Managing partner Dana Alhanbali tells Laura Swinton about the indie agency that’s making a stand for Kuwaiti creativity and challenging the MENA region’s old school approach
‘Beautiful’. That’s how Dana Alhanbali describes her agency’s first year of business. In its first 12 months, the independent agency she set up with executive creative director Anes Al-Rayes won Gold and Silver awards at Dubai Lynx, came third in the 2017 Dubai Lynx Independent Agency of the Year rankings and picked up a Bronze Lion at Cannes.
And as nice as all of these awards are, what makes them particularly exciting for Kuwait locals Dana and Anes is that they each mark a ‘first’ for the country, which is nestled between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Beattie+Dane’s success marked the first time that an indie Kuwaiti agency had been recognised at Dubai Lynx and the first time Kuwait had been recognised at Cannes.
Dana and Anes set up Beattie+Dane after years spent at big network agencies in the region. The pair met while working at J. Walter Thompson in Kuwait but they could see the growing pressures on the multinational networks, being forced to become ever more machine-like, and decided to go in the opposite direction – double down on creative strategy.
“We decided to leave JWT because the whole multinational agency model was not something we really believed in anymore. We believed that if we were going to survive in the industry we would need to develop a model that would in some way, shape or form provide a direct return on whatever the marketing investment is for clients,” explains Dana.
Unlike a traditional agency, for example, Beattie+Dane works on a project basis rather than a retainer. Instead of insisting on owning every stage and aspect of a client’s needs, the team is quite happy to spend time hammering out the business problem and creative solution, before handing off the day-to-day implementation.
“The conversation here is, ‘if I’m a big brand I need a machine’. That is what the big multinational can give, but what they’re not giving is the special one-on-one attention,” explains Dana, who reckons that clients benefit from the more intimate conversation and collaboration with smaller, niche agencies but can use the scale of multinationals to handle the less exciting ‘churn’. “We’re not interested in clients feeling like they need us past the strategy stage. We want you as a client to feel empowered to take this forward without us and if you want to come back too, you can.”
It’s an approach that’s proven beneficial, not just from a business point of view, but also when it comes to personal satisfaction. It filters out less exciting projects from the off and provides the team with a stimulating degree of variety. Recent projects include a restaurant concept project for the United Arab Emirates, a strategy to help an FMCG brand grow in the region, some creative collaboration with a major Middle Eastern booking app and work on a shoe brand. The core team at the agency is just three or four people (depending on when you ask them), but they’re tapped into a wider creative community of writers, designers and creators that allows them to build specific teams around specific projects – Dana likens it to soccer team.
What makes Beattie+Dane unique, though, is what Anes and Dana themselves bring to the table. Anes is a Kuwaiti executive creative director – and at the network agencies that’s pretty rare. Regional agency hubs in Dubai tend to recruit their creative talent from places like Lebanon and Egypt. Dana says Anes is the only Kuwaiti ECD she had ever met at a multinational agency and is one of only two in the region.
As for Dana, she’s managing partner with a decade of experience in Dubai working on new business and business development – but in fact, started out her career as a designer, where she got a taste of a variety of specialisms, from broadcast design to branding. At Aegis, prior to the Dentsu acquisition, she helped launch brands like Isobar and iProspect in the region, and at JWT and Brand Union she was involved in huge pan-WPP pitches.
“It’s something that I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to do. And it’s funny because I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing as a designer and I kept looking for more interesting things within the industry. What happened was that I got to see all sides of it, which meant that when I moved into a new business role and when I was helping out with the bigger WPP clients I was able to have a conversation about anything to do with communication. So it felt like more of a well-rounded background versus being a designer for 12 years,” reflects Dana.
While Beattie+Dane have got off to a great start, Dana and Anes are now considering the transition from hot new shop to sustainable long term business. They have plenty of champions locally and internationally (it was in conversation with The Network One president Julian Boulding that Beattie+Dane first popped up on our radar) – so it’s a case of figuring out how that model can scale.
“We’re facing our own challenge where we need to grow, we need to be stable. How do we approach that? Does it mean giving in, to an extent?” ponders Dana. “The challenge for us is: how do we own that space and make a difference? Because we don’t believe in the way it [the industry] functions today. Can we change it? Can we do something more interesting?”
But, ultimately, they’ve found that by sticking to their guns and specialising they’ve found a way to stand out and go toe-to-toe with the major network agencies in the region. “The good feedback that we’ve received is that this does feel like something that’s meeting needs. Instead of coming in and using a hundred years’ of existence as a reason for you to work for us, it becomes more of a conversation. We’re small enough to feel like partners but we’re experienced enough to feel like we’re bringing something different to the table.”