Emile Ta­banji: Le­banon’s chance to shine

With high qual­ity and cost ef­fi­ciency cen­tral to the coun­try’s of­fer­ing, Le­banon an­swers the ques­tion of how to pro­duce great work with lim­ited bud­gets, says Im­pact BBDO’S Emile Ta­banji

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Lis­ten, you can’t ex­ist in this in­dus­try if there is no thrill that comes with it. […] And we love it with all the chal­lenges and the stress, be­cause there’s a thrill to it.

Emile Ta­banji, Im­pact BBDO’S man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for Le­banon, is dis­cussing the pre­dictabil­ity of the Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket. It is, he says, a bless­ing.

“Le­banon has been go­ing through down­turns for years,” he says. “So we’ve adapted. We know how to op­er­ate within them.

“The thing that’s dif­fer­ent this year is that the is­sues are multi-geo­graph­i­cal. They’re hit­ting ev­ery­where. Usu­ally what used to hap­pen was if you had one mar­ket down you could cover it with other mar­kets. With every­thing that’s hap­pened in the GCC and in our re­gion, there’s a lot of strug­gle.”

It’s been al­most two years since Ta­banji, who is also the net­work’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for Egypt, re­turned to his home coun­try from Cairo, and de­spite the pres­sures he seems to be en­joy­ing it.

“It’s good to be back where you started,” he ad­mits. “I’m back home, I’m back with my fam­ily – which on a per­sonal level is def­i­nitely a great thing to be – and I have old col­leagues I’ve re­con­nected with, which is lovely.”

The weekly com­mute to Cairo is gone, re­placed in­stead by a more man­age­able jour­ney to the agency’s of­fices in Cle­menceau and Ashrafieh, and Le­banon, de­spite the ob­vi­ous chal­lenges, re­mains sta­ble.

When we talk he is in the midst of de­liv­er­ing fi­nal year re­views, with Dani Richa, chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of BBDO Mid­dle East, Africa and Pak­istan, in town. Next year’s plans are also in the process of be­ing ironed out.

“Thank­fully we’re still in good shape,” says Ta­banji. “[But] the world is chang­ing at a fast pace and that’s a chal­lenge for ev­ery­one. It’s some­thing that re­quires you con­tin­u­ously to have the will and the en­ergy to adapt. Whether it’s tech­nol­ogy driven or me­dia driven or con­sump­tion driven, you need to adapt.

“If you cou­ple this with the eco­nomic slow­down, what’s hap­pen­ing is that clients still want to do the best work but the re­sources are lim­ited. So we’re all faced with this du­al­ity. You want the high qual­ity work, but with very lim­ited bud­gets. This is the ma­jor equa­tion. How can you achieve that with­out com­pro­mis­ing?”

Ta­banji has spent the past 17 years with Im­pact BBDO, work­ing his way through the ranks via stints in Dubai and Egypt be­fore be­ing named man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Cairo of­fice in 2011.

“The main thing that is hap­pen­ing now – and I think it will come to be an ad­van­tage for mar­kets like Le­banon and Egypt – is that with the seek­ing of ef­fi­cien­cies and with all the pres­sure that is hap­pen­ing in big­ger mar­kets, there’s go­ing to be a much higher op­por­tu­nity for growth in mar­kets like Le­banon,” he says. “Be­cause you fall into the equa­tion of high qual­ity and cost ef­fi­ciency.”

For that very rea­son, Im­pact BBDO has built a big re­gional so­cial team in Le­banon (with guid­ance from Im­pact Prox­im­ity) that works with Dubai and other mar­kets. Ta­banji pre­dicts other dis­ci­plines could be de­vel­oped in Le­banon in a sim­i­lar way.

“I think we will find in cer­tain places that mar­kets like Le­banon and Egypt could play a much big­ger role and a much more ef­fi­cient role in or­der to an­swer to our part­ners’ needs. Which is, how can we main­tain our qual­ity and re­duce our costs?”

This re­quires tal­ent, of course, which Le­banon has a ten­dency to let slip away.

“One of the main chal­lenges in Le­banon is the mi­gra­tion of tal­ent,” ad­mits Ta­banji. “The econ­omy is not grow­ing as much as it should, the cost of ed­u­ca­tion in Le­banon is quite high, so peo­ple are seek­ing bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side. It’s very hard to main­tain great peo­ple, be­cause you can hire them when they’re young, you can prob­a­bly bring them when they’re quite se­nior, but in the mid­dle you feel it’s hard to main­tain them.

“Do [the younger gen­er­a­tion] stay as long, do they come with the same am­bi­tions, do they have the same mind­set, can you talk to them about their five-year plan? No. It’s a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion. For them, seek­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and try­ing new things is some­thing they deal with ev­ery day. Do they cal­cu­late change like we used to cal­cu­late it in our days? No, ob­vi­ously not.

“It might not be as fre­quent, but you still find great minds and very de­ter­mined peo­ple who love this in­dus­try and who have the pas­sion to grow in it. The big­ger chal­lenge is keep­ing peo­ple in this coun­try, rather than get­ting peo­ple to join it.”

Love of ad­ver­tis­ing is an in­ter­est­ing con­cept. Its di­min­ish­ing cul­tural im­pact, the rise of en­trepreneuri­al­ism, and the se­duc­tive na­ture of the tech in­dus­try have all re­duced ad­ver­tis­ing’s ap­peal, both as a ca­reer and as an idea.

“Lis­ten, you can’t ex­ist in this in­dus­try if there is no thrill that comes with it,” says Ta­banji. “I re­mem­ber the first time I sat with our ex-chair­man, Alain Khouri. And he told me ‘this in­dus­try is not for ev­ery­one. Ei­ther you’ll love it, be­cause there’s so much that comes with it, or you’ll just die and hate it’. And I be­lieve time has proven that we love it. And we love it with all the chal­lenges and the stress, be­cause there’s a thrill to it.

“The power of the idea will al­ways be the power of the idea, no mat­ter what shape it takes, how it’s pro­duced, or where you see it. Does this mean agen­cies will re­main in the same shape and form? No. But will the need for cre­ative ideation and smart strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­main? I be­lieve, yes. Luck­ily we’re not in a typ­i­cal labour busi­ness where ro­bots could re­place us.” I.A.

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