An office with toy helicopters, mini-basketball and an inflatable camel may not seem one for hard work. But a day with ad agency TBWARaad shows that a fun workplace celebrating creativity benefits its clients.
The real Mad Men and women at TBWARaad
The Dubai headquarters of the advertising agency TBWARaad does not immediately look like a place conducive to hard work.
An inflatable camel hangs from the ceiling in one room, while the wall of another office is decorated with a giant Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.
Employees play table football during lunch breaks, or relax in the indoor "garden" complete with green AstroTurf. Toy helicopters, elaborately decorated rooms and a mini-basketball court are among the myriad of distractions.
If this is a place of work, then it seems like one created by a child with an overactive imagination and access to far too much sugar.
Yet for Reda Raad, the regional chief operating officer for TBWARaad, investing in a fun office environment is all part of making a very serious top line.
"It is good business sense," says Mr Raad. "A happy staff makes a happy client. And a happy client will, in return, reward you more. So it's very much part of our ethos."
The approach seems to have paid off: TBWARaad claimed a haul of awards at the Cannes Lions advertising bash in June.
"It's not just creativity for the sake of creativity. It's also creativity that works and is effective. And ultimately, that is what clients want ... to grow their bottom line," says Mr Raad.
TBWARaad was founded by Mr Raad's father, Ramzi, and is majority owned by the global ad agency TBWA. The National spent the day at its headquarters to find out what makes the agency tick.
Mr Raad is in the office early, given the agency's official Ramadan hours of 10am to 4pm. Today is important, as TBWA's international president Keith Smith is in town to hear the Middle East agency's business projections.
Mr Raad has good things to report, including winning accounts from several local clients. But it is TBWARaad's success at the Cannes Lions advertising awards in June that really gets Mr Raad's enthusiasm going.
"Cannes is like the Oscars for the advertising industry. It's the ultimate celebration of creativity. And it is the one award that you want to win," he says, pointing out the agency picked up one coveted gold award, along with one silver and two bronze honours for its ad campaigns.
As employees trickle into the office, Feras Salah is standing in the break room, dubbed the majlis. Comfy chairs, table football and, on Thursdays, free manakish, a Levantine version of pizza, make this room stand apart from the average office space. Mr Salah, 30, is an account manager for Ketchum Raad Middle East, a sister company to TBWARaad that specialises in public relations. His clients include Google and the Emirates Festival of Literature. "This is not a normal office," he says of his workplace.
An advertising agency is where the corporate and creative worlds meet but, hopefully, not collide. The agency's account managers are in the middle of it all, dealing with clients and helping translate their corporate-speak into briefs for the creative teams.
Mahmoud Chemaitelly, a senior account manager for TBWARaad, is in the office going through his emails and says he must "speak the lingo" of all the people he deals with. He works on the Visa account and it is an especially busy time given the card company's sponsorship of the Olympics in London.
Amira Ibrahim, an account director at TBWARaad, is doing work for the Royal Opera House in Muscat. With a season of performances due to start in September, it is also a busy time for her as she checks the advertising plan is in place.
Her office is painted in dark pink - a reflection of TBWARaad's policy of allowing employees to design their own workspace.
Ms Ibrahim, 27, has worked at the agency for three years. She still gets a buzz when seeing completed campaigns. "You see it out there, and see people comment about it ... that's what keeps us motivated and going," she says.
The senior account director Saad Gharzeddine works for the side of the agency known as "the suits".
But he does not seem excessively corporate - and is certainly not stuffy. That could be partly because his office wall is emblazoned with a giant fist representing, he says, "power to the people".
Still, the wall painting was commissioned by a previous occupant of the office and Mr Gharzeddine points out the design that will replace it is a closely guarded secret.
"We have lots of ideas but we can't disclose them now," he says jokingly.
Mr Gharzeddine is working on the Nissan account, looking at some creative work before the launch of a new model.
A giant Calvin and Hobbes comic strip dominates one wall of David Finley's office.
The agency's brand leader oversees two of its biggest clients, Nissan and Visa and he also looks after Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
"Right now, I'm working on a presentation document for Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. We have a meeting on Thursday in which we'll be presenting some new creative ideas," he says.
Mr Finley, 48, describes the TBWARaad office environment as "unique" but not one that diminishes from the hard work that gets done.
"We have football and a pool table; we've had competitions with radio-controlled helicopters," he says.
"It's a nice environment and that makes the work easier. But at the end of the day, a lot of people here work very, very hard."
A group of staff are shooting some hoops on the mini-basketball court in the middle of the office. "This isn't regulation size," one staff member jokes as he misses a basket.
The room also includes a "new business drum", which is sounded when the agency wins a new account. But there is also a more serious aspect to the room, which doubles as a presentation area with seating and projector screen.
The creative director Sandeep Fernandes has got just 24 hours to come up with an advertising plan for a key client.
Wearing a blue T-shirt displaying a skull, jeans and trainers, he is responsible for three teams that dream up ad campaigns we see in newspapers and on television.
Mr Fernandes, 37, has "half an idea" for Nissan - he must supply two or three sparks of advertising genius within 24 hours.
Tomorrow's meeting requires verbal concepts to be communicated to the Japanese car giant. But Mr Fernandes usually works with drawings, sketching out ideas before taking a more developed ad campaign idea to show a client.
The pressure of a deadline helps with the creative process.
"It speeds your mind up - the deadline helps us a lot," he says.
"There's no agency without pressure."
Melanie Clancy, a senior content strategist, is working on a blog for one of her clients. She works in digital media, in which she says regional advertisers have made "big strides".
One of the most famous campaigns she worked on was for Red Tomato Pizza in Dubai. The VIP Fridge Magnet campaign centred around an online device sent out to loyal customers of Red Tomato.
This was stuck to the outside of the fridge, allowing customers to order their favourite pizza by pressing a button on the device.
The campaign achieved global recognition - and picked up a Gold award at Cannes Lions. Ms Clancy came up with the idea and it was born out of personal experience - not to mention the language barriers when ordering food in the UAE.
"In advertising you're always working late - we order a lot of pizzas," she says.
Rida Elhoush, the IT manager for TBWARaad and its sister agencies, is clearing up space on the storage facilities, which includes many large files of advertising campaigns and film clips.
Racks of servers, telephonic and networking equipment are flashing behind him.
"That's what makes this office tick," he says.
Mr Elhoush, 33, has worked at the agency for six years and has comic ways of dealing with those who have crossed him. He has a full-sized punchbag in his office, as well as a "shame" notice on his door, which lists the names of 23 people who have irked the IT department in some way.
All of the agency's work would be in vain if it was not for "the studio", the department that checks outgoing advertising and creative work before it is sent out.
Ezzat Habra, 31, is in charge of a team responsible for everything from quality control and visual consistency to retouching and resizing adverts.
"Everything that you do in the agency, in terms of creative work, goes to the studio," he says.
He has already received 30 to 40 different jobs today, including work for the Royal Opera House Muscat. His team is on deadline for 4pm, to send out artworks and some specification sheets for an in-showroom display for Arabian Automobiles.
Mr Habra's other work involves sending out adverts to newspapers and magazines, resized to the specific requirements of the publication.
He is ahead of schedule today but often stays at work late into the night to finish a job. He has never missed a deadline as that would risk disrupting a client's entire media plan.
"Staying overnight is something that we tend to do a lot," he says.
"I wouldn't be here if I missed a deadline - that would be it."
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