Rola Ghot­meh: Our most pow­er­ful tool was our cre­ativ­ity

Es­tab­lish­ing The cre­ative9 was far from easy, says the agency’s founder Rola Ghot­meh. Here she dis­cusses the tough jour­ney to suc­cess

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Be­ing cre­ative goes be­yond the ac­tual work we do as ad­ver­tis­ers. It’s how we tackle dayto-day chal­lenges, from man­age­ment to ex­e­cu­tion, both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally.

“Set­ting up an agency is not easy. It took a lot of my time, a lot of ded­i­ca­tion, and quite the per­sonal sac­ri­fices,” says Rola Ghot­meh. “Some­times I just felt like quit­ting. Some­times I even hated the ex­pe­ri­ence of lead­ing a busi­ness as it snapped the ‘dreamer’ cre­ative in me back to busi­ness lead­er­ship re­al­ity. But then one win, or one fun brief, would re­mind me of why I did this in the first place.”

Ghot­meh, the The cre­ative9’s chair­man, founder and chief cre­ative of­fi­cer all rolled into one, is dis­cussing the hard graft nec­es­sary to es­tab­lish an agency.

“I had thought that be­ing an art di­rec­tor with ex­pe­ri­ence in the Gulf would be enough to at­tract big clients,” she ad­mits. “Clearly there is more to it than that. Real growth re­quires solid plan­ning and a lot of hard work.

“Hav­ing started as a cre­ative with no part­ners, no in­vestors and no busi­ness or fi­nan­cial know-how made the process all the more ex­cit­ing and dif­fi­cult at the same time. Ex­cit­ing be­cause it fed my cu­ri­ous na­ture and rest­less­ness to learn more, and dif­fi­cult be­cause of the mis­takes I had to make in or­der to learn.”

Since the agency’s in­cep­tion in Beirut in 2014 Ghot­meh has worn many hats. Chief ex­ec­u­tive, cre­ative di­rec­tor, new busi­ness di­rec­tor, di­rec­tor of strat­egy. She’s been them all. And that’s be­fore you fac­tor in the de­vel­op­ment of the agency’s in­ter­nal cul­ture, client re­la­tions, growth ini­tia­tives, dam­age con­trol, and the in­ter­nal de­vel­op­ment of staff.

“In many in­stances I found my­self over­whelmed with to-dos and hav­ing to mi­cro­man­age, be­cause the in­fra­struc­ture de­pended heav­ily of the type of clients we bring in, and vice versa,” she says. “Our most pow­er­ful tool was our cre­ativ­ity.”

Yet, here she is, three years later, the suc­cess­ful cre­ator of a multi-dis­ci­plinary, in­te­grated ad­ver­tis­ing agency, hav­ing worked with the likes of Shell, BMW, Bac­ardi In­ter­na­tional, Nestlé and Google Dubai. The agency’s name refers to the nine cre­ative ser­vices it of­fers.

“I es­tab­lished the agency based on a premise in­spired by my com­bined ex­pe­ri­ences,” says Ghot­meh. “The in­dus­try was shift­ing. The need for in­te­grated so­lu­tions was more im­por­tant than ever, es­pe­cially given that the con­sumer [had] be­come the out­spo­ken judge. Con­sis­tency across the com­mu­ni­ca­tion seg­ments was cru­cial, but it was chal­leng­ing for big agen­cies with the large and heavy in­fra­struc­ture they have. So I set out with a goal, and my prom­ise was strate­gic, in­te­grated, con­sis­tent and, most im­por­tantly, cre­ative work across seg­ments for se­lected brands. To be quickly proac­tive and re­ac­tive.”

It’s worked, even though Ghot­meh ad­mits there are con­tin­ued chal­lenges and con­cerns, not least con­vinc­ing big brands to trust bou­tique agen­cies, their ca­pa­bil­i­ties and their of­fer­ing; find­ing cre­ative and in­no­va­tive ways to ride the so­cial me­dia wave; and be­ing able to re­cruit se­nior tal­ent while the agency is still rel­a­tively young.

There’s also the re­cur­ring is­sue of Le­banese com­pa­nies believ­ing an in-house de­signer or cre­ative depart­ment – put in place to mainly save on cost – can re­place an agency. “What clients are miss­ing is that one de­signer can­not de­liver the in­te­grated work that agen­cies can, nor have a col­lab­o­rated val­i­da­tion of the work based on both cre­ative and strate­gic think­ing,” as­serts Ghot­meh.

Nev­er­the­less, “this is the time to leave our mark” in­sists Ghot­meh, who comes from a big agency back­ground, hav­ing worked as a se­nior art di­rec­tor at both J.wal­ter Thomp­son and M&C Saatchi.

“If we’ve achieved any suc­cess to date, it’s due to our hard work and dili­gence to ex­ceed our ex­pec­ta­tions and that of oth­ers,” she says. “We never set­tle. And if we be­lieve in an idea we do our best to make sure it sees the light in the best shape by an­swer­ing the clients/brands’ is­sue at hand.

“Be­ing cre­ative goes be­yond the ac­tual work we do as ad­ver­tis­ers. It’s how we tackle day-to­day chal­lenges, from man­age­ment to ex­e­cu­tion, both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally. This is sensed in our work as well as our deal­ings with our clients. We find new ways to work to­gether.

“At the heart of all this is team work, and giv­ing credit where it’s due. Each team mem­ber at The cre­ative 9 has shoes to fill, a chance at suc­cess as a ma­jor role in the agency’s fu­ture. I be­lieve that suc­cess is bet­ter shared and cel­e­brated, and this is how we nur­ture mo­ti­va­tion, own­er­ship and ac­count­abil­ity amongst our team. We en­cour­age each and ev­ery team mem­ber to thrive, in a col­lab­o­ra­tive en­vi­ron­ment with like-minded tal­ented peo­ple who can help take the agency to new heights.”

She adds: “It’s been a tough jour­ney, an awak­en­ing, a new-found ap­pre­ci­a­tion of all the roles within an ad or the com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture,” she says. “Look­ing back to­day at how far along we’ve come, I think it was well worth it.” I.A.

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