Ibtikar: from Damascus to Dubai
Posted on 2023 Jun,24  | By Iain Akerman

Listen to the article

Ibtikar has become the first Syrian agency to open an office in Dubai. ArabAd caught up with its CEO Khaled Challah

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, all of the multinational agencies began to close their offices in the country. Ibtikar took a different approach. It opted for growth. It has since grown from a small boutique agency to a multi-office agency with 45 staff. 

Our strategy was to expand and at some point we became the biggest agency – and one of only a few – operating in Syria,” says Khaled Challah, Ibtikar’s CEO. The agency, which was founded in Damascus in 2009, remained operational throughout the war, although it was far from easy to do so.

   “It was very challenging to operate a business, especially in the first five years,” explains Challah. “Even in Damascus the situation was not safe and it was dangerous to try and reach the office at some point, because all of Damascus was being hit by bombs and missiles 24/7. We had a lot of challenges when it came to just operating the office – in terms of electricity and having a proper internet connection. I remember a missile landed close to the office and it was very hard to keep morale high, especially in our industry, where you need to keep a sense of creativity and peace of mind.

“Everyone was worried about their family, their children, and still you had to work and you had to deliver. But at the same time, working in such a situation created a very good bond between us. Sometimes the staff used to sleep in the office when it was not safe to go back home, so it became more of a home than an office. It was like this isolated bubble that disconnects you from all the negative things surrounding you.”

    Although the situation on the ground has improved dramatically since the height of the civil war, it is still far from perfect. “You know, on a personal level, it’s amazing and it’s fascinating how, even with all the hardship, everyone is trying to operate and to deliver and to do their best,” says Challah. “I’m not just talking about the agency, I’m talking about the general population. They are all amazing human beings and fighters. Everyone wants to move on and everyone’s still trying their best to work and to be productive and to deliver. And you always need to keep hope and faith that eventually everything will be better.”

    Now Ibtikar, whose clients include a number of UN agencies and the telco MTN, has embarked on a period of regional expansion with the opening of an office in Dubai. 

“During the past two years we began serving clients on a regional level, although we didn’t have a physical presence outside of Syria,” says Challah, who now splits his time between Dubai, Damascus and Canada. “My parents are still living in Damascus, the agency is still operating there, but we made this move as a step towards expansion. We’ve been in the market for 15 years. I think it’s about time we went regional. And especially because we already have good clients operating in the UAE and many Syrian businesses have started to operate regionally. So we needed this physical presence.”

“When you come to Dubai it’s like you’re starting all over again, which motivates us to deliver the highest service possible.”

  The Dubai office, which is located in Business Bay, launched in January and is headed by Challah, with Fadi Jokhadar the agency’s head of accounts. At present there are three members of staff in Dubai, with the creative team remaining in Damascus.

Currently in the process of recruiting, Ibtikar is already working with clients in the banking sector and has a particular focus on start-ups.

“It’s very challenging for the agency but it was good to move out of our comfort zone in Syria, where we were leading the market,” believes Challah. “When you come to Dubai it’s like you’re starting all over again, which motivates us to deliver the highest service possible. Everyone was super excited for this move. It’s amazing the level of exposure that you get operating in Dubai, in terms of the variety of clients, of suppliers and third parties that we work with.”

  A full-service agency providing everything from campaign development and branding to PR, social media management and media planning and buying, Ibtikar combines international professionalism with the cultural familiarity that is unique to the region. It is also expanding its digital offering and views Dubai as a bridge to the rest of the GCC.

“Historically we have a very good bond with our clients,” says Challah. “We work with them as partners and we always have this personal relationship. And this is something that we always focus on, and something that we have built as a culture in the agency for the past 15 years. We have evolved this relationship to be more of a family. And I think this is very important in any relationship with the client – just to make them feel they are comfortable, that they are in safe hands. It’s not only about providing a service and getting paid for that service. We believe that the success of any client is our success.”