Epica's Editorial Director Mark Tungate in conversation with Tarek Chemaly, Editor-at-large of ArabAd, who is also a blogger and lecturer on advertising in Lebanon. What follows is his take on awards and regional advertising trends.
Mark Tungate: To start with, tell us a little about your background.
Tarek Chemaly: In fact I studied as an agricultural engineer! But I was regularly involved in writing and communication activities through friends, so eventually I decided to go into advertising, as a consultant. I've been writing professionally since about 1993 and collaborating with ArabAd since 2000. But it’s only very recently that I’ve been part of the team on a full-time basis.
MT: Well, we're very happy to hear you're coming to Amsterdam for the jury meeting. Do you know the city?
TC: Actually I've published a book about it! I have a whole series of publications called Archewallogy – not archaeology, but "archewallogy" – where I try to understand the city through what's written on the walls: the graffiti, the tagging and so on. One of the series was about Amsterdam.
MT: As well as working with ArabAd, you have a blog too.
TC: Yes, I launched it in 2007. Why I launched it is a bit paradoxical. I'd noticed that when an advertising agency put out a press release, everyone accepted it at face value, so they ended up believing what it said. "The most innovative campaign," and so on. I thought, "This is like living in an echo chamber." So I decided to launch an advertising critique blog, to tell things as they are.
MT: How are awards perceived in your part of the world?
TC: I'm one of those awards-skeptical people. They can be quite hypocritical – I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine. There are people on a jury whose agencies have work in the competition. So there’s always a bit of bartering. And very few shows consider the impact of creativity on sales.
MT: That’s the big debate. My view is that if an ad is creative, it’s memorable. It encourages a consumer to choose one brand over another when they’re staring at a shelf, maybe even unconsciously.
TC: Listen, for a long time advertising in Lebanon used incredibly catchy jingles – particularly in the early to late eighties – that people still repeat today. But if you ask them what brand is associated with the jingle, most of the time they have no clue. The jingle took over the brand.
MT: The problem with judging efficiency is that you can only give the award a year if not two years later, because you need the sales figures. So at Epica we’re purely interested in creativity.
TC: As we’re not working inside the industry, we can at least have a more critical standpoint, rather than saying, “Oh, these are my people so I’m going to back them up.”
MT: How do you see creativity in your region at the moment? Is it creatively rich?
TC: The market is operating à deux vitesses – at two speeds. Let’s take Saudi Arabia. There’s something like 14 newspapers with daily coverage. But there are restrictions on what you can do in print and posters. And then you have digital – women are rather limited in their movements, so suddenly telephones have become very important. One thing that worries me here is that everyone wants to do real-time marketing, so they’ve lost touch with strategy.
MT: You think it’s dangerous for brands?
TC: It’s a bit confusing, to be honest. You think, “That’s a nice ad for Valentine’s Day”, or Army Day, or Ramadan, and so on. But how does it link back to your original strategy? There’s too much short-term thinking.
MT: I agree. You shouldn’t even do real-time advertising unless it’s related to your strategy. The strategy has to drive everything.
TC: You have to make sure it correlates to your values and your way of thinking.
MT: In the region, where is the most creative work coming from?
TC: In terms of awards, Leo Burnett Beirut always does well. Awards aside, Beirut has always been the most cosmopolitan place in the region, so you could have ways of thinking that were a little more “pushed”. But in Saudi Arabia, it’s the hindrances that often drive your creativity. I remember a poster for lingerie, which was just a mass of blank ink. The tagline was, “So hot it SHOULD be censored.” That was brilliant!
MT: I remember last time I was in Beirut, in 1998, I could still feel a European sensibility in some ways.
TC: The cliché of the woman in tight leggings who says hello to the woman in the veil when they’re both out jogging on the Corniche is still here, although the two sides have become far more polarised. What we don’t have is the use of French in advertising any more. It’s in Arabic, it’s in English, or it’s in Latinised Arabic – which comes from the time before Arabic was available on cell phones for text messages and so on. It was a nomenclature – numbers like two and seven doubled for certain Arabic letters. And it kind of stuck.
MT: That’s the problem with international juries: we can’t really understand local subtleties like that.
TC: Well, don’t worry. Most of the agencies here are producing stuff that’s Instagram-coloured, with a VW camper van and a surfer. Which is weird, because there are only about two surfers in Lebanon! Is this a way of reaching millennials? Maybe. But don’t ask me – I’m not a millennial!
This interview first appeared on the Epica website.