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Summary: James Pass, Managing Director and Creative Principal, JPd, talks about building his business and the tenuous relationship SMEs have with banks

JPd, a branding and communication agency, and recent winner of the Best Business Consultancy in our inaugural Business Vision Awards, was launched in early 2013 by Managing Director and Creative Principal, James Pass, after a career of working for large, corporate branding agencies.

"When you work in a big corporate it can become tiresome sometimes; you can feel like a cog in the machine, like you're not doing anything worthwhile or affecting any actual change," said Pass.

Pass started developing a freelance base of work with start-ups and SMEs where he could see tangible change in their business development. He knew he wanted to run his own business and felt a need to help SMEs and start-ups as he said there was nobody in town that could focus on helping them.

The six months prior JPd's launch was spent setting up the company, researching what was available in the market and competitors' pricing, acquiring a business licence, and lining up projects. Pass considered different options, from Creative Zone to Media City to find the best solution for the business. At the time JPd had just won an account with the Dubai Government and he needed all the paperwork in place and the ease and speed in turnaround of getting the licence made Creative Zone the best solution.

Pass's original business plan saw him and two designers sharing a small office in Creative Zone for two to three years. He intended to do the business development and client management, leaving the creative work to his team.

Within that scope Pass wanted to focus on helping businesses establish themselves by defining their position, doing brand strategy, helping them find their place in the market as well as develop their identity and the look and feel of the brand. That included designing the stationery, brochures, and sometimes the websites, which he said is where branding usually tends to stop. From that point, he referred clients to larger agencies.


But clients, particularly the start-up clients, kept returning; and it became necessary to add more people to the team. Public Relations (PR) was a necessary addition to the company structure, so Pass brought a PR director on board to develop the team. He did the same for the web development and social media departments. In the space of the last year, the company has grown from a team of three to a team of ten.

This quick growth meant he had to terminate the Creative Zone licence early to open his current, bigger, office. He decided to relocate to Media City, because he felt the company needed a more 'in town' solution, it worked out better cost-wise, and the location felt a bit more established than everywhere else.

Pass said he did his due diligence by researching the market, the competition and what services they were offering, and how much they were charging. In the case of an economic downturn, Pass said these are strategies that have helped him to get ahead of competitors who have perhaps just sat around or merely gone to a networking event and just handed out their business cards.

"I took the same approach to growing my business and attracting clients. I did not have a huge advertising budget, so I had to look at how I could compete because the creative industry here is so saturated. In Media City I can throw a stone and hit ten different agencies, so I had to look at how to market my company differently. I invested a lot of time and money in joining and developing networks from which to promote the business. Our clients are either referred to us or they come to us after they have visited our website. We have not had to advertise, knock on doors, or do pitch work. We are fortunate that we have referred actively," said Pass.

In the early stages Pass looked for investment from a number of different channels, such as bank loans and angel investor platforms. But for a start- up, he said banks are a no-go area, because even in the unlikely event they do grant a loan, the interest rate would be very high. Angel investment was an attractive option but he decided to keep the company independent.

"All JPd's growth has been self- invested, either through my personal funding or by acquisition of new clients. Winning a big account means growing the team or moving into a bigger office space, so financing has happened through those tiers," said Pass.


Pass said what sets his agency apart from the competition is that his focus is on SMEs and start-ups, but just because a company is an SME does not automatically mean he will work with them. He cited an example of walking out of a meeting with a start- up because the company values did not line up with the agency's ethics.

"The company had a sizable budget and was willing to spend the cash, but its business was hunting and this meeting took place during the time of the controversy surrounding Cecil the lion [a Zimbabwean lion poached in 2015]. We do take into account what a company is doing and what its ethics are," he said.

Although Pass prefers working with SMEs, and turns away a lot of corporate work, he does take on corporate clients if he feels the working relationship with the client's team would be a good fit or if the project would be interesting to work on.

"One major benefit of working with corporates is it allows us to give back by doing a lot of pro bono work for charities. They may come to us for help with their brand, or touch points or any other areas we can assist; because they are businesses that need to attract money from donors, so they do need a brand people can connect with. We've just finished working with a charity in Chicago which works across the third world in education and implementing water purification treatment," he said.


Pass said dealing with banks, as an SME owner, is made difficult by how the bank treats the owner as an individual. He cited his own experience with the bank that held his personal account for 18 years as an example.

When JPd moved from the Creative Zone to Media City, Pass had to submit new visa documentation to his bank. Once it showed up on the system that he was self-employed, all his bank accounts were frozen; because in the eyes of this particular bank, he was unemployed.

"I own a company of ten staff that generates revenue, with audited books. Every month the corporate account, held at another bank, transfers my salary, yet I was considered unemployed," he said.

Pass's bank account was frozen for about three months, resulting in two bounced cheques for which the bank agreed not to prosecute him, although he had to pay a fine of AED 100. He added that that this attitude towards business owners as individuals is one of the biggest challenges facing SMEs.

"A number of banks have, over the last year, caused more difficulties for SMEs by closing their bank accounts without any notice. We have a number of business suppliers who have had their bank accounts closed, not because they bounced cheques or are bad creditors; in fact some of these businesses have had bank accounts for ten years, but the bank did not want to deal with SMEs anymore. Banks like to say that they deal with SMEs, but the reality is they do not," said Pass.

In spite of the number of SMEs in the GCC region, Pass said it was possible that banks are reluctant to fund smaller businesses because they may feel corporate clients are a safer investment by having an office elsewhere in the world or a number of tangible assets on which they can fall back in the event of falling into financial difficulty.

"I think there are a lot of changes and initiatives by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai to push banks and seed funds to open up. There are great opportunities for Emiratis to start businesses with funds here in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We work with Emiratis who have start-ups and small businesses that use those available funds to help them establish and get their businesses going. It is fantastic that they have that opportunity; it would be nice if the rest of us could have a bit more of a chance," he added.


Pass would like the agency to remain at its current size and would rather focus on the developing the strength of the team. Even though JPd is a home-grown Dubai business with a multi-cultural team, clients are from Asia, namely China, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as North America and Europe.

"I think some of these clients see Dubai as a hot spot for great, creative talent and branding outside of New York and London, because they see what amazing things are launched and promoted here. Also, we find that many people want to start their business here since there are so many nationalities to provide feedback on their brands and products," Pass said.


"We are thrilled to be presented with such an honourable accolade and to be recognised for our hard work and expertise as an SME. At JPd, we are committed to supporting our fellow SMEs, entrepreneurs and start-ups through creating strong brand identities and building brand awareness through our services; which helps to differentiate them from others in their often saturated markets. The FinanceME Business Vision Awards is a fantastic platform to help promote Dubai SME's across the region and a great opportunity to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit," said Pass.

We have a number of business suppliers who have had their bank accounts closed, not because they bounced cheques or are bad creditors; in fact some of these businesses have had bank accounts for ten years, but the bank did not want to deal with SMEs anymore." -- James Pass, Managing Director and Creative Principal, JPd

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Date:May 31, 2016

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