Is it the end of the line for Lebanon’s advertising industry?
Posted on November 08, 2018

Lebanon has been decreasing in importance as a market for years. As its economic woes continue, what is stopping it from becoming irrelevant to the wider Middle East and North Africa?

This hasn’t been a great year for Lebanese advertising. Budgets are down, clients are anxious, adspend continues its downward spiral. Even its eternal rallying cry – creative excellence – has suffered repeated blows.

Where were the accolades and plaudits at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity? Why were the country’s agencies conspicuous by their absence at the Dubai Lynx? And if Lebanon is the centre of regional creative flair, why does it not appear so from the outside? No, this has not been a vintage year.

All of which begs the question of whether the Lebanese market has become largely irrelevant to the MENA region. If Dubai, Cairo and Jeddah have become hotbeds of innovation and creativity, what of Beirut? Surely the numbers and lack of awards don’t lie?

“If one were to look at the Lebanese advertising market through the lens of comparative media spends, share of growth and an excel sheet, one would think the answer an obvious one, and yet quite misleading,” says Natalia Abboud, managing director of TBWARaad Beirut. “In fact, it would be myopic, if not grossly negligent, on our part as leaders of creative industries to discount a market such as Lebanon on the account of numbers. One does not need to look far to understand that Lebanon presents a compelling value-proposition that has long been recognised – an endless pool of creative talent.”

“Beirut, like Berlin, is home to a hodgepodge of budding entrepreneurs and a growing underground creative community.”--Natalia Abboud, managing director of TBWARaad Beirut

Talent is extensively covered in a separate article within this edition of ArabAd, but the war for talent has been identified as the single most important challenge facing organisations within knowledge-based economies. Abboud cites urban economist Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class when discussing the topic, particularly his belief that creative talent is more than just a provider of strategic competitive advantage, but an engine of innovation.

“This ‘creative class’ often gravitates to places that endorse creative freedom, where technology, tolerance and talent come together to form an ecosystem that attracts both artists and entrepreneurs,” says Abboud. “Beirut, like Berlin, is home to a hodgepodge of budding entrepreneurs and a growing underground creative community. The effect is not only felt in the city but also in neighbouring countries, where both talent and ideas spillover in the pursuit of economic growth and opportunities. What’s more, Lebanese talent is increasingly seen as incarnating the best of Arab and Western cultures – as evidenced by the growing number of Lebanese advertising practitioners in the MENA region.”

The defence of Lebanon as a producer of talent is nothing new. You know how it goes. The country’s trilingual students form a national reservoir of talent, all of whom not only benefit Lebanon, but the entirety of the wider region. Without them, there would be no advertising industry. What alters the narrative today is that reservoir’s relative affordability.

“It’s no secret that the Lebanese market has been struggling for years,” says Karim Nader, managing director of Grey Beirut. “Its budgets are small, opportunities are limited, and the market is frequently destabilised by political unrest. If we’re lucky 2019 will be a flat year, even though the market is effectively closed, with no new clients entering the country.

“But Lebanon also has much going for it, a lot of which makes it invaluable to the wider region. Firstly, the country provides a reservoir of talent that is unrivalled in both scope and scale. Secondly, cost. Lebanon offers that rare double delight of high quality and cost efficiency, ensuring it is viewed as a cost effective talent hub. This is increasingly the case for agencies operating throughout the region. For the cost of a single creative director in Riyadh or Jeddah you can hire two in Beirut, with the quality likely to be far superior.   

   “It’s no secret that the Lebanese market has been struggling for years. Its budgets are small, opportunities are limited, and the market is frequently destabilised by political unrest.”--Karim Nader, managing director of Grey Beirut

“That’s why some agencies are choosing to beef up their Beirut operations, creating centres of excellence or digital talent hubs. The only major concern is that we will fail to retain that talent.”

This focus on Lebanon as a digital or creative hub for the wider region is important. It provides jobs, hope, relative personal security, and a commitment to the country from the larger networks that had otherwise been waning. None of which hides the fact that Lebanese advertising is suffering, of course, not least from political agitation, economic pressure, and the fallout from regional unrest. But at least it’s a positive sign in a sea of negativity.

Lebanon, after all, remains a deeply cluttered market; one that arguably requires increased regulation. Lebanese agencies have also struggled to re-invent themselves in the face of advertising’s continued global transformation. A transformation that has laid waste to well-intentioned business plans and made a mockery of agencies’ attempts to keep pace with technology and globalisation.

“It is the overall advertising scene that has an identity crisis and Lebanon is no different or far from what’s happening globally,” says Nicolas Geahchan, chief executive of communications and content at Mirum MEA. “All the big holding companies and operating companies are spending night and day ensuring this industry will flourish again and adapt to the new dynamics created by the digital communication revolution that happened 10 years ago. I am confident the situation will be turned around globally and in Lebanon as well.”

“It is the overall advertising scene that has an identity crisis and Lebanon is no different or far from what’s happening globally.” --Nicolas Geahchan, chief executive of communications and content at Mirum MEA

But as Abboud states, much has already been said and written about the painful transformation that  adland continues to experience. What we should be looking at is Lebanon’s successes.

“More ought to be said about how well Lebanese advertising has responded to crisis in a volatile region,” says Abboud. “Not only has Lebanese advertising stood the test of time, continuing to earn accolades in regional and global award shows, it has learnt to thrive in times of chaos. It has what Nassim Taleb would describe as ‘anti-fragility’ – a quality beyond resilience and robustness.

“The industry is finding new innovative revenue-generating solutions, banking upon an ailing economy in neighbouring countries and the availability of better and more cost-effective talent. For example, the emergence of ‘Beirut hubs’ amongst network agencies. In addition, we have seen the rise of independent small shops catering to new social and digital-led market needs and challenging the status quo. This is all good news as it paves the way for the new, the bold and the disruptive.”

All of which provides a level of much-needed positivity, despite the obstacles that continue to plague the industry. 

“I have personally chosen to stay in Lebanon and be the founder of a new agency because I believe Lebanon is an experimental ground for excellence and the most creatively literate market,” says Ramzi Barakat, founder and chief creative officer of B. “We can bring the ‘new’ here much more than any other market. However, the economy hasn’t been kind and you can’t bring anything new to a market if you don’t have good energy from clients and brands or the funds to make it happen.

“I believe Lebanon is an experimental ground for excellence and the most creatively literate market.”--Ramzi Barakat, founder and chief creative officer of B

“Has it been hard? It has been an extreme waste of time at moments and extremely disappointing finding out that creativity isn’t what clients are actually asking for. Therefore staying in business was, and still is, extremely challenging. What saves us always is clients with vision and who believe in the power of creativity to help them shape their business. They are rare, but they are jewels.”

Teaching the value of creativity is an ongoing challenge, but maybe what is required more than anything else is a new breed of agency leader that can help the industry traverse the rough terrain ahead. “I am a firm believer in the power of collaboration to create value and shape the future,” says Abboud. “There is room for a new breed of industry leaders to come together to find collective solutions to the ailments of the industry.”

Perhaps there is a slither of light at the end of the tunnel. The resolution of geopolitical issues, including that in neighbouring Syria, could pave the way for an economic boom, while the growth of small and medium-sized businesses is a realistic hope providing the economic outlook remains stable.