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Opinion and Insight

How VICE and Virtue Arabia are Connecting with Culture Across the Middle East

Ciaran Bonass on creating work that taps into the nuance and diversity of the MENA region – and planting a jungle on the grave of the agency model

How VICE and Virtue Arabia are Connecting with Culture Across the Middle East

Perceptions, says Ciaran Bonass, can lead to misconceptions. The Middle East and North Africa are particularly prone to misconceptions when it comes to foreign brands and businesses operating in the region. Those misconceptions, in turn, can lead to lazy stereotypes, missed opportunities, cultural appropriation and, perhaps worst of all, a cringe-inducing lack of cool. But when VICE and its in-house creative agency Virtue set up shop in Dubai, they made it their mission to dig in and connect with creative cultures and communities from all 26 of its local markets. The resulting research formed the basis of Bil Arabi, the launch film for VICE Arabia and a calling card for Virtue’s ability to understand what’s really going on.

And what a calling card. The film netted Virtue second place in Dubai’s 2018 Independent Agency of the Year rankings, just months after opening. And since then the agency has gone on to create some emotive Ramadan work for Dettol and pick up a stream of new business from brands keen to tap into VICE’s region-wide network of journalists.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Ciaran Bonass, creative director at VICE MENA and Virtue Worldwide, an inquisitive Irishman who has been leading the team of ambitious and diverse talent whose remit is to create work of real cultural importance.

LBB> How has the insight provided by Bil Arabi shaped the way that Virtue MENA has developed and the way clients interact with you?

Ciaran> Bil Arabi is an important ethnographic piece of research that is deep in its listening and understanding of the region. A perfect example of how we go beyond the demographics, and a constant reminder to look past the stereotypes and singular narratives to form a societal fluency that’s rich and powerful in its comprehensions of what matters to people. 

Bil Arabi is a great example of our publisher-born, audience-first approach and illustrates our craft as storytellers and purveyors of culture. As brands recognize that their role is changing, they look to us to help them deliver real value between them and people, and fulfil their cultural potential. 

LBB> Bil Arabi is a great series of snapshots of the region's youth and the sheer diversity of cultures and contexts between and within countries... I suppose the danger, with a mammoth project like Bil Arabi, is that once its done, you pat your back while the insights and connections made become stale. How are the VICE and Virtue teams keeping their insights / understandings / connections live and fresh?

Ciaran> We’ve been very conscious that the listening exercise that formed Bil Arabi* continues in the form it started. In an ever-changing cultural landscape it’s our strong belief that those agencies that truly understand culture and help their clients to contribute to it will excel. Our colleagues are the people covering the stories on VICE, so for us it’s imperative we constantly listen to stay relevant. But we have to do so in a non-partisan way, and ultimately ask the right questions. As we speak we are launching ‘Question of the week’ which uses the same platform to ask personal and societal questions amongst our audience across 26 countries. This approach allows us to continuously embed ourselves in cultural understanding and build a social fluency across our audience’s passions. 

*Bil Arabi was the collective output of on-street filming in 14 cities and the gathering of cultural answers via a digital ‘dial in message’ platform called ‘We're Listening’ 

LBB> Virtue MENA came second in Dubai Lynx's Independent Agency Ranking of 2018 - not bad for your first Dubai Lynx and only having been in operation for four or five months! What did that mean to you and the team?

Ciaran> It’s a huge accolade to achieve in the first few months of operations, and in particular at such a prestigious event as the Dubai Lynx. A testament to the great work the team has done, but also in launching an agency at such an exponential rate. Since then we’ve been very focused of creating work that defines and represents us. In the past six months we have won a series of clients, and projects that will ultimately set us apart from the norm, and again showcase our strong ability to make work of importance. 

LBB> What does the team at Virtue MENA look like - where are you based, how many of you are there? And what sort of nationalities make up the team? 

Ciaran> It’s a collective of hungry, talented creatives that represent a diverse team from Syria to Palestine to Egypt to Lebanon. They are young and rich with societal fluency. Regardless of being a producer, editor, creative, or project manager, each has a personal manifesto to create work of cultural importance. We hire people by the mark they want to leave, not by what they’ve done. 

LBB> What have you been working on since Dubai Lynx? Any projects that you'd like to share with us?

Ciaran> I’m really happy with the work we did for Dettol during Ramadan. We produced a series of short films based around the narrative of traditions, and the ritual of preparing for Iftars in people’s homes. By doing this we were able to connect the brand authentically and shift the existing conversation from product-based benefits to a deeper emotional, audience-first narrative that provided a real human led value exchange.

We’ve also been working on a unique, groundbreaking content platform for a significant global brand. A collection of human-led stories that goes beyond the surface to take a closer look at the real societal impact that the culture of beauty has on the younger generation, through a lens of unfiltered authenticity.
We’re about to embark on a really beautiful project for a new luxury cosmetics client, which will see us create a series of films for the brand across 2018 and into 2019. 

We’re working with a collection of lifestyle and street brands.  

And we’ve also just been appointed to represent a global hotel group for two amazing brand-positioning projects that will also see us collaborate on connecting to their audience through a series of events.  

It’s been a busy few months. 

LBB> Before moving to Virtue, you were at Havas - how does the set-up at VICE differ from a more traditional agency model? As a creative person, how does that different set-up impact the way you work?

Ciaran> I don’t think it’s a fair or comparable situation for many different reasons. The industry is constantly asking how the agency model will change. We are doing to advertising what VICE did to media. Rather than fixing the agency model we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. We’ve moved on. 
Being publisher-born we have resources, such as insights and access to culture, that ordinary agencies don’t. And by leveraging proprietary access to VICE, we understand audience data better. We essentially are, and have access to, a global production footprint like no other and are organised by mindsets and passion points. These are Virtue’s natural advantages due to the editorial and entertainment roots of VICE. Which means you ultimately work and think vastly differently - a differentiator to any agency. 

LBB> I guess at the moment there's a lot of international attention on Saudi because of the relaxation on the ban on women drivers, the tentative steps towards liberalising leisure industries and the seemingly wholesale economic restructuring. What are mainstream foreign brands and media missing about what's happening on the ground in Saudi?

Ciaran> Mainstream foreign brands need to find a mindful positioning in this conversation as not to appropriate a cultural conversation for brand gain. If you can’t deliver a non-commercial value exchange you’ve no right including yourself in this narrative. Unfortunately I think some brands and traditional media are missing the powerful work, art, literature, ambition, and entrepreneurial spirit the Kingdom has always had, in favour of the zeitgeist.

LBB> When it comes to art and music from the region - and I know this is a ridiculously broad question - but what sort of stuff do you personally enjoy? Who should we check out?

Ciaran> At the moment I’m enjoying a lot of French and Tunisian inspired music. I’m back listening to and loving The Blaze (Territory is an amazing narrative and visual). We’ve just completed a project with Moh Flow and AY, Syrian brothers living between Saudi and Dubai. So from that I’m listening to old school hip-hop. The region has such diverse and amazing talent I wouldn’t know where to start. As for Art I’ve always been a fan of Ali Cha’aban and Ryan Nawawi, who we worked with on our Nike Air Max 97 project. Both Ali and Ryan are true influencers of culture and clearly show this within their work. I love the work of renowned artist Etel Adnan. 

LBB> Another ridiculously broad question, but in all your time living in Dubai and working across MENA, which are the cultures or countries that have particularly resonated with you on a personal level?

Ciaran> I believe they all do on some level. That’s the beauty of the region. There’s a part of me in Lebanon, Cairo and Jeddah. The beauty and charm of Oman is amazing. I find each relatable for its own cultural nuances. In it diversity, this region has so much it can appeal to anyone. 

LBB> Dubai has the reputation of being quite sterile, probably an unfair stereotype.... how do you find it? And how do you dig out the interesting stuff? 

Ciaran> It’s somewhat unfair. Like the region as a whole perceptions can lead to misconceptions. And without a true understanding of what’s actually happening it can easily be perceived as being one-dimensional. It’s inherent in my character, or any creative I hope, to investigate and go deeper than what is in front of them. There are some amazingly talented people on our doorsteps driving the creative community forward. Once you scratch the surface it’s very easy to see a different side and organically find and connect to what’s interesting. 

LBB> And what are your ambitions for Virtue MENA for the coming year?

Ciaran> We live in a world of uncertainty, but our ambition with VIRTUE is very clear and is no different here to the one we have for our other 26 markets. We will continue to take category conventions head on, continue creating ideas of importance, and continue to help brands embed themselves in culture while driving commercial impact. And maybe along the way create history between us all.
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