“Change is visible on a daily basis and the energy it generates is contagious,” says the Wunderman Thompson MENA CCO
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.
As chief creative officer of Wunderman Thompson MENA, Chafic Haddad has been nurturing creativity and innovation across the region. However, the key to this is to really get under the skin of each local culture to really make work that sings with relevant insights. At present, Chafic is based in Riyadh, KSA, and he’s really excited about a new generation of Saudi talent that’s coming into its own. We caught up with him to take in a whirlwind tour of the markets he oversees and to find out his hopes for creativity and craft in the MENA region.
LBB> With this regional role, how do you keep on top of all of the cultural diversity across the region?
Chafic> I feel fortunate that, in my 28-year career, I’ve lived and worked in five different markets in the MENA region. To this day, I frequently visit those markets. I tend to become ‘native’ anywhere I go.
With time, you adapt to the culture, you grow more and more familiar with the people, you know what works and what doesn’t.
Not to mention working with diverse local talents in every market makes all the difference.
LBB> What would you like people outside of the MENA region to understand about the region – what are the common misconceptions?
Chafic> Although the region shares an underlying common culture, it equally has a lot of nuances and variations that must be considered – it is not a one size fits all approach.
On a human level, the ambitions and aspirations are the same as anywhere else, but the intensity may differ given the dynamics. Misconceptions are fading out.
LBB> Since you joined the industry, how has advertising in the region evolved?
Chafic> The industry has undergone a lot of change over the years, but we’ve seen and felt the biggest changes in the past few years. As technology has developed and the industry has embraced it, we’ve seen a shift in the type of ideas that are being created – with a young audience, ideas are more focused on content and are social by design, rather than relying purely on the 30 second TV spot.
We’ve also seen more local insight driven creative rather than an attempt at regional creative solutions. This has also helped encourage and fuel interesting collaborations, for example with content creators, influencers, etc.
In a nutshell, the consumer is at the heart of everything we do, and we are moving from broadcast to narrowcast to newscast.
LBB> When it comes to craft – in design, in film – what would you say are the strengths of the region?
Chafic> Craft is making great strides in the region; they are more and more understanding the value of craft and that it is an essential component of the creative work and that it’s as important as the idea itself, it holds everything together. No wonder regional work is getting accolades at international award shows, not just in craft, but across all categories.
LBB> What markets within the region are particularly exciting from a creative point of view and why?
Chafic> All are exciting in their own way, but Saudi in particular is interesting, given the accelerated social, cultural and economic transformation that is happening which opens up a lot of creative opportunities.
LBB> Dubai is a magnet for talent from all over the world, from Latin America to East Asia and Europe… As a creative leader, how do you make the most of all that diversity while making work that is culturally relevant to the rest of the region?
Chafic> The Dubai market has always had this edge; a fusion of foreign and local talents with different backgrounds allows for a dynamic process that ultimately makes the work stand out.
On the other hand, it’s also our fundamental duty to nurture, develop and grow local talents in the marketplace; for the obvious reasons. Local relevance for better understanding of the culture and values, insights and trends. This naturally leads to great work that is culturally relevant and innovative enough for consumers to genuinely engage with.
LBB> Dubai has long been a regional business hub, but it feels like the government has been keen to build its reputation as a creative centre too – what are your thoughts? How successful has that been and how lively is the creative scene in Dubai?
Chafic> There is a concerted effort to build the knowledge economy of which creativity is also a part. Take for example some of the Expo 2020 themes or the Museum of the Future, to name a few. The creative scene in Dubai has become a global one as it has seen an influx of multinational and multicultural creatives that are all influencing the creative expression and content.
LBB> One recent piece of Wunderman Thompson MENA work that really stands out is the Burger King Whopper Pay Cut – timely and a great combination of insight, data and creativity. How did that come together?
Chafic> It’s a brilliant idea from Wunderman Thompson Dubai. At a time when organizations worldwide and in the region reduced employee salaries, people became extremely wary of their spending.
Burger King offered people discounts that matched their pay cut percentage and duration on all in-app orders in the UAE. The idea turned the typical download-app-for-discount-code model into a new, meaningful audience-led medium to support people who are financially constrained. The brand let the people truly ‘have it their way’.
LBB> I know there’s a massive appetite for content in the region, especially UAE and KSA. What does that mean for production – is there still room for that high-end boutique production or is it all moving in-house at agencies? Or is it a bit more nuanced?
Chafic> There is no either or. You need both. Big brands are still investing in high-end TV production and high value content creation that requires high-end production companies or third party suppliers, because it does require a very specific set of skills and knowledge. Yet there’s a huge increase and a big volume of low complexity content creation projects that you can produce in-house.
LBB> How have creatives and brands responded to the challenges of Covid-19 in the region?
Chafic> Mostly well. It hasn’t been easy, determining what story to tell and what tone to take, so that it doesn’t look like a brand is exploiting the crisis. We’ve seen an increase in content, in nationalistic messages and added value to make the lives of consumers easier: through promotions, the increase of contactless payments and delivery, etc.
Covid also accelerated the adoption of e-commerce which meant brands had to respond to consumers’ changing behaviors and needs. The brands that did well are the ones that had the flexibility and speed to respond to the changing dynamics while bringing value in everything they do.
LBB> You have a regional role now but you’re based in Riyadh and spend a lot of time in the Saudi market specifically. I’ve heard KSA described as the ‘heart of the MENA region’ – what are your thoughts on that?
Chafic> It’s a happening country. The change is visible on a daily basis and the energy it generates is contagious.
The whole country is on the move; and as an agency we are mirroring this momentum. It is a very positive and promising transformation period that is opening up exciting new opportunities for the industry. Which ultimately means as an agency we are having to be even more agile, and take advantage of the increased opportunities to push and do great work given the changing dynamics.
LBB> JWT was a really strong brand in the region – how have clients responded to the bringing together of Wunderman and JWT and how does the shape of the agency now meet the needs of the region?
Chafic> We have a wonderful creative legacy in the region and Wunderman complements this with their expertise in data and technology – Wunderman Thompson brings together the capabilities our clients are demanding, creativity alongside deep expertise in technology, data, and commerce, in a single organization. It has allowed us to create a future ready agency that brings brilliant creativity, expertise in data and sophisticated technology skills to inspire growth.
LBB> Lebanon has had a really tough year, with Covid and the blast in Beirut – how is the local industry responding?
Chafic> With the Covid-19 pandemic, Beirut blast, devaluation of the currency, political instability, you name it… it brought the country to a standstill. It’s a triple, even a quadruple whammy for the industry. One good thing, most network agencies are using their Beirut-based talents to support the network, which makes a lot of sense and keeps the momentum going.
That said, I have no doubt the industry will get back up like always and soon, hopefully. In the current climate, frankly, we need lots of optimism and plenty of positivity.
LBB> Looking at MENA's advertising industry, it’s clear that there are a lot of creative and business leaders from Lebanon and that there’s something really creative about the country – where does that come from?
Chafic> I can talk for hours about why Lebanon is a creative nation. But in brief, creativity has always been something deeply rooted in our culture and traditions. It’s a testament to our diverse population and the entrepreneurial mindset that never switches off. It’s ingrained in you from day one and it’s always there wherever you go.
LBB> What are your hopes for the region, creatively?
Chafic> Well, my hope is that as creatives, we contribute more and more to solving the commercial and social challenges we face in the region – and God knows there are plenty of those.
To continue pushing, challenging and inspiring ourselves and the people around us.
Stay safe everyone.