In late January, the organizers of the MENA Cristal awards were thrown into an unenviable position: just days before the five-day-long awards were set to be open in the Lebanese mountain resort of Faraya Mzaar on January 29, Beirut’s ongoing crisis plunged even deeper, with a violent general strike on the 23rd followed by clashes at the Beirut Arab University two days later. Should they still hold the awards on schedule, despite the risk of continuing violence, or opt to cancel or postpone the event? The decision was not easy, but ultimately their commitment to the event—and Lebanon—won out.
Their gamble was rewarded: tensions cooled, and the MENA Cristal Awards were universally deemed a resounding success. Aside from the event’s primary function—announcing the winners of the Cristal across a wide range of categories—hundreds of delegates from the MENA region and Europe had the chance to trade ideas with other advertising luminaries at roundtables, debates, workshops and presentations, over sumptuous Lebanese cuisine, and even on the ski slopes.
Although only in its second year, the MENA Cristal is fast on its way to becoming the region’s premier advertising award. Since its first edition in Casablanca in 2005, MENA Cristal has expanded from a one-day event to a five-day festival, awarding 61 “Cristals,” nine “Grand Cristals,” and one “Honor Cristal” to entries from 16 countries across the MENA region. MENA Cristal is the daughter of Europe’s prestigious Meribel Festival de le Publicité, and retains close ties to its parent, awarding the same prize, the Cristal, and conducting its judging in Meribel, which is held each December in the French Alps. The decision to hold the second edition of the MENA Cristal Awards in Lebanon was in part drawn from a desire to recreate the atmosphere of the Meribel festival. “We needed to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the concept of … Meribel. We saw early on that it was an excellent idea to organize the Awards in a ski resort, and what’s more, in the Middle East,” explains MENA Cristal CEO and general director of the Meribel festival Christian Cappe in his welcome editorial. Speaking exclusively with Executive, Cappe emphasized his desire to make Lebanon a permanent home for the festival, provided the political and security situation remains stable. Indeed, especially in light of the success of this year’s event, the MENA Cristal team is eager to hold next year’s edition in Faraya as well. As MENA Festival President Dani Richa writes, “The setting of Faraya Mzaar allows everyone to leave competition behind in the city and come in from the cold to work together in the warmth of the fireplace over cognacs and hot chocolates.”
Filling a void
The MENA Cristal was created to fill a perceived void in the Middle Eastern advertising world—the lack of a credible competition to reward and promote regional creativity. Members of the local advertising community particularly stress two aspects of the Cristal as vital, both of which challenge convention in the MENA region. First of all, there is a broad consensus that the MENA Cristal jury does not conflate genuine creativity with having a big budget when evaluating entries.
In awarding the MENA Cristal, “concept comes first,” explained 2007 Jury member Karim Achy, regional creative director for Euro RSCG in Dubai. “The execution comes after. The idea is the queen here—you can’t win just by showing off and having a large budget.” In a region where flashiness is generally rewarded, the idea of putting creativity first comes as a long-overdue breath of fresh air, and should help to foster a stronger creative sector.
The second major coup for the Cristal is the perceived fairness of the selection process. With politics tending to infiltrate almost everything in the Middle East (a problem which has undermined the credibility of many of the MENA Cristal’s competitors), honest judging in any competition is a rare commodity indeed.
Jury members are selected from both creative agencies and clients in Europe and the MENA region; in the latter category, MENA Cristal strives to achieve fair geographical representation as well, with members from the Levant, Gulf, and North Africa. All voting is done by secret ballot—jury members themselves do not know the results until they are announced at the awards ceremony.
“There wasn’t much lobbying at all,” remarked Samer Younes, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Beirut. “The best ads won. There were a few categories where I preferred an ad that lost, but it wasn’t unfair—just a difference of opinion.”
Jury member Raef Labaki, the general manager of communications at Nestle Middle East, agreed that the results were fair, citing his own experience as a juror. According to Labaki, the deliberation sessions were productive, positive and open, generally yielding consensus despite the jury’s diverse composition.
Credible, nonpolitical awards
“Internally, I hope the Cristal will help raise standards. We need a credible award in MENA. Everything is political here—if the MENA Cristal can avoid that trap, and be adopted as a benchmark by the whole industry, it could bring the neutrality we really need in the creative sector,” said Labaki.
Among the nine Grand Prix winners, one in particular seemed to capture the essence of the Cristal for jurors and agencies who spoke with Executive: Saatchi & Saatchi Beirut’s “Animals” campaign for the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, which took the Film Cristal Grand Prix. As Labaki explained, “It was a simple idea, but with a strong message that cut right through.”
“Animals” opens with a scene of a mother and baby koala; it then moves on to footage of different animals in affectionate scenes with their offspring, amplified by a simple, emotional musical score. Finally, the series ends with a young girl alone in a corner, clutching a teddy bear, her face badly bruised from being beaten. Then comes the final message: “Some kids wish their parents were animals.” In Arabic, the meaning is even starker, as calling someone an “animal” is a highly degrading insult.
The success of the “Animals” campaign, however, has not been limited to the MENA region: last year, the ad became the first Lebanese entry ever to be shortlisted at Cannes, and it took home the silver at Europe’s prestigious EPICA Awards. Younes, the man behind “Animals,” told Executive that this international acclaim—unparalleled by any other entries in the category—gave them an extra confidence boost going into the MENA Cristal. “We were hoping to win, but not expecting for sure. Still, we felt we were the most serious contender.”
Younes offered a similar explanation to Labaki for why his campaign has been so successfully received—the simplicity of the production, combined with its high emotionality. “Some people have told me they cried when they saw the commercial,” says Younes. “This ad was really a new idea—it wasn’t like anything done before, in MENA or internationally.”
Print campaigns also honored
Another ad frequently cited by jurors and agencies as among their favorites was Grey Worldwide Beirut and City Films’ campaign for the Doha Asian Games. To put it simply, in the words of Achy, the ads were a “big wow.”
Younes also specifically noted the high level of excellence seen among print campaigns coming from the Gulf. “They showed a high level of creativity—JWT’s ads for Amnesty International, Saatchi Dubai’s work for La Vache Qui Rit, of course the Viagra ads from JWT/RMG Connect in Jeddah. There were lots of really fantastic ads at the MENA Cristal, and this pushes the rest of us to do even better.”
Despite its overwhelmingly positive reception, the MENA Cristal still has some hurdles to overcome in the next few years. When asked what it meant to win a Cristal, Karim Kazan, creative director and group head at Impact BBDO Dubai (who won the Pluri Media Grand Cristal for “M&M’s: Mrs. Green Launch” campaign), told Executive, “Well, it’s a new award, but of course it’s always nice to win something local. Hopefully it will grow to be something bigger.” If MENA Cristal is serious about becoming an internationally-recognized credential—rather than a quaint, local prize—as a new player in the game, the awards will need to develop their brand and raise awareness within the creative community.
According to Labaki, another problem this year was that many first-round submissions were not up to quality standards. This resulted in a large number of unsuitable entries that had to be sifted out by jury members and others down the line. “The agencies should have done a better job screening,” he said, but conceded that the problem partially lay in the fact that MENA is a “big region, and the sector is much more developed in some countries than in others.” As less-experienced agencies and clients are brought in to participate in the MENA Cristal Awards, hopefully, through exposure to the best work in the region and industry leaders, they will gain new ideas and a greater understanding of the field, ultimately adopting higher standards themselves. The MENA Cristal is firmly committed to having participants from across the MENA region, regardless of the relative development of their sectors.
For Younes, the only major concern for next year is the need for a more international jury. He believes this would not only would help keep MENA Cristal neutral (and out of local politics), it will add credibility and exposure to the awards’ profile.
Achy also voiced the need for an even-stronger link between MENA Cristal and the international creative community, though he believes its existing European credentials and connection with Meribel have helped it to already “mean a lot” in the advertising world. “The awards have EU standards,” he reiterates. “Idea over budget.” As long as MENA Cristal can stay true to this principle, the future looks very bright indeed.