TBWA\Raad’s new chief creative officer, Walid Kanaan, talks to Iain Akerman about creative leadership, gifts, and the rebirth of the agency
It’s taken a while for Walid Kanaan to talk, but finally he’s opening up.
Previously chief creative officer at Impact BBDO across the Levant and Saudi Arabia, Kanaan took on the role of chief creative officer at TBWA\Raad in September last year, charged with injecting new life into the agency’s creative output. It has been no small challenge.
Tall and welcoming and blessed with clarity of thought, we meet at TBWA\Raad’s headquarters in Emaar Square – amongst the best designed of any agency in Dubai – and there is an atmosphere of busy determination, belying any talk of recession. Not one desk or chair appears to be empty.
Before Kanaan joined TBWA\Raad the agency had all but vanished from the radar. Even now it is mysteriously absent from award show podiums and the pages of the industry press. It has, or had, become a creative ghost, something that Kanaan is keen to rectify. It was also the primary reason for his appointment last September.
“There was a clear necessity for creative leadership and for a creative vision at TBWA,” says Kanaan. “I totally agree with you. The agency had a solid reputation, it had legacy, it had heritage, but I came at a time where my role and my position were needed, and I felt that through my first encounter with my colleagues here. Not only in Dubai, but across the network in Beirut and in Saudi Arabia and in other offices. They showed me a warm welcome but, not only that, they showed me a lot of excitement. It’s like they were waiting and when that leadership came onboard they changed.
“When chief creative officers join a new agency they tend to come with their own agenda. They bring their own people, they hire some big name stars from the market, shop around, and maybe change the old set-up. I didn’t do that. Because I saw value. I saw potential in the people here. And that potential was not properly explored.”
Since his appointment Kanaan has been busy establishing what he believes is the right set-up within the agency, implementing a creative approach based on discipline, introducing brand guardians, and empowering creative directors. An Italian creative team has also been recruited to work on the Bloomingdale’s account, which the agency won earlier this year, while the return of Fouad Abdel Malak as executive creative director will strengthen the agency further. Abdel Malak had previously worked at TBWA\Raad for eight years as a creative director from 2002 until 2010.
“At the same time I have brought with me the philosophy of ‘gifts’,” adds Kanaan.
“Gifts. I hate the word ‘proactive’. I don’t believe that proactive is a plus. Proactive is a given. When you work in advertising you have to be proactive all the time. But gifts are what we actually take to our clients as something they didn’t request. They didn’t ask for. They didn’t brief the agency to work on. So we come up with ideas and we go to clients and we tell them ‘today we have a gift for you. It’s something you didn’t ask for, something we are cooking, but it’s yours’. And, surprisingly, clients are not only excited by the gifts we bring them but they buy into those ideas and they decide to make the gift bigger and invest in it. This is a philosophy that I brought with me and it’s working so far. It’s working really well. It’s working on a business level but it’s also enriching our portfolio with great ideas.”
Amongst these ‘gifts’ has been Pril’s ‘One drop bottle’, which was endorsed by Henkel and expanded into other regional markets. Another is ‘Warning voice’ for Rymco/Nissan in Lebanon, which attracted more than 500,000 views on Facebook in less than a week.
“There is an energy here that goes against the current negative outlook,” adds Kanaan. “When we present our showreel we don’t start by saying ‘we are an advertising agency’. No. We do solutions for mobile, for social media, we do solutions for events and, by the way, we do advertising. That’s how the game is being played today.”
The arrival of Abdel Malak is designed to help rejuvenate TBWA\Raad’s creative product further, with Kanaan and Abdel Malak having worked together previously at Impact BBDO. Their reunion will not only relieve Kanaan of some of his workload, freeing him to focus more on the network as a whole, but also brings together two creatives who are in sync with one another.
“I needed someone to lead the office on a daily basis from a creative perspective, someone who I trust, someone who I’ve worked with before, someone who I know can really be in total synergy and synchronisation with me,” says Kanaan. “Actually, I was telling everyone when I introduced Fouad that when I was at BBDO it was Fouad who seeded TBWA in my mind, and when Fouad left for India to set up his own business, it was me who seeded back advertising and TBWA in his mind.”
Are all the pieces of the jigsaw falling into place?
“Yes. My objective is to build the reputation of the agency,” he replies. “This is our asset. This is the asset of any advertising agency – reputation. Reputation comes through the work, it comes through performance in the award shows, and it comes through new business you win and your relationship with clients. We’ve had a very healthy track record recently with regards to new business wins. When it comes to award shows we’re not there yet. We didn’t enter the Lynx this year. I decided not to compromise just to enter for the sake of entering. But we’re on the right track creatively. We want to be competing with the best. We have the assets, we have the vision, and we have the will.”