Despite Obstacles, Ad Agency Edicoo Thrives in Iraq

Unlikely Success of Mahmoud Zebari's Shop Offers Signs of Economic Recovery for War-Torn Region

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BEIJING ( -- As if running an ad agency isn't stressful enough, Mahmoud Zebari has a few extra concerns to worry about besides marketing shaving cream and baby diapers: for example, ethnic tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and car bombs.

Mahmoud Zebari, founder of Edicoo
Mahmoud Zebari, founder of Edicoo
The agency he founded in 2007, Edicoo, is based in Erbil, Iraq's fourth-largest city and a leading commercial center given that Baghdad is occupied by U.S. military forces.

Surprisingly, given the security concerns and financial state of Iraq overall, Edicoo's business is thriving, said Mr. Zebari. The agency took in $4 million in revenue during its first two years of operation and employs about 15 people.

Mr. Zebari, a handsome, well-dressed 34-year-old from Mosul, a Kurdish city about 50 miles west of Erbil, met with Ad Age in Beijing during a recent global meeting of ICOM members. Edicoo joined the international network of independent ad agencies earlier this year as the group's "first member in an active war zone," said Gary Burandt, the association's executive director.

Mr. Zebari, who studied management at Turkey's Bilkent University, started the agency after noticing sharp increases in consumer spending as well as marketer interest in Iraq. A worker with a government salary in 1994 earned just less than $15 per month; today, the same job pays almost $450. And about 230,000 cars were sold last year just in Erbil.

"Iraqis are getting richer and feeling freedom after Saddam [Hussein's removal from power in 2003]," Mr. Zebari said.

Peace in Kurdistan
And life in Erbil, home to about 1.7 million people, isn't too dangerous compared to the rest of Iraq. The city has endured just two major attacks in the past seven years, and Kurds tend to be more open to foreigners and Western brands. Much of the money floating around Erbil comes from Kurdistan's oil fields.

"Kurdistan is safe now, and has about six million people, 20% of Iraq's total population. Every company wants to do business there now," Mr. Zebari said.

Well, maybe not everyone, but Iraqi consumers can already find products made by multinational marketers such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, usually distributed by local firms, and Edicoo competes against a handful of other local agencies in Erbil.

Although Baghdad is "getting better," Mr. Zebari said, marketing in Iraq's capital is largely limited to a handful of military-related construction, telecom, and oil and gas companies, and it is more dependent on PR than consumer advertising. The dangers of operating in Baghdad mean Iraq's fledgling ad industry is mostly growing up outside that city in places with more stable economies and less fighting, like Erbil and Duhok, another city in northern Iraq.

About 2,500 Turkish companies such as Turkish Airlines and Evyap Holdings, a soap and cosmetics manufacturer that is an Edicoo client, have also made inroads into Kurdistan.

The agency also works with local firms such as Korek Telecom and Rekan Group, a construction giant. Edicoo designed the logo for the president of Kurdistan and handled the political campaigns for Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party. (His political connections run deep; his father, Hoshyar Mahmoud Zebari, has been Iraq's minister of foreign affairs since 2003, and before that was a spokesman for the KDP.)

Marketing to Kurds requires painstaking localization. Ad copy created for other markets and the rest of Iraq must be translated into the local written language, while cultural differences occur even from town to town within Kurdistan.

Firmly established in Erbil, Edicoo is branching out. It recently opened an office in Duhok and it sells ad space for Vin TV, one of the region's top music channels. The agency is also moving into social networking, working with advertisers on viral ads, blogs and videos. Taking its own advice, the agency has a website, a Twitter account and a Facebook page, standard tactics for western agencies but an avant-garde approach at home.

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