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 Middle East edition, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to the chief creative officer of independent agency The Creative 9 Rola Ghotmeh to hear more about her experiences as a woman in the industry, the resilience it took to stay inspired and how creativity never left her side.
LBB> Were there any inklings you would pursue creativity when you were growing up?
Rola> I would say yes. I’ve been a dreamer ever since I was a kid. I used to come up with these stories and imagine different worlds. My creative mind would take me on all sorts of adventures, yet the most obvious manifestation was my love for drawing from an early age. When I was really young in school, I remember how my friends would gather around my table during art class.
Funny enough, early on, I approached drawing with a kind of a stylisation. I had my own approach. I even remember an assignment where the teacher asked us to draw our mum using basic shapes but I stylised her, thinking “She’s my mum! She needs to be special!” The teacher loved it but had to disregarded It because it was “off brief”. That was my first encounter with “conformity”. Later on, I started illustrating in more versatile styles and I picked up a passion for animation, movies and fashion.
When I was 12 years old, I won a competition where we had to imagine the future world and illustrate it and I created a world that's upside down. That competition took me to Paris, where I represented Lebanon, my country.
LBB> What were the first steps you took towards advertising?
Rola> I remember that I used to watch commercials on TV and found them fascinating as a kid. I used to wonder who makes these ads? At one point, I was seriously considering becoming a film director because it was a major I was familiar with.
When I finished school and started applying to universities, I was exploring both biology and pre-med as a path along with Graphic Design which I had just heard of. I ended up in Biology at the American University in Beirut. My plan was to become a doctor, until we took the anatomy class and I was put off for good. So I moved to Graphic Design and, immediately after graduation, I started working in advertising at JWT Dubai. That’s when, for the first time, I realized it was my purpose, my calling. I love advertising.
LBB> What were those first experiences at JWT Dubai like and what were your biggest learnings?
Rola> JWT was my foundation. Everything that I learned, growing into the world of advertising, was the result of my time at JWT. How to push myself, how to conceptualise, how to think outside the box, how to not settle for the first idea, how to be happily dissatisfied. All of these crucial things, I learned them at JWT, and I really appreciate that, from the get go, a brief landed on my desk, and it was a challenging brief. Who doesnt love a challenge?
There I had the opportunity to work with people of different seniority. At typical advertising agencies, you start as a designer, and then you grow through the ranks to a senior designer and then to art director. At JWT, I was racing to jump ranks. I was very eager, working non-stop, day in, day out. Even on weekends, I would ask them to put me on pitches, on projects, because, really, I loved it. And it was rewarding because they see the talent and they nurture it. I grew very fast in my 4.5 years there, until I left for a senior art director position somewhere else.
The first award I won that was for something I did entirely was an environmental campaign that worked on after hours. I was brainstorming, and I went and showed it to my Creative Director. And it picked up a Dubai Lynx. I'm still proud of that and it was definitely a milestone for me because that's when I decided I wanted to push myself more and make a difference.
LBB> Give us some more details about this campaign.
Rola> It was a print campaign (that was adapted to outdoor) for Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) in 2008 or 2009. It was an awareness campaign to keep the sea clean. The message was really simple: “What goes around comes around.”
I created visuals of food - sushi, mussels, fish - but always with a twist: a garbage bag replacing the seaweed for the sushi, some rusty bottle caps along with the mussels, and crude oil as a dressing for the fish. It required a double take to understand. The campaign was very popular, especially the sushi visual, which garnered the most attention and awards.
After that I worked on a few projects that amplified our voice. At this stage of my career, I started realizing that what I want to do is push the creativity on real briefs, real challenges, real problems that clients are facing.
LBB> After those projects that were the catalyst for your career, how did it pick up and what happened next?
Rola> It's not only the campaigns that changed the course of my career. It's also the moves that I made in my life that brought together the personal and the professional. In Dubai, I was working non-stop and getting more exposure. After four and a half years, I decided to leave. At that point, I had different opportunities: I got the attention of a few Emiratis who were interested in setting up an agency together, I got accepted in an entrepreneurship programme in London., and I had the opportunity to go back to Lebanon and reconnect with my roots and the ad scene there.
Lebanon is home for me, so I decided to go for the third option. It has always been my dream to create something of my own. My career plan has always been to eventually open my own business. When I moved to Lebanon, I moved with M&C Saatchi and the work that we did there actually really had a strong impact and resonated well with both the client and the audiences. We created big brand campaigns for Zain Telecom that left their marks, and this campaign for an NGO in a bid to raise awareness on safe driving. I remember that it was a very emotional campaign that made many people cry.
After two years at M&C Saatchi, I decided that it was time for me to jump and take that leap into opening an agency and not go study entrepreneurship. For a creative to set up a business it's very difficult because I had a strong creative foundation but I had zero business knowledge. I knew nothing about admin, nothing about any of the business planning aspects. But I had the passion and the drive and I believed that we could create an atmosphere, a place for creatives to thrive together and grow; a happy place.
Within a few years TheCreative9 asserted its strong presence, and grew its client portfolio; attracting major players in the region and the world, and creating work that differs from the ordinary. We have been working with leading global brands, and now is our time to build stronger ties with the most influential ones in the region.
LBB> Moving from Dubai to Lebanon, what kind of differences did you observe in the industry and still see? Would it be fair to say Lebanon is more open to pushing creative boundaries as opposed to Dubai?
Rola> That’s an interesting question, especially now that I’ve moved back to Dubai again. In Lebanon, we have great talent, and we have people with a lot of potential. But the scale is very different. In Dubai, they understand that advertising requires craft and craft means budget. In Lebanon, advertising requires craft, but there is no budget. It’s always a challenge to work around briefs and come up with creative ideas that will be cost efficient, because we know, at the end of the day, brands don't want to spend.
In our field, you don't have to have a million-dollar budget to have a good piece of work. It certainly helps though, ha. Craft is very important, and I’m afraid that is becoming a dying art, murdered by speed and economy.
To lay out a difference in creative openness between the two markets, I would perhaps simplify it by pinpointing the difference in approaches to a brief. The opportunities and constraints are different. In the UAE, your target lives in a cosmopolitan city, within an interesting mix coming from diverse cultures and very different backgrounds and economic picture. The inspiration here is the lifestyle, the unified vision of the country and more human at large insights. While working on content or campaigns in Lebanon allows you to have a little bit more fun as you know your audience’s commonalities, cultural similarities, their pain points and their humor.
LBB> The MEA region is definitely a plethora of cultures and audience groups that are hard to pin down, especially given the political and historical context of the region. Do you think the current political moods of Lebanon affect the creative industry? And if so, how?
Rola> It affects it drastically. So much talent has left Lebanon. One of the challenges in Lebanon today is to keep yourself and your team motivated to enjoy what they do and produce good work, and to want to come to work! Right now Lebanon facing all the issues that you could possibly think of. We're facing political instability, a pandemic, we had disruptions on the streets, we had the fuel shortage, the inflation, the devaluation of the currency, the lack of electricity, and connectivity even.
All of this affects morale, because despite everything, you're trying to continue, to push and move forward. It doesn’t help that people went down to the streets and demanded change, but no change came. That was a blow to everyone’s motivation and had a huge impact on productivity.
What I try to do is to focus on what I can control. I cannot control what's happening outside, but I can create an environment within the agency that is positive, that becomes a place that people want to go to because it takes them away a little bit from the news of what we're facing every day. I have something at the agency called Drumroll Friday, when we share trends we like, celebrate the team members that are exceeding at their jobs, or discuss challenges that team members are facing. This has been pivotal for the team.
LBB> All of these challenges take a lot of resilience. What was it like facing them and working in the Middle East, starting your own agency as a woman in the industry?
Rola> I cannot speak with certainty about a man's experience. But I can tell you that my experience as an employee has been really smooth. I never felt any discrepancy or discrimination. I felt respected. I did however have a few unexpected turns when I started building a business.
When I launched the agency, I started noticing that, sometimes, being a young woman leader comes with some challenges. I was young attending board meetings or presenting pitches in rooms filled with men, and I had to earn the respect and the ears of my audience. And trust me, I have been asked about my age during those meetings, or recruitment interviews and/or presentations. But it never intimidated me, I focused on the win. A few people also told me that when I opened the agency they thought it would be a fad, that I would eventually let it go for more family oriented goals. This didn’t make sense to me.
On the other hand, when managing people, I have come to realize that being a woman leading a team comes with its set of pre-conceived expectations. If you’re in the right, you’re too tough, if you know what you want, you are too demanding.
However I was also supported by men or women who believed in TheCreative9, who led big or small brands and truly believed in the work we did, I am also a woman who was supported by team members who saw no gender but only a common goal to work hard and do good. These are the real ambassadors of TheCreative9.
LBB> Bearing in mind all these lessons you learnt through moving the Middle East and in the creative industry, also the challenges that Lebanon is facing as well, what does it take to stay resilient? What does it take to keep being creative and to keep being inspired?
Rola> I love this question. I don't think it's a formula. I think it takes a lot of drive that comes from within. It takes a lot of passion. If you really love what you do, you will find it in you to keep on moving. Even when it’s really tough to do so.
I saw my world fall apart in front of my eyes during the Beirut Port explosion. I was at the office. Everything blew up around me. Me and my team were on the floor screaming. And I remember thinking “Everything you built can disappear in a second.” I had a moment of despair where I felt like I couldn't keep going. That's it, I've tried to navigate all the hurdles, but now I give up. And you know what, just a week or two later, I was up on my feet doing what I do and pushing forward and continuing with the work.
I think, at the heart of it, it’s not really about the business aspect of things since advertising is rarely very lucrative. It’s about the passion and the love for the work that we do, and the fact that we can positively impact the communication of brands, and the lives of consumers.