This year, by far our favourite Ramadan spot was a surprising and emotional ad for travel brand Almosafer, which saw a little girl bring the spirit of the season to Father Christmas. And just as the spot follows the girl on an extraordinary, culture-bridging journey, bringing the campaign to life was certainly a journey for Tahaab Rais. The regional head of strategy & Truth Central, McCann Worldgroup MENA, was so deeply involved in the campaign and had such passion for the message behind it that he ended up not only directing the spot but writing the song lyrics for the track and even lending his hand to some of the ad’s props (look out for the map!)
The search for Santa took the team to the snowy mountains of Georgia, where the crew and cast found themselves commuting to set via snowmobile.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Tahaab to learn more about the making of the spot and find out why he reckons the industry in the Middle East needs to do more to market Ramadan.
LBB> What was the starting point strategically for the campaign?
Tahaab> Ramadan matters because it embodies values that help make people better versions of themselves, such as generosity, togetherness, empathy, kindness, giving, food and family time, among others. Christmas matters too because it too embodies those great values too. Both occasions should be famous around the world and should be celebrated by everyone.
But, despite Christmas being just one day, while Ramadan is one month, Christmas is a lot more popular than Ramadan is. Christmas is known more around the world and celebrated by those practicing the faith and those who are not. Christmas has more searches than Ramadan and more social media mentions than Ramadan. I get more people wishing me ‘Merry Christmas’ than I observe people wishing me ‘Ramadan Mubarak’. And a considerable factor behind this success and word-of-mouth around the occasion of Christmas is the communication, the content, the marketing and advertising around the occasion of Christmas over the years.
So, Ramadan has a lot to learn about marketing and advertising from Christmas. But, watching this year’s advertising around Ramadan, I can’t help but feel we are not doing enough for Ramadan, as the communications community in the Middle East – a region that should be the flag-bearer for Ramadan. Therefore, the starting point was to find a cultural subtext that’d help us create a story and deliver a meaningful message about Ramadan that’d travel the world and that’d be remembered as much as Christmas ads are.
LBB> How has Ramadan advertising changed in the region?
Tahaab> Ramadan lends itself to strong cultural messaging, and increasingly, a multitude of brands around the MENA region have been developing content in order to strengthen their emotional connect with consumers. Ramadan is almost like a month-long Super Bowl, but for MENA.
But, amidst this content out here - mostly short-form funny ads or songs (lots of songs!) and celebrity endorsements, there is an increasing melee of brands communicating clichés in terms of imagery and themes with emotionally-laden Ramadan solemnity, such as getting together with family, enjoying the goodness of Ramadan, doing good for others, nostalgia, contributing to a charity or a product promotion.
What’s interesting across most marketing efforts is that Ramadan content in the Middle East tends to focus on the region itself and on the brands themselves. There’s not enough done for marketing Ramadan.
LBB> At a time of division, it's interesting that the campaign brings together Ramadan with that famous Christmas character, Santa. Why did you decide to open up the spirit of the festival in this way?
Tahaab> The world today is more divided that it has ever been. Even during Ramadan, a time of year that encourages empathy, generosity, compassion and opening doors, people around the world haven’t seized to put down their divides. It often remains a world of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. And prejudice based on faith is one of the biggest reasons behind the divisions.
Now, our neighbour is a practicing Christian. Yet, this Ramadan, she kept fasts and broke fasts with us, together, on the same table, for all the days of Ramadan, because we included her in the moments and the celebrations and she saw how the values of Ramadan create an environment of happiness and togetherness. She remains devout to her faith but has earned a newfound understanding of Ramadan.
But, that’s not the case across our region or our world. So, with our film, there was an opportunity to take Ramadan, the festival of one faith (Islam), and show Muslims around the region that they are the representatives of the faith and of the most important festival of that faith. And that the true spirit of Ramadan travelled with them wherever they went (physically or in today’s world, digital too). We also wanted to show people around the world that Ramadan is as welcoming, as loving, as generous and as inclusive, as Christmas is. Everyone can celebrate in the spirit and festivities of Ramadan. And we chose to take the message of Ramadan from a little child to someone who’d visually and clearly represent the festival of another faith.
LBB> What role do travel brands like airlines play in Ramadan? I've heard that traditionally it was a festival that attracted a lot of FMCG brands...?
Tahaab> Most travel advertising in Ramadan (as well as advertising from other industries encouraging travel) is aimed at either the pre-Ramadan season or the Eid season; emotional ads that encourage you to either go meet loved ones or see new places or functional promotions that encourage you to do the same or charitable donation drives and acts.
There’s very little purpose-driven, meaningful advertising from travel brands that encompasses the spirit and the values of Ramadan, while building those brands.
LBB> Were the team worried about any potential controversy with this route?
Tahaab> Conceived in a spirit of co-existence and openness, ‘As far as we go’ has been created for the holy month to celebrate how travel unites people, cultures and faiths. It serves as our way of saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ to the world by encouraging people to carry the beautiful spirit and values of Ramadan with them, wherever they travel. It showcases how travel can open minds and broaden horizons. And this is what the brand is all about; opening up the opportunity of travel by connecting cultures.
So, we were very confident that because of a seamless and strong integrity with the brand, it would have a positive impact. Yet, as with any communication idea that’s unexpected, one always has to plan for the expected and the unexpected. And the PR team at Almosafer had a plan set in place.
LBB> This is your third directing job! What was it about this story in particular that made you want to direct it?
Tahaab> I enjoy it! And third time’s a charm, right? I fundamentally believe that brands and agencies in the region and around the world have not done enough of a job of marketing Ramadan better to the world. While brands have been marketed better in Ramadan, Ramadan hasn’t been marketed enough to the world. So, when we sat down to work on this brief and came up with this idea, I knew we had to do it. Because it was not only a great story for Almosafer but it was a great story for Ramadan. And we had to do it in a way that’d make Ramadan seem as magical, as universal, as INCLUSIVE as Christmas was.
So, once we had this idea, and once Almosafer had chosen to do it, I had a clear vision for the film (well, at least in my head!) and I could ‘see’ it even before we had a shooting board, or the cast, or the song. So, I spoke with Manasvi (Gosalia) who is executive producer and shared that I really wanted to direct it. And he encouraged me to do so too. There were other more established directors in the mix. But, I’m fortunate that he believed in my vision and so did the client (Mohamed Qanati) and backed me on this high-stake project. Plus, I had a greater DOP and partner in Bobby Dhillon who’s a mentor and a great guide.
LBB> In terms of the creative vision for the film, what were your top priorities?
Tahaab> I wanted the story to be one that people would remember and talk about everywhere and for years to come, and create a unique Ramadan story.
The girl needed to embody Ramadan’s values. The girl’s character needed to come across as caring, empathic, responsible, generous and welcoming. As you’ll observe in the film, she folds her map neatly, she makes sure she doesn’t forget her teddy, she straps her own seatbelt on, she keeps track of her journey through her map, she saves two dates for herself and the person she’d be meeting at the end of the film, she tries to help things move along and help the taxi driver put her own bag into the car, she approaches strangers with a smile, in her little hand as she knocks on the door of the house at the end we see her holding the two dates she was offered on the plane by a stewardess that we left the viewers on. All of those traits in a short film helped us show the kind of girl she was. She was the representative of Ramadan in a foreign land and had to imbibe those values. And I wanted the girl we cast to embody that spirit of Ramadan, have that innocence in her eyes and I definitely wanted it to be an Arab girl. We got lucky and she is an absolute star.
While the story was a child’s journey, I wanted to add tension to that journey through an underlying cultural subtext. So, you’ll see subtext about Islamophobia in there as well as a subtext about adults not seeing the world the way a child does. Overall, the film is about taking the true spirit of Ramadan in places where there is no Ramadan. Specifically, we see a couple of clearly foreign adults rejecting her request for help – now that scene has been construed by some as hinting at Islamophobia (she’s a foreign girl with a ‘sort of a’ scarf on) while by others it has been comprehended as adults dismissing her search for the one she’s searching for. Both could be correct. And both have a deeper meaning.
The old man at the end had to BE Father Christmas! It wasn’t going to be easy finding someone who looked the part and also, acted the part. We went through intensive casting sessions to find the perfect fit. It didn’t matter to me if he had a beard or not (turns out the one we chose didn’t have a beard), as we could easily make one that’d feel as real as the real thing.
Importantly, we had to have a great soundtrack. The song needed to be a tribute to the true spirit of Ramadan, as seen through the eyes of a child. It needed to be a song describing what the child wishes for the true spirit of Ramadan. And hence, it’d be an embodiment of our core idea: the true spirit of Ramadan travels as far as we go. To viewers, I wanted it to first feel like it’s a song about a person; perhaps the ‘grandfatherly’ figure she’s looking for on the journey she’s on or someone she loved. But at the end, with the call to action, the song needed to reveal a twist of its own too, in cohesion with the visuals that reveal its conclusion; as it then needed to make sense that this is a song that’s a tribute to Ramadan and its true spirit. Just like the film, the song too shares that the true spirit of Ramadan travels as far as we go. To lend more charm to the film (and the song), the lyrics needed to feel written by and very naturally suited to a little child. I couldn’t find one composed before that met the idea. So, the decision was taken to write and compose it ourselves.
LBB> Tell me about the production! How long was the shoot and what adventures did you have along the way?
We were shooting in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere. And we needed snow, but not just any snow (and that was clearly important as seen in the film’s climax). Now, we had a set production budget and it wasn’t ski high. Hence, our options for snowy landscapes where we could travel to, within our budgets, that had able production crews were very, very limited. So, the biggest challenge was to find that ideal location for the climax of the film. And we found it in Georgia. The shoot was scheduled for four days and accordingly wrapped up. We had over 100 shots to do in 48 hours across seven locations, most of them with a child actor. And we worked 20 hours each day to make those shots happen and have a film we’d be happy with.
The biggest adventure for all of us (and it was pretty priceless) was going up and down that specific snow mountain where we’d film our climax. The chairlifts weren’t working as it was the off-season. So, guess what? We had to go up and down that mountain in a Snow Cat snowmobile. Sounds James Bond-like, doesn’t it? Well, that stuff looks cool on film! But, in reality, it was a pretty turbulent experience - without any safety harnesses or seats - as we were literally dangling from bars for 30-minute rides up and down the mountain during technical recces and on the shoot day itself!
Now, on the shoot day (our second and final day), we were caught in an unexpected thunderstorm in Georgia that wasn’t forecasted. And getting onto the mountain was deemed impossible. So, while we had scheduled five hours of shooting atop the mountain (as I wanted to shoot the ending scene of the girl approaching the home in natural iftar light i.e. dusk), we could only get there two hours before the sun went down. And getting there, because of the rain, we noticed all the set-up we had done with the snow and the home were messed up. So, not only did we need to shoot everything in two hours (including the great drone footage in the clear untouched snow on the peak), we also had to clean everything up and readjust all the snow with the Snow Cat, as I wanted it to be natural vs. touched up later in post. We pulled off what we needed to do - but only just, thanks a great crew that made magic happen.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Tahaab> The biggest challenge was to have a client in the region believe in the idea and back it. We’ve heard a lot of scepticism when we discussed the idea amongst industry kin and media before shooting it, as they felt it’d be offensive or lead to divisive opinions. But, I’m glad Almosafer chose to make such a beautiful and meaningful statement and the results justified their faith in the idea. People have loved it and it hasn’t been divisive. In fact, it is being touted as one of the best Ramadan ads ever, globally. Kudos to the client.
When it came to the production of the film, the unexpected weather - as mentioned above - was the biggest challenge. But thanks to the crew we got our film done in time! Overall, I left very impressed with the dedication and ambition of people in Georgia and I’m really excited to work with them again.
LBB> We're used to seeing creatives become directors, but I reckon seeing strategy folk take up the director's chair is a lot rarer! How do you find your strategist's mind feeds into your directing?
Tahaab> Firstly, a lot of great directors are great strategists as the two disciplines share a lot in common. And vice-versa can be true too! Secondly, it speaks highly about the culture of our agency where people are encouraged to inculcate and hone different skill sets.
Being a strategist helps me bring much-needed logic to the magic of creativity through my briefs, strategies, channel plans, presentations and case studies. And I tried to carry that same logic while directing.
1. As a strategist, understanding people is imperative. I needed to be best buds with the kid and the old man – the two protagonists. And understanding them, what worked for them, what excited them, what they liked to talk about was key – as that helped get the right expressions and interactions on camera.
2. There had to be an integral role of the brand and its totem (the map) throughout the film.
3. It’s really important to focus on continuity between scenes, especially for a more literal audience in our region, so the journey and the timing of iftar and suhour on that journey needed to make sense.
4. Building and showing character arcs helps endear characters to people, so an understanding of people in the story and their choices that make the story move forward.
5. Tapping into little human insights – insights that’d touch people because they are true – was important too; such as the girl’s nature, the two dates being saved, the blunt barrier she faces with the two foreign adults, the kids who help her (was it because they have imagination or was it because they don’t see divides?).
Overall, to me, this idea was very personal. I’ve enjoyed writing its script with my colleagues, Aunindo, Nayaab and Ramzy. And as its director, I put in everything I had into making this work, with our great team and crew, including going above and beyond my port of call.
I’ve obviously delved into the littlest of details while writing the production brief, the art brief, the wardrobe brief, the treatment, the detailed shooting board, the grading brief and a lot more. But, I’ve also written the song before the shoot too, as we didn’t find the right soundtrack. I had specific lyrics in mind for each scene to capture the sentiment of the girl in those scenes as she journeyed along. So, the lyrics had to match the scenes. I also sang a demo about how I wanted the song to sound (I listened to that demo while filming so I could know how long each scene needed to be). And (embarrassingly) I sent that demo to Joe Dickinson, our composer to share what its tune needed to be. No one shall ever hear that except a few of us who are sworn to secrecy because of how terrible I sounded. It helped the song but it didn’t help my mysterious ‘unheard before’ singing creds with the composer.
And hey, I even drew the hand-drawn map you see in the film (yes, that’s my best artwork. It took me two hours. And I’m 34. Sigh.)
So, yeah, it has been an enjoyable experience for all of us and for me, and I look forward to the next one!