Rola Ghotmeh: ‘Our most powerful tool was our creativity'
Posted on October 28, 2017

Establishing TheCreative9 was far from easy, says the agency’s founder Rola Ghotmeh. Here she discusses the tough journey to success

“Setting up an agency is not easy. It took a lot of my time, a lot of dedication, and quite the personal sacrifices,” says Rola Ghotmeh. “Sometimes I just felt like quitting. Sometimes I even hated the experience of leading a business as it snapped the ‘dreamer’ creative in me back to business leadership reality. But then one win, or one fun brief, would remind me of why I did this in the first place.”

Ghotmeh, the TheCreative9’s chairman, founder and chief creative officer all rolled into one, is discussing the hard graft necessary to establish an agency.

“I had thought that being an art director with experience in the Gulf would be enough to attract big clients,” she admits. “Clearly there is more to it than that. Real growth requires solid planning and a lot of hard work.

“Having started as a creative with no partners, no investors and no business or financial know-how made the process all the more exciting and difficult at the same time. Exciting because it fed my curious nature and restlessness to learn more, and difficult because of the mistakes I had to make in order to learn.”

Since the agency’s inception in Beirut in 2014 Ghotmeh has worn many hats. Chief executive, creative director, new business director, director of strategy. She’s been them all. And that’s before you factor in the development of the agency’s internal culture, client relations, growth initiatives, damage control, and the internal development of staff.

“In many instances I found myself overwhelmed with to-dos and having to micro-manage, because the infrastructure depended heavily of the type of clients we bring in, and vice versa,” she says. “Our most powerful tool was our creativity.”

“Being creative goes beyond the actual work we do as advertisers. It’s how we tackle day-to-day challenges, from management to execution, both internally and externally.”

Yet, here she is, three years later, the successful creator of a multi-disciplinary, integrated advertising agency, having worked with the likes of Shell, BMW, Bacardi International, Nestlé and Google Dubai. The agency’s name refers to the nine creative services it offers.

“I established the agency based on a premise inspired by my combined experiences,” says Ghotmeh. “The industry was shifting. The need for integrated solutions was more important than ever, especially given that the consumer [had] become the outspoken judge. Consistency across the communication segments was crucial, but it was challenging for big agencies with the large and heavy infrastructure they have. So I set out with a goal, and my promise was strategic, integrated, consistent and, most importantly, creative work across segments for selected brands. To be quickly proactive and reactive.”

It’s worked, even though Ghotmeh admits there are continued challenges and concerns, not least convincing big brands to trust boutique agencies, their capabilities and their offering; finding creative and innovative ways to ride the social media wave; and being able to recruit senior talent while the agency is still relatively young.

There’s also the recurring issue of Lebanese companies believing an in-house designer or creative department – put in place to mainly save on cost – can replace an agency. “What clients are missing is that one designer cannot deliver the integrated work that agencies can, nor have a collaborated validation of the work based on both creative and strategic thinking,” asserts Ghotmeh.

Nevertheless, “this is the time to leave our mark” insists Ghotmeh, who comes from a big agency background, having worked as a senior art director at both J.Walter Thompson and M&C Saatchi.

“If we’ve achieved any success to date, it’s due to our hard work and diligence to exceed our expectations and that of others,” she says. “We never settle. And if we believe in an idea we do our best to make sure it sees the light in the best shape by answering the clients/brands’ issue at hand.

“Being creative goes beyond the actual work we do as advertisers. It’s how we tackle day-to-day challenges, from management to execution, both internally and externally. This is sensed in our work as well as our dealings with our clients. We find new ways to work together.

“At the heart of all this is team work, and giving credit where it’s due. Each team member at TheCreative9 has shoes to fill, a chance at success as a major role in the agency’s future. I believe that success is better shared and celebrated, and this is how we nurture motivation, ownership and accountability amongst our team. We encourage each and every team member to thrive, in a collaborative environment with like-minded talented people who can help take the agency to new heights.”

She adds: “It’s been a tough journey, an awakening, a new-found appreciation of all the roles within an ad or the communication infrastructure,” she says. “Looking back today at how far along we’ve come, I think it was well worth it.”