With creativity like this, you can be sure Lebanon's got talent

Lebanon being Lebanon, the Lebanese have to be creative to get things done.

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My friend Barry Brand has been at it again. The head of art at M&C Saatchi for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) two weeks ago organised a three-day workshop in Beirut for the Creative Social, a network made up of 200 of the world brainiest advertising people.

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"Thirty five of the world's finest creatives, all of whom had never been here, now have a totally different view of Lebanon," says Mr Brand, who was inspired to host the event after attending a similar event in Canada this year. "I came back and thought 'well why not Beirut?' I pitched the idea to Eli [Khoury, the owner of M&C Saatchi Mena] and the management team and they went for it. They had the vision to see the value of the idea."

The Creative Social - motto "Leave your ego at the door" - meets in a different city twice a year to take regular health checks of its industry. Normally, it would have been a closed-door session but Mr Brand wanted interaction. "I wanted to share some of the inspiration I experienced in Montreal with the industry and its students here in Beirut," he says. "After all, the Creative Social is all about collaboration."

Having lived in Beirut for just over three years, Mr Brand is also passionate about nurturing home-grown creative talent. His argument is that, Lebanon being Lebanon, the Lebanese have to be creative to get things done.

"There's a lot of energy; a lot of creative goodwill if you like," he says. "I want Beirut to benefit from the Creative Social's spirit, and in turn I wanted the Creative Social to be seduced by Beirut."

To Mr Brand, the benefits from the three days, which included a seminar at the American University of Beirut's school of entrepreneurship, are obvious. "There will certainly be more ad industry collaboration, not to mention genuine business opportunities," he says.

"For the Lebanese, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen to the best in the business and be reminded of the energy and vibrancy that is out there. Furthermore, it was valuable because even though these people are well travelled, their impression of Lebanon and its potential was skewed by the negative images we have to continuously fight against."

Among the attendees was Graham Fink, the chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather in China, where the agency has 142 offices and where there are 130 cities with more than 1 million people (compared with 15 in the US). Mr Fink was once fired for throwing a TV out of a window when someone interfered with his creative process.

"He's calmed down a bit now," says Mr Brand, who lauds Mr Fink as a man who has dared to get it wrong. I ask Mr Brand if he could have been as successful had he left his ego at the door. He laughs. "Good point. In many ways that is what taking creativity to the next level is all about. If you can't take risks, you will never push back the boundaries."

Is playing it safe a particularly Lebanese condition?

"Not really. You find it in all countries. Lebanon is no better or no worse than many in this respect," he says.

"That said, we invited our top clients such as [the bank] BLF and [the mobile phone operator] MTC Touch along so they could get an idea of what it's like on the creative side of the fence."

Also dispensing pearls of creative wisdom was Kyle MacDonald, the founder of One Red Paperclip, a young man who, freeing his mind from the usual boundaries of constraint, bartered his way from a single red paperclip to a house in a series of online trades over the course of a year.

Then there was Mark Chalmers, one of the Creative Social's founders and a creative partner at Perfect Fools. Mr Chalmers' most recent claim to creative fame was to make a canvas robotic shoe screen for the leisure brand Converse by using red, white and blue hi-tops as pixels. The screens were then installed in Converse flagship stores across Europe, where there was soon a 50 per cent increase in sales as a result.

The Lebanese also played their part: Roger Moukarzel, a photographer, gave a talk on war photography and art; Mazen Hajjar spoke about the challenges in setting up and selling beer from 961, the region's first microbrewery; Kamal Mouzawak was passionate about championing local food; and Bernard Khoury equally enthused about architecture. Mr Brand even managed to round up Michel Elefteriades, the impresario, composer and self-styled Emperor of Nowhereistan, a concept nation "dedicated to justice, liberation and equality".

Did Mr Brand consider the irony of bringing the Creative Social to Lebanon at a time when the country was experiencing political and economic stagnation and a government on the brink of collapse?

"I'll answer that my own way," he says. "I asked Jackson Allers, the blogger, to tell the guys how he arranged for a Palestinian rap group in the camps to get hold of a generator so that they could run their recording studio. He was midway through his presentation and the power went.

"So I guess that was a reminder that we in Lebanon may be progressive, but there are still obstacles.

"But then again that's what's feeding at least part of the creativity," Mr Brand says.

A Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut

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