The modest seven-storey building quietly nestled in the heart of Ashrafieh houses the headquarters of Lebanon’s leading local ad agency, RIZKGROUP. At the helm, resides a man, who for the past 51 years has made it his mission to build brands that today are dominating the market. In testament to the success stories behind their making, are shelves in his office adorned with written testimonials beaming with genuine praise and gratitude capable of making grown men cry. Even the space itself has a warm and homely feel, which silently reflects the special kind of care he extends to all his clients, who eventually become close friends. The inherent loyalty that ensues has become one of his distinct trademarks fueling the powerhouse his agency has grown into.
Sitting behind a huge black wooden square desk with chairs on all sides, Andre Rizk, casually clad in blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt lights a Winston cigarette and launches into answering a series of questions covering a variety of subjects related to the communications world.
Why don’t you participate in award ceremonies?
I decreed we not do so, because I know exactly what happens, considering that I once was elected as jury member. The process that followed was literally ridiculous, not to mention, rigged. It was based on the ‘I’ll vote for you, if you vote for me’ system.
On that day, we started early and by 11 in the evening, I just could not take it anymore, so I got up and made my thoughts very clear before storming out. They followed me home begging for my return.
Due to this shameful reality, it became apparent that the entire reason for taking part in such events is purely for selfish reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the client. As a result, I wanted to do something about it, which was when an idea came to mind. I intend to create an award dedicated to what I will be calling, ‘The Best Selling Campaign’, which will be held every other year based on government-issued tax figures to guarantee accuracy rather than promote lies.
Hopefully, this will bring an end to widespread hypocrisy!
So, what then are the motivations that drive your employees to push themselves?
If any of them happen to be in a supermarket and see a consumer choosing a brand they worked on, I would say that is the greatest motivation of all.
Though this may be so in your mind, is it really so in theirs?
I feel they are not fully satisfied, because they love to be celebrated and applauded. This also applies to my son. What I also know, is that there is no point in fighting it, because at the end of the day, they will emerge triumphant. However, I am of a different mind that does not believe in all this hype. Nonetheless, when one of my clients, namely Maxim’s, increases its marketing budget from $300,000-800,000 in a two-year period, after its market share grew from 28 percent to 41 percent, that is the biggest testament a man in my position could hope for. On top of that, they have been using the same slogan I created six years running!
How do you explain that?
In communication, the best slogan ever, is the one where you draw the words from the consumers’ mouths without them noticing and then feed it back to them. I’ll give you another example, the mere question, “Hamuda kief” immediately conjures the Junal lemon-seasoning brand, which has been top of mind for generations.
Isn’t this a type of hypnosis?
I would say it’s raising awareness.
Is it raising awareness or unconsciously steering the consumer?
This is advertising. It’s not enough to get the consumer to pay attention to a product. At the end of the day, what seals the deal when it comes to making a choice, is the shock factor. What I mean by that is, when consumers are examining a certain item on the shelf that has a very high positioning, unconsciously, they believe that item to be expensive. However, and here’s the kicker, when those very same consumers find out that the item in question is acceptably-priced, it, in most cases is a guaranteed sell.
That is the wow factor. That is, ‘shelf shock’ rather than ‘shell shock’!
Another example is Maccaw, which according to the latest Ipsos-Stat report, 78 percent of the local population believes that brand to be foreign when in reality it is made in Hadeth, Lebanon! However, achieving this was not easy. Before I got the brand to achieve such status, I spent six months trying to convince the owner of the strategy I had in mind. He, throughout that entire period, was not buying it. He also insisted that I find another slogan to which I always replied that there is no other slogan. Eventually, he gave in and the slogan became, ‘There is Maccaw in all fruits’. Ironically, in the first three months, no one got it. Not only that, but, and understandably so, he kept complaining about it.
Here, I have to say that I did understand his concerns. However, I also knew that even the biggest companies such as P&G spent years to do what we did in a few months.
How effective would you say this ‘obstinate’ approach is today?
Fashions change, but the consumers remain the same. People used to eat raw meat, today they eat sushi. In other words, the form has changed and will keep changing, but the function will always remain the same.
The same applies to the media. Back when I first started out, there weren’t even local radio stations. The only communication vehicles that existed were the newspapers. There was no TV either. Instead, there were cinemas. When TV emerged, people began to speculate when cinema would die. Today you have the Internet and people have been speculating when TV would die. In other words, all these mediums sustain certain frequencies, which define their ability to communicate a message.
The trick is to find the way.
Considering all those changes, how have you evolved?
My personal evolution came by way of an event the likes of which I could never have imagined. I speak of the day I became a grandfather. That was when I discovered how motivating to a human it is. The event guaranteed succession. Even the way I behave with people completely changed. Today, I am considered the grandfather of my entire staff. Before, these very same people used to secretly loath me for being very difficult to work with. However, they now greet me with genuine love and some even approach and kiss me.
What has been your biggest advantage in the 51 years spent in business?
The ability to grow relationships with the clients, some of whom have been with us for 43 years. Tabbara is such a client. Hyundai has been our client ever since it opened the first branch in Lebanon 23 years ago. Maccaw and Dunway have been my clients for 28 years. Al-Hallab became my client 25 years ago. Back then, he had 33 employees, which today has grown to 700. I developed his business and in so doing, I developed as a person. I am proud to say that I was able to create a long-term strategy that allowed for such an evolution.
What is the key to being able to see that far ahead?
It is very important for a man to be very clear about who he is as a person. Also, what plays an equally if not more important role, is conscience be it on the personal or professional level. You could say it is the base. It’s like the North Star, a kind of guiding light. Every morning when I wake up, I wonder whether or not I taught something valuable to someone. Yet best of all, is when, during that process, I myself learned something too. It’s a beautiful reciprocity. If a day passes without one learning something new, I consider this to be a day wasted. This is how a person evolves and grows.
You created some of the most memorable slogans and jingles that still live in the minds of generations. So, what are the memories that live in you?
Plenty of small things. Things that were of great importance. ‘Hamudah keef’, ‘Shou bataritac’, ‘Asatli Shtoura liquor, liquor, liquor moi’.
What of the personal side?
Not sure how to respond to that except to say I am addicted to advertising and so long as I can practice that profession, I will. However, the amount of time I used to spend at work has decreased. As a result, I now work till two in the afternoon and delegate the rest. Though it took me 51 years to accept the notion that I cannot continue to control every single aspect of the work, I am proud to say that I have made peace with the idea and am gradually taking comfort in the thought.
After 51 years in advertising, what are the things your employees learned?
Never give up.
Another thing, is that the best school for an ad man, is the market. For that very reason, I spend a couple of hours every Saturday morning in a supermarket observing and even directly engaging consumers. I also am pushing my people to do the same, because this keeps them grounded and brings them as close to the consumer as possible. It also is how we maintain the relevance of the brand while helping the client grow.
How relevant are statistics in pushing the brand further?
We are the only agency that does a monthly survey related to whether a client’s products are available in various shopping outlets. We have a dedicated team that chooses different areas and goes to scope the availability of the products, visibility, placement and so on. Not only that, but we go deep into the heart of some eras that some ad men have not even heard of. The goal is to control the presence of the products we are promoting so as to optimise the flow. This becomes more relevant when we also note the other competing brands in the category being studied, which gives us a fairly accurate idea on how to alter our approach before moving forward more efficiently. We then use this data to write a report, which we freely offer to our clients.
This drives them insane!
Control is clearly part of your DNA, but is that the case for your son as well?
In that respect, ironically enough, my son is a bigger control freak than I am.
He created a board of directors, which I am not part of, by choice. They hold a weekly meeting and send me a report detailing the issues that were discussed. Usually, I agree to most of the decisions made. I would also like to report that they are doing very well and I can feel that there is a very healthy and dynamic energy between them, which never existed when I was running the entire show. In addition, and this is something we take great pride in, we make it a point to listen to the problems our employees have and work to resolve them in the best possible way. This is part of the agency’s culture.
We do this wholeheartedly to ensure optimal efficiency during working hours. I mean how can someone be productive when his/her mind is contemplating all sorts of horrible scenarios?
Furthermore, we also offer private medical insurance to all employees and their immediate family members. On top of that, my son Alain instituted a new rule that allows all employees the possibility of taking their annual leave at the time of their choosing. Though I am not for that, I allow it. To top it all off, our offices between Christmas and New Year close for the holidays.
Do such amenities prevent your employees from migrating?
No, and this has always been a problem we cannot eliminate, so we deal with it as best we can. The advantage however, is that while agencies are laying-off some of their staff, I am constantly recruiting, especially in this market!
Are there any specific characteristics that you look for when hiring?
The potential candidates should, first and foremost, be Lebanese.
What is your agency’s placement in the market?
We are number one among all local ad agencies in terms of billing. Sadly however, the present market is a mere shadow of its former self.
Why is that?
Till this day, the Lebanese client is not convinced that advertising is an investment. Also, there is no passion for advertising. If you look at the Arab countries, only a small portion of the ads are created to promote local products. On the one hand, it is an issue of mentality. On the other, it is because the agencies in the Gulf are primarily managed by foreigners who inherently want to promote their clients’ international brands and products.
What kinds of trends are currently in vogue and what are your thoughts on that?
There is a growing trend in advertising based on jokes. The problem, is that the things that make you laugh, don’t live very long. Also, a joke loses momentum with frequency. In other words, sometimes the ad itself, if not properly crafted, transgresses the product, meaning you remember the ad but forget the product. A very good example is the Paul Jardin ad. Everyone was taken by it, but no one actually bought into it, which is why the store eventually closed.
On the other hand, the ad I created for Joseph Eid during the sale season did wonders for the brand. The slogan read, ‘There is nothing to say, only something to announce’. As a result, people would cue in-front of the store just to get their foot through the door. In that regard, I would also like to say that it is not the product that guarantees success, rather the people behind the product itself. When I say people, I mean the ad agency. After all, it is the agency that creates the product, not the other way around. Keep in mind that the consumers are smarter than we take them to be, but dumber than they think they are. That is why, if the communication is balanced and maintained over a long-enough period, the brand automatically becomes synonymous.
What are the characteristics that make a brand?
Many factors play a role, however, the product itself has to be a good one, the price has to be affordable, and the distribution has to be smooth. If, for instance, I walk into a store and am thirsting for a Pepsi and don’t find it, I’ll grab the next best thing without hesitation.
Clients used to hire production companies to shoot ‘colourful’ ads in foreign countries. Today, these clients are hiring smaller agencies to create simpler ads, why?
Today’s trend is based on simple ads that run for 2-3 months and are then replaced with newer ones. There are ads created by agencies that literally mock the viewers with their stupidity. In parallel, those same agencies are also mocking the client who commissioned them in the first place. Another example is an ad that recently aired where a woman, in the middle of the night, is heard whining from hunger to her husband. In the next shot, we see that same woman in the kitchen, only this time, she is wearing something entirely different!
These are incredible production blunders, which clients are paying for with a big smile on their faces.
Another reason why production companies are experiencing a serious slump is greed. You see, when business was going really well, these companies became hungry for more. I’ll give you an example. I once discovered, that a commercial that I was billed $125,000 for, cost the production house $53,000. This came by way of a mistake on their part when someone on their staff sent me the receipt by accident!
What role does compromise play and do you have a rule who to work with?
I don’t like to work with people who do not listen to what I have to say.
Does this mean that, unless they go with what you are suggesting, you will not be willing to work with them?
No. It’s simply a matter of either I convince them, or they convince me. There are no two ways around it. Case in point is the problem I have with Hallab regarding the oversized signage they want to install over their stores, which in my mind devalues the brand. So, I halted negotiations regarding that matter.
What I am saying is, I am ready to hear my clients and it is only fair they do the same in return even if we were to sit for days on end discussing the matter. But in the end, one has to convince the other, otherwise, the matter becomes futile, and that is unacceptable on all levels.