Black wolf

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Published in Arab Ad magazine. Pages:  172 – 175

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Featured in the IAA newsletter Network News issue #23 July 2009. Page: 3.

Louai Alasfahani: “I am not the ‘black sheep’ of the industry”!

December 2004
ArabAd was delighted to interview Louai Alasfahani and hear his controversial and no-nonsense viewpoint about the advertising industry in Kuwait. Alasfahani, who has a passion for the arts and a talent for drawing, joined the advertising world 14 years ago. He was hired on the spot by the first company he applied to. He later started work with Fortune Productions, and true to the old saying, “When the pupil is ready, the master will appear”, he met his mentor Misha Lukic’s who pushed him to the limits and when the “training” was over Alasfahani was fully qualified and armed to enter into the cut-throat world of advertising. As the managing and creative director of Paragon, Alasfahani has many plans for the future, but he also has a lot of opinions about the current state of the advertising industry.
ArabAd: Did you always have it in mind to have your own agency or head one?Louai Alasfahani: Heading or owning an agency was never my goal; my goal was to work in the art department producing award winning work. Unfortunately after Misha left the country, I was faced with a conundrum; no one measured up to Misha standards. So, the only way left for me to practice proper advertising was to take things into my own hands, meaning I had to head or own an agency in order to impact its art department and that’s what happened. I was a founding member of Alpha; I setup the Bozell Prime Kuwait operations then later on when they merged with FCB I opted to establish Graffiti; three years later I decided to take things to the next level and thus Paragon commenced.

AA: Did something trigger that? Did an opportunity present itself? What made you decide to set up your own agency?

LA: I still very much acknowledge the fact that what I was earning at Graffiti was almost triple what I was earning when I first invested in Paragon. So obviously, it was not a financial motivation that triggered the move; the reasons for leaving were ethical and personal, the financial sacrifice I made in return for doing the right things right combined with the freedom to express and to impress is my best investment ever. I had the guts to risk starting something all over again knowing from experience that I could still do it and improve on it.

AA: Could you elaborate on what advertising is to you? What does “advertising as it is” mean and is it not the way it is practiced in Kuwait?

LA: Advertising to me means I should look after my client’s interests above all the rest. It should not be practiced the way it is in Kuwait as most agencies here place their client’s budget into whichever media vehicle that offers them the highest margin of profitability, regardless of what effect it has on the client campaign or if it addresses the client target audience.

AA: Isn’t the usual reply, “That’s what the client wants”. So, is it fair to say that in all these instances they put the blame on the client?

LA: Firstly, I have a principle ‘no retreat no surrender’ there is no such thing as we tried! It is our job as well as our duty and obligation to try again and again as we are our client’s advocates, their lawyers, we have the responsibility to build, defend and promote their brands. Don’t blame the client for failing to live up to your responsibilities, if you don’t have a passion for advertising; if you cant handle the pressure then don’t blame the client, just… Leave! Go somewhere else, work in another field.

AA: Do you think the ad agencies should educate their clients?

LA: How can agencies educate their clients if most of their personnel are not educated in advertising? That is why they choose the easy way out, and that is why the competition is just price related, hence price wars. Due to their ignorance the slogan in Kuwait is ‘quantity not quality’ the quantity being the amount of given discounts. These agencies compete in giving free artwork, free films, and free everything! No strategy, tactics or creativity, just discounts, which is why, probably, if an agency in Kuwait handled the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ campaign, he’d still be in prison!

AA: There’s a general perception that creative oriented ad people are not able to handle managerial positions, what is your view on that?

LA: I have learned to use both sides of my brain since I started my career in the labyrinth of advertising my starting point was the art department my current title is MD but my thrill and passion are still in heading the creative department; so from my personal experience I know that creative oriented ad people can be very successful in handling managerial positions in the same manner that I mastered both disciplines to a satisfactory extent so did and can others. Didn’t Bill Burnach, the copywriter, establish one of the world’s most influential agencies? What about David Ogilvy? What about Leo Burnett? We have seen art men like them in the Middle East who successfully handled managerial positions like Ossam Kawookji and Alan Khouri just to name a few, even in Kuwait there are many creative directors turned GM. In the end it’s all about common sense, marketing, commercial arts or marketing communication is still about common sense, so anyone equipped with sense, logic and know-how. By that, I mean knowing what the hell they are talking about in addition to the courage to lead, can play an influential role in his organisation and in the industry as whole.

AA: Broaching on a sensitive issue, which revolves around your reputation as a man who gets annoyed easily by many things that go on in the Kuwaiti advertising scene, tell me what is that you don’t like in the Kuwaiti market?

LA: Actually, I don’t get annoyed easily because I love the advertising industry in Kuwait but for the same reason I can not help but to be annoyed. Without blaming anyone in specific I will summaries my views based on my experience. Clients are victims of unethical practices by some agencies, they are paying a lot for something that was not created specifically for them, at the same time they are not getting the service they are paying for because the quality of services depends on the quality of the people who are providing it and those people are not experienced or trained in this field. So, at the end the client is not getting an adequate return on his investment which reflects negatively on the industry as a whole.

AA: So, are you saying that many ad agencies in Kuwait are staffed by people who are not trained in the field?

LA: I am not just saying ‘many’ unfortunately the fact is that they represent the great majority. Wait it gets even better; the same ignorant majority after each interview or article published in ArabAd magazine and Focus Marketing Report, has the audacity to comment behind my back (as none of them has the guts to say it to my face) things like ‘What certificates does he have? What does he know?’ if they are interested in my certificates they are welcome to visit my office and see for themselves as I have them proudly hanging on the wall and I can share with them the way to acquire that knowledge in this highly specialized field however; I can not help them when it comes to ‘God given talent’. If they are mad because God chose me and not them as part of the two percent globally which have creative abilities, then they are barking up the wrong tree. Based on a recent statistic and a book titled managing creativity; only two percent of the world’s population has true creative qualities, I didn’t write it I just read it, I didn’t choose to be creative God decided it.

AA: Don’t you think advertising is sometimes also common sense? If you like advertising if you’re good at art and marketing you can get somewhere. People say you have a sharp eye, so, it’s no wonder that you are dubbed as the “copycat cop”.

LA: But you’ve just said it, it is common sense. Now I’ll ask you, is it common sense to start a price war? Is it common sense or logical to attack each others clients through mock discount? Is it common sense to give something to the client for free when it costs you money in terms of working hours or man-hours, in terms of human resources and materials?

I read something in the recent cover story of your magazine that confirms my point of view, Just Dubai, it means just doing it, meaning the will to do it right. You need to have the will to do it right which is lacking, because of two reasons: Firstly, they don’t want to do it right and secondly, the majority of them cannot do it right. They know if things go right in the market, they will go right out of business.

AA: How many culprits have gone scot-free without anyone noticing their violations, you’ve caught a lot of copycats but surely many have passed unnoticed?

LA: Many have passed unnoticed I’m sure, so I’ve decided to put a stop to that with what I can do, because I like this industry and because I think it’s not right what some of the agencies are doing to the clients in the market. These agencies are damaging the client and they are damaging the reputation of the industry as a whole, and as a founding member of the IAA so-called Kuwait Chapter, it is our duty to advocate the industry, but how can we advocate if we have people in the industry who are doing this kind of damage. So, I started collecting these copy cat ads, I actually went through five years worth of advertising in print media alone, and amazing things came out there; amazingly disgusting things and mind you they are not from the small new mushrooming agencies as some would like you to believe, it is from agencies that have been in the industry for 25 years, representing international networks and names, working with big clients with deep pockets!.

AA: How do you explain this copycat thing? Do you think they are doing it on purpose?

LA: Excuse me? Do you think when someone opens an issue of a Communications Arts magazine and sees a full campaign of three artworks, and scans them as they are and places them in an ad they are not doing it on purpose? Come on, if I take a gun, loaded it, shoot you twenty times, reload it and shoot you another 20 times can I say it was an accident?

AA: Do you think GM’s are to blame in such cases? Do you believe they are supposed to know about such things?

LA: Well Yes… and Yes. As a GM you are supposed to manage, you selected your own team, and you know what they are capable of creating and if you see a violation you should take action to ensure it never happens again and if the MD is ignorant of the immoral and unethical practices of his creative director then he shouldn’t be managing, because in reality he is being managed.

Sometimes creative directors desperate to keep their jobs, or to increase their salaries go as far as stealing internationally awarded artworks and manipulate them a bit in order to hide their theft, thinking that they will not be caught because they are the only people who read books or magazines. They believe that coping is the truest form of admiration. I have news for them we all read industry magazines such as ArabAd, Communication Arts, Gulf Marketing Review etc.

AA: Why have you been criticizing the ad industry in Kuwait, even though there have been no changes, for a long time now?

LA: Because the causes for criticizing still exist! Change is a gradual process it starts with the desire to change. I’m hoping that when others see how Paragon is work ethically and creatively while being profitable that this will trigger their desire to change. I will not change my strategy and play by their rules even if I lose Paragon.

AA: What about the way you criticize others? Do you think there is a better way?

LA: I do not take pleasure is criticizing as I have nothing personal for, or against anyone working in this industry yet I believe that advertising agencies should work collectively to improve and raise the standards which will benefit everyone. I’m not advocating for my personal benefit as financially I’m well rewarded; internationally and personally I’m awarded.

AA: Do you think awards raise standards?

LA: Awards encourage CD’s to give their best and to compete ethically. I actually said this in one of the previous issues of ArabAd and many of our ‘colleagues’ agreed on the benefit of the awards, but they did not practice what they preached on the pages of your magazine.

AA: So, what do you think can be done? What is missing? Seminars, workshops, etc.?

LA: What is missing is: The desire to change and acknowledge the past mistakes. What can be done is either have an active IAA chapter or shut it down; I don’t see the sense in paying renewal fees when they can’t even issue membership cards.

AA: Why do you constantly add fuel to the flames?

LA: Because I am not afraid to lose. (People should be afraid of a person who has nothing to lose), I am willing to lose financially, but I am not willing to lose my beliefs, ethics or soul. Sticking to my strategy has only resulted in Paragon expanding, expanding team members, expanding salaries, expanding profitability, and receiving international awards. And this philosophy is proof that if you work ethically and professionally you will prosper, we did not go into price wars, we did not give free artwork, and we did not copy or steal and yet financially we prospered (something for you to think about).

AA: Why are you viewed as the black sheep of the industry?

LA: I am not the black sheep of the industry! I’m the black wolf, but if you mean that I’m viewed as the outsider then I’ll take it as a compliment. Do you know the old saying, ‘if you can’t beat them then join them’? Well, I don’t want to join them because I can beat them; I’ve been beating them in their game while sticking to the rules of engagement. If I am viewed as the black sheep then that makes me distinctive not like them which makes me proud it’s a declaration that I am doing the right thing.

AA: Maybe you should change your strategy, not complain as much.

LA: You’ve got it all wrong; I’m not complaining, to complain is to ask for something, I am just opening people’s eyes, specifically client’s eyes to the injustice done to them by our colleagues.

To complain is weakness, to guide and to lead that takes courage. Therefore, I totally resent being labeled as someone who is complaining. I am sharing my knowledge and experience with everyone, sharing both the good and the bad, and that takes confidence.

AA: So, why do they have an issue with you?

LA: Of course they have issues, all the issues revolve around one issue called copycat. They have been caught more than once, they have been warned more than thrice, so they continue to have an issue. I expose the fact that they are stealing; do you expect them to love me?

What’s happening in Kuwait advertising scene can best be described as organised crime and I stress that you write organised crime! Unlike the IAA, the mafia has ethics. I hold more respect to the mafia than I do for the IAA, I strongly recommend for them to read the Mafia Manager by V. it compares the corporate world with the underground world and you will see how the mafia is more ethical and more organized than the IAA Kuwait chapter.

AA: So, who is to blame? The IAA?

LA: What IAA?? The same ‘new’ board that did nothing in the past and continue to do so in the future! In previous issues of your magazine copycat section haven’t you noticed that certain gentlemen who repeatedly starred there are the same gentlemen still on the IAA board? Need I say more on whom to blame!

AA: What is the core essence of Paragon and your work?

LA: one of Paragon definitions in the dictionary is a model of perfection. Our logo design is based on typography as the roots of the typographic use of the word Paragon go back to the 18th century long before the invention of computers both the fonts and their sizes where referred to by names a Paragon size back then would be equaled to 20 points today and thus a double paragon size referees today to the equivalent of 40 points. Since nobody is perfect we flipped a couple of letters in our logo. Paragon is less than three years old, we have five international awards, we don’t go to price wars, we are respecting the clients and giving them the quality and service that they deserve and it’s working. I’m not a magician, I’m not lucky, but it’s working. Why? Since we’re in the same market, why don’t you have the guts to try to do it right?

AA: You are very much into public awareness messages and environmental awareness messages, this is not a common thing in other agencies in Kuwait. Why is this?

LA: You should ask them this. We are an ethical and socially responsible agency we are willingly giving back to society and this is a true reflection of who we are.

AA: What, in your opinion, is the core of advertising?

LA: The core of advertising is striking a balance between the creativity of your message and the selection of the media vehicle that caries it.

AA: Do you agree with the common saying that advertising is not worth what it costs? Recently there has been a shift from advertising oriented marketing to PR oriented marketing. So, are companies shifting more towards PR?

LA: both advertising and PR are part of the promotional mix and some agencies or clients have only just recently discovered PR and started using it; this does not mean that these two disciplines compete with one another they simply complement each other. Advertising presents the most persuasive possible selling message to the right prospects for the product or service at the lowest possible cost while PR practice is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics. A major relationship between advertising and PR is that advertising is more likely to succeed when prior PR activity has created knowledge and understanding of the product or service being promoted. I strongly recommend the title ‘the rise of PR and the fall of advertising’ by Al Ris to shed more light on this interesting subject.

AA: What do you think can be incorporated to reduce costs while maintaining service quality?

LA: First of all you start reducing your discount to the client that will enable you to have a higher margin of profit. That margin of profit can be used to expand your team and get a higher caliber of employees, which would provide a higher quality of service to your clients, which in turn will be translated into better creative work, better media planning, and better media buying. This will further translate into better communication with your client’s clients and therefore better sales, and therefore higher budgets and continuity, it’s a logical chain. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; high discounts equals lower profits, lower profits means you have to fire some people so you can balance your budget, or it means not being able to afford better qualified and trained people to perform these services and so on.

AA: Is there a lack of media channels in Kuwait?

LA: What lack of media channels? Kuwait is a small country with a population not exceeding 2.5 million and still it has eight newspapers; England with its huge population only has 14 daily newspapers.

AA : Yes, but in Kuwait media is limited to newspapers and outdoors, there is a very small selection of specialised media, specialised magazines or newspapers for example, other than that you don’t have TV, you don’t have widely listened to radio.

LA: In Kuwait you now have Al Rai TV, Kuwait TV, SMS, MMS, e-mails, out of home media (i.e. cinema, rooftops, uni-poles, Mega, Mupi, Buses, shopping malls, etc.), a plethora of weekly and monthly local and Pan Arab free and paid for magazines. Take specialized magazines targeting students for example, Student Talk, Teen Talk, Campus Cruse, Bazaar, Abwab. The important thing is to know your target audience, know your media, and you will know how to reach them efficiently and effectively and remember there’s more than way to skin a cat.

AA: Could you tell us about Awraq magazine? What was your involvement in that controversial magazine?

LA: My involvement is that Abdul Razaq who is a dear friend came up with a concept of an Arabic advertising magazine to bridge the gap left by the lack of an IAA newsletter. I supported his concept of the magazine and encouraged him as I believed in the need for such a publication to spur improvements and changes in the industry. My support was limited to providing research materials, examples (similar to what I regularly give to both ArabAd and Focus), printing and distributing the magazine; however, I never wrote a single word since it was Abdul Razaq’s baby; I was just the Godfather.

AA: We believe that is because Awraq originates from the industry whereas ArabAd and Focus are independent and unbiased. What are your views?

LA: It should come from the industry, I shouldn’t write about medicine, because I’m not a doctor. We should have people from the industry writing about the industry. What I saw in Awraq was a channel to spread the word, to initiate the positive change, to ignite the passion in the industry. I’m not ashamed of Awraq, I am ashamed of what’s in it, that what’s in the magazine is the work of the agencies in Kuwait.

AA: Our last question will be lifted directly from Microsoft’s slogan: “Where do you want to go today”?

LA: We want to go to Cannes, and we believe. ‘We Cannes’, and therefore ‘We will’. In the creative category not in the media category mind you. Perhaps we can be affiliated with a serious network that is looking for a serious agency in Kuwait.

© ArabAd 2004

Article originally published by ArabAd 14-Dec-04 Source:

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Louai Alasfahani

ANUBIS was a very old god of the ancient Egyptians, universally worshipped throughout the land and became considered the gatekeeper and ruler of the underworld; the “Guardian of the veil“ he was “Lord of the Cleansing Room” and the opener of the roads of the North. “He observed the weighing of the deceased’s heart against the feather of Maat [Truth] and reported his findings to the jury of the gods.


Skype: louai.asfahani

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