Damascus-based Ibtikar was established in 2009. The ad agency serves local, regional and international clients, including MTN, BBSF and Park Residence, among others. Working in affiliation with TBWA, it is one of the biggest in the country, with a team of over 30 talented young men and women. Khaled Challah, Ibtikar's managing director talks about the passion and resilience that helped surviving years of war and economic challenges in Syria.
When we first established our advertising agency in Syria back in 2009, the industry was booming. Local clients were seeking the services of multinational agencies who enriched advertising in Syria with local and international expertise, reflected on a high quality work. Positive competition induced creativity and innovation, as the industry continued to grow.
Then came seven years of a violent conflict, taking a huge toll on the industry. Every day, economic challenges were pushing clients to reduce their advertising budgets if not shut down business altogether. Brain drain severely impacted talent pools, with the young and creative fleeing out of the country for their lives. Media outlets also suffered, minimizing channels of communication. General standards and best practices of the industry became virtually non-existent with most competitors shutting down operations and leaving no benchmark in the market. Even the audiences we worked for no longer noticed empty billboards; economic pressures, loss of livelihoods, inflation and currency depreciation left people seeking to merely survive.
Finally, and most importantly, some days, the choice of going to work was one of life or death, while on others, we struggled to maintain the agency’s culture and keep high morale. Imagine a brainstorming session with a team who was exhausted, after several sleepless nights under shelling, with no running water or electricity at home. But the team proved resilient, and so did the industry.
“Imagine a brainstorming session with a team who was exhausted, after several sleepless nights under shelling, with no running water or electricity at home. But the team proved resilient, and so did the industry.”
With the beginning of a new year approaching, I can confidently say that the market is slowly recovering. Qualified Syrian expats are returning, expanding the workforce and offering new insights. With sanctions still in force and the resulting lack of international brands in the Syrian market, local brands are taking the front seat, recognizing the value of advertising and taking advantage of currency devaluation. A full-fledged advertising campaign now costs less than half what it used to before the war, allowing clients to pay less for more and making it challenging to find one empty billboard.
This is not to say that we are not facing challenges. Syria is still taking baby steps into the social and digital worlds despite the high online penetration of local media outlets. Lack of available data from recent research undertakings on consumer behavior and media trends is another challenge, forcing us to put so much time and effort ahead of every big campaign to conduct our own research.
Despite everything the industry has been through, our hope and energy have proved stronger than years of war. New businesses in Syria are booming and they need qualified advertising partners to help them grow.