‘Revolution gave us total freedom of speech’

nicolasSix years ago this month the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor triggered the Arab Spring. Ogilvy & Mather Singapore’s executive creative director, Nicolas Courant, witnessed the uprising first-hand and went on to produce era-defining work with his colleagues at Memac Ogilvy Label in Tunis. Here he talks to Iain Akerman about revolution and the role of advertising in social change

Do you miss Tunisia?

“Sometimes,” replies Nicolas Courant. “It was the most exciting and enriching time of my career. Every time I’m confronted by a problem here I think about how we would have dealt with it in Tunis.”

Courant, a graduate of French literature and philosophy, is talking to me for the first time in four years. A lot has changed. In the Arab world hope has been replaced by despair of an even greater magnitude than before, while Courant has been living in Singapore for the past three years, coming to terms with a completely different market dynamic.

“Here everything is very structured,” he explains. “The processes are in place. Obviously you need them to make such a big machine work. Everyone has one single role to play. So it might look like it’s not very flexible, but when the machine starts rolling it becomes pretty impressive. I always think we can make something great with whatever comes our way. But there are less things that come your way here. Bigger things, for sure, but not that much. We spend lots of time on global or regional briefs. This needs lots of co-ordination and convincing different markets.”

The last time we spoke Courant’s voice carried a hint of disappointment, having failed to win a titanium at Cannes. This was despite three gold Lions for Memac Ogilvy Label’s ‘The Return of Ben Ali’. It was the one that got away, he said at the time. Titanium winners, he believed, were those who attempted to solve real human or business problems, and the Middle East has arguably more problems to solve than any other region in the world.

“Revolution gave us total freedom of speech,” he told me. “Secondly, it gave us real problems to solve. During the events, the agency became a kind of web activist cell. Everyone engaged in the revolution. The courageous ones would go in the streets to film the riots and would post anti-regime content on social media, the less courageous ones found or created the content for the others.

“From the very start, everyone at the agency wanted to help or do something for the country. After the revolution, when the real problems began to appear, the desire to help was still there. And all of our ideas were created for that purpose.”

Those ideas led to ‘The Return of Ben Ali’ and the previous year’s ‘June 16th 2014’ for Engagement Citoyen, an NGO that urged Tunisians to vote in elections following the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Both campaigns brought the agency and Courant to global attention.

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‘June 16th 2014’ for Engagement Citoyen

“Lots of other agencies were there as well – in the right place and at the right time – but didn’t manage to be as influential as we were,” he says in response to questions about luck. “I would say it was a combination of elements. The most important is that nobody at the agency had any respect for what the country was becoming under the dictatorship. The media, the institutions, the general mediocrity, we just wanted to blow everything up. When one of our TV spots was censored by national TV for some stupid reason we would start a campaign making a fool of the TV station on social media and show our ad. We quickly learnt how to use all these new tools very efficiently and started to make very different and successful campaigns for our clients. We had plenty of time to explore and try things, as well as maturing our thinking. So when the Arab Spring started, we were ready to contribute. With the naïve belief that our ideas could change the country for the better.”

When Courant left Tunisia for Singapore in August 2013 his departure epitomised the hollowing out of an agency that had ridden the country’s revolutionary wave with clarity of purpose.

“After the euphoria of the Arab Spring we were all brought back to the economic reality. And it was brutal,” admits Courant, who began his career as a copywriter at Lowe Paris before moving to Bates France and Memac Ogilvy Label. “So lots of people took advantage of our success and left the agency for experience abroad. So I had this choice: either of starting over again, or of trying something different.

“After all those years, I needed to experience the next level. Bigger market, bigger brands, bigger agency. I also wanted to continue working in emerging markets where I felt there would be more creative opportunities. Asia seemed like the right choice at the time. So when the discussions started with Ogilvy Singapore, I didn’t hesitate too long. Especially that Singapore was a big name in the Ogilvy network.”

Can advertising make a real difference?

“That’s a very complicated question. I don’t think advertising can make a difference. But creativity can.

“Advertising is about telling product stories and the end goal is to make a difference for the brand/product only. You might sometimes have brands who will associate themselves with some bigger purpose and will contribute to belief change in the right way, but I feel this is limited. It’s very unlikely that a brand will go against the status quo. They tend to follow what’s already been initiated. Let’s say they just help consolidate what others have started.

“On the other hand, I believe creative agencies are full of very smart problem solvers. If given the right problem they can make a difference and sometimes stars align. They actually do. The idea goes out there and changes people’s perception or influences their behaviour for the better. My only regret is that it’s always short term. There’s never real follow up. Maybe because that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”

Did he and his colleagues make a difference in Tunisia?

“I don’t know,” he replies. “I like to think we did. But it was also short-term actions. People went and voted despite what research was predicting. But the Ben Ali campaign wasn’t the only one, there were other people and groups calling for people to vote – politicians, NGOs etc. For sure, we made a huge impact a couple of days before election day. But did we make all the impact? I wouldn’t say so. The June 16th campaign definitely gave back some hope – we have social listening figures on this – and put the media industry and lots of people back to work, but it didn’t solve everything unfortunately. Six years later, there’s still a long way to go.”

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