In the wake of criticism from a wide array of religious and political leaders, threats of an outright ban, and the very public defacement of certain controversial images from Tyre to Tripoli, the outdoor advertising industry appears ready to engage in a bit of belated self-regulation. To understand exactly what this will mean, EXECUTIVE sat down with Antonio Vincenti, CEO of the billboard giant Pikasso, who has been at the forefront of efforts to repair the industry’s own image.
Q: Describe Pikasso’s current role in the regional advertising marketplace.
A: We are in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – Iraq since January. We have forty competitors, more or less, in Lebanon and forty in Jordan and we are the largest company in Lebanon. What we do is rent locations from municipalities or from landlords, we install the boarding and then we rent it by creating networks.
Q: What is at the center of the controversy over outdoor advertising in Lebanon?
A: In a country where you have 17 communities living together, I think we must, if we want to preserve civil peace, respect the beliefs of all of the 17 communities. Now, where does the border stand between what is permitted and what is not permitted? Thank God, general security has a very open minded attitude. Since the beginning of the year (when they became the official censor), we have never had any problem with general security. And I can tell you that they are very liberal in their way of guarding permits. What does this mean? It means we should be very responsible toward this open-minded attitude of the censor. If we say, yes we have had a problem with religious authorities, but we have the permit from general security, then the attitude of general security the next day is to refuse all visuals or half of them, whenever they feel as though they will have the smallest problem – which is a pity. That is why we need to have self-censorship, self regulation – a logical attitude. You know you have visuals you should not accept and you should not accept them nor you should post them.
Q: What will self-regulation entail exactly?
A: After the Association for the Defense of Moral Values in Lebanon asked the justice minister to [crack down] on certain billboards. I advised my colleagues and competitors to take care and be very cautious. We also attempted to create a dialogue among companies. We are all working in the same sector but each one has different values and ethics. So, we suggested, and we will create, groups composed of the president of a municipality, three or four billboard companies, the local association of traders, a representative from the ad agencies and a representative of the ministry for the interior. Our industry objective now is to reduce the number of billboards by 25% in crowded areas. We will start this with the municipality of Antelias. The president there said he would like to be the first one to try this.
Q: Where, from within the industry, have most of the problems with visuals come from?
A: The problem comes from a lot of small agencies – they don’t care, they [produce] vulgar creations and post it everywhere. This is what disturbed and created this problem from all the religious authorities. Now, I would defend to hell pure creativity and the body of a woman on a billboard, if it is done with class, with creativity by a big agency, for a big brand with class. I do not want to be associated with a cheap product, cheap creativity and a vulgar thing.
Q: Some tiles have been taken out of less vulgar billboard visuals though, like one example along the highway to Sidon where Haifa Wehbe’s shoulders were removed.
A: This I am not aware of. A shoulder would never be a problem. Look billboard posters have abused the usage of their billboards, putting images that hurt the feelings of certain people. But if I have a big brand like Aïshti, who wants to put a half naked woman or L’Oreal, I will do it, but I won’t put it in a sensitive area. I would put it in Jounieh for example.
Q: Pikasso has never had a problem with its 3,000 plus billboards?
A: No, thank God. I just had two unipoles for a brand of underwear. I asked them to change the visual and they refused so I stopped the contract. It is not worth it. We want to be responsible. We don’t want to be used by some product or agency in order to sell some products with those provocative visuals.
Q: Has Pikasso ever had to bend the rules in order to compete in the market?
A: We respect the law as much as we can and we only stop respecting the law when our survival is at stake in a city or town. What does this mean? That we would exclude ourselves if we tell a president of a certain municipality, look we don’t install here because it does not respect the law [regarding the spacing of billboards]? Sometimes, I have no choice, or I would exclude the company from the market. If I am in a city where I have installed some billboards and then the council decides to give a competitor space at 50 meters away from me, what should I do? Dismount the billboard and exclude Pikasso from the city?
Q: Since the main advertising law stipulates that billboards should be kept 100 meters apart in all public areas, considering that 60% of the country’s 10,000 billboards are concentrated between Khaldeh and Jounieh, a stretch that only accounts for 10% of the country’s total area, won’t a 25% reduction significantly hurt revenues in these overcrowded, but profitable locations?
A: With the clutter prices are going down. Now, after the industry changes, it will be even better. It will make billboards more attractive and the sector more organized.
Q: Does Pikasso hold any of the billboards where the visual is repeated over and over again ad naseum?
A: No. I think this is not very smart, although there is a saying in Arabic: “Repetition is a good lesson for donkeys.” They believe that, but it is totally wrong.
Q: What’s to say that your 40 or so competitors will do a better job of self-regulating their visuals and, on top of this, agree to voluntarily reduce the number of billboards, especially if some are already apparently willing to push the borders of the industry.
A: Now, I think that general security will be much more rigorous on the permits they will grant and, therefore, you will see that we have less and less of those problematic visuals. I think that our competitors understand that we are all seriously under threat and that we are playing with fire.
Q: According to one published report, Jounieh recently estimated that it should be generating as much as $666,000 per year from taxes on billboards. But, last year, it only saw $26,000 (LL39 million). What accounts for this discrepancy?
A: I will tell you that the figure is wrong in Jounieh. We alone pay the amount of LL40 million annually. I have a colleague who pays LL40 million. I said to myself maybe this is for political reasons, they are attacking the old municipal council. What I have heard though is that a lot of companies have not paid their taxes elsewhere and what I think we should do is haul them in front of the courts and not let them get away with that. We at Pikasso pay rigorously all of our municipal taxes, even during the war, and this is a point of honor for me because it is an obligation.
Q: Although general security has censorship power over billboards, why have you opposed the formation of a specialized body, such as a bureau for the verification of advertising, such as has been recently proposed?
A: In Lebanon, when you create a new authority or council, you will put people together that will argue and fight with each other. We know the people now, and we know that they are good people. We think that one control from general security is more than enough. We have the law, we have to respect the law – we have to be responsible and mature. I think that maneuvering smartly among all those things will be enough.