Coffee with Lowe Dubai Copy Writer, Ma'n Abutaleb
DC: What role do Arabic copywriters currently have in the region?
MA: A passive one at best. Arabic writers in this market are on the receiving end. They get handed the idea - whether for print, outdoor, TV etc - and then they force it into Arabic. Arabic writers rarely participate during the thinking stages, and when they do, their contribution is minimal.
The reason behind this sad state of affairs is that agencies want it this way for penny-pinching reasons, and the writers think that this is the way it should be. Arabic writers translate. Nothing more, nothing less. Sure it falls under polished labels such as adapting, rewriting and “arabizing”, but that’s all crap. It is precise, safe, politically correct translation.
DC: Someone made a comment on the scarcity of Arabic conceptiualizers in the region. Do you feel the region holds an abundance of Arabic conceptualizers.
MA: They are very scarce indeed. And anyone who argues against this should just take a look around at all the advertising being produced. The good advertising is in English, and its “arabized” version hardly works.
Some have a way around this, and it’s called the visual pun. Sham of all shams. Visual puns hardly ever work in English or Arabic. Using an element of the Arabic culture like a cup of coffee in a visual pun – we’ve all seen that a million times - does not carry an idea. It is a shallow, overused form of advertising that the whole world has put behind. Yet here it is the first and favourite solution.
What we lack is idea driven advertising, that is born from contemporary Arab culture and that recognizes its potential as a rich source of inspiration.
DC: So if you owned your own agency and had full autonomy to hire, fire and structure, what would be different from the traditional agency?
MA: I would set up a department that develops ideas relevant to the market. Irrespective of the language used. The department would comprise of Copywriters (without a preceding adjective) Art directors, and planners. Planners play a huge part in developing ideas that are relevant to the market. And yes they will – and already are in many world-leading agencies – work as part of the creative team.
I would separate Editors and have them as a team of their own and as part of the studio. Those guys will be responsible for all the brochures and proofreading.
The creative head that runs the department will have to trust his Arabic conceptualizers and see the potential within the local culture to inspire great advertising.
DC: Arabic is known to be much richer than the English language, how would adapting the other way work? By adapting Arabic poetry to English the results would be much poorer than the other way around. Your thoughts on this?
MA: The Arabic language is indeed very rich, and was one of the richest languages in the world. But I doubt this is true at the moment. English– being the dominant language – developed at great speed and acquired new lingo that enables it to serve the growing arrays of communication. Arabic on the other hand - which was definitely richer than English when the Arabs and the Muslims were at the frontier of cultural and scientific developments - have failed in the past decades to evolve and add new vocabulary that convey new notions, concepts, even descriptions, and of course technical terms.
The fact that classic Arabic is not used anymore and was replaced by many different accents doesn’t help either. Still, this is gradually changing now, and there is a version of the language that’s picking up slowly. We don’t really feel it, but it’s there. If you listen to some of the football matches now, the commentary is done in a subtle, beautiful, very accessible classic/slang Arabic that everyone understands and relates to. Even in contemporary Arabic literature, this new form of Arabic is being used more and more and is gaining in popularity, and this is the Arabic we should use in advertising.
DC: Some marketers insist that Arab consumers don’t read period!, Your thoughts?
MA: This one is a favourite amongst idea killers. And it’s absolute bullshit. This claim is not based on any kind of research whatsoever, and is just a way to hide behind bad advertising.
If this claim is true, then who reads all the newspapers out there, who reads all the daily columns, who reads the sports page and the horoscopes, who reads the business news and who buys all these Arabic magazines and books out there. Or is it that all journalists, poets, writers novelists and reporters are living a big lie and they’re oblivious to the fact that their work goes straight to the trash.
There are new magazines and publications in Arabic everyday, and they have a market and they are successful. To the purveyors of this condescending, rude, unsupported assumption I say, write something interesting enough, and people will read it.
DC: Any advice for Arabic creatives trapped in translating houses?
MA: First of all, think why you got into advertising in the first place - since you’re interested in your job enough to read this blog - you’ll probably remember that great ad that gave you goose bumps and made you think “this is must be the coolest job in the world” If this happens, then worry not my friend.
Tomorrow morning, go to work as usual, sneak into your CDs office, and snap one of them “creative” briefs that never seem to make it to your desk. Now push all the donkeywork aside for a few hours and think. Think Hard. Come up with a few ideas that are on brief, sketch ‘em up and present them to your CD. If he welcomes your “intrusion” into the creative realms and is willing to discuss the ideas – they have to be worthwhile of course – and maybe even tells you to develop one of them, then you have no problem. All you have to do is make sure you squeeze yourself in briefing sessions and work a few extra hours every night until no one can deny your contribution to the creative output of the agency.
If, however, the CD dismisses your ideas immediately, and reminds you that you have a brochure to deliver in an hour, then go back to your desk. Put your book together, update your CV and immediately call your recruitment agent.
Advertising is the rock and roll of the business world, and I’m sure you haven’t been rocking lately. Don’t be scared. Look for a better job, maybe in a small creative hot shop somewhere, might be a rough ride, but you’ll end up getting a job as a COPYWRITER and nothing else. And you’ll do ads you’re proud of and you will rock and roll.
Many thanks Ma'n for your time!