Design of the times

Advertising is no longer a simple process of enticing users to obtain a product

Greg Demarque | Executive

When you walk into a communications agency in Beirut, you know it. Dark wood paneling and bookshelves lined up with tomes in historic succession, a vault with a time lock on every floor, picture after picture of lovely high rises, or a garage-door-sized executive desk in mahogany. Think law office, bank headquarters, property developer, or (self-) important manufacturer. For an advertising or communications outfit, think open floor space, unconventional accessories (from basketball hoop to marketing murals), roughly hewn looks of concrete and glass or sometimes limestone on interior walls, communicative courtyards, and lots of alliterative post-its sticking to every conceivable (and inconceivable) vertical surface.

In short, if it trumpets creativity with notes of purple berries and minty hints of chaos, you are standing in the office of a Beirut advertising firm. This is the Lebanese industry that has been leading – and indeed supplying – the entire region with communications talent, creative talent, and design talent for at least five decades. It is an industry whose self-perception of being creative means that it is pregnant with new designs in every campaign, every pitch, and every presentation down to its office walls. The only design related questions of relevance here are: is design everything, is everything design, or both?

With so much design competency it has become clear that the advertising and marketing communication minds of Beirut don’t have a single answer about the nature and importance of design. Ask them and they spawn a whole library.

Firstly, design is nigh on impossible to define as a concept and the industry has a grip on this fact. “Design is a broad concept under which you can align life itself,” says Omar Nasreddine, vice president for Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa for global advertising agency Grey Group, a unit of world-leading marketing communications conglomerate WPP.

Life, thankfully, is beyond commerce. Adding measurability in form of marginal utility or market value then is key for getting design to work for the benefit of its author or intellectual owner. “In a business context, design is twofold: first it is design that we do, aesthetics, from packaging to artwork to ideas, and [secondly] there is the strategic bit which is all about how you design your own company, your own business strategy, your expansion,” Nasreddine differentiates.

While cautioning that he is not comfortable with restricting the design discussion to strategic design, he continues, “But for the sake of making the discussion easier, one common denominator that defines all the ways in which you strategically design things, be it products, services, concepts, or structures, is optimization. The only reason why strategic design exists is to optimize anything – from a person to a product to a structure to an ideology, and if you do not apply the law of evolution to that design, it might as well have not been there.”

Keeping the mind profitable

What must never be amiss in using strategic design according to Nasreddine is profitability. This certainly reverberates with the business of media planning as another existential pillar of the marketing and communications industry. Standing besides the advertising agencies, specialized entities in advertising conglomerates that have often been referred to in industry lingo as media buying units (MBUs) are focused on designing and negotiating the avenues that will deliver return on investments (ROI) for the marketing dollars of their advertising clients.

Design is a broad concept under which you can align life itself

From his perspective, as expert on media planning and buying, “design is creativity for us. We always focus on creativity in media buying – how can we be creative in our media approaches?” says Wissam Najjar, managing director for the Levant region at OMD, a worldwide media planning company and unit of Omnicom Group, a New York-based global marketing communications powerhouse.

“We know that the future is content so we focus a lot around content. For us creativity is about being creative through content, and for us being creative means that it has to make business sense to the client,” Najjar elaborates.

Explaining that things like getting gleaming awards for a campaign’s design will “not do anything for the client who wants volumes, to achieve targets, defend market share or gain it,” Najjar says the media planners speak a language with the client that is based on the fact “that he wants exposure and at the end of the day wants business and it all has to relate to ROI.”

This means that in his experience creativity and design aren’t quite everything for a media planner, because some creative ideas emerge as too complicated for deploying them in sales and the creative angle alone does not have “the scientific approach that we do,” Najjar says. “Our role is to sit together and craft a strategy which is doing well creatively and also as a business strategy.”

“Our design part comes in where we do something creative within the media itself. We think about how we can approach any media with a non-traditional manner,” he continues and references approaches such as the growing practice where adverts mimic the style of content providers such as news media publishers.

These so-called native adverts seamlessly blend into the platform formats of digital environments and provide advertisers with increased rates of engagement by media users, although Najjar notes that “some people feel frustrated [by native advertising] because they believe that they are being cheated.” But the cardinal question for media planners cannot be the displeasure of some, it appears, or a debate over the need for an impenetrable wall between marketing and content.

Where just a few years ago advertising groups in the Middle East were lamenting how the region was still lagging in its embrace of online advertising, the new ubiquity of tools such as native advertising testify to the fact that the digitization of communications is perhaps slower here but no less of a challenge to advertising and media stakeholders to develop sustainable standards of governance, and at the same time achieve the economic aims that will allow both marketing communications and content publishers to grow.

For a media planner, this means being clear about priority one, Najjar says: “Our biggest topic is how to engage the customer, so anything we come up with has to be engaging.”

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And of course the need to survive is right at the center of all changes in the communications sector, including the role and importance of design. With the advertising industry’s own exposure and adherence to the laws of evolution, design has always been present but in recent years it has risen higher and been given what Areej Mahmoud perceives as “its right place, the place where it should be.”

An evolution in intelligent design

“Design is for sure taking a more serious place in advertising and has been doing that for a few years,” says Mahmoud, who is head of creative at Leo Burnett Beirut, an international agency that is part of France-based advertising conglomerate Publicis.

He links the greater role of design to the industry’s departure from what he calls “the tyranny of the media,” the era when advertising industry minds were focused on which medium a message was to be placed in. “For a very long time the advertising industry was hijacked by media, where the thinking process of anyone in advertising was, ‘what are we putting on television, what are we putting on radio, what in the magazine, what’s outdoors?’”, he says.

The old approach according to him would seek to find a common ground between disjointed information strands on consumer, product, brand message and sales purposes associated with an advertising campaign and implement this in media according to placement priorities. For Mahmoud, this traditional way of thinking in advertising was overly formulaic. “I don’t think of design as a practice, because I am a designer. For me, thinking as a designer is looking at a problem and all its angles,” he sums up his definition of design and enthuses, “Since today we are free from the tyranny of media companies, you go back to solving a problem as a human being, not as a marketer, planner or salesman.”

As an example for how design thinking at an agency can solve problems when it is not bound to media, he cites approaches like that of New York-based agency R/GA whose Hammerhead navigation solution for bikers earned top awards at the 2015 Cannes Lions.

Approaches proving the validity of the design method in solving business problems are accumulating all over the advertising industry and it’s not only global agencies with pedigree that can deliver them. When Beirut-based agency Interesting Times was offered a stab at a shampoo launch, their first thought was “boring”, says Ashraf Mansour, a managing partner and co-founder of Interesting Times.

But when they took the possibility seriously and decided to tackle it, what came out was a virtual concert with an interactive online audience of over 50,000 – and since the campaign’s focus was on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, this included an audience of over 20,000 in Saudi Arabia, most of whom, as Mansour emphasizes, likely never had a chance to attend a live concert. From the agencies’ perspective, its contribution not only helped sell a new soapy product but also allowed women in the kingdom to set their minds a little freer.

For me, thinking as a designer is looking at a problem and all its angles

It was not necessarily a strategic design concept that was the basis of their startup a few years ago, after Mansour and several colleagues departed from multinational agency JWT to establish their own firm. Stepping out of their comfort zones as corporate executives created a specific spirit for the agency founders, he explains. “There was something in the narrative that became truth for us: it was like we want to be people living in interesting times, meaning the time of ongoing change. That was crucial for us and is something that we try hard to remain true to. We have eight different logos for Interesting Times [which express that] the name is the same, the spirit is the same but the interpretation doesn’t stop. From a design perspective this reflects the spirit. Is the design consistent? No, because the thought is not consistent, it is always changing.”

For Mansour, the starting point of every project is strategy which precedes design. “The way we see things is that everything is converging. Advertising, PR, design, everything is one. How does this lead to strategy? I think there needs to be a strategy and there needs to be an interpretation of this strategy in terms of PR, in terms of social, in terms of design.”

He agrees with the other advertising professionals interviewed by Executive that there is considerable hype to the narrative depicting strategic design as a new discipline for practically everything. All the experts concur that these attitudes are due to everyone’s desire to own a profitable business, leading everyone to describe their own approach as the most innovative one, playing the eternal game of competition. In this game, “even naming has a strategy now,” chuckles Mansour.

An ever-crowded field

Overlaps exist for example between strategic design consulting propositions and the methods of conventional financial consulting, says Nasreddine, but adds that the short-term orientation of many financial consultancies is surpassed, in his view, by the longer-term focus of strategic design. Plus, immersion into strategic design is today indispensable for anyone in advertising leadership, he says. “If I want to talk to a top notch client, I need to speak with top notch knowledge and no way can top notch knowledge exist without strategic design as a part of it.”

Where questions and some doubts may loom over the presence and strength of a design ecosystem in Lebanon [see overview on page 28], the experiences of professionals such as Nasreddine and Mahmoud speak with a historic depth on the design mentality in the country, as they cite the positive influences that mentors and models such as regional industry greats Philippe Skaff at Grey and Farid Chehab at Leo Burnett had on their own development.

While the professionals conversing with Executive shared the concern that too many talented designers have been and are migrating away from Lebanon, this seems to support rather than disprove the evidence of a, however informal and tender, design ecosystem. Design talents keep sprouting in the country, or as Mansour says cheerily, “In Lebanon, from a design view, we have the talent, [and] we have the taste.” Mahmoud observes that some “mediocrity will be found everywhere” but he emphasizes, “I am proud of the design ecosystem. There are terrible designs but also good designs in the region and in Lebanon specifically we have some good schools that are run by really enlightened people.”

For OMD’s Najjar, the issue is less the state of the national design ecosystem but more the state of the nation and how to use the power of design and communications to upgrade perceptions of Lebanon. “Our role in communications is to spread more news about the positive things in Lebanon,” he says and proclaims, “let’s push positive news in Lebanon – in a fucked up system like Lebanon you have to take a first step and that’s changing the perceptions. How do you change it? By [employing the] media.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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