Bates and switch

In Advertising, Communicate, Dubai, Profile, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 11:12 pm

As Bates Pan-Gulf rebrands as BPG, the agency’s always-on-the-move CEO Avi Bhojani tells Communicate about multitasking

Originally published in Communicate, October 2007

Avishesha “Avi” Bhojani doesn’t like standing still. In his school days he was a keen runner, and has been dashing between companies since his first start-up ad agency got off the blocks in his homeland of India in 1985.

His latest initiative, as part owner and CEO of Bates Pan-Gulf, has been overseeing the Dubai-based agency’s rebranding as BPG. This project has given Bhojani – who was trained in design before shifting to business and deal-making – a rare chance to get his hands dirty.

“More often than not, I am perceived as the guy clients want to meet at the highest level for deals,” he says. But on company rebrandings like this one, “I am the brand manager.”

Like Bhojani, BPG has never been static for long, having gone through a series of reinventions and name changes since it was launched in 1980.

First came Pan-Gulf Publicity, which Bhojani joined towards the end of 1991 when it was still “a classic, old-school agency.” When the company was helping set up Dubai Shopping Festival and needed a PR arm, he started to create a handful of strategic business units within Pan-Gulf: Pan-Gulf Advertising, Pan-Gulf Public Relations, Pan-Gulf Direct and Pan-Gulf Strategy.

Then, in 1998, the former global advertising holding company Cordiant Communications Group bought a minority share, and the new joint venture took the name of one of Cordiant’s flagship agency brands, Bates Worldwide. Bates Pan-Gulf was born. The joint venture inherited globally aligned clients like British American Tobacco and Cussons.

In 2003, global ad giant WPP aquired Cordiant, and Bates in the UK and North America were merged into JWT. The name Bates began to disappear, remaining only in Bates Asia and here in the Middle East with Bates Pan-Gulf.

Last month the agency rebranded again as BPG, leaving the titular legacy of American advertising executive Ted Bates, who died in 1972, to a single initial. “Think of it as Bates Pan-Gulf 2.0,” say the advertisements.

Are more changes in store? Global ad giant WPP now owns 40 percent of BPG, and chairman Martin Sorrell has already told Communicate he wants majority stakes in all his Middle East partnerships. Bhojani is not prepared to talk about if and when this might happen.

Bhojani is one of those people who can rattle dates off the top of his head. He can put a timeline to most events in his life. He can tell you when he left one job, when he entered another, when he brokered one deal, when another was announced, with the ease of reciting a multiplication table learned by rote.

His organization travels with him. He is a walking ad for the Nokia Communicator, for instance, with his phone/e-mailer/mobile office by his side constantly. He admits one of his vices is multitasking. “I respond to e-mails while I’m in the car. I take calls and SMSs. … Multitasking has become a way of life,” he says.

Presumably accompanied by his PDA phone, Bhojani plays golf – but only to unwind. “I normally book myself two rounds of golf a week. … I play to reduce my anxiety. So I’ll only play nine holes. I don’t play 18 holes, so I never track my handicap. Because I play basically to destress, I don’t want the stress of trying to beat myself. I just want to take it easy.”

For a man who thrives under the pressure of business, the golf course seems to be one of the few places he eases off. That and going to the gym.

“In my earlier years, I was an athlete. I was a competitive person, a runner. From 100 meters to 3,000 meters I had my school record. It’s funny, because [normally] either you’re a sprinter or [a long distance runner]. But I was 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,500, 3,000 meters. When I was 15, I was very good at that.”

But these days, he leaves the competitive spirit to the boardroom, working out only to stay fit – not to beat his rivals.

His main passion in life, now, is starting new businesses. “I like building businesses,” he says. “I like building ideas. So I tend to be very passionate about what I do. That’s how I multitask.” He makes sure, though, that his side projects don’t get in the way of BPG.

For example, a few years ago Bhojani started a school. He admits the idea was more his wife’s than his own. Now in its third academic year, Dubai International Academy is located in Emirates Hills. “We’ve got 1,420 pupils,” he says. “It’s a school of choice. … This school has been designed from a parent’s perspective.” Both his sons attend DIA.

DIA is popular with Dubai’s comparatively small Dutch and Scandinavian communities, with Bhojani describing it as “a community school for communities that are not numerically large enough to create their own school.”

He adds, “Quality education does not have to be the most expensive education. … We are perhaps the only international school that did not raise fees this year.”

Teaching the international baccalaureate curriculum, the school caters to “internationally minded people.” Sounds like Bhojani himself, who seems at home anywhere – even as one of the few non-Lebanese nationals heading up a major Middle East agency.


He talks openly about being the odd man out in the Lebanese-dominated Dubai advertising scene. “I speak French,” he jokes. “But that doesn’t qualify me.”

When he lists his proudest moments – “the things that have given me the biggest high” – one date he includes is June 1993, when Pan-Gulf won 11 out of 23 prizes at the IAA advertising awards. “We just walked away with everything,” he says. “And as the ‘wrong’ nationality.”

And his agency goes it alone now as one of the few WPP agencies in the region lacking an international brand badge,unlike Grey Worldwide, JWT MENA, Memac Ogilvy and Team Y&R. “We are blessed with the delightful absence of aligned business,” he says, adding that despite WPP’s ownership stake, BPG sees no reason to model itself on a sister or parent company. Those companies that share a name and an ethos with a wider brand “need to adapt ideas and concepts, but they don’t need to innovate.”

It’s a bit like Dubai, he says. “Why has Dubai become such an entrepreneurial hotbed? Because Dubai was blessed with the absence of hydrocarbons.” Likewise, without a roster of clients gained only by dint of affiliation with a global network, BPG has to work from scratch. It’s one of the many things that have set Bhojani apart.


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