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Bechara Mouzannar: “You Can’t Just Sell Bullshit Anymore”



Armed with knowledge taken from 38 years in the industry and counting, Bechara Mouzannar tells LBB where modern advertising has gone wrong - and how his new agency, Unbranded, is forming part of an unstoppable creative renaissance.

Bechara Mouzannar: “You Can’t Just Sell Bullshit Anymore”

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 Bechara Mouzannar, recently named as Advertising Person of the Year at the Dubai Lynx 2020-21. Until early last year, Bechara worked as the long-standing CCO of Leo Burnett MEA and Publicis Communications MEA. Now, he is embarking on a new project which aims to right the wrongs of modern communication - a first-of-its-kind creative and production platform founded on the principles of fun and entertainment, named Unbranded. Here, Bechara unpicks the thinking behind his philosophy of ‘unbranded entertainment for brands’, explains why we are at the vanguard of a new creative renaissance, and reflects on the lessons three and a half decades working in creative communication have taught him… 

Q> Hi, Bechara! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I understand you left your role as CCO at Publicis Communications MEA around the same time as the pandemic began. Can you talk us through that decision?

Bechara Mouzannar> Yes, that’s right. Ultimately, I felt that I had spent enough time in the world of advertising as it exists today. I didn’t want to be someone who was sitting around waiting to retire - especially given that, in many ways, this industry is not moving in the right direction at the moment. 

There are lots of great opportunities around the periphery of this industry that very few people have been taking. So I decided, before the age of 60, to walk away from what I had done for my entire career. That was not an easy decision, but I knew in my heart that I had new things to do in my life that are thrilling, rather than perpetuating a status quo that I didn’t believe in. I didn’t want to sit and receive a salary as part of a cog in a broken machine. It was, quite simply, the right time to move on. 

Q> You mention great opportunities at ‘the periphery’ of the industry - what do you mean by that? 

Bechara> The future of our industry lies in branded entertainment. Or, more specifically, in something of a paradox. I’m talking about ‘unbranded entertainment for brands’. Content which is based on the idea of putting a brand’s purpose at the centre of people’s lives, written and directed predominantly by talented young people for young people. I notice a distinct lack of young voices at the top of modern, traditional advertising agencies. Those few young people who are present are frustrated by the fact they must abide by the laws of another generation which is fast sliding into irrelevance, if it has not already arrived there. So they have to churn out heavily branded content which is great at creating noise on social media, but terrible at making a lasting or meaningful impact. 

Brands should not be making content that has to be micro-targeted at people and interrupt them in order to be noticed. They should be making beautiful content that people want to watch. They should tell stories that are relevant, meaningful and interesting. People go out of their way hundreds of times a day to see relevant and entertaining content. But none of it is advertising. It’s entertainment, and we need to learn the lessons of that. 

That’s why I, alongside my partner who is an expert in the art of production, am starting a new company which will be launching in the coming months, called Unbranded. We will craft beautiful, engaging fiction stories that speak to people in an authentic way and provide enjoyment. That is what I mean when I talk about the opportunities of the future. 

Q> So rather than trying to grab consumers’ attention through short-term gimmicks, you’re looking to meet them where they are? 

Bechara> We will not meet consumers where they are. We will meet human beings where they are. I’ve uttered that word, ‘consumer’, zillions of times over the course of my life without realising how truly redundant it is - at least in the context of today’s world. Nobody is a consumer, that is just a word we use to talk about other people who don’t actually exist. People want to be spoken to as they are, as people. Not as data points or as ‘consumers’. 

You can understand a lot about where our industry has gone wrong by reflecting on the etymology of this word. To be a consumer is to consume, to burn through something, to make it disappear. That’s not what people want to be on a very fundamental level. Secondly, to treat people as ‘consumers’ or as ‘clients’ is an attitude so old and out of time that it belongs in a museum. Modern advertisers are like those people who wait outside tourist-y restaurants in big cities, shouting at you to come inside. It is annoying, unnecessary, and inelegant. We can do so much better than this old ‘consumer’ mindset. 

Q> So do you think that a ‘consumerist’ mindset is something which is being left in the past?

Bechara> I do, yes. In fact I know it to be so. Today’s mindset of the youth is not born from consumerism like me and my generation were. ‘Traditional’ marketing communications created an artificial need to buy products that we did not need. For decades, that model worked. But it doesn’t work anymore. 

Today, the new generation does not abide by this rule. They will buy something through their need for it, not through their jealousy, envy, or appreciation of its design. Perhaps uncostly things such as food delivery are still popular, but not traditional ‘big ticket’ items. And the decision about whether to buy a certain brand or not will not be dictated by whether someone has been spoon-fed images of that brand for weeks, months, or years, it will be decided by inspiration. Therefore, it is not enough for brands simply to communicate. They need to inspire.

What I am talking about here is something that will break the old model of advertising. That process has already begun, and the old world is clinging on - but it cannot cling on forever. Many big agencies won’t change because they don’t want to change - their entire business model is relying on that. But those who do not choose change now will have change forced upon them very soon. 

Q> If the shift we’re talking about is people buying what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, bluntly, doesn’t that mean there is going to be a lot less money and profit in the industry? 

Bechara> This is what has been happening systematically since around 2008. It’s become more pronounced in the past five years or so, during which most of my friends working in marketing and clients have told me that their figures have been less good than the previous year. Each year they think they are in some kind of ‘crisis’, and we naively think this crisis can be fixed by some aggressive communications strategy, or price gimmick, or inventing a new product line. No. This crisis is happening because consumerism is dying a slow death. 

Having said that, I am not pessimistic about growth. A rise in population across the world means that there are more people than ever for us to speak to, connect with, and do business with. But we need to ensure we are offering something meaningful, authentic and, crucially, affordable for all of them. That is the path to success in the rest of this century. You can’t just sell bullshit anymore. 

One thing I must stress is this is not something that I am advocating or inventing. It is simply what is happening. It’s foolish to ignore it. 

Q> When we talk about this new generation coming through, we tend to think of them as instinctively more creative. Are we right to do that? 

Bechara> Yes. There are all sorts of reasons for this - the culture of images that dominates modern media, the amateur filmmaker’s smartphone, the freedom of search afforded by Google and the entrepreneurship that fosters, plus videogames and online entertainment requiring a more active role from them as participants. Whatever the reason, the result will be a golden age for creativity. 

By comparison, previous generations have had their innate creativity stunted by the limitations of the era. Their creativity was blocked. Perhaps that is why consumerism proved so successful - previous generations felt they were born to buy. This generation is born simply to enjoy. They are creative spirits. 

At the risk of banging the same drum for too long, this is why advertising needs to change and become a part of this creative renaissance rather than a bystander to it. There are some in the industry who believe that technology alone can answer these challenges, but I believe they are mistaken. We’re in an era where, for example, I am walking around a mall and a camera has just spotted that I’ve eaten salty beef. In response, I see targeted ads about buying an ice cream at a store just around the corner. I mean, come on - this is borderline criminality. It’s intrusive and unwelcome, and it’s not going to appeal to arguably the most creative generation in human history. We must do better. 

Q> Is there an example of a brand out there right now who you believe really understands what you’re talking about here? 

Bechara> I think Nike is the closest to what I’m describing. Going back to the idea of a human story, Nike has always been consistent and clear in its purpose and philosophy as a brand - everyone can be a champion, just do it. They are a brand which has fully understood this concept of human stories and entertainment - I think back to their Shade Running spot from more than ten years ago, now. This is a great example of unbranded branded entertainment. 

Above: Nike’s ‘Shade Running’ spot from Wieden+Kennedy Portland exemplifies Bechara’s approach to branded entertainment

Q> So let’s talk more about Unbranded. Will this be an agency based in Lebanon, or will you be worldwide? 

Bechara> Unbranded is a global agency, with a headquarters in Barcelona. But we will be working with advertisers, agencies and talent in each and every important market all over the world. 

Another point I want to make is that we will bring fun and enjoyment back into our creative industry. There’s something toxic about the working environment at the moment where the best moment a creative person can have is when they go to an award show and, finally, just for once, someone might acknowledge the work they have done and celebrate it. This suggests to me that their work is not being celebrated or appreciated on the other 364 days of the year. This needs to change, and Unbranded will champion creative ideas and stories every day. 

Q> And finally, are you confident that brands will hear and understand your message about ‘unbranded branded entertainment’? 

Bechara> Yes, because the opportunity is enormous. What we are talking about is the ability to create true, authentic fans of your product who buy into your ethos and vision as a brand or a company. Brands can foster connection and loyalty on a scale we haven’t yet seen. 

That’s the chance which has been given to us by this change in culture, and I am extremely confident that brands will want to avail themselves of this opportunity. 

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BIG KAHUNA FILMS Beirut, Wed, 07 Jul 2021 13:09:19 GMT