Impact BBDO’s Emile Tabanji on Lebanon’s Chance to Shine

With high quality and cost efficiency central to the country’s offering, Lebanon answers the question of how to produce great work with limited budgets, says Impact BBDO’s Emile Tabanji

Emile Tabanji, Impact BBDO’s managing director for Lebanon, is discussing the predictability of the Lebanese advertising market. It is, he says, a blessing.

“Lebanon has been going through downturns for years,” he says. “So we’ve adapted. We know how to operate within them.

“The thing that’s different this year is that the issues are multi-geographical. They’re hitting everywhere. Usually what used to happen was if you had one market down you could cover it with other markets. With everything that’s happened in the GCC and in our region, there’s a lot of struggle.”

It’s been almost two years since Tabanji, who is also the network’s chief operating officer for Egypt, returned to his home country from Cairo, and despite the pressures he seems to be enjoying it.

“It’s good to be back where you started,” he admits. “I’m back home, I’m back with my family – which on a personal level is definitely a great thing to be – and I have old colleagues I’ve reconnected with, which is lovely.”

The weekly commute to Cairo is gone, replaced instead by a more manageable journey to the agency’s offices in Clemenceau and Ashrafieh, and Lebanon, despite the obvious challenges, remains stable.

When we talk he is in the midst of delivering final year reviews, with Dani Richa, chairman and chief executive of BBDO Middle East, Africa and Pakistan, in town. Next year’s plans are also in the process of being ironed out.

“Thankfully we’re still in good shape,” says Tabanji. “[But] the world is changing at a fast pace and that’s a challenge for everyone. It’s something that requires you continuously to have the will and the energy to adapt. Whether it’s technology driven or media driven or consumption driven, you need to adapt.

“If you couple this with the economic slowdown, what’s happening is that clients still want to do the best work but the resources are limited. So we’re all faced with this duality. You want the high quality work, but with very limited budgets. This is the major equation. How can you achieve that without compromising?”

Tabanji has spent the past 17 years with Impact BBDO, working his way through the ranks via stints in Dubai and Egypt before being named managing director of the Cairo office in 2011.

“Listen, you can’t exist in this industry if there is no thrill that comes with it. […] And we love it with all the challenges and the stress, because there’s a thrill to it.”

“The main thing that is happening now – and I think it will come to be an advantage for markets like Lebanon and Egypt – is that with the seeking of efficiencies and with all the pressure that is happening in bigger markets, there’s going to be a much higher opportunity for growth in markets like Lebanon,” he says. “Because you fall into the equation of high quality and cost efficiency.”

For that very reason, Impact BBDO has built a big regional social team in Lebanon (with guidance from Impact Proximity) that works with Dubai and other markets. Tabanji predicts other disciplines could be developed in Lebanon in a similar way.

“I think we will find in certain places that markets like Lebanon and Egypt could play a much bigger role and a much more efficient role in order to answer to our partners’ needs. Which is, how can we maintain our quality and reduce our costs?”

This requires talent, of course, which Lebanon has a tendency to let slip away.

“One of the main challenges in Lebanon is the migration of talent,” admits Tabanji. “The economy is not growing as much as it should, the cost of education in Lebanon is quite high, so people are seeking better opportunities outside. It’s very hard to maintain great people, because you can hire them when they’re young, you can probably bring them when they’re quite senior, but in the middle you feel it’s hard to maintain them.

“Do [the younger generation] stay as long, do they come with the same ambitions, do they have the same mindset, can you talk to them about their five-year plan? No. It’s a different generation. For them, seeking experiences and trying new things is something they deal with every day. Do they calculate change like we used to calculate it in our days? No, obviously not.

“It might not be as frequent, but you still find great minds and very determined people who love this industry and who have the passion to grow in it. The bigger challenge is keeping people in this country, rather than getting people to join it.”

Love of advertising is an interesting concept. Its diminishing cultural impact, the rise of entrepreneurialism, and the seductive nature of the tech industry have all reduced advertising’s appeal, both as a career and as an idea.

“Listen, you can’t exist in this industry if there is no thrill that comes with it,” says Tabanji. “I remember the first time I sat with our ex-chairman, Alain Khouri. And he told me ‘this industry is not for everyone. Either you’ll love it, because there’s so much that comes with it, or you’ll just die and hate it’. And I believe time has proven that we love it. And we love it with all the challenges and the stress, because there’s a thrill to it.

“The power of the idea will always be the power of the idea, no matter what shape it takes, how it’s produced, or where you see it. Does this mean agencies will remain in the same shape and form? No. But will the need for creative ideation and smart strategic communications remain? I believe, yes. Luckily we’re not in a typical labour business where robots could replace us.”