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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives > Slideshow « Ramsey Naja
Ramsey Naja

image Ramsey NajaRegional Chief Creative Officer
JWT Middle East North Africa

The first thing that springs to mind when you think about Middle Eastern advertising is that you don’t really think about Middle Eastern advertising.

That’s why we decided to think about it. Other issues tend to take center stage when the region is mentioned, but despite all, a place that’s so rich in history, culture and traditions is only likely to inspire great advertising and communications.

So there was quite a lot to discuss when we caught up with JWT MENA’s Ramsey Naja earlier this year. From his early days as a creative in civil war torn Lebanon, to his current mandate and vision for the network regionally, we get a chance to peak inside his brain and learn a thing or two about advertising in the region and its struggle to keep up with the ever evolving cultural landscape.

ihaveanidea: So, how does one become a Regional Chief Creative Officer? How did you get your start in this business?

Ramsey: It’s a long story. I started in journalism and through a twist of fate and with whatever was happening in Lebanon at that time, the local TV station decided to launch a new news service. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but I ended up being a TV news anchor at the young age of 23. This was turning up every other night at 7:30, wearing my father’s suits for the English reading of the 7 o’clock news in the middle of the civil war. It was quite something.

I was still studying then, and also DJing at a pirate radio station, so one thing leading to another, the steam ran off on my news gig and I ended up…thinking maybe I should further my studies.

I decided to go to England to do a Masters in Drama, which was my favourite subject at the time. So from journalism, to radio and theatre, I got a phone call from Middle Eastern ad agency, which was based in London, asking if I wanted a job. It was Publicis’ agency in the region whose headquarters were in London. I started up as a copywriter there and never looked back since. It’s one of those things, I was in London, had finished my studies, and three days before my visa ran out I get a phone call from somebody offering me a job.

ihaveanidea: How do people adapt to all the political uncertainty? Lebanon is not the most unstable place in the region by any means, but things get pretty serious from time to time. How does something like that affect the way you work?

Ramsey: The instability of the country is a great motivator in a very strange way because everybody lives for the day. It drives a kind of “don’t worry about long term planning, just do everything for now” mentality. Everybody is in a hurry. You do stuff and very intensely. That’s in part why Beirut is pretty much known as a party city. You end up with a very hedonistic approach to life, which is quite fun because you just don’t think about tomorrow. You tell yourself: “Tomorrow I might just die” (laughs)

It makes for very intense living. The only problem is that it also makes it kind of superficial because you don’t plan and don’t look deep. You just take things as they are and end up in a superficial kind of culture, which I think reflects in the advertising that you see in Lebanon.

I look after the whole Middle East and North Africa region, but I am based in Beirut. It’s the capital of “shortermism” and crazy living. Pretty intense, but not very deep.

The Middle East is a happening place. It’s got its rich places; it’s got its sexy places and its cosmopolitan places. So I think it’s catching up rather quickly and looking much better than it used to.

ihaveanidea: How would you compare the various markets you look after? Beirut is known as the cultural capital of the Middle East, but how does that translate into advertising?

Ramsey: After the war, the biggest competition was between Beirut and Dubai, and the latter won hands down. There were more investments going there and much more stability so it became a magnet for talent, which Beirut just couldn’t match. The majority of people go to the gulf and Dubai particularly. What Beirut has got is that, alongside Cairo, it was the place where Middle Eastern advertising became really modern.

And then it kind of went backwards.

Dubai are now ahead by far because the industry is more cosmopolitan. It’s got so much foreign talent that it ended up becoming a lot more powerful. It also controls the markets of Saudi Arabia and some stuff in South East Asia. So in that sense, our office in Dubai is a powerhouse. Beirut seems to be reclaiming its place though since the recession hit Dubai pretty badly; it’s interesting to follow.

ihaveanidea: Do you think expat-led markets tend to produce ads that don’t have a local smell to them? How could you make the work culturally relevant, by giving it an Arab voice?

Ramsey: This is the one hundred million dollar question. It’s absolutely on the dot. Arab advertising does need a sense of pride in its own identity. It’s a big issue and we were talking about it recently with my guys from the various offices. I gathered them and said that what was really pissing me off was that we’re getting to the point where our ads can be brilliant creatively but bland culturally.

And that’s fine to an extent. Let me put it in context: at a time, advertising here was so backwards, that I remember sitting in Cannes around 2002 or 2003 and thinking “300 million people in the Arab world, god knows how many millions of campaigns produced, and not a single one gets shortlisted.”

I came back thinking we really have to catch up with what the rest of the world is doing. And being perfectly honest with you, part of it was analyzing the winning work and cracking the code for award eligibility, so we started really pushing the visual metaphors at the time.

But what you said is absolutely true; the problem now is that the agencies need to produce brilliant local work. JWT Buenos Aires is a great example. Really proud of being Argentinean and seemingly not caring about their work looking like famous ads. So they became really famous for their own work.

I cannot say that we’ve been able to crack this. There are some stories in the street corners of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Algiers that are just waiting to be told. But less so in a place that’s so utterly modern like Dubai. You don’t have that many stories to work with and as a result, less cultural flavour. But if you look at the work from Cairo, you’ll find some wonderful stuff that’s both culturally relevant and super creative.

ihaveanidea: Can you tell us about some of the markets we don’t hear much about? Beirut, Cairo and Dubai have gotten a lot of press recently, but what about the smaller ones?

Ramsey: One of the things that I will sing the merits of JWT in the region for is that there’re really quite a few shinning lights and many of them get rewarded on a regular basis. We’ve got places like Damascus, which is a very small, strange market. Or Saudi Arabia, which is a huge operation but extremely tough to work from. Algiers, Tunis and Casablanca do some good work too, but sadly it happens too rarely.

But here we really tend to work across the network. I look at the agencies as one office with long corridors. So if I get an exciting brief for Tunis, I’ll sometimes involve three or four offices in it to make it more fun. When we won the global duties for the Egyptian Tourism Authority we had offices as far apart as Jeddah and Casablanca involved. We worked from Egypt, but had nine offices help for this pitch. It was hell in terms of coordination, but because we’re a rather small operation we managed to meet quite often. It’s also done to equalize the disparity in talent in places like Dubai and Casablanca for instance.

Things like that help you a lot creative wise if you’re in a difficult place like Saudi Arabia.

ihaveanidea: Yes I’d imagine the restrictions in terms of what you can get away with are quite severe there…

Ramsey: I was talking to somebody from the States the other day and I started thinking that you could look at the restrictions in two ways. In terms of the work, you’ll have tight restrictions anywhere you go. Legal things to navigate over, the fact that you’re not allowed to show nudity, industry standards etc.

So like anywhere else, it becomes about how clever you are at navigating around them. I’ll admit that it’s a bit more difficult in. For a creative to live in a place where there’re no cinemas or nightlife to speak of is hard. The country is a bit difficult to understand or to crack, so it’s not very easy initially.

There are some stories in the street corners of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Algiers that are just waiting to be told. But less so in a place that’s so utterly modern like Dubai.

ihaveanidea: How do you go about attracting talent there? How would you convince someone that’s talented that giving it a shot in Saudi Arabia is a good idea? Besides throwing loads of money at them!

Ramsey: Well yeah, there’s money (laughs)

But it’s not just money as in salaries. The budgets there are big. And in some cases you’ll get clients that don’t understand the industry very well, but that will want to do better and that will be as ambitious as telling you “how could you help us win an award in Cannes?”.

It doesn’t always get a very good rep as a place to work, but it is a nation that is really ambitious and that wants to do stuff. Saudi Arabia is a bit of a paradox. It’s a very modern lifestyle but you cannot drink, there are crazy restrictions on women, etc so it is tough from that point of view. The burnout is very quick in places like these.

duamnestyintl2menacristalgrandprixprintandcristalgoldlynxprint Ramsey Naja

ihaveanidea: How are you guys doing your bit to embrace new technologies and making the move from more traditional mediums in the region?

Ramsey: The interesting thing is that many of the markets jumped from the first screen to the third screen. From TV straight to Mobile with very little time spent on the computer. It’s quite something because there is so much content being sent through mobile in many of the countries that we’re having to adjust to what consumers are doing.

Digital production is quite slow here though. It was accelerating in Dubai but the crash hit it. To be honest, for the best work in terms of production we still go outside. So we deal a lot with production companies in Sweden or in the UK. It’s just like in the past when TV production was quite weak; we used to do all our production abroad, but now we’ve developed some excellent production skills. So I think the same thing will apply with digital soon enough.

duamnestyintlmenacristalgrandprixprintcristalgoldlynxprint Ramsey Naja

ihaveanidea: You’ve been in the industry for a long time so you’ve witnessed the boom in the region. How it went, almost overnight, from being totally ignored to being this international hub where all international companies need to be. What do you think prompted that phenomenon?

Ramsey: Money. (laughs)

ihaveanidea: Do you think the region can sustain its fast growing rate? Is it more likely to settle down or to leapfrog everyone else?

Ramsey: I think there’s still a lot in the tank for this region. The population in the majority of the Middle East and North Africa is very young. The average age is very low so you get people who are pushing in now as opposed to aging regions like Europe for instance. There is basically a need to grow to sustain these people. There’s also still a lot of work to be done to get modern infrastructures everywhere, so I think we will see a lot of growth still.

Also because there’s still quite a bit of money to be honest. Not only because of all the oil and stuff, but also because over the past few years the governments have put some pretty big developing funds in other areas.

The Middle East is a happening place. It’s got its rich places; it’s got its sexy places and its cosmopolitan places. So I think it’s catching up rather quickly and looking much better than it used to. In the past, if you came from anywhere in the Middle East people would assume you slept in tents and went to work on a camel. It’s not so much the case anymore.

The instability of the country is a great motivator in a very strange way because everybody lives for the day.

ihaveanidea: You and your partner Roy Haddad have been heading JWT in the region for a long time. What are the things that have made you proud in your tenure?

Ramsey: I’ve been working with Roy for 15 years and we’re really close. Each of us has his own agenda, but we have the same ambition for the agency. He looks after the business side, I look after the creative side and we come together on the common strategy. It’s a really nice partnership.

We’re pretty proud of having made the network work so well together. I’ve not seen the one office with long corridors thing work as well anywhere else. The extent of modernization we have done to the agency in the last few years is also impressive. From being relatively distant partners, to how much closer to JWT we’ve become and how much we exchange with the global network now. We’re working very tightly with the JWT network – I am part of the worldwide creative council so I can see pretty closely what’s happening elsewhere. We’ve become such a natural part of JWT whereas before we were kind of the silent brother in the room.

We’re also bringing a modern culture into regions where it’s not too easy to do work. It’s a company we’re very proud of and we’ve become magnets for talents in the region, which is something to be even more proud of.

Interview by:

rafikcreditpic Ramsey Naja

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS
ihaveanidea

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZQIEIGU3BNMUICUDFUFOOTODB4 nishad

    nice interview. good

  • Anonymous

    Yes thumbs up! Ramsey boldly goes straight to the heart of matters to share a few precious golden nuggets from his amazingly inspiring journey through the advertising landscape in the Middle East!

  • Anonymous

    Thumbs up! Ramsey boldly goes straight to the heart of matters to share a few precious golden nuggets from his amazingly inspiring journey through the advertising landscape in the Middle East!

  • Anonymous

    Wow. This Ramsey is such a smart guy. I know very little about the Middle East and reading the story of one person, especially a person in my business, really adds something to my understanding of his world. Intereting how he notes that the area really is tough on women. Ramsey, if you are easing this, thanks for the cool interview. My question is: are women able to work in advertising there? is it a viable career for them, or are powerful women in advertising rare? Again, thanks for the cool interview. Luke sullivan. Heywhipple.com

  • http://twitter.com/GutoMonteiro Augusto Monteiro

    I just became more curious about this place. Nice subject, nice interview.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1505651564 Ramsey Naja

    Luke Sullivan! Good God. I read Whipple about 11 years ago and thought it was one of the most shoot-from-the-hip, cheer-me-up, say-it-as-it-is books on advertising. Thanks for the comment, Luke, I am flattered. It does trouble me a little, though – and i say this with all all the respect due to someone who I consider to be a beacon in our industry – it does trouble me that you don’t seem to have looked beyond the sad stereotype that my region falls under (perhaps justifiably). The fact is, there are women in senior positions in all advertising fields and across all agencies in the region, something that really should not come as a surprise. Admittedly, women do struggle for their rights in this region, and the fact that our industry is somehow shielded from this, high as it is in its business ivory tower, should not deny that fact. But women get a bad deal almost everywhere, and if there are exceptions in the world today, they are frankly recent. I make no apologies for the fact that the region in which I operate is just shit when it comes to not just women’s rights but human rights as a whole, but it really shouldn’t be looked at from a holier-than-though perspective. Nevertheless, I admit I am biased, so, Luke, may I invite you for a visit? I will happily bow to your opinions thereafter. It’s an official invitation, by the way! Ramsey.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1505651564 Ramsey Naja

    muchas gracias augusto. anything you want to know about the place to feed your curiosity, just ask.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Ramsey: Thanks for your long thoughtful answer. And PLEASE take no
    offense. I certainly didn’t mean to come across with a “Holier than thou”
    attitude. If I did, please forgive.

  • http://twitter.com/sea_bin Sea Bin

    Ramsey, we all know that you can’t get along with everybody in advertising. And for every ‘smart guy’ in the industry, there’s probably 10 or so that have been disenchanted by their ‘intellect’. That said, I find it almost insufferable that you constantly told your overseas creatives to ‘F— OFF!’ (you remember that awards night when you kept walking by and yelling ‘f— off’ don’t you Ramsey?) and then actually use the work that they did as examples of your own right here in this piece. What a smart guy and what a role model for the Lebanese.

  • http://twitter.com/RafikB Rafik OOOO

    Hey there – You’ve clearly got some personal issues issues with Ramsey that I won’t be commenting on. However, what I have to say is that when he sent me the work, he clearly specified those were pieces from JWT in the region that he was proud of. I should’ve indicated it, my mistake, and hope the creatives involved haven’t taken offense.

    Rafik

  • http://twitter.com/RafikB Rafik OOOO

    Hey there – You’ve clearly got some personal issues issues with Ramsey that I won’t be commenting on. However, what I have to say is that when he sent me the work, he clearly specified those were pieces from JWT in the region that he was proud of. I should’ve indicated it, my mistake, and hope the creatives involved haven’t taken offense.

    Rafik

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1505651564 Ramsey Naja

    Now wouldn’t it be odd that I would tell my overseas creatives to f – off when much of the work on display is actually from them. The specific incident you mention would be accurate if it weren’t put out of context – that of euphoria (and I did it explain it afterward if you jog your memory a little). For the record, I am immensely proud of the work and no, I never claimed the ideas to be mine – I wish they were. I never even put my name down on award entries as CCO when I could have done it legitimately. But I do take personal pride from the fact that an agency that had never claimed any metal in the region became its most awarded soon after I took over its creative department, and that I have hired and worked with people who are better than me.

  • Anonymous

    this guy is just a cheater, nothing to do in this business

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