Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The missed opportunities of ad people in the Middle East

Artwork by Tarek Chemaly

At some point I knew I was no longer an agency man.

But I was always very lucky in my career. I gradually eased into lecturing. And even when I left lecturing because due to inflation I was no longer making money but rather putting, I was able to focus on my video art productions.

My point? Advertising people in the Middle East simply do not know when to stop. I am not naming names, but the man was - in the polite words of the late Walid Azzi - a "dormant giant", which is euphemism for "has-been". The problem? In his mind, the man still thought he was on top of his game. Comically so. In my last meeting with him circa 2005 along with a very capable art director, the lady in question (the art director) told him "you know, using such a word is not exactly palatable for us as Muslims, "perfection" (al kamal in Arabic) is left to God".

And the guy just get on a rant "you are teaching me advertising now? Me? After all my experience?" and he went on for 5, then 10, then 20 minutes in the same vein. At some point I looked at the art director, signaled for her we should beat a retreat, did so, all while the man was - STILL - ranting about "teaching him advertising".

Oh, and did you notice how many ad people - again in the region - wanted to go to politics? Failed transitions or laughable ones. Again, not naming names, but the examples are too many (Lebanon included), which proves again, that the ad people's ego does not know when and where to stop.

Something else I noticed, that rage to leave agencies these people have been associated with (during the agency's but also their own creative heyday), thinking they are still at the height of their creative powers, only to drift endlessly from one agency to another. Very recently someone asked me about a certain person in the industry "any idea which agency he has been passing through as of late?". The man was a creative giant back in the day, but since has been just going from one place to another with dwindling output.

Let me tell you this other story. A creative director in a huge agency in Beirut used to go to the junior's cubicle where several of them would be packed elbow to elbow in a room as big as a matchbox, and instead of taking each aside to critique their work so as to improve it, he's just stand at the door, utter a deep sigh and then leave.

All of this is leading to one place in my mind. Why not teach, coach, and mentor these youngsters? For the fifteen years I taught at university, I had a blast with boys and girls - some of them eager, some of them not, some of them creative, some of them not, some of them willing to learn, some of them not. But it did not matter, when you had that one, just one person who was lapping it up, you'd know you'd know your mission has been successful.

But for some reason, these ad people, past their creative height either never take up information transmission in whatever form it is, or find it beneath them. I know of a certain person who plainly told his class "I didn't like you, I am not going to teach you" - all while collecting his salary. Another showed up for only two sessions out of the allotted fifteen, gave the class a final and everyone obviously failed in class.

Perhaps they are stuck in the "those who can't do, teach" - which trust me, is not correct. Up till today, I still have former students in high positions in agencies who will consult me on briefs. I always give them kick-ass answers and with a snark end our exchange with: "the day you will become more creative than I am, is the day I retire".

I can still be creative all while teaching/mentoring or just simply volunteering my time with "students". We both learn to quote Maguy Farah (the Lebanese media personality who once said that in class "ment3allam" - meaning that not only students get new info, but teachers do as well).