Creativity in ads is where you find it, even if it's Albania

Beirut must fully exit the valley of the atrocious when it comes to advertising.

Billboards clutter the roads in Beirut.
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When I left university in England in the mid-1980s, advertising was the industry of choice for those who didn't want to develop coronary disease, duodenal ulcers or high blood pressure selling eurobonds. The blue chip advertising agencies Saatchi and Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the like, which took only one or two graduates every year, could take their pick of potential account managers from the Oxbridge crop. (The creatives who listened to the Smiths and New Order, and who wore black-framed glasses long before Tom Ford ordered us to, came to the sector via the altogether murkier art school path.)

Here in Lebanon, we like to think that we are the power behind the US$2.2 billion (Dh8.08bn) ad industry in the MENA region. In the GCC, where all the major Lebanese agencies have offices, we trade on our savvy, creativity and relative sophistication. When Antoine Choueiry, arguably the most powerful man in regional advertising, died in March of this year, he was given nothing short of a state funeral. LBC, the local TV station that benefitted most from his business genius, ran live coverage. Yes sir, in Lebanon we love our ad men.

But it was never always thus. In the late 1990s, I attended a lecture in Beirut given by a famed London creative. I can't remember the name and I can't remember the agency, but our man was in Beirut as part of a regional tour. He was straight out of central casting, every inch the Covent Garden neo-yuppie: 50-something, wearing the obligatory black-framed glasses; black Paul Smith suit and a white shirt with the top button done up and no tie. He sounded like Terence Stamp and was possessed of an ennui that suggested he had seen it all before.

He drawled on about which direction the Lebanese ad industry should be heading and hinted at the potential talent that lay hidden in Lebanon's multi-lingual, educated and liberal human capital. When it was time for questions, a well-meaning graduate trainee stood up and asked him what he thought of the creative quality of the ads being turned out in Lebanon. "Atrocious," he boomed. "Beyond the valley of the atrocious!" There was silence (not least because the reference to the 1970s cult Russ Meyer movie momentarily threw them). "They reminds me of ads produced in the Far East in the 1970s," he added.

He had, and to some extent still does, have a point. While a few, very few, of our agencies can be said to be genuinely on a par with the best, not only in the region but in some cases the world, the way in which we hawk some of our goods is truly beyond, if not the valley of the atrocious, then at least most people's comprehension. Billboards are my current beef. Tourists driving out of Beirut, especially those heading north, will be at once amazed and then saddened by the hundreds and hundreds of cheap hoardings that blitz our senses. Municipalities, which clearly have no interest in the aesthetic potential of the country's main artery, not to mention road safety, have somehow approved them. It is not enough that Jounieh, once a beautiful costal village, has now become a concrete jungle. To add insult to environmental injury, there is also row after row of gaudy signs hawking everything from cheap lingerie to fifth-rate cabaret artists. It is hard to believe that Lebanon has one of the lowest per capita ad spending (just under $30) in the region.

But enough of that. The World Cup is in its last week and my son and I have been glued to the Albanian channel, the only one of the 224 we receive that gives us English commentary on the matches. The ads we see at the half-time break give us an intriguing, if at times bizarre, insight into Albanian life. I must confess that I had been labouring under the shameful illusion that Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, was a bleak land still held back by decades of communism and where the most common form of transport was a horse and cart. It was, I imagined, Europe's North Korea.

But no, the Albanians are a jolly lot and drink, judging by the ads, a phenomenal amount of beer. Albania's national quaff, Tirana, is sold to us with two cheeky chaps on a beach with an ice bucket loaded with the stuff. Out of the sea strides Albania's equivalent of Haifa Wehbe (or is it Ursula Andress) and one man, clearly the cheekier of the two, grabs her attention by holding up his bottle of Tirana, suggestively peeling the wet label as she adjusts her bikini.

More in keeping with the football spirit is Korca, a beer whose agency has gone with a referee flipping the coin at the start of a match only to the reveal that it was never a coin after all but a Korca bottle top. Cunning, eh? Banks are big advertisers and Alpha Bank is keen to show us that not all Albanians are snaggled-toothed tractor drivers. Its TV ad shows an Albanian family with no obvious signs of malnutrition applying for a housing loan, while Tirana Bank has gone a bit bonkers with an ad that shows the start of a football match that is overrun by one team already parading the cup. I can't read the tag line but clearly Tirana Bank likes to sell itself as one step ahead. Our guru from London would no doubt groan.

Albania is poorer than Lebanon with a nominal GDP of $12.2bn compared with Lebanon's $37bn, but it is a member of NATO, so one mustn't be too smug. Still, it warmed my heart to read on Wikipedia that the country is "still of low interest for major foreign investors due to frequent power shortages, occasional lack of water supplies and ubiquitous illegal activities." I knew there was something about them I liked.

Michael Karam is a PR and media consultant based in Beirut