Based out of Paris and Beirut, Leo Burnett Beirut’s creative director Rana Khoury has been in the industry for the last 16 years. Starting as a journalist, and then a copywriter, she’s versed in English, French and Arabic, making her a triple threat with her writing. Having joined Leo Burnett 15 years ago, she became creative director in 2015, with purpose-driven campaigns being her favourite to create.
Coming off her first time being part of the Cannes Lions jury for the Radio & Audio Lion, the experience proved a treat, with what she describes as “amazing, amazing people” with “amazing energy”. Rana sat down in Cannes to speak about the campaigns that hold a special place in her heart, the impact of seeing more female leadership and wanting to express Arabic sentiment in English.
LBB> Tell us about your background and how you first got into the industry?
Rana> I studied political science and while I was at university, I was working as a junior journalist at an English-speaking [news]paper in Lebanon. After that, I was at a French-speaking paper and while there was a war in Lebanon, I was covering that during the time. I love to write and there was an opening for a writer in the PR department, that was interesting to me, so I applied - I wanted something more creative and imagination-based, rather than covering the war - so I applied and got in. That’s when I became a copywriter in both English and French.
In between things, I became a senior journalist in Dubai in 2012, covering Syria and then I took a six-month communication mission with a refugee agency in 2018. I felt, honestly, during these times, it was insightful for me as a creative director to do the groundwork. I felt it helped me stay attached to the reality of situations.
LBB> How do you keep on top of the latest trends? And how do you relate to the new recruits that come in?
Rana> I’ve been in the industry for 16 years and it was a personal journey. In 2016, I taught a Media and Communication course at the American University of Beirut. I was scared of becoming obsolete in an industry where you have to stay on top of things, so, every week I’d ask my students to send me the music they listen to, and the TV shows they watch, to keep in touch with the new generation.
A lot of the team I work with are young recruits who are amazing talents, but I have had to get used to them sending me emojis and stickers, or having a type of humour that I wasn’t familiar with. I wasn’t in sync with it before, but I feel more in touch with it now.
LBB> Have there been any particular experiences or campaigns that have impacted your experience?
Rana> When a campaign has an impact on the world around me, rather than picking up an award, that’s when there’s more satisfaction for me. The first campaign that made a difference and changed a lot was about a law in Lebanon that stipulated: ‘If a rapist marries his victim, he will be exonerated’. Because of this, underaged girls would live with their rapists because of so-called ‘honour’. So, the idea of the campaign was that a white dress doesn’t cover that crime - the visual imagery was of a wedding dress made out of gauze - and we worked with NGO ABAAD to create this and change the law. The second campaign was about sexual harassment [‘16 Days of Activism’], where it was important to acknowledge equality as an intrinsic part of diversity and communication.
Another one which, from a very tiny country [Lebanon] went global, was about child marriage [Kafa’s ‘Legally Bride’]. We did a social experiment where an old man married a little girl - which is legal in Lebanon - and this gained millions of impressions. They even recreated it in Times Square because, in some states in the US, minor marriages are still allowed. So that one for me was also very important.
LBB> You’re a copywriter in English, French and Arabic. Do you think the knowledge of multiple languages influences your writing?
Rana> It does but it’s also frustrating because sometimes you find something to say, let’s say in my mother tongue of Arabic - which is a very rich language - and in English, I can’t find the equivalent. I want to say it, I want to see it, but then it doesn’t happen. So this frustration wouldn’t exist if I didn’t know Arabic and then wanted to translate the meaning into English. What’s interesting is that being at an American university and a French school, you also gain the culture that comes with it. It’s not necessarily about the language, it’s also a reflection of other things, which is enriching.
LBB> Do you believe that Lebanese advertising has a certain flavour to it or a unique aspect that differentiates it?
Rana> We work for a lot of global markets in Africa, Russia, and so on, as well as in Lebanon. I think two things are important, one is the open-mindedness that we are forced to have because we are from a small country that has little industrial resources when it comes to producing and exporting things. So, we tap into a lot of other countries and cultures and we have an open-mindedness to understand other communities and other societies, and even within our country, we're also quite diverse.
The second thing, and I don't think this has to do with the work itself, it’s about the spirit of the agency, and another thing we have, which is solidarity. There is absolutely no competition inside our agency, it’s not part of our culture because we’ve gone through so much. Our offices were destroyed in an explosion and it’s only been rebuilt now, two years later, so that’s perhaps why we are harmonious in the team. I think solidarity and harmony also brings fun and I think fun is an intrinsic part of creativity. It cannot be a serious, stressful, anxious industry - like it has been for so many years - because that means it loses a lot of imagination, it loses a lot of creativity.
LBB> Are there any changes you’ve witnessed recently?
Rana> A major change within the network, maybe the industry as well - but I can just reflect on the network because that's where I am - is more women being in leadership positions. And I think this has, at least for me, been very tangible in terms of change, in terms of inclusivity, in terms of partnership and in terms of solidarity.
I felt that my living as a woman was understood in a broader sense. Because diversity isn’t just about women and men - it's bringing a different perspective to the table. I think by bringing a different perspective to the table, you are forced to listen, you are forced to share, and you are forced into a consensus on certain things. I felt that air in my personal experience. I think most of the people who pushed me forward were women who encouraged, who recognised the things that needed to be recognised, but also pinpointed the things that didn't work, and did it in a constructive way, rather than in a dismissive way.