Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2016

"Data can inform our judgement, but never replace human insight"

Interview with Maysoun Hanna, Strategic Planning Director, Leo Burnett, MENA.

Maysoun Hanna, Strategic Planning Director, Leo Burnett, MENA, speaks to Mariam Ali Baig about the evolving role of the strategic planner and the role of collaborative diversity.

MARIAM ALI BAIG: Looking at the region as a whole is there a common denominator that would identify the advertising as ‘of the region’?
MAYSOUN HANNA: My opinion would be no. You can find a certain identity in Egyptian advertising because of the sense of humour and liveliness in their advertising and a lot of locally relevant insights go into it. I would argue that Lebanese advertising has the same look and feel; there are certain aspirations, especially among the younger generation, about being more progressive, living for the day and moving forward. A lot of the ads in the region are for FMCGs and many of these brands are catering to everyone, so they tend to be a little sterile. They are clean cut and about happy families in a happy home and everything and everyone is looking good. How close these ads are to the realities of those countries? Probably not very. This kind of advertising is built on larger universal values, rather than specific cultural insights. A lot of the advertising touches on the traditional role of women, being mums and homemakers, although many women are trying to evolve into more empowered roles. The ads are about conventional values; about an ideal rather than what may be truly happening. Many of the differences come in the form of cultural nuances; the first one being in the language and the dialect.

MAB: The advertising communication is expressed in which language?
MH: Usually through formal dialects or adaptations by using dialects which work in specific countries.

MAB: Is there what might be called a ‘pure’ form of Arabic?
MH: The pure form of Arabic is expressed in the written word; it is almost a language in itself, the words in the written form are not similar to those spoken in conversation. Dialects differ greatly and people choose to learn some dialects versus others, and there will be countries and cultures which understand more dialects compared to others. For example, the TV series that are shown in the region are dubbed in either the Egyptian or the Syrian dialect because they are the most commonly understood ones.

MAB: Do the storyboards remain unchanged?
MH: The storyboards do change. There are differences in the way people dress. In the GCC people tend to wear thobes and abayas and there are differences in the way men from different countries wear their thobes or the women their hijab. In the Levant, people are more likely to adopt a western style of dress and in some countries you find more women who are veiled compared to others. There are also cultural restrictions. On Saudi TV, women have to be veiled and dress modestly; in the same commercial in the Levant, a woman could wear sleeveless clothes and not necessarily be veiled. Saudi Arabia would be the extreme end of the conservative scale, the UAE more liberal. However, if you are targeting Emiratis, the ad would be in their regional dialect with the actors wearing the national dress. If the ad is targeting Asian nationals, the ad might be in Hinglish.

MAB: Where are the similarities?
MH: The sense of togetherness and family. A lot of ads touch on the differences between the generations and how younger people need to learn from the older generation. These countries are very collective minded, in the sense that family is very important; the sense of individualism is not as prominent as it is in the West, although it is starting to emerge in the younger generation. There is a lot of respect for culture and religion plays a big role in their lives. Another similarity is that people are very interested in news and politics, because it affects them all on a daily basis. When we tested stories we found that there are far more things that bind people together than pull them apart. There are a lot of universal values in terms of what people find endearing and can connect with. A lot of products are universal. In the case of most luxury brands, the commercials are adapted with an Arabic signature at the end. The differences occur when the products are specific to a segment. Banking products catering to people who send money back home, or telecom packages that bundle international call minutes for people who want to stay in touch with their families back home.

MAB: To what extent does the fact that most insights are mined by people who are expatriate, rather than of the country, affect the end result?
MH: The industry could definitely benefit from the presence of more local people. You can try to immerse yourself in a local culture, but there is always something more genuine and authentic that will come from someone who lives and experiences that culture day in and day out. This is not to say that people from one culture cannot necessarily understand another one, and there are some positives to it. Sometimes when you observe another culture, you might pick up on something others don’t see; it is the outsider view that helps them observe something in a way others have not picked up on.


Data can inform our judgment, but it can never really replace human insight. It can tell us what is happening but it might not be able to answer why that something is happening. We still have to apply human and emotional intelligence to understand the 'why' behind people’s behaviour and then use that data to provide solutions.


MAB: Insights today are mainly driven by data and analytics. Can this become too overwhelming, so that sometimes one loses sight of the bigger insight?
MH: Data provides a lot of insights about behaviour and it is a more objective way of looking at things, but it can have its disadvantages and lead to too much information and paralyse thinking, because someone may not know how to move forward with it. Data can inform our judgment, but it can never really replace human insight. It can tell us what is happening but it might not be able to answer why that something is happening. We still have to apply human and emotional intelligence to understand the ‘why’ behind people’s behaviour and then use that data to provide solutions.

MAB: How has technology affected the role of the strategist in today’s agency?
MH: The strategist’s role has significantly evolved in terms of the nature of what we do and the partners we deal with. A few years ago, strategists were a support to the communication management and creative teams; in fact these were the two biggest departments they worked with. Today, they work with a broader set of specialists, be they media, digital, social, research and PR teams. Essentially, their skill set and understanding of the research and information upon which they need to formulate a strategy has grown. There is a lot of information and more than ever before, part of a strategist’s job is to decide what not to do versus what to do.

MAB: A new trend is to encourage agency people from different functions to sit and work in one room. How effective is this?
MH: Things are achieved better together. If creativity is about finding rules, patterns, relationships and then portraying them in new ways, diversity is essential, which is why it is necessary that there be integration to ensure everything comes through together. To create something that works you need different people and when you put people that are specialists together in one room, they will collaborate better and deliver something big. Another factor is speed. You now have to get something out in a matter of weeks, if not days, and to be able to work that quickly you need to ensure that everyone is in the same room, on the same page and working together. No one can work in silos anymore; you have to be a general specialist so that you can understand other people’s work, but you also have to have a good understanding of your own domain.

MAB: This calls for a very strong collaborative approach. How much does this involve changing people’s mindsets?
MH: If you read the Harvard Business Review or any publication dealing with these topics, you notice that the way business and leadership is spoken about is very different from the way it used to be 20 years ago. Then it was about being the best manager and getting people to look up to you. Today it is about leadership, having a vision but being able to collaborate with people in a more humble way. You hear a lot about ‘authenticity’ and you are expected to be a bit more like yourself and not adhere to this image of a person in a suit who needs to be respected. The millennials have entered the workforce and they live in a culture where, if they want to speak to the CEO, they can send him a tweet. The rules of respect are no longer built on hierarchy but on what you do and how you help people. People have to be much more nimble and flexible; they need to be able to cooperate, use their curiosity and their ability to want to be around people. When you place this in a work environment, great things come out of it. When you are sitting next to someone, you have more empathy for that person; you are more likely to ask for help and more often than not another person can see an issue from a different point of view and bring in the novelty you are looking for.

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