Sitting across from her in a room was like listening to an impromptu TED talk. Her insights are intriguing as much as they show her passion for marketing and decoding the world she lives in.
At 32, she is the founder and general manager of Shadows International, a boutique-marketing agency that has been established on the merits of collaboration with Saudi’s best talents in the industry.
A full-bred Riyadhi and self-professed coke addict, Al Tuwaijri got her bachelors in business administration and her masters from King Saud University. She then found herself teaching finance before she decided to take her keen interest in marketing and the creative process to the next level. The epiphany to change her career track was not at random but came from an interesting milestone in her personal life journey and so she shares:
“I don’t know what happened. Actually, I do,” she laughs, “I lost weight. Suddenly I felt like I can do anything. I’ve always loved marketing, strategy and research. A year and a half in finance, I realized that this isn’t what I wanted to do. So, I took a year off and went to Dubai, worked as a creative planner in DDB and got extensively exposed to the creative process and what it entails.”
Upon her return from Dubai, Al Tuwaijri returned to her job as a lecturer in KSU, while also taking on remote consultancy projects from DDB and then for another international agency, BBDO. While she admits that being in the academe was a comfort zone and less demanding than her now 13 hours a day work schedule, it was a trade off she was more than happy to do. Al Tuwaijri was well on her way to get her PhD when she decided to take a leap of faith and become a full-time entrepreneur.
“Just as the roots in my comfort zone were starting to really grow in, I just cut them off. I’m a nerd, I need to be constantly doing something and applying myself to my fullest capacity.”
Contrary to what others outside the marketing industry might think, coming out with the right strategy and going through the creative process is not simply a matter of churning out witty copy or aesthetically pleasing ad campaigns.
Al Tuwaijri developed a strong desire to bring the knowledge and experience she acquired to the local market. She admits that the media and advertising industry today has not yet reached maturity, albeit, she sees a bright future ahead.
Building the Kingdom’s Creative Class
“We don’t have a shortage of talents in Saudi Arabia. In fact, I’m glad to see that a lot of Saudi agencies are emerging.”
While the abundance of Saudi talents seems apparent, Al Tuwaijri does keep it real when it comes to the challenges that besought entrepreneurs like her. “Yes, employing Saudis comes at a higher cost but it is a decision that I’m committed to keep on the table.”
It’s no secret that international advertising entities have dominated the local industry in the past. Companies are quick to give such establishments a relative advantage by virtue of the name they carry; often to the disadvantage of the younger and homegrown marketing boutiques.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Al Tuwaijri purports that championing the Saudi creative is key to unlocking the local market. Moreover, she believes that the next step to increasing the Saudi share of the industry is collaboration.
“Look, everyone will be gunning for that cup of coffee and I’m not saying they shouldn’t. What I’m saying is that there’s enough coffee to go around. It’s a big cup. What we need is to collaborate, to pitch in our strengths so we can create a fair and even game for everyone.”
Rising Above the Noise
“Saudis are strongly opinionated because they’re bored. It may seem that they’re easy to entertain where in fact they are highly skeptical and critical and I don’t blame them. At the end of the day, we are at the age where consumers have the higher power and the upper hand. It’s a choosing process and nothing is monopolized. You come out with a new product, in less than 48 hours someone’s going to copy it.”
Highly influenced by the book “Culture Code,” Al Tuwaijri believes that in order to fully understand the Saudi market, one must be willing to shed presumptions and go beyond what is being said. Thriving in the advertising industry is a grounded on her agency’s concept of togetherness.
A recurring thought during the conversation is Al Tuwaijri’s belief in the Saudi talents and the steps she is personally undertaking in her business to ensure that she remains true to her words: “There’s a career progression plan for all our employees. You need to give someone a goal so they are working towards that instead of just satisfying the current status quo for them as a team member.”
Her advice to young talents who wish to open up their own agencies is: “Don’t dive into it fresh out of university. You can have the temptation, money and creative talent for it already —but you need experience.”