Interview with Zeena Ismail

Join me as I have a conversation with Zeena Ismail, Regional Strategy Director at Ogilvy in United Arab Emirates. As she shares her 3 pieces of advice for a strategist, her strategy journey, and what she found most helpful in joining The Planning Dirty Academy.

Excellent welcome. Today I’ve got, Zeena, Ismail. Who’s the regional strategy director at Ogilvy in Dubai. So thank you for coming on. My first question for you is what is your three pieces of advice for strategists? Cool. Uh, thanks for having me. Um, so yeah, I think for me, the three pieces of advice would be the first one is, find your nuggets of joy.

I think whether that’s, you know, learning a new language, picking up Friday and going for a walk or whatever it may be. I think so much of planning happens. Outside of your day-to-day work and outside of briefs. And I think, you know, um, and planning is, you know, an exercise of range and range and thinking, and you’ll only do that.

If you give your space to like, find those nuggets of joy, um, second piece of advice, I would say it’s only natural that you will, you know, move jobs and, in your journey. So I would always say move for something, not away from something. You know, you. It’s easier. It’s easier said than done, but a lot of the times moving has to do with some growing frustrations or whatever it may be, but always try and find, um, you know, a move that gives you an opportunity to grow, whether that’s a bigger responsibility or a different part of planning that will stretch you.

So it always should feel like you’re moving towards something, not running away. And I think the last, one which is quite personal for me is to listen and to listen a lot. I think there’s always that hovering pressure in a room for a strategist to have the answer on the spot, to drive the conversation and to solve it right there.

And then, and while that’s. You know, much part of the job. I think it really liberated me when I was like, you know what? I’m going to take my time and take this with me and come back with, uh, with the answer when I am, you know, ready, whether that takes me a few hours, a few days, weeks, whatever it may be.

But it just. Feels a bit sort of liberating to just listen and kind of take your time to really come back to come back with things. So yeah. Nuggets of joy, move for something and, and, and listen, I love them. I love them. The nuggets of joy is so good too. I think I, I can also very much resonate with that last one.

I think the start of my career, I was always thinking that you had to be that strategist with all the answers, but you’re right. Yeah. You don’t have to be that person. I would love to hear a little bit about your past and how you got to the job you’re in today. Cool. Yeah. I mean, I wish I could tell you that it was this carefully crafted journey.

It wasn’t really, it was more of like a figure it out as you go. But I think I, so I started in, client servicing as an account exec back in 2015. And I was fortunate to overlap with the strategy director there at the time. Her name was my Hannah. She was quite exceptional. And I think just by simply observing her, I realized very quickly that this was a, you know, it was a place kind of like an open canvas and you make a, you make of it, what you put in.

So I did just that. I, made a move to, into strategy with a focus on social and digital, may left to apple at the time. And I found myself in the deep water as the only strategist, for a period of time there until they replaced her. And I just had to figure it out and I kind of had that, you know, mad perseverance to sort it out.

But really I was quite incredibly lucky and fortunate to be surrounded by people that kind of, you know, encouraged me to run with things and make mistakes. So I stayed at Ogilvy for another three years, to then finding myself curious about a role at McCann health. Where I was the first strategist there.

That was a whole other challenge where I kind of had to wear multiple hats and really like, you know, experiment with initiatives and processes. I implemented, I go on planning dirty and I’m like, oh, that’s cool. And then I go into work the next day and I’m like, I’m going to try this out and see how it goes.

But, yeah. And, not to mention that I got into healthcare there, you know, a field I knew very little about at the time, but it’s safe to say that I will stay in healthcare for, for some time whether in the agency, world or outside. I really, really enjoy it. I think it’s behavior change.

Truest sense. And it’s kind of an industry at an inflection point that I really, found myself in. And yeah, at that point I found a, another burst of energy in my career. And although we held a special place in my heart and I never really left on bad terms. So like I said, I don’t leave, you know, don’t leave because you’re running away rather leave for something bigger.

And so I was presented with an opportunity where I could create a hybrid role, where I could continue build on strategy for healthcare, but without, you know, losing the edge on social and digital. So I came back to Ogilvy where I am now, and did just that. And, you know, that hybrid role feels quite complimentary because I, you know, I can bring into healthcare.

You know, the, the social and digital thinking that is kind of much needed. And yeah, and I think my journey is very much about finding a bit, finding what no one else really wanted to do and taking it on whether that’s social, you know, when everyone resisted it. But I was really determined to, you know, show that it mattered that you didn’t have to succumb to short formats or very like, you know, basic narratives or.

It was really a place to innovate or even like in healthcare that it was just as exciting and really in dire need of our creative juice. So yeah, don’t know where I’ll go next, but I’m staying put for now, but I know healthcare will stay with me and one capacity or another. Yeah. I love, I love the moving, moving for something, not running away from such and such.

It’s. Yeah. It’s a beautiful, it’s a beautiful thought. I really love it. You, were saying there also just like, you’ve been a part of the planning dirty academy for a while. And you started when you were at McCann trying to sort stuff out. Is there anything I’d love to hear if there’s been anything that practical that’s kind of stayed with you that’s helped in that job?

Yeah, I mean, look, honestly, I there’s so much, I don’t even know where to start. I could, like, I run through your modules on like polishing and insight or building a campaign ecosystem or questions to ask in an interview more times than I can count. It’s really the way you put things is very invaluable.

But what I would say, one tip it’s, the community you created. All of a sudden I went from me and myself and a few people in the department to a world of brilliant planners. There to debate, answer and share ideas. And what that taught me is that it’s taught me to be vulnerable and to be comfortable to share half-baked ideas with people.

And to me, that’s a massive underlying value of finding dirty. So I think my tip would be to just engage with the community as much as you can and really, you know, yeah, do that. Even if it scares you a bit. Yeah, you really, you got to make those leaps because I think we’re all in this kind of strategy thing where we’re all trying to work it out together.

So yeah, I really liked that. Thank you so much, Zeena. That was bright. Really appreciate it. And thank you so much.


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