After two episodes of this new series, let’s aim for the stars. Leo Burnett is generally regarded as the leading agency in Lebanon. One of the rare survivors of the Golden Age of Advertising; still going strong in the digital age and still the great Moloch at awards shows. If you ask the average Joe or Mo’ to name one advertising company, it’s most likely to be Leo. For decades the agency has been cooking up campaigns that have become part of Lebanese pop culture. Today, we’re granted an exclusive look into the creative kitchen. Rendez-vous at Centre Sofil for a little taste of Leo Burnett, Beirut.
Fountain of Youth
While most agencies are downsizing, Leo B. seems to be teeming with life. The agency is now covering three floors. I’m chaperoned (such a sweet word for: escorted and kept an eye on) by three lovely ladies. Advertising has always been a young people’s business; here it’s a fountain of youth. The average age is very low, with the exception of living legend Farid Chehab of course.
I meet many fresh grads, straight from university where they dreamed of advertising. But not just any advertising: Burnett-advertising! Many of their teachers are often ex-Leo’s, happily spreading the word.
We kick off our journey on the 8th floor, reserved for PR and digital. No surprises on the decoration front: sober white with touches of black. In the creative corner, baroque chandeliers are adding a little je-ne-sais-quoi. Open office culture rules. Some say it removes walls between colleagues; others that it makes everybody hide in earplugs. Fact is: it allows more employees per square meter. It’s Friday. Some teams are squeezing out a final brainstorm; others are clearly fighting the deadline. The producers have kept their offices but share the same level of busy-ness. It’s a sign of the times: the digital content monsters need to be constantly fed with sound and video bites.
What’s on your wall?
The walls might be white; yet, it’s the people who are adding up colour, literally. Most walls are turned into lively pin-boards. Funny pictures, inspiring quotes, band logos … Pinterest in hard copy version, nice pieces of personal branding and image building. Some offices are decorated from floor to ceiling. A giant Scrabble board is put up for children, aged 7 to 77. Didn’t star designer Vaughan Oliver say that the best ideas come from playing?
Oasis in the Sky
Plants are known to have a relaxing effect on employees. But why settle for a plant when you can have a whole garden? This must be Beirut’s highest olive garden. A little oasis overlooking the chaotic downtown. The perfect place to have a puff or just a fresh breath of air. One bush is cut in the shape of an apple, the agency symbol. Yes, that really IS a green apple.
And now: a word from our chairman
Quotes of the founding father remind employees of the true faith. Actually, they are rather sparse, only covering some tactical areas. The agency now obeys the credo: “Creativity has the power to transform human behaviour.” It’s more than a set of fancy words in the meetings room. Every person I interview, constantly refers to it. Small cartoons playfully capture the working principles. I read “Eyes of a child” and “Heart of a champion” … “Like when the client asks for more changes” is named as a vivid example.
Drowning in Awards
We pass through Award Street, a whole corridor decorated with awards. Freshly unpacked Cannes Lions are shining in the foreground. I can’t resist touching a Gold. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to winning one. Everywhere I look, there are awards, stacked like shampoo bottles on supermarket shelves. Row after row: Epicas, Lynxes, Cristals, Effies… you name it. New loads are pushing old sets aside. Until finally, they end up on a lost shelf between Kinder Surprise toys and picture frames. Oh, it was only a Silver.
In many agencies, the P&G department is often treated in a step-motherly way. At Leo, it’s the opposite. The P&G floor feels like one of the nerve centre of the agency. The offices are brand new, still lacking a little wear and tear. “You gotta live a little,” Miles Davis would say. Here also, most creatives are sitting in open spaces. Only creative directors have kept a few square meters of Don Draper glam, minus the drinking cabinet. One of them is Alex, CD on detergents, a tough category. “We can no longer afford to be functional,” he quickly points out. “Last Christmas, we did a beautiful Bonux initiative. With the crisis and electricity shortage, there was hardly any decoration. So we brought these pins from China with little lights on.” Sweet!
My office is my Kingdom
A little further, an office has been turned into a Wunderkammer. A cabinet of curiosities in hipster version. Paintings, Tintin statues, African masks and exotic butterflies reflect the soul of a true explorer. Others swear by Scandinavian design classics, Keith Haring graffiti or sensual Matisse nudes. Props and memorabilia from shoots create a personal Hard Rock Cafe corner.
Can you name the campaign? I can.