INTERNATIONAL. Vahid Mehrinfar, Executive Principal and Chief Brand Futurist of Vahid Associates Brand Futurists headquartered in Bahrain, is renowned for his revolutionary ideas on brand futurity. As founder of one of the most written-about and covered agencies in the Middle East, talking with Mehrinfar is stimulating and it is also a roller coaster ride, as he takes a sweeping tour of his life and the formidable forces that he says are holding back a new era of creativity for branding in the region.
He has empowered many of his clients to create successful indigenous brands and to excel in their domain, conducting international relationships beyond today and into tomorrow’s world.
An alumnus of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California Vahid was trained as an industrial designer specialising in transportation and product design. However his zeal and intensity of cognition led him to explore other creative spheres.
Vahid’s professional career over the past 26 years has earned international recognition through work in a variety of projects ranging from art direction for film productions, corporate promotional illustrations, rendering visualisation of palace interiors and private jets, architectural renditions of mega-development projects to creation of brands that have pioneered a new outlook in product development in the Middle East.
He was selected as one of Houston’s 84 most interesting personalities in 1984 by the Houston City magazine, and was selected in 1988 as one of the top 200 illustrators of America for advertising conceptualisation by the Communication Arts magazine.
Through application of his unique methodologies, Vahid Mehrinfar has accumulated an enviable track record with an extensive portfolio of clients across his markets of operation, which includes the Gulf region, UK, US and Iran, and now promises to cover India. Leading banks and financial institutions, real estate development companies, private entrepreneurs as well as government bodies have been inspired by Vahid’s branding approach to induce performance.
An inspirational fountainhead, he explores creative and strategic frontiers that establish new dimensions to the present domains of design for business disciplines. Using his prodigious ability to envision what is yet to be, he aligns the unknown and the unseen with encouraging possibilities for the future. Unraveling this command as a business strategy visionary, he has helped develop effective solutions in a wide variety of assignments.
Alongside his corporate ventures, he has served in the capacity of exclusive advisor to numerous international firms, as well as advisory board member of a number of private organisations. Vahid is also the honorary board member of CGSociety (computer graphics), the most respected and accessible global organisation for creative digital artists.
Reflecting his success in the industry, Vahid Mehrinfar has been a frequent contributor to various marketing and trade publications and has been repeatedly featured and profiled in a number of dailies, marketing monthlies and exclusive lifestyle magazines throughout the markets where he is known.
His intense seminars on the concept of futurity have inspired and captured the attention of many corporations, academic institutions and clientele throughout the Gulf and as far East as India and as West as the US, be it from Ivy League business schools to high ranking political figures to senior management and key executives and decision makers.
Today, Vahid’s association extends to leading personalities of Hollywood and the music world. As a leading figure in the communications arena, he is also frequently requested to act as jury for various creative awards in the industry. He counts Hollywood producer Stephen Brown amongst his personal friends, and after many years out of the states, he says that now he is back in America and corporations are seeking out his opinions. He is today the Executive Principal and Chief Brand Futurist of Vahid Associates Brand Futurist, and the President of the Contexture Group of Companies.
BI-ME: As futurists say, we sometimes need to look at the past to define the future. From your early days as a designer, what is the journey that led you to adopt the original approach that you now follow with your clients?
VM: First let me say the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’. I stand by all of my projects and if I can make a comparison to Sir Norman Foster or George Bush, whether you like their work or not, nobody doubts what they stand for. So yes, the past is sometimes a very important trigger for the future. Our background is the trigger to what possibilities lie ahead.
Going back to when I was a child growing up in Tehran, I have a memory of constantly drawing cars. This was a talent that was admired by the education system, but they didn’t care for it. By the age of 13, I wanted to be a car designer and with help from GM went to study in the US, so this shows the differences in the education system. For me the US is truly the land of opportunity.
But my ambition was bigger than being a car designer and I was more entrepreneurial and avant-garde. While I was at Art Center College of Design I started taking an interest in the legendary designer and visual futurist Syd Mead and his work on the movie Bladerunner. I took an interest in his style and started working with him. At that time my work took me into architectural design and virtual reality during the time of the architectural boom in Houston and the US. Now I am back working with Syd Mead again in this region.
The story about how I came back to the Middle East is a love story. But what I learnt in the US is a whole dimension of branding. I was literally designed to come here and fight for a love story.
BI-ME: In industry conferences you are known to take sometimes provocative views on the agencies working in the region, and you get invited to places to share those views. For example you have been invited to speak at the Brand Summit 08 next month in Dubai. What is your message on the regional agencies and how they work?
VM: When I first came to Bahrain I had to reinvent myself and worked for one of the major ad agencies that will be nameless. I was challenged and I realised that the idea of communications as a whole has been hijacked by people from another region. A Western product in the Middle East has a marketing budget, whether you spend it or not, and often it is not. I realised that this region is a victim of a corrupt idea of advertising. There are just a few groups that give out fake awards and the same which judge the criteria, and you can quote me on that.
I realised that my ingenuity was wasted. I decided I was going to follow my rules as I had already tasted the clear water. The only thing left for me to do was to reinvent my own way of thinking and start my company.
A lot of the guys working in agencies are only here because they are not up to the standard in the London league table. The Dubai scene is corrupted and there is no sense of belonging and originality.
Dubai is a mish mash, where sushi is mixed with biryiani and between it with some English meat and potatoes. Now I am part of the industry, but before working for an agency, I never had a chance to do my own thing. A lot of the industry is defined by unspoken preferences, I should say prejudicies.
There is still the ‘colonial syndrome’ that the white, Western guy was the professional guy for the job. When I started my own company, even some of my friends said ‘don’t use your own name’, use a name like Robinson or Johnson. There are some Middle East companies that were actually named this way. This lazy thinking, this generalisation, is still here. A lot of the advertising community has taken up on these values.
BI-ME: So what is the origin of your company Vahid Associates Brand Futurists?
VM: I started in 1992 with a US$500 investment in a typewriter and an air conditioner. Here we are more than ten years later and there are a lot of the top financial institutions of the region that I have named and put them on the map. I am an advisory board member of the Asian Chapter of the World Brands Congress. I am an advisor to chairmen and CEOS of some regional corporations. They seek my advice and I challenge them. Also I am advisory board member of the Computer Graphics Society and in that field I am working with George Lucas and other big movie makers who are part of that fraternity.
My clients include Nova, the Saudi water brand, the biggest-selling in the region that became a smash success and Bateel, the dates company that has shops in London, Tokyo and Los Angeles. This has become one of the true global Middle East brands. Recently I am in talks with some investment houses to take our brand, Vahid Associates, into new areas, to make it a brand name in different areas.
BI-ME: The usual comment is that that the creative agencies here are forced to follow the directives of the mother brand, usually Western, and the whole industry is still maturing. What is your message on the idea of choosing the right elements of a branding, or unifying brand values into one concept?
VM: I have created the Brand Futurity, which is a complete set of methodologies and tools. Success within the design world entails going beyond the ordinary and identifying the hidden instigator that will inspire and trigger preference and love, defining a common relevance and culture between a brand and the people it is to serve. There is no such thing as the long-term future of the brand. Brand immortality is a myth, as brands start dying the minute they are created. There is the constant quest for longevity and marketing strategists merely play the game of postponement, while they fight for the future.
Long-standing successful entrepreneurship is about devising programmes and brand strategies that generate magic contact for many generations to follow. The key to futurity lies in foreseeing problems and reinventing and rejuvenating with the trends and ideas of time. It is no longer about hitting the jackpot with some good graphics. The magic is more on the ad side, not the design side.
BI-ME: So your argument is that the design consciousness is not there in the agencies that are out there?
VM: Trees die standing up and many product-brands and organisation-brands are living a prolonged death. My slogan is that we need to take back this industry, from the hands of the people that hijacked it. I am forming many committees and working with groups to inspire young people to take away this business and run with it. But we are against some formidable forces.
BI-ME: Speaking of formidable forces, you have been working with some well known figures from Hollywood, please can you go into some details about that?
VM: I am working with Stephen Brown - executive producer of The Fugitive, Seven and Devil’s Advocate – and Syd Mead as his sole representative in the Middle East. We are doing collaborative work.
They are frequent visitors to Bahrain on business and we are taking forward an investment programme in the Middle East where they will be bringing in experts in specialised areas from Beverly Hills, California in collaboration with ourselves.
It is no longer sufficient for the Middle East to attract big names to elevate its status on the world stage by mere association. Our work is to engage them through both technical and aspirational output for tangible benefits to create compatibility of minds, and with my partners this is just the beginning.
We are talking about ‘spiritual futurity’, which is rendering the concept of melting together cultures. My work is about designing to a compass, not to an opinion. You fast-forward into the desired world by magnifying the truth, creating aura and managing opportunity.
BI-ME: You spoke about Dubai, and one thing that Dubai has done is that it has put the modern Middle East on the map. Nobody asks today ‘where is Dubai?’ Everyone knows what Dubai stands for. But you think that this is despite of the creative and design work that we see, rather than because of it?
VM: Futurists tell you how to make a brand system, they tell you what brands are. Some of the designers that I most admire most, like BMW’s chief designer Chris Bangle and J Mays [Group Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer at Ford] are former classmates of mine. What we are dealing with is the future of the Middle East, in design terms. Dubai is the first fruit and we are the guys who are engineering the Fords of the future.
What I am saying is that ‘as good as you think you are doing, with your red Ferraris in Dubai’ we have to look to a higher state of being. There is a God. There is a new future.
The credit for Dubai has to go to HH Sheikh Mohammed, because yes Dubai has put the Middle East on the map. But unfortunately the communication agencies in Dubai do not match the vision of His Highness.
Sheikh Mohammed is true futurist. He creates iconic structures and he convinces people to walk up to them. He is a reverse futurist, because he talks it into the past or into legend, without you realizing. If you can’t inspire people you can’t have a brand. He needs people to match his inspiration.
Vahid Associates Brand Futurists is online at www.vahidassociates.com