Middle East: Creativity under fire

With Lebanon on the brink of civil war, the country's reputation as the creative hub of Middle East advertising is under serious threat.

Lebanon can overcome all kinds of situations, with the exception of the closure of the airport and the port," a frustrated and angry Naji Boulos, the managing director of Memac Ogilvy Beirut, says. "The negative effects are similar to the 2006 summer war. Business has stopped completely."

The latest troubles in Lebanon's turbulent recent history have not only brought the country to the brink of civil war and led to the closure of Rafic Hariri International Airport, but they are in danger of ruining the good work people such as Boulos have managed to achieve in putting the country's advertising industry back together following the conflict with Israel in 2006.

Importantly, the problems also have a psychological effect on the rest of the region. If you work in Middle East advertising, it's impossible to ignore Lebanon. This tiny country on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean has a vice-like hold on the advertising community's collective imagination.

The reasons for this are manifold, but essentially boil down to Beirut's heritage as the original hub for Middle East advertising, and to the unavoidable fact that the vast majority of professionals working in the industry are Lebanese.

However, Lebanon's continuous problems have hit its ad industry hard. It has recorded falls in adspend during the past three years and it has seen the vast majority of its advertising talent head for safer and more prosperous countries in the Gulf.

Yet, somehow, following years of despair, the signs were that the country's adland - led by bigger agencies such as Leo Burnett, JWT and Memac Ogilvy - was slowly turning things around. Despite the fact that, since November last year, the country has been without a president; that Parliament has shut its doors and the Opposition movement has besieged the downtown area of Beirut; and that tourism is slow and businesses are suffering, adspend has somehow managed to rise 25 per cent, according to the Pan Arab Research Center. More importantly, Beirut never lost its creative flair, despite the problems. Dubai may have all the money, but Beirut is where advertising's heart lies.

"While we do acknowledge the country's unstable situation and its impact on business - and this has certainly led to a slowdown in terms of economic growth - the industry as a whole has learned to adapt and to overcome all political, military, economic and financial turmoil it has had to face and will keep on facing," Nada Abi Saleh, the deputy managing director of Leo Burnett Beirut, says.

The ability to adapt is key, as Boulos admits. "We weren't expecting the kind of turmoil we saw in 2005 and 2006, but, in 2007, we knew that it was going to be a challenging year from the start. So, in a way, we were prepared for the tough year ahead. We came up with some creative solutions for the Lebanon office and achieved Memac's best year ever."

The agency did this by moving to a retainer system, concentrating on clients that have operations in the wider Middle East, and adopting an aggressive policy to acquire new business.

But the business aspect is only part of the story. "Two years ago, we decided not to discuss politics in the office to eliminate any friction among staff," Boulos says. "So the focus was entirely on the work. An example was the two car bomb explosions that ripped through part of the city only 500 metres from our offices. Although the staff were in a state of total shock, an hour after we all absorbed what had happened, it was business as usual. This might come across as insensitive, but it was the positive spirit and momentum that saved our agency in 2007."

The thing about conflict is that, as well as bringing out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best - and, in advertising terms, that means creative resilience and sparks of brilliance. A prime example of this was Leo Burnett Beirut's much-lauded 2006 ad for Johnnie Walker, which showed a bridge, blown apart, and Johnnie Walker's distinctive gold man under the famous tagline: "Keep walking."

At the recent second Dubai Lynx Awards, Leo Burnett's campaign for the Lebanese army received a silver in the integrated category. But that was nothing compared with the emotional response it provoked from the 1,600 assembled guests. Nearly all agencies stood up to applaud the work.

As if to hammer home that a country under almost constant internal and external pressure can produce the goods, JWT Beirut also walked off with gold in the integrated category at the Lynx Awards, while Leo Burnett Beirut's work for Koleston Naturals was awarded the Grand Prix in the outdoor category.

A lot of Beirut's success, of course, is down to practicalities. While universities and colleges in the Gulf are obsessed with business and banking, advertising is taught as a degree subject in its own right in five leading universities in Lebanon, and there is annual growth in the number of students majoring in advertising. What's more, Lebanese students generally speak three languages - French, English and Arabic - and these students are open to different cultures and constitute a national reservoir of creative talent for the Middle East.

One person tapping into this talent pool is Rani Raad, the senior vice-president, ad sales for continental Europe, Middle East and Africa at CNN International. A Lebanese native now living in London, he says the company traditionally approaches the American University of Beirut and other such institutions to recruit students to its commercial team as it expands in the Middle East. "While there's major concern about a brain drain and people leaving, I've been away for ten years, but my view is that I'll probably end up back home one way or another," he says. "When we recruit people from there, it's to bring them to London and train them and give them access to some really dynamic opportunities, so, one day, we can ultimately relocate them back to the region."

But despite the slight turnaround in fortunes, the latest fighting is in danger of ruining everything. If civil war breaks out, advertising will be the last thing on anybody's mind. Even if the problems are over quickly, Boulos believes that only around five or six agencies seem to be doing well, while the rest are struggling, and consumer confidence remains very low.

If anything's going to see the Lebanese through, however, it's resilience, Abi Saleh says: "It's what has driven us throughout. And it's not just a recipe. It is a way of being and believing in what you are and what you do. And why you are in this kind of business. And why you keep on doing this kind of business in this kind of country."