Haress Chehab, creative director at Intermarkets, discussed with Arab Ad in Dubai his background, his special affection for advertising and the challenges of his career in the following interview:
AA: Haress Chehab, could you tell us something about your background?
HC: I began my work in Lebanon in the early 1970s as a journalist with a now-defunct newspaper called As Safa. I was a free-lance reporter and photographer. I then returned to university. It was a long road in and out of university, trying to figure out where I wanted to reach eventually.
I settled in the University of Southern California where I acquired a Bachelors degree in Chemistry and Biology. I spent two years in medical school, got fed up with the medical profession and studied a bit of geology.
I also studied international relations, strategic and defence studies. I came back to Lebanon in 1982 and pursued my love of the audio-visual. I joined RSCG Strategies as copywriter and creative director for Lebanon and later regional creative director for the Middle East.
I founded Dark Star in Lebanon which was an advertising agency (1985-1989) but Lebanon at the time was sinking into economic anarchy and, with the lack of international backup of a multi-national network, there was not much we could do and the agency was closed down.
I founded with partners a film production company with offices in Cyprus (Kalabash Productions) and Paris (TDFC-The Directors Film Company).
Meanwhile, I got an offer from Leo Burnett to join as creative director in the lower Gulf. In 1992 I shut down Kalabash, sold my shares in TDFC and joined Leo Burnett in Dubai.
In 1994 the question of my transfer to Cairo as creative director was brought up but I could not leave Dubai for personal reasons and it was with mutual regret that we parted company. I received an offer from Intermarkets to be senior creative director based in Dubai. I took it up and I’ve been with Intermarkets ever since.
AA: You engaged in various types of studies along the way. How is it that you ended up in advertising?
HC: Being born into a politically-oriented family I was into the political world in general. My father ran for the presidency and was ambassador. There was the family pressure typical in Lebanese circles the, so-called “safety issues” such as Medicine, Engineering or Law. I proved that I could do it but then one day I thought stop. Enough. This is my life.
AA: You’ve been in the business for 15 years now?
HC: Basically yes. It was 1982 when I’d already started doing freelance projects left, right and centre. It has now been 15 years.
AA: Do you regret any of the pressures, long hours, deadlines?
HC: I don’t think we should regret anything whatsoever in life. No I don’t have any regrets. I would have regrets if I hadn’t learnt from the lessons of the past. Yes, there were very long hours that I possibly might have been able to use more effectively in another market but at that point I wasn’t in another market so I don’t think I should regret it. What we have to look at are the challenges for tomorrow.
AA: Do you regret not being able to take up Leo Burnett’s offer in Cairo?
HC: I think the question is always difficult to assess. They are two different environments. Each company has its own culture. Leo Burnett is multinational but has successfully adapted to the Middle East to bring a very specific flavour, a difference which is very interesting and challenging.
AA: Did you have a role in bringing about this difference?
HC: As much as we all did. We were 3-4 creative directors throughout the Middle East and we always felt we were involved. Each decision that affected whatever happened in the Middle East involved us all so to a certain extent we all felt part of one very coherent, very integrated network. We knew where we were going and why we were going in that particular direction.
There are always happy episodes in the past but we always look towards the future.
The situation at Intermarkets is just as interesting. It’s a new chapter in my life. At the end of the day, each company has its own merits and I think I have had scope to learn at Intermarkets as I have in Leo Burnett. So do I regret the change? No, I am learning. If I had stopped learning I would have regretted the change or instead of regretting it I would have looked for something else.
AA: Did your experience at Leo Burnett help you see things differently at Intermarkets?
HC: Both Leo Burnett and Intermarkets have their own specific cultures and I think that we as individuals do not come to re-invent in any particular company we join. Either we agree with the culture or we don’t. I think that Intermarkets has a very, very interesting culture. This is an agency that has been around since 1961 which means that it must have a pretty open mind about the world and the future in general or else it would have disappeared. I think the present shows it is very vibrant and is moving significantly into expansion.
AA: How much do you contribute, if at all, to the work of other offices in the network? How much do they depend on you?
HC: I don’t know if it’s me personally as much as the office in Dubai. Dubai is a very important office for Intermarkets. It is a very decentralised network so all the offices help each other quite a lot. There’s a lot of synergy going on. We, in Dubai, never feel alone and I believe Jeddah, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Amman never feel alone either. The “esprit” at Intermarkets is very open in that respect. It’s a cross-flow of various influences and this helps us have a much more cohesive and coherent view of the Middle East. What emerges is a global view.
AA: Which of the challenges is the most remarkable you have worked on either at Leo Burnett or Intermarkets?
HC: I wouldn’t say a particular challenge in any particular situation because any situation is a challenge. At the end of the day, every new brief is a challenge whether at Leo Burnett or Intermarkets. I think the situation in itself is dynamic and the challenge is taking absolutely nothing for granted; keeping an open mind about the situation. I think this is what creativity is all about. It’s essentially perceiving the situation and responding to it.
AA: I want to ask about the Rothmans account and the fact that Intermarkets won it when many other agencies were bidding. How much of this achievement was through the creative presentation?
HC: I think it has a lot to do with what we put together on that presentation, if not everything. I think creative is the spirit in which Intermarkets approached the actual task because that is the spirit that permeated the recommendations of Intermarkets to Rothmans.
AA: How much of what you brought are they now considering applying?
HC: Often, on a pitch you expect to present something and then once the selection of the agency is done it’s all thrown into a dustbin and you just simply start all over again. In that respect, everything we suggested was adopted. There is an attitude within Intermarkets that the brands are entrusted to us more than anything else. The brands literally become a part of us. There is an emotional bond that is created between the members of a team and the brands that they tackle. We live the brand. As a result, whatever we come up with is, we hope, the best solution for the brand.
AA: At the IAA awards last year, you won for Nissan. Were you expecting to be awarded for other work you entered?
HC: As a rule you always enter because you believe in your work and therefore you obviously expect every singly entry to do well. There was a lot of good work at the IAA awards. As a result, we got an award and others got awards as well. It doesn’t mean our work was bad, it simply means that everywhere there was good work.
AA: Were you satisfied with the material you saw?
HC: My personal view is that the level that was demonstrated was of a very high standard. I think we can’t afford to be parochial. If we are to be true professionals we must be able to be satisfied with being just contributors to the level of the industry. So if the level is extremely high I think that it is a matter of satisfaction for all of us. It’s something that we all should be proud of.
AA: In line with the same spirit the IAA is planning to host awards for below-the-line advertising. What’s your opinion on these awards and what are the criteria that you can think of?
HC: I think that below-the-line awards are an absolute necessity. It’s about time somebody took a view that it’s an important activity and it is doing a lot of work for the brand and therefore it deserves full recognition. I think a good criterion of judgement would be not just does it shine in absolute terms but how much extra mileage does it give the brand.
The big criterion is, was it just an isolated brilliant exercise, that piece of work, or is it actually working in synergy and giving extra equity to the brand? Because if it is radically different from above-the-line then we’re talking about two different brands. We can’t just talk of a piece of work below-the-line in total abstraction of its surroundings.
AA: We have all become computer slaves, more or less, in the creative business more than anything else. How do you deal with this?
HC: I think we have to look at the computer as a means rather than as an end. It is simply an extra tool to do the work. It is there essentially to communicate, to speed up work, to communicate between the departments inside the agencies as well as with the outside world. But beyond that, I would try to keep the computer exactly where it belongs which is on the desktop and not let it invade our lives.
AA: There are traditions all around us, particularly in this part of the world. How much do they restrict you in your work?
HC: The global village really is a series of neighbourhoods which are communicating and each little neighbourhood has its own particular traditions, way of life and even way of thinking, so if I intend to sell my products and ideas to that particular neighbourhood then I am committing suicide. If I talk without trying to figure out how I’m being heard I don’t see these traditions as restrictions. The do’s and don’ts are not so much a restriction as a challenge to one’s own intelligence. The challenge is to learn to talk the other person’s language and I think that is where the challenge really lies. We either can communicate and therefore we belong in the business or we like to listen to our own speech and therefore we don’t belong to the business.
AA: There is a need to discover new talents in this region. There are many youngsters graduating but where is creativity? Do you think there is a chance of seeing people from the Gulf countries entering this industry?
HC: Yes. Why is it that the Lebanese rose so prominently in the industry? It it means that they got a head-start. We are encouraging the spread of what I want to call the communication craft. We want it to happen and I believe that, when they’re ready, it will happen. The communications industry is very young in this part of the world.
It’s been around for a century but in this part of the world, in practical terms, it’s been around for five years, ten years maximum. So we’re not even talking one generation. Today’s professionals in the GCC are intent on attending every single seminar that takes place on the communications industry. That’s step one. Step two is getting far more involved. It’s just a matter of time. The talent is there, there is no doubt about it.
AA: Is enough being done to attract this new generation of youngsters?
HC: I think that we as professionals, and through the organisations that already exist such as the IAA, should make a much more conscious effort to go to the universities and, first through seminars and then through courses, open the window on this particular aspect of our profession. People don’t know it exists.
AA: If you were asked to contribute by giving lectures or seminars would you be prepared to do so?
HC: As prepared as I always was. I started giving seminars on advertising as far back as 1986. I think it is a duty, an obligation for all of us to go out there and talk about what we know best. We have to sell a profession and that profession is called advertising. We believe in what we do and therefore we have to share it.
AA: Where does Haress Chehab see himself ten years from now?
HC: I haven’t really made up my mind yet.
I have lots of things I’d like to do like isolate myself on an island and write books just for my own pleasure, for instance.
It’s what you call the pursuit of happiness. As long as I can every now and then watch an absolutely gorgeous sunset and share a moment with my wife I think that’s the definition of pure bliss.
If you’re asking me about my place in the industry, who knows, you might just as well ask me what the industry will be like tomorrow.
Will the industry still be around? I think every day brings change and therefore I look forward to change and one has to be ready to meet the challenge of change. I definitely don’t want to go back to my newspaper and slippers.