Face-to-face with Face to Face

They are Campaign’s ad agency of the year, but what makes them tick? Steve Wrelton spent a day with Dubai’s Face to Face

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By  Steve Wrelton Published  April 9, 2006

Face to face with face to face|~|FACE-TO-FACE200.jpg|~|Face to Face.. working together|~|“It’s my son’s goldfish,” says Chris Bell, dropping in a few flakes of fish food. “He’s called Goldie. There was another one, Elvis, but he died.” It is 9.30am in the offices of Campaign’s advertising agency of the year, Face to Face. Decorated in yellow and purple, the office of client servicing director Chris Bell is bright and airy. It’s also filled with toys. There are model airplanes, a Homer Simpson doll, a ‘Mini-Me’ from the Austin Powers movies (which has more than a passing resemblance to Bell), a Dalek from Dr Who, and Spongebob Squarepants. On the side of the shelves is a piece of paper with a picture of David Brent from the BBC comedy, The Office. The paper has some ‘office wisdom’ on it. One of the insights reads: “Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue.” Coffees arrive, presented by Face to Face’s ‘executive tea and coffee maker’, Prabeesh. For an agency buzzing with new business, the atmosphere is surprisingly calm. According to Bell, a dapper 38-year-old dressed in a smart suit, pink shirt and thick-rimmed glasses: “A stressed out office might be glamorous, but it sure ain’t productive.” The office starts to fill up and the agency’s two creative directors Ralph Roden and Bryan Eustace arrive. They are talking over the office’s ‘One to ten Score Book’. The book is, as its name suggests, a compendium of scores for quite literally anything, from people, to cars, countries and drinks. “When you start scoring things it’s really funny how they can compare,” says Roden who is dressed all in white. “Guinness, for example, is better than America. Campaign did very well because we scored it after the awards. Campaign got 8,8,9,9 — that’s higher than Guinness.” The book also scores people. “But it wouldn’t be fair for us to release those details,” adds Roden. “Except to say that I’m more brilliant than him,” says Eustace. We leave Eustace and Roden’s shared office and meet some of the team, including the creative group head, Sanjay Thapar. “It’s a very nice place to work,” says Thapar, who appears slightly uncomfortable talking to a journalist. “The best thing is you get to do something different every day. The worst thing is the late nights.” There is a table football game in the middle of the room and several bottles of Barbican — the non-alcoholic malt drink that the agency advertises — can be seen lying around. But do they actually drink the stuff? “No, not really,” admits one of the creative team with a grin. Over on reception is the agency’s 22-year-old Palestinian-born receptionist, Rana Breitem. She’s only been in the job for three weeks and has ambitions beyond the front desk. “It’s not bad. The people here are very friendly. I answer the phones, check e-mails, make sure that everything is okay at the reception. I think in the future I’d like to open up a make-up label because I love fashion.” Back in the main office is Iain Stewart, a 27-year-old computer buff. “I was hired as a programmer, but generally I do anything with the web or that uses multimedia,” he says. “I don’t know what my job title is, to be honest. You’d have to ask one of the directors what they want to call me.” Stewart says that he enjoys the working environment of the agency. “It’s the way that when you might have really stressful moments and then someone will just break the tension by saying something like, ‘why don’t we try the logo that way?’ or ‘how about if we make it pink?’ — you might not realise that they’re winding you up and it helps to break the tension. There’s a good level of humour.” At 11am the agency gets a visit from some marketing representatives from Time Out, which is published by ITP, the parent company of Campaign. A discussion is underway about the look of some ads the agency has produced for the Time Out Awards. The ads are meant to illustrate the extent to which restaurants will go to create outstanding food. They show catering staff nursing injuries such as broken arms or burns. One, however, shows a woman crying and there is concern that she looks as if she has been hit in the face — too sensitive, it seems. It is agreed that the ad will be retouched so that the woman’s red make-up is toned down. After the Time Out people have gone, attention naturally turns to the table football game in the middle of the room. Roden claims: “That is one of the most valuable things in the office because it really gets you going. I can’t tell you how important that table is. Just having some sort of release is so valuable because it does get stressful and tense at times.” From football it’s back into Roden’s office for another game — Buzz — on the Playstation 2. The game is a test of players’ knowledge of pop-music trivia and it’s clear that Roden is a pro. “It’s brilliant,” he says, “It’ll make you buy a Playstation on its own.” Do these guys do any work? At midday Eustace and Bell have a conference call with an associate in Saudi Arabia to discuss how best to ‘progress potential business’ in the Kingdom. “That’s enough to make us sound like we’re on the case without giving too much away,” says Eustace with a wry smile. The call seems to go fairly well, although it’s not quite clear what’s been agreed, other than to have another conversation about the ‘issues’ in a few days’ time. Mark Sykes, founder and managing partner, walks in. Sykes, originally from Coventry in the UK, is wearing jeans, a multi-coloured dotted shirt and brown leather sandals. He sits down at his desk and starts to talk about some good news from a recent trip to Sao Paolo, Brazil. He and Bell were in the country to meet representatives from a holding company that is looking to expand its range of FMCG goods into the Middle East market. Sykes is clearly excited about the prospect of bringing the brands over, so much so that he makes comparisons to JWT meeting Unilever 70 years ago. “They heard about us through our sponsor,” he says, “We’re really excited about this because we’re talking about some pretty major brands over there and it looks like we’re going to get first bite of the cherry.” Next, there’s a meeting scheduled north of Jumeirah. There is a selection of sports cars parked in Face to Face spaces, one of which is a canary yellow Ferrari. We get into a grey Mercedes saloon instead, one that Bell has borrowed from his girlfriend — who, incidentally, happens to be an international fashion model. “The Ferrari belongs to Mark,” says Bell. During the trip he discusses the agency’s triumph at the Campaign awards. Did they win because other agencies didn’t put in their best work? Was it true that the winning agency was a good agency, rather than a great one? “If you get to the Olympic final, you win the race and the other runners say, ‘oh, if I’d practised a bit more then I would have won,’ you just think, well, ‘yes’, maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t,” says Bell, who admits that winning the award has put the agency under increased pressure to perform. “All I know is that we approached the awards professionally and we won the race. What we did is a good indication of the fact that we’re a professional agency. If other people don’t want to do the same, then they shouldn’t be winning awards.” He adds: “I think we’re a very good agency — but we’ve not fulfilled our potential and I think we can be better than we are. It would be foolish to say we’re a great agency but we want to set our standards so that we can be the best we can possibly be.” As we continue down Sheikh Zayed Road Bell talks about the ‘planning target’ — a document that illustrates all aspects of a brand and which is meant to help deliver the best communication possible. “It’s about what sets a brand apart, about its core DNA,” says Bell. “Wecan get to a situation where the client might think that it’s a waste of time — perhaps it reveals that some of them have different ideas about the brand — but what it helps to do is to align everybody’s views. The planning target is the foundation, the base, an anchor for everything we do.” At 1.30pm we arrive at our destination for a meeting with some property developers — an agreement to protect client confidentiality means we cannot say who — about a new luxury apartment block that the agency is working on a campaign for. The main topic up for discussion is to debate the design of the building’s promotional images, which the company does not feel are pronounced enough to capture people’s attention. The campaign utilises a picture of a key, the teeth of which have been morphed into the form of a wave to illustrate the beach side location. A selection of designs is passed round, which feature more or less exaggerated versions of the same image. The developers clearly like the more accentuated one, but Roden and Bell feel that they’re wrong and speak up to make their point. “There is nothing easier than for an agency to agree with its client,” says Bell. Roden adds: “From our perspective, this (holding up the poster) is contrived. It’s trying too hard — we feel that the less contrived it is, the more fitting it will be for the product.” A compromise version is agreed upon, which is more obvious than the first choice but which doesn’t go over the top. They move on to discuss ideas for the building’s radio ad, into which Roden wants to incorporate ‘ambient’ and ‘meditative’ sound effects. Roden gives some examples of how he expects the ‘copy-light’ ad to sound and the clients seem to be happy. “Yeah, it’s cool, I like it,” says one of them. “I think the listeners will really tune into this.” Roden adds: “I think the execution will help us to sound really different. It’ll certainly provide some relief from all of the other crap that’s on the radio.” It’s time for a late lunch in the nearby hotel’s restaurant and in between quick mouthfuls of pan-fried kingfish and salad, a conversation on the benefits of yoga gets underway. “Oh, it’s brilliant,” says Roden. “I’ve lost seven kilos since December. You’ve got to come along Chris.” We leave the restaurant and jump into Ralph’s navy-blue Porsche. There is a meeting scheduled with a prospective client at Emirates Towers. It’s time for the delicate question of imitation in advertising and whether Face to Face is guilty of ripping off ideas. The agency has been criticised for its use of cartoon characters for its Air Arabia work that are in the same style as the US series South Park. “I wouldn’t dispute in the slightest that it’s very similar in style and appearance to South Park,” says Roden. “A lot of people want to beat the shit out of us, but the fact was that it was a really successful ad that ticked all the boxes. We weren’t trying to tap into any of the equity that South Park has, we were looking for a contemporary, simple and uncomplicated medium to use that reflected the uncomplicated brand — which is what Air Arabia is.” Okay, but what about the ads for the BenQ P50, the handheld computer that helps you to “work smarter, not harder”? Wasn’t that copy the slogan of British Telecom in the UK once? Roden says: “When we decided to go with that I really wasn’t aware of the BT stuff at all. When you put that line down you don’t seriously believe that no one has ever written those words before — it’s more about tapping into an existing phrase which already exists in society. “Thanks for running that in The Spin, by the way — it helped us to complete our integrated campaign with a very particular target audience.” It’s 4pm and two representatives from a European technology firm arrive for their meeting with Bell and Roden. They have plans to launch a new ‘smartphone’ in to the Middle East market and want an agency to partner them in the region. “We really liked what you did for BenQ,” says the man. “What we need is a partner who can work with us here — we need specialist guys. We also want to cause a storm — we want the campaign to be a slap in the face.” Back in the office Bell sits down at his PC and sighs. “Four hundred and thirty-four e-mails, it’s crazy.” He hasn’t managed to purge his inbox for two days and the messages are building up. He picks up the Mini-me doll from the shelf. “I was going to get him a little pin-stripe suit made,” says Bell with a smile. “I haven’t had my head shaved for a while, so he doesn’t look like me at the moment.” Leaving Bell to read his e-mails, Eustace and Roden are warming up for a brainstorming session for Barbican. The agency has been charged with coming up with some specific communications for a variety of the drink which isn’t performing as well as other flavours in the range. The key to the campaign, says Eustace, is that they must stay faithful to the persona of the brand and it’s appeal to young men, while also getting across the fact that the drink comes in peach flavour. Eustace says: “There’s something quite effeminate about peach.” “What, and you think raspberry is masculine?” asks Roden. They are agreed that whatever they do, they must continue to use communications that ‘talk’ to the consumer and scribble down some ideas on to large white pads, with fat, black marker pens. “Don’t forget the peach”, “Bring me home some peach,” are some of the slogan ideas mooted. Then Roden says: “I love the idea of some of the other flavour packs having messages on them like ‘Get me a peach’ — that would be great.” The idea of peppering retail stores with the trademark Polaroid photographs is also suggested. “We could put them on cars and all over the stores,” adds Eustace. “We could put something in the fruit section as well,” says Mohammed Barazi, senior art director. “It could say something like, ‘How about peach in a bottle?’” “Great idea,” says Roden, “That’s cool.” With that, it’s about 7pm and the meeting is brought to a close. “Right, so I guess it’s off to the yacht’s now, then?” says Eustace. Roden adds: “Yeah, but we can’t go yet, the Champagne delivery boy hasn’t been yet.”||**||Face to face with face to face|~|Bell,-Christopher200.jpg|~|Chris Bell|~|Chris Bell, 38, managing partner, director of client servicing Bell has 16 years’ industry experience, ten of which have been spent in the Middle East. He has worked with McCann-Erickson in London and JWT in London and Dubai. “What does the job entail? Oh God…well, basically you are the client’s representative at the agency and the agency’s representative to the client. The buck stops with you. People think that the business is all glamour, that it’s all gin and tonics and Armani suits — that’s the impression that I first had, but it ain’t. “Why do I do it? Well, trying not to sound cheesy, I have to say that I have always just loved advertising. Even as a kid I can remember at football matches that there were only ads down one side of the pitch because of the cameras.”||**||Face to face with face to face|~|Roden,-Ralph200.jpg|~|Ralph Roden|~|Ralph Roden, 36, managing partner, joint creative director Roden has worked in advertising for 17 years, with eight years in the Middle East. He has worked for JWT, Ogilvy One and Saatchi & Saatchi in London, Dublin and Dubai. “There are three prongs to what I do. The first is to work with Chris, prior to doing any creative work, developing the more strategic aspects of the communication. After that, Chris will go and create a brief and it’s then on to conceptualising ideas and so I’ll go and work with Bryan, which could be anything from a TVC, creating an internet banner, label design, packaging, anything. It’s incredibly stimulating. It really taxes your mind. It’s like solving a massive puzzle. It’s also really rewarding when you do it well, especially when products are sold and awards are won.”||**||Face to face with face to face|~|bjorn200.jpg|~|Mark Sykes|~|Mark Sykes, 43, managing partner and co-founder Started his career in England with BMW and British Nuclear Fuels. Moved to the Middle East 16 years ago when he joined Gray Associates as assistant creative director. “My day-to-day job role tends to be defined by whatever’s required at the time. I suppose my role now is to look after the financial side of the business. I develop the financial plans and try to make sure that we’re on target. I’m the number cruncher — but I also do work on picking up new business leads as well. And now, thank goodness, I’m able to say that I’ve managed to pick up the creative gauntlet again. I think that I’ve become what I believe to be a fairly well-rounded person in business because I’ve had the chance to have a go at everything.”||**||Face to face with face to face|~|Bryan-Eustace200.jpg|~|Bryan Eustace|~|Bryan Eustace, 48, managing partner and joint creative director, Eustace has 25 years’ advertising experience, seven in the Middle East. He has extensive knowledge of the food industry from his work with Rank Hovis McDougall in Ireland. “Ralph and I work together and we’re a very close-knit team. Any of the big clients, we tend to work together on them. We rely on each other very much when we’re dealing with things at a very high level, but once the ball is rolling then we’ll decide who’s going to take it from there. For me, the reason I love it is because it’s an artistic outlet — I happen to draw and paint, so that’s great. I get bored very easily. There’s nothing more satisfying than coming up with a great idea — it’s amazing. To have a new idea, a new thought, that’s when you really get a buzz.”||**||

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