Yasser Bagersh is an archetype of the Entrepreneurial mind. Always moving forward, never satisfied, and exploring new possibilities Yasser has done more than most. For 17 years he has built Cactus into Ethiopia’s premier advertising firm while at the same time running the Lime Tree eatery and the informative What’s Out publication. Now at 50 he wants to turn his attention to his infinite interests. He talks with Capital about how focusing on quality in-depth relationships and saying no to some projects helped grow Cactus into an agency people can trust. To him promoting a brand the right way can improve people’s lives. He also talks about philanthropy, what really matters to him, and what it’s like to live in a world of endless possibilities.
Capital: You are stepping down from your current position as head of Cactus which you have led since 2001. Was it hard to say good bye?
Yasser: Actually it was the easiest goodbye; I am ten years too late. When I joined Cactus I was hoping I would be there for a couple of years and those couple of years became seventeen. My brother founded the agency three years prior to me joining it. Seventeen years is the longest thing I have ever done in my life. I’m surprised I survived sitting behind a desk for that long. I am not a desk person.
Capital: You have shaped and grown the business into an advertising power house; Cactus is one of the first modern advertising agencies; how challenging was that? Tell us about the company.
Yasser: When I took over Cactus, it was very young and small. It consisted of a staff of seven and now it’s grown to forty plus. Several agencies sprung out of Cactus including Prologue that does events, Omni Media that does content-creation and Way Marketing that does market activations in eleven cities around the country. So, we expanded from a team of seven people to four companies with a combined staff of over 400 people. Today, there are some wonderful agencies out there, many doing good work. At Cactus, we take pride in the fact that we specialize in creativity and strategy and use other agencies for other services. Most other agencies follow the old archaic 360 degree format where clients get all their services in one agency. It’s impossible for these agencies to become specialists in everything. In a few years the trend will change and agencies will start specializing, I hope. At Cactus, we limit our clients to a handful. This allows us to give boutique one-to-one service. We don’t accept every client that walks into our agency, unless that client offers our agency a unique journey.
Capital: What’s your all-time favorite memory at Cactus and what’s been your most embarrassing moment?
Yasser: Well, let’s start with the embarrassing. Every single day is an embarrassing day as far as I am concerned; I am known for saying the wrong things. I am not as polished as people think I am, I don’t have a filter. By the way, that’s why I don’t do a lot of media interviews.
As for my favorite moment, I remember some years ago we flash-mobbed Coca Cola on a creative pitch. The whole agency broke into choreographed dance in the middle of the pitch. The client was stunned and emotional. And we won the job!
I have many other favorite memories, including Ending Early Marriage campaigns with UNFPA or fighting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) with Dr. Bogalech Gebre. Those are the meaningful accounts that I will always remember. I have great appreciation for DKT, DStv, and Heineken because they give us the creative freedom to create. I have worked with hundreds of brands in the last 17 years. We are thorough and we never take short cuts. We become intimately involved in the brands to the point where we know the brands better than the clients themselves. When I work with the mega clients, the excitement for me is not the size of the brand, it’s more than that. For example, when promoting OMO, it is not about selling detergents, it’s about improving people’s lives.
Capital: What is the most creative Ad you have ever done?
Yasser: Oh, I can’t answer that. Every single ad we produced is creative. I do not have a favorite ad. There are too many.
Capital: The last time I talked to you was 10-years ago, the most interesting account you had was Alle Be Jumla.
Yasser: That’s when we took a government agency and made it look non-governmental. We didn’t want this big business-to-business platform to look like “Agerwust Gebi” or “Wul ena Masreja”, not that there’s anything wrong with these agencies. The brief was to give it a commercial and dynamic feel, and that’s what we did with Alle.
Capital: You are leaving Cactus with Yonas Demissie when the industry is becoming more digital. What’s the direction you have given him? And what made you decide to leave now?
Yasser: I really haven’t given him much direction in terms of how to run the business. He has to run it in his own style. The only advice I gave him is to stick to a few clients and give them top notch service and not be tempted by 100 clients. We don’t want to create an advertising agency factory. I want him to focus on the creative process. Each brand should be a thrilling journey for him and his team.
As to why I left the agency now, it’s because I wanted to leave while I was at my peak, while I am relevant and meaningful within the advertising landscape of Ethiopia. Our country’s target audience is changing rapidly and the advertising scene is also changing. I want to make sure that the agency is run by a group of young people who have an intimate understanding of that target group. I don’t want to be that middle-aged man who is struggling to keep up – and eventually dragged out of the agency in a wheel chair! Besides, I have a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline that I want to work on. Time is short and I need to get cracking.
Capital: And you turned 50…
Yasser: And I am turning 50…just in time to learn new things and explore new paradigms, challenge myself in different ways. I don’t want to be comfortable. That makes me nervous.
Capital: So will you be involved in the operations of Cactus in any way?
Yasser: We are forming a board that is going to oversee Cactus, Prologue, Omni Media, Way Marketing, the four companies. I hope to sit on that board.
Capital: Cactus is not your only legacy! You are a multifaceted businessman; you are in the restaurant business (Lime tree…), media with What’s Out, and you are a staunch promoter of the arts. You had even launched a furniture business Iguana…Which of your businesses have made you most proud?
Yasser: If you ask me generally if I am proud of anything I have done in the past. The answer is no, I am not proud of anything because I could have done everything better.
Capital: Would you want to go back and do them better?
Yasser: No, the past is the past. I really just want to focus on the future and doing new things. I have made many mistakes. For example, I have actually closed more restaurants than I have opened. I generally have more failures in business than successes. Looking in the past does not help me in anyway. Looking forward is the only option I have.
Capital: You cannot say that you have not succeeded in the restaurant business. You just changed it into a different form. I remember you had opened a restaurant at the Alliance and Kaba…
Yasser: I opened multiple Lime Trees in the Addis Ababa University and closed them. I opened a Lime Tree in the World Bank and closed it. Should I keep going? I can go on and on….but, I never get depressed over failures. I just move on to the next thing. Currently the Lime Tree you know (for the public) represents less than 5% of our restaurant business, 95% is large-scale canteen business. We run canteens for the staff of Coca Cola, Heineken, Berhanena Selam, National Tobacco Enterprise and Awash Winery. We serve over 7,000 meals a day in over 10 canteens in 5 cities around Ethiopia. We are one of the biggest eateries in the country. If a business has 150 staff or more, they can approach us and we can open the Lime Tree in their facilities. That’s an exciting project for me.
Capital: How do you take failures in life?
Yasser: I would like to say that I learn from my failures…but that would be a lie. I actually repeat the same mistakes over and over again. But I will change now that I am 50. I will be wiser and smarter going forward, and my failures will me make stronger! Good answer?
Capital: So you are saying there is no business you are most proud of? Anything you have done you feel this is me…I have nailed this one!
Yasser: Business…I am not even a businessman; I don’t even know what business means. I don’t think I was brought on this earth to earn money from business. I don’t think our creator sent me to this universe and said “Yasser, your calling in life is to run business.” I don’t know what my calling in life is yet…but I am searching, and I will find it. When I do find it, I will be proud of it and I will nail it! And on our next interview, I will give you a whole list of the things I am most proud of!
Capital: How about the Art Sale and Tour or promoting local artists?
Yasser: Maybe it’s the arts…maybe it’s our Father’s Kitchen…maybe it’s being a good son… I don’t know….I am searching.
Capital: Is that what you feel now?
Yasser: I have always felt this way. I am driven by creativity. I am driven by my passions. And that’s why most of the “businesses” I run are doing well. People always want to jump on a happy and exciting bandwagon – clients get excited and staff gets excited – and then the business side of things flourish.
Capital: You are also a philanthropist, with your unwavering commitment to the children you have gathered under Our Father’s Kitchen. Tell us about that…
Yasser: We have 300 children now. We are about to expand to 500 by the year. I do Our Father’s Kitchen because I can.
Capital: How does that work?
Yasser: First of all, I do not want to run an NGO. I don’t know how to run an NGO. Our Father’s Kitchen is a program under an organization called HIDO (Hiwot Integrated Development Organization) which is run by Sister Tibebe Mako who is an extraordinary human being. I am her biggest fan. She took Our Father’s Kitchen under her umbrella about 10 years ago. We have two kitchens; we don’t have any rent, any overhead costs. 100% of the money raised goes directly towards the food and the cooks that cook the food. Everyone else volunteers. So, we probably are the only charity that has zero overhead.
Capital: Do you have any regrets and what is your biggest fear?
Yasser: Yes, I have regrets. I wish I could have been better in many ways; a better human being, a better person… My biggest fear is being stagnant. I fear being in one place, not moving, not growing, not changing. That’s my biggest fear.
Capital: What’s next for you?
Yasser: I am working on many, many things that have been sitting for thousands of years waiting for me to work on them. I have accepted a couple of exciting consultancies. So, umh… I am also working on interesting projects such as the ‘Jegnit’ project. I would like you to be involved in that.
Capital: What’s that?
Yasser: ‘Jegnit’ is a girl empowerment project. It’s a powerful movement headed by Marakie Tesfaye. I am also working on other projects. I am writing a cook book. I am developing new menus for the Lime Tree. I am taking Oromiffa classes finally, which is my mother tongue. I am also working on big projects that I am not in a position to share with you yet.
I will continue to serve the contemporary art scene. My team and I are responsible for the largest number of art sold in Ethiopia every year through the Art Sale and the Art Tour. We need to increase that even more.
Capital: You mentioned you are writing a cookbook? What’s your to-go-to dish when you have to make dinner?
Yasser: When I am having dinner alone, it’s usually shiro. Otherwise I enjoy cooking for friends. Let me tell you what I did the week before last. I had a group of friends who flew in from abroad and wanted to eat Doro Wot…So I made the Nitr Kibe, clarified butter, in the morning, and by noon I had the onions chopped, and I cooked Doro Wot. On other days, I enjoy making fresh pastas. I cook three or four days a week.
Capital: What is your favorite dessert?
Yasser: If I had a choice right now, anything chocolate. I am a chocolate person. So, brownies, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream… anything that has a chocolate in it.
Capital: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Yasser: I am shy. Though I’m always speaking in front of large crowds it’s not the most comfortable thing for me.
Capital: How would people describe you?
Yasser: I don’t want to know. It’s irrelevant for me.
Capital: Describe yourself in three words?
Yasser: Curious. Insecure. Searching…for now.
Capital: If there is one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?
Yasser: Everything….everything. New dreams. New experiences. New challenges. New struggles. That’s not to say I am not blessed to have what I have, to have all the privileges around me. If I have an option, I will change everything, why not? New person. New journey. I could be a scientist in Germany, I could be a priest in Jerusalem or I could be a head of state somewhere in Africa, I could be a mother or a father. I could be an animal. There is so much I could explore.
Capital: If you were PM of Ethiopia what’s one thing you would work on?
Yasser: I would work on more security. I think what differentiates Ethiopia from most parts of the world, is that, as Ethiopians, we take pride in the fact that there is low crime, that we are secure and that we fear God. That is a gift. If you go to neighboring countries, they may not feel safe at night…here we are safe. I don’t want us to lose that. So I will focus on security at all cost. Nobody should undermine the security of our nation. That’s what I think, and I believe our Prime Minister is heading in that direction too.