How One Cairo Creative Lent His Marketing Skills to the Opposition

Founder of Hotshop Elephant Cairo Offers Lessons: Take Digital Seriously and Treat Audience With Respect

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A year ago, Ali Ali was founding Egypt's creative boutique Elephant Cairo, a hotshop that has attracted Google and Coca-Cola and won awards at Cannes. Now, the Cairo native and Miami Ad School graduate's full-time job is toppling the Mubarak regime.

To do so, Mr. Ali, 35, is brainstorming guerrilla-marketing tactics.

AD GUERILLAS: Ali Ali (left) and his partner, Maged Nassar, in hot Egyptian agency Elephant Cairo.
AD GUERILLAS: Ali Ali (left) and his partner, Maged Nassar, in hot Egyptian agency Elephant Cairo.
Last week, he took a decades-old photograph of President Hosni Mubarak, added a Hitler-esque toothbrush moustache and floppy hair, and found an opposition-friendly printer willing to open his shop late at night and run off 100 copies of the silk-screened poster. Mr. Ali headed to Tahrir Square to hand the sheets out to protesters and his Mubarak image shot around the world in news photos and blogs.

"We're trying at Elephant to support the opposition," he said. "There's a big sense of camaraderie and patriotism." But Mr. Ali is worried about the safety of his friend and client, Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, who set off for a street protest almost a week ago and disappeared. Now it appears Mr. Ghonim is alive and under arrest somewhere, and one of the opposition groups has named him their spokesperson in an apparent effort to flush out his whereabouts.

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Mr. Ali said Mr. Ghonim, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, is often at Elephant Cairo. The two men recently went to Prague, where Mr. Ali directed a Google Chrome commercial.

Before the protests started, Mr. Ali was busy running Elephant Cairo, which he refers to as a creative boutique rather than an agency because it employs only four people, including Mr. Ali. But beyond Google, Elephant has managed to snag clients that include Sprite and Coca-Cola, who Mr. Ali also worked with in his previous job as regional creative director of McCann Erickson's Middle East network Fortune Promoseven. His fledgling shop picked up a Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival last year and swept Cannes' regional Middle East awards, the Dubai Lynx.

"I think it'll take a couple months for brands to start advertising again [in Egypt]," he said. "[Advertisers will be] concerned that messages will be seen as insensitive, and not in touch with what's happening. This isn't the time to say 'We have better cheese' or 'Our phone calls are cheaper.' Hopefully Elephant will stay in business."

Although Egyptians' resourceful use of social media, especially Twitter, has been much heralded, there have also been massive communication gaps in a country where the internet was closed down for about a week, and mobile phone service was also switched off for several days. "It was word-of-mouth on the street," Mr. Ali said. "You'd say to everyone 'Meet at 3:00 behind the clock tower.'"

THE POSTER: Ali Ali took an old photograph of President Hosni Mubarak, added a Hitler-esque toothbrush moustache and floppy hair, and handed out copies to protesters. His Mubarak image shot around the world in news photos and blogs.
THE POSTER: Ali Ali took an old photograph of President Hosni Mubarak, added a Hitler-esque toothbrush moustache and floppy hair, and handed out copies to protesters. His Mubarak image shot around the world in news photos and blogs.
Conducting business as usual is impossible anyway. With the internet down, no courier services operating and all ad agencies closed, Mr. Ali missed the deadline to enter his acclaimed Panda Cheese campaign and a project for Coca-Cola's 125th anniversary in the prestigious D&AD creative awards. He's hoping the festival organizers in London will take into account the circumstances and grant him an extension.

Mr. Ali sees several lessons for marketers in the current turmoil. He hopes they will gain greater respect for the consumer and improve the quality of Egyptian advertising, which still uses too many simple jingles. Too often, he said, clients reject his idea for a campaign because they say Egyptians won't get it.

"Consumers have proved to be intelligent and they have a voice now," he said. "They're not stupid."

His other takeaway: Take digital advertising seriously.

"This is a social-network revolution that started on Twitter and Facebook," he said, and that's something every brand manager is now aware of. More than 14 million people are online in Egypt, and 80% of internet users are between 17 and 30, he said.

Like many Egyptians, Mr. Ali says he has never been involved in political activity before. "The beauty is this revolution is by the people and for the people," he said. "The people are fed up."

He said the Mubarak regime has tried to portray to the Western world that the choice in Egypt is between Mubarak and crazy Islamists with guns. "[Westerners] don't know most people in the opposition are regular folks, seculars who want their freedom."

And he doesn't expect the uprising to end with Egypt.

"Yes, it will spread," he said. "Tunisia started everything here. If we manage to overthrow Mubarak, it will be a huge inspiration to everyone in the Middle East."

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