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Activating the creative gene

Why Lebanese advertising agencies like the idea of a roaring Chihuahua

by Thomas Schellen

Early in 2016 was once again the perfect moment for a comparison check on the strength of the Lebanese advertising market: the Super Bowl. As the primary sports spectacle in the United States was celebrated on February 7 with national pride (anthem sung by Lady Gaga), superbly choreographed spectacle (halftime show with Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyonce) and inevitable circumstance of glorious competition (throwing, running and catching of a ball by the country’s most talented sportsmen in this specialty endeavor), it would have been a fantastic chance to promote Lebanese exports to over 110 million US viewers with a creative commercial.

Super Bowl advertising spots are the real-life Olympics of marketing, far beyond the live TV audience; they are watched, evaluated, talked about and shared online by millions, long after game day. Talk about quick and viral? More like the grail of engagement. And it was not only local beer and foreign car makers that entertained with commercials during Super Bowl 50. Mexican avocado exporters advertised this year (again) and got global attention for their produce. Judging from their commercials and those of the competition, Lebanese agencies would certainly have the creative potential to produce a spot that could compete in the Super Bowl.

However, here is where the dichotomy shows: a spot in the event sets the advertiser back by about $5 million – per 30 seconds. According to industry publication Advertising Age, the 2016 Super Bowl ad sales revenue amounted to an estimated $377 million, a new record in a long line of rising marketing investments at the event. The total advertising investments in the Lebanese market in 2015, $190 million by the most optimistic assessments, consequently would hardly be enough to book the spots in the Super Bowl’s first half.

[pullquote]Judging from their commercials…Lebanese agencies would certainly have the creative potential to produce a spot that could compete in the Super Bowl[/pullquote]

While such comparison is just a mental exercise, it illustrates a big tear in the fabric of the Lebanese advertising industry. The local market is small and stagnant to the point of going into an advertising recession. Regional markets are not looking good because of the oil price slide or are, in the case of Syria, completely paralyzed. Lebanese creative agencies, however, are reaping accolades for their productions and have been ramping up their reputation for more years than the market has been slumping.

Case in point, last month saw several agencies awarded high rankings in several ad industry introspections, such as the Big Won Report, the Gunn Report and the annual listing of “brave” agencies by trade magazine Contagious. The biggest winner from Lebanon was agency Leo Burnett Beirut, a member of the Publicis conglomerate. It tied in Contagious’ list of global standard setters with another Arab agency, Menacom’s FP7 Dubai, in tenth place worldwide.

That’s not all. From their fairly modest offices – even by regional standards – on ever-busy Charles Malek Avenue in Achrafieh, Leo Burnett Beirut swept awards for top creative productions with commercials such as the keep the flame alive campaign of Diageo’s Johnnie Walker whisky brand (a Lebanese national confidence booster) and two civil society messages – Sakker el dekkene’s Lebanon4Sale, an anti-corruption campaign, and vote for us; we’ll vote for you, the women’s legal rights campaign for Kafa.

According to Nada Abi Saleh, managing director at Leo Burnett Beirut, these three campaigns were in the top ten globally in one or more categories which the Big Won Report computed from compiling information on 3,406 pieces of advertising work which in 2015 had won nearly 7,200 awards in 32 awards shows around the world. Additionally, Leo Burnett Beirut was lauded as one of the top 20 creative agencies in the Gunn Report.

This needs to be put into context. First, advertising awards are a marketing genre in itself. What else would one expect? While best-in awards and recognitions have become frequent in activities from banking to horticulture, the advertising industry has a larger propensity than most to assess its own products and advertise outstanding performances. Dubai Lynx, a regional chip off the old Cannes Lions block, and MENA Cristals, an ad feast that was staged on an annual basis in Kfardebian until it moved to Dubai last year, are regional specimens of the advertising awards genre. This notwithstanding, advertising industry award news are not mandatory reading for either advertisers or business reporters. It’s fine if you never looked at the Big Won Report, Contagious Communications or the Gunn Report.

Secondly, advertising industry leaders often speak dismissively of award shows when they are not at the events to sit on juries, deliver speeches or receive trophies. Time and again, agency owners and decision makers across the region have told Executive in interviews that awards are good for the morale of their teams and help talented individuals to get ahead in their careers. But that’s it. When it comes to the bottom line, multinational clients don’t assign big accounts on the basis of the number of awards won by an agency.

A narrative of inspiration by adversity

Yet, once the hype and marketing praise is stripped from the narrative, there is an admirable core. According to Abi Saleh and Kamil Kuran, the agency’s managing director for the Levant, the story took off a few years ago with the Leo Burnett Beirut office’s first successful grab at quality international attention when the team, in Kuran’s words, “cracked Cannes” with Khede Kasra, a women’s empowerment campaign for the Hariri Foundation.

[pullquote]Lebanese creative agencies are reaping accolades for their productions and have been ramping up their reputation for more years than the market has been slumping[/pullquote]

Winning a Gold Lion in the public relations category in 2009 ignited curiosity about who these people from an out-of-the-way agency were, Kuran explains. “I think credit of course goes to the entire team but under the leadership of Nada [Abi Saleh] at the time. The thing is, it’s so hard and you work so hard to crack something, but once you crack it, you become more confident and you start to know what it takes [to create prize worthy campaigns],” he says.

Abi Saleh interjects that the roots of the Beirut agency’s increased creativity became visible several years earlier in 2005 and 2006 during a period when the Lebanese people were eager and then desperate to see change. The agency at the time started infusing encouraging messages into ads for local retailers and banks. “We wanted our brands to not be distant from our Lebanese reality. We wanted them to be parts of the people’s mind and affection and emotions,” she explains. This marked a shift in thinking that was not planned, she adds: “I would love to say that we started with a vision, but this is not the entire truth. I think we started doing it very intuitively and thanks to the culture that some key people at this agency wanted to establish.”

The momentum was kept and in 2012, the agency was acknowledged as the world’s number 6 in creativity in the Big Won Report. According to Kuran, the dynamics in the interaction between the agency’s individuals, its collective team identity, and its simultaneously diverse and adverse Lebanese environment provided the factors that kept the creative juices flowing and coalescing in the successful campaigns seen since.

“The beauty of it is the dynamics of all of those together. Communication and advertising and all that are a form of learning and a form of culture. [If you] try to instill change, try to combat all this complacency and the spirit of giving up within our population, you’re always trying to push the envelope,” he says. When the mindset of wanting to give the message that Lebanon can achieve collides with the defeatist sentiments found in large parts of society, this frustration creates “fertile ground” for causes and for coming up “with campaigns that touch the hearts of people,” he elaborates further.

[pullquote]Frustration creates “fertile ground” for causes and for coming up with “campaigns that touch the hearts of people.”[/pullquote]

Campaigns designed with the objective of promoting needed change then were driven by “a hunger to prove ourselves and demonstrate that in such a small country we can make a difference that is 100 percent made in Lebanon. I don’t think anywhere in the world there exists a country like this where people keep beating you down and you keep resisting and wanting to instigate change,” Kuran goes on.

It was a progress along the same mental road that led Leo Burnett Beirut to its latest award winning campaigns. As Abi Saleh and Kuran tell it, the Johnnie Walker keep the flame alive campaign was the result of intense brainstorming and teamwork on how to make the long-running commercial more relevant to Lebanon. Seeds for the production had been secured when the agency got approval to acculturate the brand’s keep walking theme to Lebanon, engaging local celebrities to star in spots and using images such as walking across bridges that had been destroyed in the conflict of 2006. When conceived and realized in 2014, the ‘keep the flame alive’ commercials were informed by the resilience of Lebanese people and their affirmations of determination and overcoming in the face of the hardships.

In the greater context of changing attitudes in the communication with customers, Abi Saleh and Kuran say the winning Leo Burnett Beirut campaigns are part of a wider flow toward people-centric thinking and to developing the why of brands instead of emphasizing only the what. When it comes to the fact that a comparatively small office with relatively few staff now rates far above international expectations in its creativity, Kuran conjures an image of a different kind. “Imagine you are watching a tribe of lions which are all roaring. Suddenly you notice this small Chihuahua which shows up in the tribal meeting and instead of barking, that Chihuahua roars, and it roars louder than the lions. It gets your attention.”

We all agree that in the lions’ dens of global advertising, the Lebanese currently stand out as the roaring Chihuahua.

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Thomas Schellen

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

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