“Story-driven, fearlessly creative and wonderfully smelling” – this is how Science & Sunshine, the Dubai based agency describes itself. With the philosophy “Always never be boring” and a tight-knit team resembling more a family than anything else, they have clients spanning Netflix, Stellantis, Virgin Mobile, MDLBeast and Red Sea Film Festival among others.
Nadine Ghossoub, previously managing director at Y&R Dubai, alongside her creative partner Ash Chagla, who she also worked with at Y&R, took the leap in 2016 and established Science & Sunshine in a bid to prove that creativity should be at the forefront of the industry, always. And the rest, well, is history.
Except that the history is still writing itself, with Science & Sunshine being at its best shape, taking on the Saudi market by storm and having a bunch of exciting projects ahead. But let’s bring it back to the start.“At the time all the major network agencies were starting to become more financially driven, rather than creatively driven,” tells Nadine. “We kind of felt that me running an agency at the time, it was time for us to pivot and start our own thing, just to bring back that passion that we once had, when it comes to creativity and doing what we really like. I thought ‘enough is enough’. Ash worked with me at Y&R as well, she was ECD over there, so she joined me to open Science & Sunshine. and it’s been six awesome years.”
At the time (about 11 years ago), when Nadine took over Y&R, she not only was the first woman CEO but also the youngest managing director of the region. Running a network team of over 200 people across the entire region, the nerve-wracking experience left her with a handful of lessons that she still carries with herself now in S&S. “Being thrown in the deep-end taught me a lot not just in terms of industry lessons, but also for my own confidence, and being put in situations where I need to give answers. And, sometimes, you don’t have the answers but that’s it, you’re a leader.” Being in that leadership position regardless of readiness, Nadine learned how to roll with the punches.
“Being a woman as well it was always tough in the beginning. When you’re meeting new people and new clients there’s always that ‘Huh? A young woman, what can she offer?’ And then you offer it and they’re like ‘Oh. That’s impressive, or that’s cool, or that’s refreshing and different.’' Nadine also believes that bringing your emotional intelligence into your work is paramount for good leadership and decision-making. “At the end of the day women are very different creatures when it comes to social interactions than men, and you’ve got to bring that game. So a bit of that and a bit of knowing your industry and craft goes a long way.”
To her, attitudes in the industry towards young women are improving, but there is still some work to be done. While she faced questions like ‘What are you doing?’ and snarky remarks about having to stay home to take care of her kids, she is happy that at least that is on the decline now.
In the region, the increase of women in top leadership positions is also an encouraging trend – not just in advertising, but across all industries. With this, a lot more awareness is being raised on these issues, so to women like Nadine, the experience starts feeling not as ‘isolating’ as it once was. After all, women like her that took the leap are probably the ones that set the precedent and their work is the building block for current young creatives to step on. With Covid as well, Nadine believes that people now more clearly see the possibility of a work-life balance, especially with young mums, so that discourse has shifted quite a bit during the pandemic.
Established as an independent agency, S&S was always meant to become a place where people “could come and do the best work of their lives,” says Nadine. When it comes to the philosophy “Always never be boring,” it reflects exactly that. “We know that we’re not the first indie in the region and we won’t be the last. But we always wanted to enjoy the process, not just create work that wins awards. We’ve always been about the process of coming up with ideas, the journey that inspires us. So we kind of wanted to build that place where people from different walks of life and from different industries come and just create.” Stemming from that need for creativity years ago, she wanted to make S&S a place where people would surprise her and push the team beyond the status quo.
“This is what helps us to keep challenging and evolving and growing, not just as an industry but as individuals as well.” As mentioned before, the team is much more like a family – Nadine admits that they get into fights over things, nothing personal of course, but at the end of the day it’s all about creating the best and the most passionate work they can. “I think the most important thing we look for is passion,” agrees Ash. “That’s something that runs through the DNA of this agency. I think if people have passion and love what they’re doing, even with all the changes and pivots that we go through, they would be a good fit for us.” This is important not only so that their creatives can love the work, but to also align with the idea that S&S before all is a storytelling agency.
“You have to want to tell those really interesting stories on behalf of brands and that’s so important. Of course, our culture is really, really paramount to us, because we are very small – there’s nowhere to hide in this place,” explains Ash. “So I think we’re all quite terrified of putting work out there that nobody looks at, that is just mediocre. All of it is very personal.” Not only this, but as an agency, S&S are not afraid to hire people that are “better”, tells Nadine. To her it is key to find people who will challenge and push for the team to be better. “We’re not afraid of people that are better than us, it gives us that kick to be around super talented individuals.”
So how do they keep on top of these incredible stories and how do they stray away from mediocrity at all costs? A few things, first of which for Nadine is – to keep on top of what is happening in the industry. “You have to make sure you’re not doing things that have already been done. Find new connections, innovate with technology, with really deep and authentic insights really touch audiences.”
In order for one to tell a good story or have a good narrative, there ‘has to be emotion, always’. S&S always aims to push for that emotion, whatever it might be, as long as it’s sparking some sort of feeling. The execution can go a million ways, but it has to be new and it has to resonate. “You need to always be challenging the status quo.”
To Ash, knowing the market is also of great importance: “It’s all about connecting with people through the work. You need to make sure to have a response to your work straight away, to stir conversations around it. You need to think of how people receive that work and that requires serious insights about the places that you work for. Saudi, for example, is where we work a lot and it’s a whole different world, you really have to deep dive into it, so that the work goes beyond just the surface and you tell those stories that need telling.”
It's exactly those ever-changing MEA audiences and markets that are a big challenge for independent agencies, but are also a great catalyst for inspiration and ideas. For example, Dubai where both Ash and Nadine grew up has gone through massive transformations to become the cultural and creative hub it is today. “We’ve seen it evolve more than any city ever has evolved, and so quickly – and we were part of that change. We lived in a desert back then, our main highway was just two lanes and now it’s like six lanes on each side,” they both agree.
“From a cultural and creative hub, there’s two ways to look at Dubai,” explains Nadine. “One is, it’s a melting pot for the region where all the big companies have headquarters. So it’s only natural for it to attract the best talent. It’s also a hub in terms of tourism, whether it’s for economic or political reasons. But in reality, everybody here serves the rest of the region as well – Dubai is a very small city, Saudi is where the market and the people are. Not only that, but we’re looking at the entire Gulf Cooperation Council and sometimes also North Africa. So most of the Dubai agencies serve those countries.”
To Ash it’s also important that the UAE understand the value of creativity more and more in recent years. “It’s the UAE clients that are also pushing for the work to be better, they see the value in that and I think that’s really nice. It’s a very interesting dynamic, where you kind of work in partnership with your clients to make things happen, and it wasn’t like that before,” she explains. This is also in part the reason why now even more freelancers are entering the industry in Dubai and across the region – creativity is now more important than those looming questions of consistency and trust that prevented agencies to recruit freelancers before. It is what makes parts of MEA creative hubs and melting pots of talent coming from all walks of life, which all ties in and comes back to telling those important stories and being able to present them to audiences in understandable and relatable ways.
For S&S, the future holds exactly that – more storytelling and even more passion. Full force into Saudi Arabia, the agency is working with all sorts of different clients that they almost never worked with before, which keeps the creative pot stirring.
“Saudi has transformed in ways that we never imagined in recent years and it’s growing really fast,” says Nadine. “It’s not an easy market, it’s one of the difficult ones, so that’s a nice challenge to have, we’re excited about it.” Five years after the start of S&S, rooted in a need for creativity and inspiration, the agency is taking up those exciting challenges one by one and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.