Success in entrepreneurial Egypt means a strong sense of humour and culture and a startup mentality, Mohamed Hammady tells LBB Laura Swinton
“We’ve seen that the world is going to be in reset mode and it’s good to be one step ahead. We see that the big giants in advertising are having some trouble, because they are elephants and for elephants to adapt it’s very hard. So, we decided to take the risk and that’s it,” says Mohamed Hammady, co-founder of new Egyptian agency Ghost Ads.
Ghost Ads is a new Egyptian agency that has been scaring up the local market with its blend of craft, creativity and nimble flexibility. In just six months, they’ve made an attention-grabbing music video, pounced on major pitches and made an impression with campaigns for international and local clients. And according to co-founder Mohamed Hammady, as counter intuitive as it may sound, the global pandemic has been the perfect time to start something new.
Ghost Ads was founded by creative leaders Ashraf ‘Coji’ Badaway (formerly of King Tut’s Playground and Leo Burnett) and Mohamed Hammady (who goes by Hammady and who has previously worked at GLU/WPP and J. Walter Thompson, FP7 and Leo Burnett), business mind Seif Maher (who’s worked client-side at PepsiCo and most recently was managing partner at Rabbit Experience), alongside Karim Kamel (also from Rabbit Experience) and Omar Eid. The core team is rounded out with business manager and account director Hana Hagras, account exec Salma Fahim, copywriter Ali Hassan and graphic designer Abdallah Elhadidy.
The name is a statement of intent. Ghost Ads is a tongue-in-cheek and provocative dig at the scam ads that have historically plagued award shows. Ghost Ads is only interested in making work that’s tangible and solid – the opposite of ghostly. The idea of a gang of ghosts rather than an agency named after the founders is also about putting work before ego.
The agency launched not with a tweet or a dry press release but an all-out music video. Directed by Coji and devised by Coji and Hammady, the promo for Egyptian artists Amir Eid and Mahmoud El Esseily, sees movie posters spring to life. Hitting YouTube in December 2020, the video has clocked up over 3.5m views.
“We invested a lot in it, but we took the risk, and it actually made a good name for us. People saw it and started asking us,” says Hammady. The plan was to make a splash and use that to get onto pitches. After winning work for the likes of Danone and a Ramadan campaign for local bank Banque Misr's app, they have started to attract clients who are choosing them as a first choice. Most recently, they've launched a campaign for Czech beer Birell, a cheeky 'polite notice' to the brand's competitors.
Craft and comedy are hallmarks of the first tranche of campaigns –when making work for Egyptian audiences these are things you don’t want to get wrong. “Any Egyptian knows how to tell a story, so you need to respect that. You are dealing with storytellers,” laughs Hammady.
Understanding that culture and making work that is local and specific is one reason that Hammady thinks independent agencies fare well in the market, particularly with big local brands.
“I think a common thing between Egypt, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina is that we are very culture-based. We are not that cosmopolitan – if we go and study abroad, we still carry our heritage and legacy. We share the same insights across all ages and social standard, even the historical insights and jokes and movie scenes. You will find a five-year-old kid laughing at the same joke as a 90-year-old. It’s solid,” he says.
Understanding the roots of that humour is just as important as the joke itself. "Humour is going to be essential. Anywhere you go to in Egypt you’re going to find storytellers, even if it’s a bad joke or a boring story. The idea behind the story is to make us laugh because we love to make fun of ourselves. And that’s beautiful response to political uncertainty and financial uncertainty," says Hammady. He points to examples like the 2013 Second Revolution, a time of deep sadness in the country and yet a time where Egyptians shared memes and satirical comments and jokes. It's been the same thing with Covid-19.
‘Local giants’, he says, often feel lost in the mix with multinationals with rosters of global and regional clients. Keen to move quickly, without layers of approval and facing their own budget constraints, these local clients aren’t looking for agencies carrying bloated overheads. The Ghost Ads pitch is that they can serve up the best of both worlds.
“At the end we are offering our clients a multinational standard with a very deep local insight, with cheaper fees and a quicker process and more guaranteed outcome and in a more stable environment,” says Mohamed. “At the end of the day, he’s an Egyptian client, we’re an Egyptian agency working in the country. I want to keep him as a client. He doesn’t have this global alignment and there’s no global head office to go to for approvals. Things happen on the spot.”
At Ghost Ads, the model is a small permanent team – two art directors, two copywriters and one account director – and an expansive network of partners who can join in on a project basis.
“Clients have become fed up with the old multinational agency tradition. In the traditional model, client comes to you with a strategy, the strategy gets approved by the management of the client. The client says, OK, let’s go and test. Let’s retest. And after research, let’s go to shoot… we might all die tomorrow. So yes, you might need some of the same procedures, but we need to find a shorter way.”
Competition in the market has become fierce – for the past three years, Hammady says, nearly every project or campaign involves a pitch, and even global brands with rostered agencies are pitching out work.
It’s undeniably tough going, but on the other hand, independent startup agencies are buoyed up by the wider startup culture in the country. If you’re on the hunt for an exciting start-up, Egypt might not be the most obvious place to start but the country is absolutely fizzing with a sense of entrepreneurialism. In 2020, the country saw a 30% increase in startup funding and it’s behind only the UAE for startup investment in the region. That independent, entrepreneurialism isn’t new but Covid-19 hasn’t put a cramp on things. With lively fintech, e-commerce and healthtech scenes, there’s a sense of optimism that balances out other uncertainties in the market.
And the Ghost Ads team want to infuse that spirit of optimism into their clients – and, more importantly, the wider public. There’s nothing elusive about these ‘ghosts’. “Our slogan is turning clients into fans. We mean our clients and also our clients’ clients – which is the people on the street. The clients of my clients are my clients as well.”