The Power of the Many

March 14, 2013 in In the Media by Camille Khoury

From left to right: Hani Asfour and Salim Tannous.

Lebanon’s creatives are scaling up together to take on the international market with the newly launched Beirut Creative Cluster.

“We’re pioneering this. And there is absolutely no guarantee of success,” pronounces Salim Tannous. He’s managing director of the newborn Beirut Creative Cluster (BCC), a consortium of 25 design and media agencies working together to advance Lebanese media services within and without Lebanon.

Sitting beside Tannous is Hani Asfour, founder of the design firm Polypod and president of the seven-member board of the BCC, who nervously laughs: “I’ve just dived in to the deep end, and am going to see what happens.” He quickly adds: “and you’re the lifeguard Salim!”

“And I barely know how to swim!” Tannous retorts. The two men together could go back and forth, it seems, for hours: trading anecdotes about museum visits, architectural features or thoughts on the BCC. Both want to heap praise and credit upon the other; neither would accept it in return.

“But I have to say I can’t take any credit for the BCC yet,” Asfour remarks. “It’s all Salim’s legwork, his foresight, his vision. I look to him for guidance.”

“The cluster is not me, it’s them,” Tannous later returns.

Whoever is doing the work, the Beirut Creative Cluster represents a powerful new development in the national economy. For clusters are extraordinary means for a set of businesses to increase productivity and obtain the benefits from a greater economy of scale – without sacrificing competition.

Tannous describes the cluster as a “platform” to “allow collaboration between people in the same industry to drive innovation.” Though “cluster” is an inherently ambiguous term. The details on how a cluster of companies cooperates varies widely from country to country; and they can expand, Tannous notes, to as large as 700 companies. Even clusters of clusters will develop within major national industries. He cites cosmetics as the biggest in France, with such companies as L’Oréal involved.

In practical terms, for the BCC at the moment it simply means the board members get together every four weeks or so. They convene at each others’ offices on a rotating basis, physically breaking down the spatial barriers between the companies, and in the process, are becoming as equally familiar with each other as they are with each other’s work.

What will come of these meetings is still a known unknown – for all parties involved. “This is all practically brand new,” Asfour says. “I’m still trying to share with my team what this experience is. They’re all waiting for me; ‘how is it?’ they ask. ‘Where are we? What’s in it for us?’ We’re still figuring that all out.”

Yet statistics from abroad bear out the importance of their efforts. Tannous remarks that, “internationally, the survival rate for SMEs in their first five years is 30 percent. For a SME within a cluster, that rate jumps well beyond 90 percent.”

Salim Tannous.

Tannous and Asfour met, rather appropriately, sitting nearby each other at TEDxBeirut 2011. The event host asked everyone in the audience to introduce themselves to their neighbors, Tannous recounts. And for once, something seems to have come of this often awkward event convention. Tannous had heard of Asfour’s firm Polypod previously, and asked for a more formal sit down.

What initially drew Tannous to Asfour was the latter’s unorthodox leadership style. Asfour’s offices operate collaboratively. In the open floor plan, there are no closed office spaces; each computer station is set directly against the next. Asfour openly renounces hierarchy in favor of horizontal organization amongst his team members. The interview bore out his claims. I walked in while he was still washing the paint off of his forearms, having just left the TEDxBeirut 2012 venue where he was helping to setup. “My team gave me a brush and said ‘get on the floor!’” he happily laughs.

Asfour has also had larger visions for Polypod: to be a creative hub for the city. Once a month Asfour invites a “creative luminary” to talk to the community in Polypod’s offices, an event that he’s also made open to the public.

Tannous himself is employed by Berytech, which has funded the cluster in conjunction with the European Union. He was asked to run the program back in June 2011 following a degree in media management. At the time, Tannous knew nothing of clusters; but a few months of research brought him back in September of the same year with the attitude “let’s do this.” Originally a filmmaker, he has the experience to understand the creative industries coupled with the credentials to steer the country’s industry in a new direction.

And he knows precisely the sort of people he’s looking for to join the endeavor. “Sometimes I had to push people in this scene,” he says. “I have a feel for who wants to collaborate and really give.”

One of those people was Asfour himself. He missed the first BCC meeting he was expected to attend, and even afterward, sat in the back just listening. Then, when electing the board of directors, Tannous stepped up, and, unannounced, nominated Asfour. “Hardly anyone knew who I was,” Asfour, still surprised, remarks. “And then soon enough I was elected president. But it wasn’t like I campaigned for it or anything.”

Toni Asfour.

Tannous, on the other hand, found himself forced to campaign from the get go. When he began to approach figures in the Lebanese creative industry, “time” was a foremost reason they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take part. “‘We’re invited to so many activities and events,’ they’d complain,” he says. And then once he got people willing to take part, it came with a caveat. “‘Oh, don’t send us too many e-mails, or ask for too many meetings,’ I kept hearing.”

Next came suspicions about the competitors with whom they’d be taking part in the BCC. Tannous found that just about everyone he talked to said they wanted to collaborate. “Yet everybody feels that they’re ready, but nobody else is. And I heard that from everyone – it was really quite funny.” And Tannous admits there had been some bad blood in the past between members.

Nevertheless, both men maintain that, since the BCC launched, there has been a transformative turnabout in the community – first and foremost in tone. “In the past, they’ve all invisibly competed against each other,” Tannous notes. “But in seeing the other firms, it makes it easier to accept competition. Yet this doesn’t mean we’re not competitive! There just isn’t the drama now.”

Asfour jumps in to support Tannous:  “When our neighbors Penguin Cube win a bid, I’m happy for them. I know they’ll do an excellent job. I hope they’ll feel the same way about us; and the cluster is accelerating this process.”

The nature of competition has begun to change as a result. The developing relationships between agencies pushes the respective members to challenge each other over what can be produced at a certain standard – not on how cheap they can slash their prices. For the industry as a whole, undercutting is a dead end approach, both Tannous and Asfour agree. Quality suffers, repeat business is limited, and companies simply can’t survive for the long haul. Asfour is quick to emphasize, however, that the BCC is not, in his words, “the guild or order of designers.” They’ve no desire to regulate.

And it’s paved the way for new collaborations within the community. Members of the BCC are already teaming up for projects outside of the BCC’s auspices. “There’s no need to supervise,” Tannous proudly says. “We just need to create that favorable environment.”

What Asfour envisions looks as follows: “I can imagine us collaborating with two or three different agencies, perhaps with redundant skills – though more likely with people who have complementary skills such as filmmaking or animation – and we can provide the design services, and we’d work together on a large project.”

This allows small agencies in collaboration with others to pitch for larger international projects. At international fairs, members of the BCC can represent their companies under the aegis of the BCC – essentially a brand to represent Beirut’s creative culture abroad. Tannous explains that “one of the main attributes of a cluster is to brand a geographic region internationally” and thereby increase its exposure worldwide.

Workshops are now in the works with such partners as the British Council, who will bring experts from the UK to provide focused, high-level training. Nathalie Fallaha, founder of the design company Vit-e and treasurer of the BCC, is heading up a “finishing school” for creatives coming out of university, a program that will provide skills more applicable to the real day-to-day practice of working in an agency. Such programs, Asfour hopes, will continue to “improve the creative output ofthe country.”

The Beirut Creative Cluster, while still in its infancy, is gaining international attention – at least amongst cluster buffs. The European Secretariat for Cluster Analysis (ESCA) awarded the BCC and Tannous the Bronze Label for “cluster management excellence,” recognizing that the BCC benchmarks favorably against creative clusters internationally. The award takes into account the profile of the companies involved, the structure of the organization and its branding for the international market.

The ESCA though had two complaints. First was funding: The BCC receives all of its money from just one source – Berytech. Traditionally, clusters are funded from governments, so to be privately funded has raised all sorts of questions about its longterm viability. Asfour notes that it’s a curious case, and a differentiator from the European cluster model. While they’ve refrained so far from asking for members to pay dues, Asfour remarks that the subject of “membership dues may yet come up.”

The second complaint was a shortage of press. We’re hoping this article is one step toward remedying that.

This article was originally published in the  February/March 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur Levant with the headline: The power of the many.
Photography by Greg Demarque