BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. As part of their sponsorship of LBB’s Middle East edition, over the coming months, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
In this feature, we sit down with Sebastien Boutebel, Saatchi & Saatchi Dubai’s chief creative officer (CCO) to speak about his experience with creativity around the globe. Working across France, Canada, London and the UAE and having lived in nine different countries, his understanding of cultures and ability to observe and adapt have made him a better creative with curiosity at the helm of his work.
After stepping into the CCO role, he has worked on campaigns for the UAE Government Media Office with ‘Empty Plates’, the ‘Bread Exam’ for the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation as well as the ‘Oreo & Friends’ spot for the popular cookie brand. Prior to this, while working in Paris, his work at McCann included work for Citroen, Purina, Diplomatico and many others. It’s safe to say that he’s familiar with creating campaigns which spark a conversation and tell a brand’s story.
Speaking to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani, Sebastian explains how his love of all things art started at school, why he chose to study economics and how he found his way back into the creative industry, making his mark with the an idea he jotted down on a piece of paper.
LBB> Let’s start at the beginning, when did you first have an indication of wanting to be a creative? Was there anything in particular which inspired you?
Sebastien> It all started in a very common place. Sitting at the back of an art class, which is mandatory for any student in the French educational system. We get introduced to the principles of art through drawing, painting, and crafting objects, which can either be functional or decorative. While most students were looking forward to these three weekly hours of recess, every second meant the world to me. Every task and every brush stroke felt as if they were the foundation of something much greater. While my art teachers were enthusiastic and eager to challenge me, the rest of the lot had given up. I wasn’t a good student – mediocre at best. My note and schoolbooks, full of drawings on every single page, were a testament to that. That said, seeing my parents in a complete state of despair, having no understanding of where all this could lead, I decided to focus my studies in a field which could resonate with them. I chose economics. After a year and a half at university as a B student, I found myself in a state of complete mental breakdown and depression.
To make a long story short, with the support of both my parents and the guidance counsellor, I was able to fast track my transition to a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Film Animation. I took numerous classes in photography, drawing, painting, calligraphy, sculpting and cinematography in order to make that happen. But the spark happened when I was still struggling to find my way, juggling with equations, inflations and business cycles.
I was lucky enough to find an internship at Havas Group, formerly known as Euro RSCG in Paris. When expected to prepare coffee and handle the photocopy machine, I fell upon a brief for Citroen. The ask was simple. The client needed a print ad to celebrate its car winning the Mont-Blanc Rallye. And they needed it yesterday. At that time, I didn’t know much. I didn’t quite understand what a brief was, nor did I know creative teams had to handle meeting deadlines. I flipped the A4 brief and started drawing lines on the back - Citroen’s two chevrons. But with one minor difference, the below chevron had a simple wiggle underneath it. And then wrote ‘Citroen. Mont Blanc Rallye Winner’. I gave it to a creative director. The shocked yet relieved look on his face is still engraved in my mind. Soon after the ad was released. I remember creatives coming up to me and saying “good job”. On that day, it’s safe to say I got hooked.
LBB> Growing up you lived in various countries; how did this impact your worldview? And can you tell us about some of the differences in advertising across markets?
Sebastien> I was fortunate to have lived in nine countries. Your first reflex when moving to a new country is to observe and then adapt. You focus on differences. Your instinct tells you to look closely and find a way to welcome those differences. To embrace them and agree with them. Curiosity becomes your drive and kindness - your language. You keep searching for more, your thirst becomes insatiable. Then gradually the similarities kick in. And they become more and more obvious. Revealing themselves once the cloud of novelty and exoticism has lifted. When you reach that point, you realise a simple yet universal truth, our similarities outweigh our differences. Advertising as an industry is no exception. We focus on what makes us different, from our artistic references, and our cultural insights, to our religious beliefs. When shaping ideas, what prevails are the character traits which reside in most, if not all of us.
LBB> Do you remember the pieces of work which you believe changed things for your career? Can you share details of creating and launching the campaign?
Sebastien> Two come to mind. The first one would be ‘Street Vet
’ for Purina, a digital billboard which invited dogs to pee on it. We realised that more than a million dogs in France would skip their annual visit to their vet, because of their owner’s mere forgetfulness or even laziness. We first attracted dogs with pheromones, tapped into their natural urge to pee on a pole, and then collected the urine which was analysed in thirty seconds. The billboard displayed the results and if a health problem was perceived, the relevant Purina ProPlan product was suggested. It took us two years to launch this project and a whole lot of research with the help of an engineering institute.
These projects can put a strain on everyone. For the client, who can lose patience and easily decide not to commit to such an endeavour and for the team where their dedication is tested for a long period of time. But all is well when the work gets celebrated by the industry and when the idea resonates across the globe with markets wanting to implement it locally.
The second is the ‘Bread Exam’ for the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation. This was a recipe video which demonstrated the steps of a breast self-exam with the help of similar gestures when kneading and pressing dough. Because tradition prevented Lebanese women from talking openly about their bodies, we had to show them how to perform a self-exam without ever mentioning nor showing breasts. It actually took three years to bring this to life. Due to the nature of the idea and its controversial substance, clients wouldn’t dare associate themselves with the cause however commendable it might be. It takes a lot of courage, spirit and resolve in doing so. Luckily these clients do exist, even more so in the Middle East.
LBB> You’ve worked across many different markets, Europe, Canada and now the Middle East. What about the UAE appealed to you and how has your experience been so far?
Sebastien> I was born in Saudi Arabia. My brother was born in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates two years later. We as a family then lived in Dubai until I was five years old before moving to Sweden. I have some vivid souvenirs of those years, from taste and colours to smell. From the altering colours of the sunsets to the strong scent of gasoline when crossing the creek on an abra. All of which grew alongside me throughout my travels. I then became a father of two and I promised myself they would one day benefit from the same type of experiences, as I was fortunate enough to have as a son of a diplomat. Dubai was a no-brainer. In addition to desperately wanting to rediscover the city, it also offers the best conditions for a family. It’s safe, clean and the school system is exemplary. Professionally, Publicis Groupe provided me with an ambition, and a vision, one you can only agree with if you’re up for a challenge. In the span of one year at Saatchi & Saatchi ME, we managed to double the agency (in both headcount and revenue) while winning over 35 awards and ranking as the second most effective agency in the region.
LBB> Many say the Middle East is an ambitious region of the world, have you noticed this? How does this ambition translate into creativity?
Sebastien> Due to the nature of this market, creatives in the Middle East have always been highly reactive and proactive. Heavy workloads and short timelines for delivery have created a pool of talents that are quick to develop solutions. I believe this is an indicator of how the industry is evolving on a global level. In a world where communication is becoming more about topicality and relevance, creatives need to become much more reactive. I’ve found that creatives here show resilience and next-level commitment. This comes with their challenger spirit where their hunger for success pilots their dedication.
LBB> What is your favourite aspect of the creative process and why?
Sebastien> I’ve always believed that great strategic insight amounts to 80% of the work. A powerful, provocative insight that resonates with a human truth is crucial from the very beginning. From then on, it’s about making the right, intuitive connections while working towards the greater purpose. A new idea is born when two separate notions are connected for the very first time.
One thing to remember when developing an idea is that it’s not a matter of ownability and defined territories of who did what. It’s about achieving the end goal and ensuring everyone is contributing to shared value. Everyone’s held accountable for making things happen. We need continuous insights from planners, opportunities based on business objectives from client servicing, and innovative solutions provided by the creatives.
LBB> Can you share a few recent pieces of work which you’re particularly proud of working on?
Sebastien> With the UAE Government Media Office, we developed the ‘Empty Plates’ campaign
as part of their Ramadan hunger relief initiative. What made this campaign effective and impactful was the cultural context. In the UAE, unique licence plates are symbols of prestige and command respect on the roads. Millions of dollars are spent on them every year. So we created the most unique plate yet—the Empty Plate. For one week, hundreds of cars with empty licence plates flooded the streets of Dubai, sparking organic word of mouth and speculation. Ultimately the campaign served as a cross-channel invitation for the ultra-elite to partake in our hunger relief auction. The auction raised $44 million and with it, 164 million meals were donated to countries in need. Empty Plates ultimately filled millions of empty plates.
‘Oreo & Friends’ is a campaign that is near and dear to me, too. It was built on one key discovery of ours: ‘Oreo’ is the 6th most popular name for black-and-white coloured pets. With this honour, Oreo, the brand, holds great responsibility. In a country so heavily populated by expats, pet abandonment is a real issue, as people often leave Dubai suddenly for new jobs and visa reasons. When we heard that a lot of black-and-white pets and their friends were up for adoption, we were inspired to launch ‘Oreo & Friends’. Through this campaign, we helped our furry friend find homes, as Oreo packs were reimagined to resemble kennels using Oreos as a visual language, and a QR code redirected people to a site where they could adopt their very own Oreo.
LBB> How would you describe your leadership style? What’s something you’re passionate about bringing to the table?
Sebastien> True leadership lies in contagious energy. By energy I mean two things: empowerment and fuelling passion. It’s important to step out of the spotlight and redirect it to those you wish to empower, allowing them to feel a sense of ownership and trust in their own skills. Leadership isn’t about bureaucracy and delegating tasks, it’s about being able to sense others’ strengths and empower them to use them to make magic. And fuelling passion is key to creative leadership. You want to ensure that when someone leaves your office, they’re left with a sense of excitement and anticipation for what they can create. You can only share energy when you have a strong sense of empathy, kindness, and respect. To understand others’ strengths and potential, you have to step into their mindset and viewpoints. And with kindness and respect, everyday obstacles are made more manoeuvrable. At the end of the day, we all want to enjoy what we do. And joy comes from a place of positivity and warmth.
LBB> Is there any advice you’d give people who are starting out in the industry?
Sebastien> At the beginning you have to learn it all, dissect all those great campaigns, all those award-winning ideas, spend hours, days, months in those archives, become jealous, frustrated by the genius of those thoughts and then forget them. Discard them as if they never existed. Then travel, never get comfortable, keep on travelling. You might have to settle one day, but do it for the right reasons. That should be a good start.
LBB> When you aren’t working, do you have any hobbies which take up your time?
Sebastien> When I’m not spending time with my kids, I’m completely devoted to the well-being of animals and gaming. I used to volunteer at shelters in France, this included cleaning boxes, feeding the animals and taking them out for a walk. To be honest I haven’t had the chance to commit to it here yet but will do so hopefully sooner than later. What I did though is to find time to pull off gaming as often as time permits. I used to be a play tester for Ubisoft during my university years in Montreal. I know right, getting paid to play video games, what’s not to like?