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Ashraf Mansour: “Digital Transformation Needs to Be in the Hands of Creatives, Not Just Consultants”



The Interesting Times co-founder and CSO tells LBB the secret to ‘unbound’ creativity, how advertising can appeal more to young talent, and why there’s nothing more important than being interesting

Ashraf Mansour: “Digital Transformation Needs to Be in the Hands of Creatives, Not Just Consultants”

BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia editions, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.

Today we meet Ashraf Mansour, CSO and co-founder of Interesting Times. At the heart of Ashraf’s agency is something of a hopeful promise - that we might all live in, well, interesting times. Ten years on from the agency’s creation, few can argue that the times we live in are dull - and yet Ashraf’s philosophy of constant change ensures that creative and cultural evolution is never truly finished. Here, Ashraf reflects on how best to bring about interesting times for brands, the advice he’d give young creatives today, and why businesses have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for creative transformation (with the emphasis on ‘creative’) in the wake of the pandemic...

LBB> Dialling the clock back to the beginning - how did you first know that a career in this industry would be the right one for you? 

Ashraf Mansour> When I first moved to Saudi Arabia in the late 90s, I had a job lined up at P&G. The only trouble was that I wasn’t due to start for another three months. I needed a bit of extra cash to get me through those three months, which led me to a conversation with a friend of mine. He was working at an agency and said he could bring me in on a short term contract. I needed the money so I said fine, let’s do it. 

Right off the bat, I didn’t like anything about the world of advertising. I just didn’t think it was important. One month later, I thought I’d been proven right and there was absolutely no way I’d want to remain in the world of advertising. The whole thing was a mess - a constant back and forth between the creative department and the clients which seemed to go nowhere. 

I figured I’d get through those three months and move on. However, during that time the agency came up with a new initiative that changed everything. The agency wanted to shift its focus more directly onto ‘creative business ideas’, inspiring everyone in the organization to pour their creativity into the world of business. So it wasn’t just about designing ads, it was about taking creativity and applying it across an entire business system. I was an account guy back then, and I was being asked to be creative and find creative solutions to business problems. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do for my career. 

So I sent an email saying ‘thank you very much’ to P&G, and started my career in this industry. I haven’t looked back since. 

LBB> So would it be fair to say that you’ve always been more inspired by the practical applications of creativity? 

Ashraf> Yes, I’m interested in using your creativity to create a service or a product and re-think the value chain. Rather than bringing in creativity right at the end of the cycle simply to market a product, it was applying it to the beginning and middle as well. I suppose today we’d call that ‘business transformation’. 

You see it everywhere in the industry today, but what I’m talking about here was in 1999. The whole industry was focused on ‘ads’ in the very typical almost Mad Men-style and that more practical or holistic approach was, at the time, really fresh. 

LBB> But were there any creatives from that time who were especially influential to you? 

Ashraf> Absolutely yes, there were so many it’s hard to narrow it down. There are two I’d especially like to mention. One was a South African creative director in Saudi Arabia, a guy named Anthony, who I worked with. I was really impressed by how quickly he generated ideas. If he felt you weren’t sure about one of his suggestions he would immediately think of something else. I’d never seen speed like it! 

And the other person I’d like to mention was also my partner for two years - Ramsey Naja. We worked very closely together for two years at JWT. Ramsey has this gift for theatrical performances - the way he convinced people and everyone around him was through pure charisma. That was inspiring to me. 

LBB> Although you’ve worked in various places over the course of your career, you’re primarily based in Lebanon. How has the country’s industry handled the challenges of the recent past?

Ashraf> As creatives, we’re most motivated when we see great work. The problem we’ve been facing in Lebanon, which I suspect goes beyond our industry, is that it’s incredibly hard to find talent at the moment. And, as a result, it becomes harder to get that spark of motivation which great creative minds can inspire. 

After the explosion happened, we did our best to support our people. We helped to rebuild their homes and put them in hotels. We tried to do everything possible and many of us buried ourselves in work. But there’s no magic formula for motivation in such trying circumstances. 

One positive for us has been that a large proportion of the work we’ve been doing has been from outside Lebanon. So during the working day your head is somewhere else entirely - that’s a big positive. 

LBB> Historically, Lebanon has always been a country that’s performed well creatively. So do you expect this will level out and we’ll see a creative revival in the near future? 

Ashraf> Yes, of course there will be a creative revival. Sometimes creativity is born under great pressure. 

But the question that keeps me up at night is whether the talent that comes about during that revival will choose to stay in Lebanon. And then if they do choose to stay in Lebanon, would they want to work in advertising? It’s down to us to ensure that we’re making our industry as attractive as possible to young talent - that means making it a place that welcomes and nurtures big ideas. Collectively, we have work to do on that front. 

LBB> Around ten years ago you founded your own agency - Interesting Times. What was the driving force behind that decision, and how have you seen the industry around you evolve in that time? 

Ashraf> Well that pertains to what we were speaking about earlier, watching this idea of creative business transformation becoming ever more mainstream. It’s also related to the origin story and the very name of the agency itself. 

At the start there were four founders. I came from planning, two of us are creatives and one has a background in management. We’d all been working with clients who were too big to be interested in the idea of change. The agency networks were a little bit interested in the idea of change - but if the client wasn’t interested (and the big ones never were) then forget it. So we all wanted to open an agency which had the idea of continuous change at its heart. One which wanted to evolve alongside digital and to think more creatively around business as a whole. 

At Interesting Times we have a philosophy called ‘unbounded’ which essentially means we never tie ourselves to one particular solution to a creative brief. We’ll never say ‘we need a TV ad for this’, we’ll always take a wider view in looking for the right solution. So we’ve made video games, experiences, all kinds of ideas that push boundaries. 

And then the point about the name. ‘Interesting Times’ was based on that Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’. The idea behind the curse is of course that it’s better to live in uninteresting times with the tranquility which comes with that. So that’s a curse which is popular with people who don’t like change. Interesting Times is our response to that mindset - we want to show that interesting times are a blessing, not a curse. Here, our definition of ‘interesting times’ is this: ‘A time of constantly exciting change which creates opportunities that are sometimes disguised as problems’. 

LBB> If you guys are continuously evolving, what kind of evolution are you going through right now? 

Ashraf> Every three years we take a fresh look at our business, and our most recent decision was to grow the size of our technology department. 

We currently have two clients who outsource their entire marketing department to us. So we’re essentially the CMOs of two businesses. As a result, we have to continually be open-minded about the best solutions and ensure we have the tools to address ever-changing business problems. Creative applications of technology give us the best chance of doing that. 

I think, before the pandemic, so many people were saying ‘we want to change’ but very few businesses were actually doing it. We’d been telling clients for pretty much the entire history of our agency that they needed to think digitally-first. What made me laugh is that often their response to that would be to shift some slides about digital strategy to the start of their PowerPoint presentations rather than the end. So they missed the point by taking ‘digital first’ a little too literally! 

But, finally, after Covid everyone understands it. Everyone is talking about digital transformation - the only problem is that it’s often left in the hands of consultants. As a result, too many businesses are missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for creative transformation. Our challenge is to show them what they’re missing. 

LBB> Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to a young person starting their career today, what would it be and why? 

Ashraf> It would be the same thing we always tell our clients: If you always do what you always did, you will never get what you always got. Always be interesting, and always evolve. And, above all else, hold your clients and your colleagues to that standard as well. 

I remember something which was said to me by Craig Davis, chief creative officer at JWT Worldwide. He told me that we live in the best time for creativity, because anything is possible. So we need to get out of these linear mindsets where something needs to be a TV ad, or whatever other dogmatic ideas of ‘the way things are done’ - because we have the potential to do it differently and to do it better. So my advice to anyone starting their careers today would be to avail themselves of that opportunity by being interesting. 

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BIG KAHUNA FILMS Beirut, Fri, 08 Oct 2021 15:02:00 GMT