In Celebration of Love and Loss

13323238_1201814993196841_5343253453204017888_oThe Bourgeoisie have always been against the idea of being seen in public wearing the same piece of clothing, twice. It is a reality, which with the rise of a new generation, not only changed, but is also trending!

Ironically, these energetic, savvy and quite intelligent youngsters, who were privy to a first-class education and upbringing look at the world in a more sympathetic fashion. “They also are more knowledgeable of who they are, what they want, and where to get it,” explained Nawal Assouad, founder of Depot-Vente vintage clothing store in Mar Mikhael as her exceptionally soothing voice its way through the telephone receiver made.

This however, is not the story. The real story behind the launch of this store some five years ago, which she describes as being smaller than some people’s walk-in closets, was a reaction to her only thirteen-year-old child wanting to pave her own way by going out into the world.

So, being the overly-protective mother that she is, the next two days were spent in solitary reflection, which was also when a different kind of reality she was also grappling with came to light. “The thirteen years I had dedicated to nurturing my daughter were gradually coming to an end driving the question of what I wanted to do with my own life?” she reasoned in a self-lamenting tone.

With all the time in the world, Assaoud decided to have another baby, only this time around, it would be a place, rather than a person, where peoples’ lives are lent a second life. That was when one of the country’s hippest clothing stores was born. It also was when she had finally figured-out how to hold on to some of her most precious memories.

“I have lost many people throughout my life, which till this day still hurts. However, instead of mourning loss, I began to celebrate the rich history interwoven within the rich fabrics the various pieces on display offer,” she said in a dreamy way.

While some people call this nostalgia, her view is far more elaborate and meaningful. As a child of the seventies, her memory of times past constitutes a treasure trove of emotions and adventures that silently linger on more so today than ever before.

Though her clientele include both genders and all ages, the majority of customers are 20-30 year olds who are highly opinionated and are daring enough to transgress antiquated social norms that used to dominate the country’s former civil society. “Most of the youngsters who step through my door truly appreciate quality, especially when it comes to one-of-a-kind items. Best of all, they crave that personal feel, which none of the available clothing stores could ever offer, that is without paying an arm and a leg as opposed to the minute amount we charge,” she clarified.

In addition, she believes that the main reason behind this kind of resurgence, is due to a new found need to affirm a personal identity. “These hipsters who are constantly reinventing themselves have realised how different they are from every generation that preceded theirs and are out to communicate that reality through clothing items laden with history, thereby adding a personal feel to the entire experience,” she pointed out.

While some believe that the trend of reverting to a certain era is driven by nostalgia, Assaoud clarifies before concluding that, “Despite the fact that most of my clients had not experienced that period in time, they nonetheless firmly believe in the difference associated with a look and feel that is unlike anything else, which is also how they see themselves!”

NOTE
This article was published in ArabAd’s December 2016 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.

Succeeding to Fail vs. Failing to Succeed

nehme-lebbos

In an exclusive interview with ArabAd, Nehme Lebbos, digital transformation strategist and CEO at NELCOM Group talks about why Lebanon still has a highly underdeveloped digital services sector and what could be done to change all that.

What can you tell us about the misfortunes and successes you’ve had throughout your career in the digital sector thus far?

You could say that I’ve had my fair share of both. However, what still baffles me, is how almost a decade later, when I try to offer cutting-edge digital services that could easily help evolve some of the country’s biggest industries further, I am met with utter resistance. What I am saying is that for this technology to become mainstream, everyone involved has to take part, which will not only open new and significant revenue streams for all, but will also boost the economy due to the number of jobs created.

What are the obstacles still hindering this kind of progress?

We need to upgrade the existing infrastructure. Also, new legislation needs to be created in support of e-commerce, which will jump-start many dwindling sectors. Add to that the lack of awareness and you’d understand what is happening, or rather, not happening. To clarify, we need to start somewhere. It will not matter whether we fail or not because in due time, we will succeed. However, that will never happen unless we give it a shot. Another reason why adoption, adaption and implementation is moving at snail-speed is the dominant mentality dictating the general view. The major decision makers who command the cash flow are still thinking on a minute scale instead of opening themselves to the existing possibilities.

What other suggestions can you offer to further develop Lebanon’s digital industry?

One way would be to create variously-sized hubs throughout the country. This will generate local jobs within the respective communities, decrease traffic congestion flowing in and out of Beirut, as well as decrease the individual carbon footprint. Also, today we have a huge diaspora living outside who long to return but have not been able to secure a job. Sadly, and irrespective of client, most, if not all, are unwilling to bank on such innovative initiatives unless the project is considered ‘a sure thing’, which is truly discouraging. Yet, despite all the aforementioned obstacles, the potential is tremendous and quite achievable with the required financial backing coupled with forward thinking.

What would then be the next step?

We then will be able to implement ‘Big Data’ strategies by collecting, organising, and analysing data that is aggregated from internal and external sources. Based on these findings, hyper-specific recommendations can then be made and shared with a content, communication, and process strategy teams. Next, they adapt the platform’s process with the client and all the dedicated channels connected to the company. In other words, we can predict the future because we know what will be expected before it is expected.

So how are the existing industries and brands using digital?

Instead of optimising the users’ experience, the existing local industries, who pride themselves on having a digital footprint, are second-guessing themselves at every turn. This not only is literally ridiculous, but also counterproductive to the entire growth process, especially when faced with constantly dwindling budgets. In other words, these companies are operating on hope rather than science! The main problem remains, it’s not what you know, rather who you know, you know!? So, for the record, and in conclusion, allow me to clarify. We are a fully-integrated digital entity offering holistic solutions. We study behaviour and in turn, based on the collected data, can adjust the communication, strategy, and approach, in real-time for the best fit, which is what a digital agency does. Our network is comprised of three agencies, Proximity (a behavioural digital agency), Social Aim (a content marketing agency), and Sketch (an advertising agency). Ironically, both Proximity and Social aim are registered as ad agencies because the category they happen to fall under does not exist in Lebanese law!

NOTE
This article was published in ArabAd’s December 2016 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.

its. Incredible

Less than two years ago, a man who’d spent the better part of his life in the client-servicing and PR field struck an unlikely partnership with another man renowned for creative communication. The news was received with plenty of skepticism and even less hope for success.

Today, its. a fully-fledged communication agency has potential clients fighting each other off trying to get their foot in the door. Sporting an entirely different scrumptious flavour, this highly and quite bizarre partnership sees Waddah Sadek at the helm as CEO alongside Daniel Georr as Managing Partner.

What most outsiders were unaware of, was that the key to the stellar success of this particular venture was the meeting of two very different mentalities backed by two skilled teams. Since then, the agency has been almost taking one new client every other week. This very month, its. Signed BCF (Beirut Culture Festival), Burger King, Kempinski and Summer Land after a three-tier and ferocious pitching sessions. Other proud clients are Sayfco, Al-Mawarid Bank, Phoenicia, Taanayel, Michel Nassif & Fils. As a result, Sadek and Georr, who wanted to dedicate themselves entirely to each client, decided not take on any more accounts for the coming six months.

ArabAd visited these two quirky characters at their brilliantly decorated offices that are so inviting, one would almost be tempted to pitch a tent and start a bonfire, to discuss a number of pertinent matters related to interpersonal communication!

 

What are the main differences of working with a local as opposed to multinational agency?

daniel_georr

Dani: On the local level, the founders of the agency are the ones doing the work themselves. They also are the ones in direct contact with the owners of the accounts they are servicing. So, when the owner of an agency is personally communicating with the owner of a brand, great things are bound to happen. This is the kind of trust we enjoy and build on, which is the case for 90 percent of our clients. As a result, half of our clients recommend us to the other half of the clients we eventually acquire.

On the other hand, when the owner of a brand hires a multi-national company, he usually deals with a mid-level employee instead of the head of the agency. This presents a major drawback because these account handlers lack the authority and confidence. They also are reluctant, if not scared to take risks. This is when the tremendous experience a client has selling his brand is lost on the guy chosen to service the account. If the former challenges the ad man, the latter will retreat out of fear.

gkwkr7fjvkajxa0frcyu

Waddah: Also keep in mind that the process a client goes through when working with a multinational is quite fragmented as that individual will have to separately meet with the media department, PR, digital, creative department manager… to agree on a final approach. Worse still, no one is coordinating between all the people involved, so different parts of the work are being executed in isolation and the client does not like this at all.

Dani: Worse still, each MD servicing a different side of the same account wants, at year’s end, to report back to their CEO with the best PNL (statement of Profit and Loss). This is pure corporate cannibalization of the client’s money and I am proud to say that we do not have this at our agency. The returns on our performance merit and benefit one and all, thereby eliminating the greed factor by fully focusing on the job in hand.

What is the role technology plays and what are the advantages/disadvantages?

Waddah: Technology is a tool and what makes it real is the human element. If this technology is being used to strengthen the human bond, that is great. On the other hand, I see that there is tremendous procrastination taking place. So, if we use this technology to cut corners so as to work less, it will be detrimental.

Do fresh graduates still prefer to work with multinationals?

Dani: This used to be the case. However, the advantage today is that we are becoming sexier for fresh job seekers. Previously, these graduates applied for work at multinational companies and only knocked on our door after they struck out. However, the tables are turning because these very same graduates choose us first now. Though at times we find ourselves unable to take on new recruits, the exceptionally talented immediately offer to work on a trial basis for a three-month period without pay.

For example, we have a recruit who’s been with us for the past seven months. He lives in Jizeen and makes the journey every single day and is the first to arrive and the last to leave. This, unfortunately, is the one percent of the kind of people we would like to have on our team. We have another employee who is well off and therefore does not need to find a job. However, she works twelve-hour days because she loves what she does and where she is.

Waddah: On the other side of the spectrum we get applicants dying for a job, yet show up late for the preliminary interview! This applies to more than half the applicants.

Is talent migration still a problem today?

Dani: Yes it is and I think it’s wrong because it constitutes an act of desperation. After all, if the applicant truly want to learn as much as possible, then a local Lebanese agency is key, because budgets are smaller and therefore the challenges are bigger. How thrilling is that!

Anything else you would like to add?

Dani: Waddah is looking for a job if you know of any openings!

NOTE
This article was published in ArabAd’s October 2016 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.

The Excruciating Demise of the Printed Word

ahmad-t-salman2

 

There was a time when a firm handshake sealed the deal and certain words still held true value. Then again, there were also times when communication called for a direct approach and truth was the most sought-after commodity. Now replace the handshake with a ‘smilie emoticon’, trade the truth for the highest ‘number of clicks’ and you would have a more accurate though highly misleading idea of where we are today.  

The world has definitely changed, and with it, everything else. This change is ushering a very different reality specific to an industry upon which democracy and free speech were predicated and continue to exist, at least for now!

Addressing the matter, we invited Ahmad Salman, deputy general manager of As-Safir newspaper to a heart-to-heart talk. The tall gentleman, whose exceptionally polite demeanour proved overwhelming and his carefully-weighed words enlightening, took the time to clarify the true catastrophe the entire newspaper industry is trying to avoid.  

Prior to going on the record, Salman explained that ever since Lebanon gained access to the Internet during the early nineties, much has changed and As Safir was one of the first to consider the effects this new medium would have. In response, it established one of the country’s first news websites in parallel with its print version in 1996. Since then, it has built a digital following of 1.5 million using Facebook and Twitter, cut the number of pages to half, liquidated some of its physical assets and downsized its workforce. Sadly, all these strategies only saw it through on a short-term basis.  

Mode of Delivery and Format

Delving straight into the heart of the matter, Salman explained that this is a global problem each print entity is trying to find the most suitable solution to. Having said that, I would like to insure all our stakeholders and readers that As-Safir will continue operation contrary to previous statements made.

To do so, it is imperative for everyone to understand the challenges brought about by the technological advances that have been sweeping the world since the emergence of the Internet in the early nineties. These have proven beneficial as well as harmful to a number of industries, especially print. Internet penetration has seriously affected reading behaviours, specifically those related to the news. I say news and not newspapers because there are so many aggregation portals where the desired information can be gotten. Also, and due to the number of available digital vehicles, any person can easily post anything online bypassing established news outlets, which no longer are the go to source for information.

That being the case, we find ourselves wondering how to best adapt while remaining relevant. The other question is, how do we sustain the work we do from a commercial perspective based on the available resources and revenues in a new format?

Unfortunately, As-Safir still do not have a definitive way to adapt our revenue stream and business model to sustain operation. On the other hand, to get big revenues from the Internet, we need more than heavy traffic to our website. The problem is not who all our readers are, rather who are the people reading our stories when posted by other websites?

After investigating, we concluded that there is no law to govern the dissemination of information on the Internet as opposed to print, TV and radio. This means that anyone can open a portal and start sharing news from anywhere in the world without being legally liable.

The other troubling matter relates to cutting further losses by completely shifting the business model to a digital one. However, at the moment that is out of the question since the printed version continues to be our main revenue stream. Sadly, that very same stream has dropped, considerably, in the past couple of years.

On the digital front, the younger generation reads quickly and in a fragmented way from numerous sources and on different devices. This presents a very different set of challenges the current print model cannot accommodate.

Before the Internet, the print market was quite defined and navigating it was more or less a manageable process as opposed to the global digital market, which is growing by the day. As-Safir used to compete with a dozen newspapers but today that same paper is competing with the entire news world. In other words, our reach has expanded to cover the world, yet our revenue stream is barely enough to cover operational costs based on our share of the local community.

True Value

Reputed and trusted newspapers comprise the backbone of the media and communication sector. Every major news story requires tremendous time, research, and know-how to complete, which is exactly why such work has great value for the readers. This is pure journalism compounded by years of field experience and the mastery of various skills. It is this kind of value we are trying to maintain.

Today, unlike any other time in history, print newspapers have the best chances to reach the largest audiences than ever before. The problem is, that though I may have an audience all over the globe, capitalising on this reality by creating the proper revenue streams has thus far proven quite problematic.

Case in point are websites that aggregate the news. Some of these have met with great success because they cut through the clutter by making all relevant news available from one source. To gain an edge, some have deceivingly and shamefully removed the sources of some stories we posted to give off the impression of ownership. In hope of resolving this matter, we had our lawyers draft a document and sent it to the top twelve local news organisations inviting them to continue sharing our stories but also linking them to our website. Some stopped publishing them but then started again, others completely ignored us, and the rest called to say that they are in fact promoting our newspaper and in turn doing us a favour.

This drove us to consider what in today’s wired world brand value really means, especially when it comes to young audiences whose knowledge on the matter may not have yet been fully-formed. That was when we realised a fundamental truth, namely that when it comes to our news stories, readers, irrespective of age, will automatically assume that the information they are reading has been fact checked and is therefore credible and most importantly, reliable and trustworthy. In other words, we continue to be a reference on any platform.

However, what remains somewhat troubling, is getting our reputation to work for us, rather than for the sources posting our work and sharing it with the world. Keep in mind that independent digital news sites who are directly competing with established print newspapers primarily rely on their stories to cover daily affairs. In doing so, they either directly quote the original source or repackage specific news stories of interest and then post them as their own. If these same news portals no longer have print newspapers to draw story ideas from, they will have to employ the very same newspaper model to continue operations and that is ironic!

Solutions

After various attempts to harness more revenue, we executed various strategies only to arrive at the conclusion that it would be best to optimise the operation rather than keep downsizing. What also became clear is that running a digital operation in parallel is an inescapable reality. Though As-Safir would be taking a big risk, we do not see any other way.

Aware of how dire the situation is, the Lebanese Information Minister, in a bid to rescue the locally reputed newspapers, suggested creating a specific subscription model where various departments of government would buy these daily publications all year round. He added that the amount of 500 LB would be paid for each copy sold. The only problem was finding out who was selling how much as there is no legal entity responsible for that kind of operation. After that fact became obvious, it was suggested that all newspapers receive an equal amount, which is not fair on any level. We also discussed the subscription-based model with banks. Sadly, even that strategy met with little success.

On a different front, and in a bid to break through the digital clutter, we decided to look at content in a different way. As a result, we no longer are considering information based on the number of pages, rather articles that could easily fit any frame on any medium. This allows us to overcome the problem of limited space and in turn operate in a limitless or rather less constricting environment. This also affords us more leeway when it comes to the dissemination of information over various portals lending content relevance previously inapplicable.

Though we are yet to discover the effects this will have on our readers, it would be pertinent to note, in conclusion, that no matter what happens, we will continue to exist out of a shared responsibility to our country and the region. However, what scares me most is making promises of continued operation that we would not be able to keep. We are fighting tooth and nail to remain a relevant portal to all our clients, advertisers and readers in hope of upholding one of modern society’s major pillars without which the shift from ‘real substance’ to ‘number of clicks’ will dominate and with it, take down anything that is of true value.

After Salman made his final remark, the conference room grew silent as an ere feeling of uncertainty hung heavily in the air. What became clear is that the battle is not limited to As-Safir’s own survival, rather the survival of the news industry as a whole. What the future holds remains shrouded in mystery, yet what is certain is the fact that there still is time to rectify the situation. Friends and foes should work together because failure, is literally no longer an option.

NOTE
This article was published in ArabAd’s September 2016 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.

The House that Never Came Home

Innovation and ingenuity have always been part of our DNA.

Nothing becomes more apparent in that regard when silently observing a child at play.

As we get older, the bizarre becomes familiar to the point of being forgotten or even overlooked. The beauty of the world around us fades into a blurring background as we consider new ways to get more of the same.

However, the unexpected always finds a way to remind us that there is more to life than what we see, or in this case, have forgotten.

One such moment, I consider myself lucky to have been witness to, came by way of a conversation between two engineers who, during that summer, spent their time devising and theorising about the many ways they could bend reality to their will.

In this particular case, the conversation that took place beneath a lush willow tree round sunset was sparked by finding a way to travel a 500 meter stretch of land, without moving an inch. The problem, after some research into the matter, was infinitely compounded when both of them realised that what they were considering, had never been done before!

The reality of the matter was unnecessarily-absurd, which is why the solution had to be, elaborate beyond reproach. Though the reasoning was sound, the idea itself made no sense whatsoever. Nonetheless, the rectangular farm’s blueprints were procured and an in-depth study related to the mechanics of the undertaking were thoroughly scrutinized so as not to leave anything to chance.

The original family home, which was located at the farm’s main entrance had grown too small and no longer could accommodate everyone, which is why the plan to build a second house at the other end of the plot of land was under serious consideration. The only ‘obstacle’ was that cursed stretch separating both.

In truth however, the actual problem sprang from a different reality, rather state of mind similar to that of a child battling imaginary dragons. The proposed house, which later was transformed prior to construction into a fairytale-like tower, should have magical abilities in keeping with its design.

As different alcoholic spirits and herbs found their way into the engineers’ thoughts, an ingenious solution sprang to life. During the few moments that followed, a silence broke out as both men stood in front of ‘the stretch’ immersed in the possibility.

They literally turned the problem on its head as Adonis still standing there transfixed said, “What if, instead of walking the distance to the house, we could get it to come to us?!”

Following his lead, Riad, whose mind was intoxicated with the thought and other promising substances replied, “We can even do one better by placing it on rails and activating it using a remote control. The only question however that comes to mind is, will I have my own remote?”

That night, as they walked the distance back and forth while making further computations, a shooting star happened across the sky as I, trailing a few steps behind, closed my eyes and wished for their idea to come true.

That was 30 years ago and though both had passed away some years apart, I find myself still living with that dream and the desire to truly make my world, magical while the possibility in me, lives on.

NOTE
This article was published in ArabAd’s May 2016 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.