Jailbreaks, Red Bull and a fist full of instinct

JWT’s Ramsey Naja tells Richard Abbott that it’s high time the region’s creatives stopped dragging each other down.

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By  Richard Abbott Published  July 16, 2006

Jailbreaks, Red Bull and a fist full of instinct|~|naja200.jpg|~|Naja... ‘I want discoverers, explorers. They could be a total nerd, but I want people who can tell a good story|~|“So, what do you want to know?” asks a tired looking Ramsey Naja. JWT’s chief creative officer for the Middle East and North Africa is not looking chiefly, or especially creative today. He is slouched in a lounge chair at a Dubai hotel just around the corner from the airport, suffering from a “severe” night spent partying with his colleagues. The waiter delivers a Red Bull and vodka. Naja says he needs “to balance things out”. Minutes later, we’re off — and once Naja starts talking, no man or machine is going to stop him. It makes for an entertaining hour. Naja is the man who incurred the wrath of Kuwait-based creative Louai Alasfahani when he reviewed some of the country’s best work in Campaign, labeling it “boring” and “vomit inducing.” Alasfahani lashed back with a stinging letter, accusing Naja of a “cheap shot to undermine someone else’s creative work”. “Look, I am very critical,” says Naja, sitting forward, energy returning. “But I have a double personality. I blow hot and cold. I have an absolutely violently firey temper that goes out in a second, and I end up apologising to everybody.” He adds: “I hate to hurt people’s feelings.” But, as yet, he has yet to send any apologies to Kuwait, and he remains adamant that the work he saw was “dreadful”. Naja is based at JWT’s Beirut office, but spends most of his life traveling around the region to work on pitches and campaigns. He got involved in advertising by mistake. “But what a brilliant mistake it was,” he smiles. He spent 15 “interesting” years in the UK, graduating from the University of Hull (“which rhymes perfectly with dull”) with a masters degree in drama, before proceeding to do any and every job that had nothing to do with his chosen subject. During his decade and a half in the UK he was married, became a father and got divorced. Deciding he had spent too long away from his native Lebanon, he was about to pack his bags when he was contacted by ad agency Publigraphics. He stayed. After a subsequent spell with a financial advertising agency he arrived at TMI, the agency that JWT was to partner with in the Middle East. He handled the Ford Middle East account from London before returning to Beirut to work with JWT chairman and CEO Roy Haddad to create what became the ‘Levant creative hub’. The thinking behind this was that people work best when part of a flat structure rather than a pyramid of hierarchy. “We did a fabulous experiment,” explains Naja. “I thought ‘seniority is not determined by the number of people you control, because in a creative business that makes no sense at all’. “Henry Ford did not invent the advertising agency so why are we doing things in chain production? We started doing things in a more circular way. And that meant more empowerment for junior people. Looking at the pyramid from above. I am not the best creative at the agency. I just felt I could take people forward.” It was a crucial turning point. Nowadays, Naja is attempting to instill a new culture of competition. “I ask staff who their biggest competitor agency is. Lots of people said Leo. I don’t want to do that. I would like us to compete with JWT Barcelona and the rest of the world. I have to put the pursuit of awards first. You have got to develop that creative muscle.” Naja genuinely believes the Middle East can compete with the rest of the world when it comes to creativity. But he is highly critical of the cynicism that blights many people working here. “This year was a wonderful year for the Middle East, with some very worthy winners and some very worthy pieces on the [Cannes] shortlist. When Tonic won the first gold for the region last year we were all jealous. We all wanted to be there first. But I had to take my hat off to them,” he says. “What really bothered me was to hear people say something disparaging about winners from the region. When we have a great ad, people call it copycat. They start looking for a piece that appeared 10 years ago. “Some mutual support between agencies to lift the whole region would be welcome. We should help our people make their mark.” Naja cites an article by Dave Droga, the former worldwide creative director at Publicis, who used the metaphor of crabs in a fisherman’s bucket. When one tries to escape, the others, apparently, drag it back down. “This is our region all over. We don’t want others to succeed. We would rather that people don’t succeed so we look better,” says Naja. He puts some of the blame for this on the industry associations. “I don’t think the actual bodies do enough. The local IAAs — some do better than others but they don’t do as much as they should because they feel detached.” Within JWT, Naja is cultivating a spirit of togetherness. He is a big fan of the brainstorm and he is introducing a new concept to the agency called Jailbreak. “There is no such thing as a philosophy for tackling briefs. I prefer the old fashioned way of brainstorming. I brainstorm against myself. I’m a gemini, I do that very easily,” he says. Jailbreak is an out-of-office exercise that aims to put a group of creatives in the mindset of a prisoner who has just escaped to the outside world. Naja explains: “When a prisoner escapes from jail, something extraordinary happens. He becomes a sort of psychological maelstrom. He has a humungous feeling of exhilaration. The appreciation of everything is enormous. The senses are pushed to an extreme. A log becomes a means of transportation; mud becomes camouflage.” He claims that an “astonishing” amount of insight and work can be achieved in three days when you take creatives out of their normal working environment Naja is a man who acts on instinct — something that he carries through to recruiting writers and art directors. “Education is irrelevant,” he says. “Some people have a desire to change things. The ones that you don’t want are the ones that give you the classic answers and I think ‘maybe you are too organised to break the mould’. I want discoverers, explorers. They could be a total nerd, but I want people who can tell a good story.” Naja is himself one of the best storytellers in the business. He may claim to have a split personality, but he doesn’t do things by halves.||**||

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