A new wave of Beirut-based agencies that are doing things their own way
Posted on October 18, 2019

A new wave of agencies has thrown off the shackles of the past to create their own vision of what an agency should be. ArabAd caught up with three of them

“We’re an agency with no employees,” says Paola Mounla, a partner and creative director at Midnight Cravings. “No salaries. No overheads. No retainers. We only take projects.”

Midnight Cravings is amongst a new wave of Lebanese agencies doing things their own way. Why have an office when you can work from co-working spaces? Why have full-time staff when freelancers offer flexibility and global reach? Why place greed and profit ahead of human development? The rationale behind many of them is persuasive.

Almost a year old, Midnight Cravings has no office, assembles teams of partners and freelancers depending on each project, and has a network of over 100 freelancers around the world. Since January it has taken on more than 100 projects in six countries and is able to deliver urgent requests around the clock. “Hence the name, Midnight Cravings, since it’s always daytime somewhere else in the world,” explains Mounla.

“The advertising industry went through a massive makeover in the past few years but the agencies did not,” she says. “So instead of creating a new agency, we created a new model. But in order to break the rules and innovate you first need to know the rules. This is where our combined experience of 50 years across the MENA region kicked in.”

“The biggest challenge we face, since we’re a new model, like all things new, is explaining for the first time how it works. But once that kicks in, clients and freelancers alike are actually loving it and coming back for more projects.”—Paola Mounla, Midnight Cravings

That experience came from the agency’s four partners – strategists Lea Halwani and Maya Geahchan, and creatives Mounla and Alaa Ghazzi. All have a background in multinational agencies.

“The biggest challenge we face, since we’re a new model, like all things new, is explaining for the first time how it works. But once that kicks in, clients and freelancers alike are actually loving it and coming back for more projects. They’ve become our advocates.”

The Department, which has offices in Beirut and Accra in Ghana, was also founded by four partners back in 2016. All four, including Carol Chehayeb, Lea Khlat and Iyad Zahlan, left network agencies to create what Yasmine Odaymat, the agency’s co-managing partner, describes as “an agile plug and play creative agency”.

“We dropped the old agency model and concentrated our efforts on providing our clients with only strategic and creative solutions,” says Odaymat. “To simplify, an agency made up of one department: a (senior) creative department. We run a flat structure so we are all directly involved with every client, brand and project at different levels, we have a hands on approach and we all personally carry out the day-to-day work. We also identified a pool of talent and partners from around the world which we tap into depending on project requirements.”

“We dropped the old agency model and concentrated our efforts on providing our clients with only strategic and creative solutions.”—Yasmine Odaymat, The Department

Is it working?

“This model comes with its own challenges but the results so far are very encouraging,” replies Odaymat. “The flexibility of our model led to a business partnership with a client and we launched our own line of product… We kind of knew the old model was damaging but we were surprised by the extent of it. Most clients have a lot of skepticism and doubt due to bad experiences and that’s proving to be the hardest challenge yet.”

Across town at Mink, an agency founded by Moe Minkara in March last year, creative communicators from various backgrounds sit together in an environment designed specifically for human development. “As you grow, you learn that good work always comes from passion, and true passion can only exist in an environment that supports empathy, trust, fun, understanding, teamwork, and human values,” says Minkara, the agency’s founder and creative director. “Our industry doesn’t rely on machinery, we rely on talented human beings and this is what a lot of agencies seem to ignore. 

“It is no secret that our industry is shifting directions. I felt that about two years ago and set my mind to kick off Mink during probably the hardest times ever. Today clients need creativity, agility, quality, attentiveness and speed, yet the essence of our industry remains the same and will probably never change. I wanted to build an agency that every creative would be happy to live in and be proud to be part of.”

“Our mission at Mink is to tackle all that we believe is wrong in our industry and strive to make it right through our work, dedication, relationships with clients and supplier friends.”—Moe Minkara, Mink

For Minkara that has meant creating a content driven marketing communications agency with a love for branding and design. Within the space of 18 months it has grown from one employee to 15 local full-timers and a few part-timers based in Europe.

“I have always been a believer of talent before client,” says Minkara. “Logically, one would wait for clients in order to hire great talent. I invested in the talent first and will always continue to do so. It is who we are, what we produce, what we sell. I have also built a network of amazing creatives that I have had a pleasure of working with in my past from Europe and the US who I truly consider part of Mink. They are there for us and we are here for them.

“Our mission at Mink is to tackle all that we believe is wrong in our industry and strive to make it right through our work, dedication, relationships with clients and supplier friends. Mostly we believe in the happiness and the wellbeing of our employees. I take care of my people and clients equally, and in return they take care of Mink.”

A priority for all three agencies will be proving the long-term viability of their models. For Mink, the vision is to become a mid-sized, creative-led agency. For Midnight Cravings, more projects, more countries, more freelancers from around the globe, and even more specialised talent is the objective. “Talent that is specialised in an industry, a specific communication channel or even a geography,” says Mounla. “With this talent we’ll be able to take on jobs as specialised communication consultants.”

For The Department, the next evolutionary step is expanding on its creation of new products and brands with investors and clients. “We’ve always enjoyed working in the industry,” says Odaymat. “But we knew there was a better, healthier and more constructive way to work.”