(Daily Star, The (Lebanon) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) FARAYA, Lebanon: There are two kinds of companies in the world, according to Rami Saad, a managing director at Starcom MediaVest: "Brands that have balls, and brands that have no balls."
Many, if not most, of the media executives, public relations consultants and marketeers attending the MENA Cristal Festival this week in Faraya would agree. The festival falls somewhere between an awards ceremony and an industry networking event where executives and creators from around the region mingle in the scarcely snow-strewn mountains.
In Lebanon, as throughout the Middle East, firms are slowly moving toward more creative and provocative advertising campaigns, several festival-goers told The Daily Star.
Faced with economic constraints and shy investors, marketing companies have been forced to take more inventive, and sometimes risky, approaches. Dani Richa, the chairman and CEO of IMPACT BBDO, a Pan-Arab advertising company, cited last summer's "Don't go to Lebanon" campaign as one particularly successful project.
The ad, commissioned by the Tourism Ministry after several countries issued warnings against travel to Lebanon, discreetly addressed the increasing unrest in the country.
"They say stay away from Lebanon," a woman with windswept hair says from a boat on the Mediterranean. "But what's better than Lebanon?" her male counterpart chimes in from a plush living room.
"Within three, four days we had hundreds of thousands of views, of people commenting on it, sharing it," said Richa, whose company produced the clip.
To see the appetite for more provocative advertising, one needs look no further than Mena Cristal's own "New Talent" poster competition. One of the finalists, a team from Saudi Arabia, got to the finals with an ad for the MENA awards featuring a snowman with a phallic-looking pencil sticking out of its midsection. The poster is titled "Excitement."
Saad emphasized the importance of turning potential sticking points into gems of opportunity. After he received a promotional video for a Gilette product targeting men with sensitive skin soon to be released in the MENA region, Saad immediately saw a problem.
"It was about this really good-looking, clean-shaven European, blond, green-eyed guy who flips off his snowboard and gets all messed up on his face and he says 'Oh, my skin is so sensitive,' and he uses the product," Saad summarized.
"We knew this was not going to fly," he chuckled. "If you know anything about Arabs you know not to call an Arab man sensitive."
After market research, Saad said his group got solid data to show that "Arab men are all about the macho, about the touch-and-scruff profile."
His team created a new video poking fun at this very phenomenon. The ad they proposed to run in the region focused around a man who loses a PlayStation game against his friend and starts to cry. His friends tell him to "man up," and that men can only be sensitive about one thing, and that's their skin.
"We took the biggest problem that we had with it [the original campaign] and made it an advantage," he told The Daily Star.
Throughout the region, advertising agencies are relying more and more on market-research and data, particularly user information gleaned from social media, several experts told The Daily Star.
The regional audience is diverse, with vastly different expectations and social conventions, said Raja Trad, CEO of advertising agency Leo Burnett's regional arm. "Some people accept liberalism, others are conservative," he said. "You have to have your finger on the people's pulse."
For some, social media offers the best artery from which to measure this pulse. The MENA region has a particular high rate of social media users, said Charbel Nasser, the senior creative director at Horizon Draft FCB. "This is a huge place for advertisers to maximize the use of data."
Tony Rouhana, vice president of Saudi and the Levant at Horizon Draft FCB, said that while a wealth of data is available, companies in the region do not always utilize it properly. "Sharing data from the client side to the [advertising] agency is important, so that we can do analyses," Rouhana said. "But clients don't share data! They don't share their sales [numbers] with you. We don't get the details."
Rouhana blamed this conspicuous silence on what he called the trade mentality, where old, family-owned businesses focus exclusively on selling products and fail to see the importance of fully investing in marketing and client outreach.
Lebanon and MENA countries in general lag far behind global markets on investment in digital media, particularly because educated citizens tend to immigrate, Rouhana posited.
"It's a shame because we have a lot of talent coming out of this country [Lebanon], be it digital, creative or media. All of them are born and raised and educated in this country, but they're all exported to the region and to the world because there is no place for them to work here."
Regional crises have also affected business. "Capital is shy of risks," said Roy Haddad, regional director of multinational advertising company WPP.
Media companies in Lebanon are suffering in terms of growth in the digital sphere as a result of instability.
"Lebanon is not at the level it should be," Haddad said.
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