Colorblind is a consultancy based in Lebanon; PSFK caught up with their founder, Frida Chehlaoui, to discuss the shop’s experience.

Colorblind is a courageous strategy shop that brings world class thinking to the Middle East market. New to Beirut’s advertising scene, it adopts a flexible business model that enables it to navigate through the ups and downs of an unpredictable economy. PSFK got in touch with Colorblind’s founder, Frida Chehlaoui to talk about the role of planning in the middle east get some insight into how brands and ad agencies are thinking about their service.

What was you motivation in starting Colorblind? What were some challenges in getting your start?

I never really bought the so-called best-practice system of strategic planning. I didn’t see why one would choose the convenience of a static model, structure and people, over the flexibility of, say, getting the right talent every time. I believe that the quality of an idea is proportional to the pleasure one gets from generating it – and one same talent, however brilliant, can’t possibly enjoy all types of projects equally.

There was also the conviction that brand strategies shouldn’t be developed by brand strategists alone: what about the industry experts? The dissatisfied customers?  The competiton’s fanatics?  How would the end result change if they all poured their experiences and knowledge into the process?

The main challenge wasn’t in finding the talent to start and launch Colorblind: most of the people who can deliver on the requisite quality and innovation are experimental by nature, to say the least!

But clients are usually not; especially in this part of the world, where strategic planning remains a relatively recent add-on service offered by ad agencies. Shifting to an innovative, organic model then becomes reserved to the innovative organic few… Still, and surprisingly, those few clients aren’t as “few” as I thought they’d be.

How do you work? What are your current clients expecting from your team?

We form a team around the particular needs of a client; then, when the work is done and the needs are satisfied, the team is dispersed. So one thing clients definitely expect is gathering the right people around each of the projects we handle. Also, clients increasingly expect maximum efficiency in budget allocation and ROI, which we answer by replacing blanket retainer fees with billing per project.

But the paramount expectation remains getting a solid, simple and actionable brand strategy and its optimal execution, which is nothing other than the best chain of events that would connect the business objectives of a company to the mindset and expectations of a consumer.

In your opinion, what are the smartest, most strategy driven brands in the region? What makes their approach smarter than average?

There definitely are the regional moguls who have developed powerful brands, such as Emirates Airlines and its consistent innovation and convenience platform, or Zain that managed what all operators aim for: a service-based revenue generation model under an emotional brand image.

There also are the brands that are built around a thorough understanding of the consumer’s mindset in the region, such as ALBAIK, the Saudi fast food chain that was one of the first to offer an alternative to what was the norm of eating-in, and that today attracts locals and expats equally; or Barbican, the non-alcoholic beer that managed to cater to hip teens by leveraging the experience you get out of a typically alcoholic drink.

How does the market in Lebanon compare to other Middle Eastern countries?

Given the small scale of the market, Lebanese brands are usually less prone to undergo the whole brand strategy exercise unless they’re expanding (new market penetration, franchising, etc.), which explains why most of the projects we’re working on today are for the region.

Also, the highly fragmented market is often perceived as an obstacle to effective communication, which is indeed the case when it comes to classical media. But the rise of not-so-classical agencies (digital, ambient, content) shows that clients are becoming increasingly familiar with alternative touch points.  This is to say that I personally believe the Lebanese market is currently undergoing changes, and that the next pioneering brand strategies in the region are going to happen here, in Lebanon.

Where do you find inspiration?

That’s a very, very tough one: I’m not very linear when it comes to looking for inspiration, and anything can trigger a chain reaction that would lead to the Aha! moment… Here is me trying:

When it comes to brand and business related topics, my favorite spots are Contagious Magazine, BBH Labs, Stockholm-based The Planning Lab, the blogs of Russell Davies, Seth Godin, and John Gapper, Paul Arden’s books, DDB Yellowpaper, HBR, and Mckinsey quarterly.

As for the less thematic inspiration, the main online sources are TED talks, PSFK, The Inspiration Room, More New Math, xkcd, and what is being shared on social networks.

Offline inspiration would be authors such as Murakami, Boris Vian, Nizar Kabbani, songwriters such as Jacques Brel, Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen and Dhafer Youssef, and any experience I live.

One incredible book I read recently and that inspired me in more than a way would be Jonathan Black’s The Secret History of the World.

Anything else you would like to add?

Yes. To all those talents out there with a knack for thinking and a stomach for unchartered waters, my email address: frida.chehlaoui@colorblindstrategies.com

Thanks Frida!

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