THE END The OF Line?

LE­BANON HAS BEEN DECREASING IN IM­POR­TANCE AS A MAR­KET FOR YEARS. AS ITS ECO­NOMIC WOES CON­TINUE, WHAT IS STOP­PING IT FROM BE­COM­ING IR­REL­E­VANT TO THE WIDER MID­DLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA?

ArabAd - - COVER STORY - By Iain Ak­er­man

This hasn’t been a great year for Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing. Bud­gets are down, clients are anx­ious, ad­spend con­tin­ues its down­ward spi­ral. Even its eter­nal ral­ly­ing cry – cre­ative ex­cel­lence – has suf­fered re­peated blows.

Where were the ac­co­lades and plau­dits at this year’s Cannes Lions In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val of Cre­ativ­ity? Why were the coun­try’s agen­cies con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence at the Dubai Lynx? And if Le­banon is the cen­tre of re­gional cre­ative flair, why does it not ap­pear so from the out­side? No, this has not been a vin­tage year.

All of which begs the ques­tion of whether the Le­banese mar­ket has be­come largely ir­rel­e­vant to the MENA re­gion. If Dubai, Cairo and Jed­dah have be­come hot­beds of in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity, what of Beirut? Surely the num­bers and lack of awards don’t lie?

“If one were to look at the Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket through the lens of com­par­a­tive me­dia spends, share of growth and an ex­cel sheet, one would think the an­swer an ob­vi­ous one, and yet quite mis­lead­ing,” says Natalia Ab­boud, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of TBWA\RAAD Beirut. “In fact, it would be my­opic, if not grossly neg­li­gent, on our part as lead­ers of cre­ative in­dus­tries to dis­count a mar­ket such as Le­banon on the ac­count of num­bers. One does not need to look far to un­der­stand that Le­banon presents a com­pelling value-propo­si­tion that has long been recog­nised – an end­less pool of cre­ative tal­ent.”

Tal­ent is ex­ten­sively cov­ered in a sep­a­rate ar­ti­cle within this edi­tion of Arabad, but the war for tal­ent has been iden­ti­fied as the sin­gle most im­por­tant chal­lenge fac­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions within knowl­edge­based economies. Ab­boud cites ur­ban econ­o­mist Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Cre­ative Class when dis­cussing the topic, par­tic­u­larly his be­lief that cre­ative tal­ent is more than just a provider of strate­gic com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage, but an en­gine of in­no­va­tion.

“This ‘cre­ative class’ of­ten grav­i­tates to places that en­dorse cre­ative free­dom, where tech­nol­ogy, tol­er­ance and tal­ent come to­gether to form an ecosys­tem that at­tracts both artists and en­trepreneurs,” says Ab­boud. “Beirut, like Ber­lin, is home to a hodge­podge of bud­ding en­trepreneurs and a grow­ing un­der­ground cre­ative com­mu­nity. The ef­fect is not only felt in the city but also in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, where both tal­ent and ideas spillover in the pur­suit of eco­nomic growth and op­por­tu­ni­ties. What’s more, Le­banese tal­ent is in­creas­ingly seen as in­car­nat­ing the best of Arab and Western cul­tures – as ev­i­denced by

the grow­ing num­ber of Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing prac­ti­tion­ers in the MENA re­gion.”

The de­fence of Le­banon as a pro­ducer of tal­ent is noth­ing new. You know how it goes. The coun­try’s trilin­gual stu­dents form a na­tional reser­voir of tal­ent, all of whom not only ben­e­fit Le­banon, but the en­tirety of the wider re­gion. Without them, there would be no ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try. What al­ters the nar­ra­tive to­day is that reser­voir’s rel­a­tive af­ford­abil­ity.

“It’s no se­cret that the Le­banese mar­ket has been strug­gling for years,” says Karim Nader, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Grey Beirut. “Its bud­gets are small, op­por­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited, and the mar­ket is fre­quently desta­bilised by po­lit­i­cal un­rest. If we’re lucky 2019 will be a flat year, even though the mar­ket is ef­fec­tively closed, with no new clients en­ter­ing the coun­try.

“But Le­banon also has much go­ing for it, a lot of which makes it in­valu­able to the wider re­gion. Firstly, the coun­try pro­vides a reser­voir of tal­ent that is un­ri­valled in both scope and scale. Se­condly, cost. Le­banon of­fers that rare dou­ble de­light of high qual­ity and cost ef­fi­ciency, en­sur­ing it is viewed as a cost ef­fec­tive tal­ent hub. This is in­creas­ingly the case for agen­cies oper­at­ing through­out the re­gion. For the cost of a sin­gle cre­ative di­rec­tor in Riyadh or Jed­dah you can hire two in Beirut, with the qual­ity likely to be far su­pe­rior.

“That’s why some agen­cies are choos­ing to beef up their Beirut op­er­a­tions, cre­at­ing cen­tres of ex­cel­lence or dig­i­tal tal­ent hubs. The only ma­jor con­cern is that we will fail to re­tain that tal­ent.”

This fo­cus on Le­banon as a dig­i­tal or cre­ative hub for the wider re­gion is im­por­tant. It pro­vides jobs, hope, rel­a­tive per­sonal se­cu­rity, and a com­mit­ment to the coun­try from the larger net­works that had oth­er­wise been wan­ing. None of which hides the fact that Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing is suf­fer­ing, of course, not least from po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion, eco­nomic pres­sure, and the fall­out from re­gional un­rest. But at least it’s a pos­i­tive sign in a sea of neg­a­tiv­ity.

Le­banon, af­ter all, re­mains a deeply clut­tered mar­ket; one that ar­guably re­quires in­creased reg­u­la­tion. Le­banese agen­cies have also strug­gled to re-in­vent them­selves in the face of ad­ver­tis­ing’s con­tin­ued global trans­for­ma­tion. A trans­for­ma­tion that has laid waste to well-in­ten­tioned busi­ness plans and made a mock­ery of agen­cies’ at­tempts to keep pace with tech­nol­ogy and glob­al­i­sa­tion.

“It is the over­all ad­ver­tis­ing scene that has an iden­tity cri­sis and Le­banon is no dif­fer­ent or far from

It’s no se­cret that the Le­banese mar­ket has been strug­gling for years. Its bud­gets are small, op­por­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited, and the mar­ket is fre­quently desta­bilised by po­lit­i­cal un­rest. - Karim Nader, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Grey Beirut Beirut, like Ber­lin, is home to a hodge­podge of bud­ding en­trepreneurs and a grow­ing un­der­ground cre­ative com­mu­nity. - Natalia Ab­boud, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of TBWA\RAAD Beirut

It is the over­all ad­ver­tis­ing scene that has an iden­tity cri­sis and Le­banon is no dif­fer­ent or far from what’s hap­pen­ing glob­ally. - Ni­co­las Geahchan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and con­tent at Mirum MEA I be­lieve Le­banon is an ex­per­i­men­tal ground for ex­cel­lence and the most cre­atively lit­er­ate mar­ket. - Ramzi Barakat, founder and chief cre­ative of­fi­cer of B

what’s hap­pen­ing glob­ally,” says Ni­co­las Geahchan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and con­tent at Mirum MEA. “All the big hold­ing com­pa­nies and oper­at­ing com­pa­nies are spend­ing night and day en­sur­ing this in­dus­try will flour­ish again and adapt to the new dy­nam­ics cre­ated by the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion that hap­pened 10 years ago. I am con­fi­dent the sit­u­a­tion will be turned around glob­ally and in Le­banon as well.”

But as Ab­boud states, much has al­ready been said and writ­ten about the painful trans­for­ma­tion that ad­land con­tin­ues to ex­pe­ri­ence. What we should be look­ing at is Le­banon’s suc­cesses.

“More ought to be said about how well Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing has re­sponded to cri­sis in a volatile re­gion,” says Ab­boud. “Not only has Le­banese ad­ver­tis­ing stood the test of time, con­tin­u­ing to earn ac­co­lades in re­gional and global award shows, it has learnt to thrive in times of chaos. It has what Nas­sim Taleb would de­scribe as ‘anti-fragility’ – a qual­ity beyond re­silience and ro­bust­ness.

“The in­dus­try is find­ing new in­no­va­tive rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing so­lu­tions, bank­ing upon an ail­ing econ­omy in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries and the avail­abil­ity of bet­ter and more cost-ef­fec­tive tal­ent. For ex­am­ple, the emer­gence of ‘Beirut hubs’ amongst net­work agen­cies. In ad­di­tion, we have seen the rise of in­de­pen­dent small shops cater­ing to new so­cial and dig­i­tal-led mar­ket needs and chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo. This is all good news as it paves the way for the new, the bold and the dis­rup­tive.”

All of which pro­vides a level of much-needed pos­i­tiv­ity, de­spite the ob­sta­cles that con­tinue to plague the in­dus­try.

“I have per­son­ally cho­sen to stay in Le­banon and be the founder of a new agency be­cause I be­lieve Le­banon is an ex­per­i­men­tal ground for ex­cel­lence and the most cre­atively lit­er­ate mar­ket,” says Ramzi Barakat, founder and chief cre­ative of­fi­cer of B. “We can bring the ‘new’ here much more than any other mar­ket. How­ever, the econ­omy hasn’t been kind and you can’t bring any­thing new to a mar­ket if you don’t have good en­ergy from clients and brands or the funds to make it hap­pen.

“Has it been hard? It has been an ex­treme waste of time at mo­ments and ex­tremely dis­ap­point­ing find­ing out that cre­ativ­ity isn’t what clients are ac­tu­ally ask­ing for. There­fore stay­ing in busi­ness was, and still is, ex­tremely chal­leng­ing. What saves us al­ways is clients with vi­sion and who be­lieve in the power of cre­ativ­ity to help them shape their busi­ness. They are rare, but they are jew­els.”

Teach­ing the value of cre­ativ­ity is an on­go­ing chal­lenge, but maybe what is re­quired more than any­thing else is a new breed of agency leader that can help the in­dus­try tra­verse the rough ter­rain ahead. “I am a firm be­liever in the power of col­lab­o­ra­tion to cre­ate value and shape the fu­ture,” says Ab­boud. “There is room for a new breed of in­dus­try lead­ers to come to­gether to find col­lec­tive so­lu­tions to the ail­ments of the in­dus­try.”

Per­haps there is a slither of light at the end of the tun­nel. The res­o­lu­tion of geopo­lit­i­cal is­sues, in­clud­ing that in neigh­bour­ing Syria, could pave the way for an eco­nomic boom, while the growth of small and medi­um­sized busi­nesses is a re­al­is­tic hope pro­vid­ing the eco­nomic out­look re­mains sta­ble.

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