We met with Tarek Chemaly, the hands and brains behind his eponymous specialized media critique blog, born in 2007 to fill the media void in the MENA region, specifically in Lebanon. The blog is now an established presence with a strong specialized readership. Chemaly brings light on the issues facing the Lebanese advertising scene, and his unique approach to journalism.
What inspired you to become a journalist and how did you get into the profession?
Well, that was at the American University of Beirut in 1993. There was a student newspaper called Campus…. I tried my luck and got schooled with two great journalists – David Livingstone and Ramez Maluf. Since then I had a very long stint with Colors, the United Colors of Benetton magazine and many other international assignments. In my archives however, I still have all the old Campus articles filed. Just recently someone asked about an article which was printed in 1995!
What’s your role at your blog and what are the latest developments there?
At this point I have the oldest still running blog in Lebanon since 2007. Being a blogger is so old hat, but to me that is part of my public image. My blog is still updated very frequently (as in several times a week). It is still after all these years my calling card. In 2017 I changed my URL, even if people sometimes still call me by the old acronym.
When blogging was still a thing, all agencies tried to “buy me out”. There were invites everywhere, free this and free that. Most bloggers sold their readership and their souls for that. I refused.
What essential qualities and skills do journalists need to thrive in today’s media landscape?
To have another job to lean on! Because journalism no longer makes money. People (yes, including me) expect their news here and now and for free. But still, one needs to be “impartial” since “objectivity” does not exist, and one is to be honest.
What is the reality of the ad scene in Lebanon right now? Do clients have enough of a budget to support agencies?
There are two versions – the one the advertisers wish us to believe (rosy, optimistic, moving on up) and the reality when even in February the billboards were filled with torn ads. Some of them go back to May of the previous year, when there was a small reprieve (there were elections and some political parties plastered ads everywhere on OOH – Out Of Home). If one is to be serious, the situation is pseudo-catastrophic. Even on TV there are barely any ads.
What do you think the industry should do to improve matters?
It would be nice if they stopped lying to themselves. But what do you expect?
As a trade journalist, how can you have a positive impact on the situation?
Look, I know I am not liked – when blogging was still a thing, all agencies tried to “buy me out”. There were invites everywhere, free this and free that. Most bloggers sold their readership and their souls for that. I refused. So basically I was disliked, marginalized, and ostracized. Now my site is in the 10 top most frequently visited sites in Lebanon as per the latest statistics. I think people just simply want someone to tell them things as they are. Not all people, but some do.
How d’you stay informed and updated on the latest trends and developments in the creative industry?
To be honest agencies never send me anything. So I need to do my own hunting – I take a lot of photos on the streets or screenshot ads etc. All of this is time consuming. You see, when agencies discovered I was not a sycophant or cannot be bought, they did not bother to include me in their press lists. So all of this is personal effort at this point. A friend of mine sends me things he sees online as well but mostly it is just me and my phone.
On a more cheerful note, what is your favorite Lebanese ad of all time? And what’s the most innovative Lebanese brand right now? Why?
I am not sure about “favorite of all time” but there was a very smart ad that appeared in 2008. It is one of those "blink and you’ll miss it" ads. It was for McDonald’s “Chicken McArabia” meal. The trick was that “Chicken McArabia” was written in Latin but from right to left as the Arabic language is written. Very subtle but very smart. Also, there was an ad that appeared in 2005 for Aizone (the kid brother brand of the very luxurious Aishti store). The ad was apparently simple. Since political parties hijacked all possible colors (blue, orange, green, yellow…. Etc…) the models in the ad were wearing all such colors and the line was “vote for tolerance”. But look closely and you will see one male model holding hands with another male model, and a female model putting her hand inside the shirt of a female model all while her hand is in the pocket of a male model. Basically, it was “sexual tolerance” the ad was advocating, not political tolerance. It made it through censorship and no one saw the small signs the ad was hiding in its details. Very clever.
What role do you see journalism playing in promoting and advocating for diversity and inclusion within the creative industry?
Diversity and inclusion on what level? If sexual, not much. If political also not much truth be told. Because people gravitate to outlets that support their own views. Let us at least be honest about that.
You see, when agencies discovered I was not a sycophant or cannot be bought, they did not bother to include me in their press lists.
Who are your role models or mentors in journalism and the creative world? And what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
You will not believe it. I don’t think I have any role models. I sincerely do not think one can emulate anyone else’s career or choices. No one can replicate anyone else’s trajectory. The best career advice? When I was still an engineer I was following a course in Sweden and saw a young boy in a small village by the fountain (one of those two-house and one convent turned into a hotel villages). I said hello and he replied. I asked him what he did for a living and he said he worked at the restaurant cleaning dishes, but he wanted to go to Greece. I asked “to do what?”, and he replied as if I was idiotic, “to work in a restaurant…. Cleaning dishes”. I told him I was very perplexed about my own career and he looked at me with the wisdom of the universe in his eyes and said: “My friend, you must go back to the bottom again”. I went back to Beirut, presented my resignation and jumped ship to work in advertising as a copywriter.
For someone who is so daft in technology, how come you host such a very successful blog?
Because I know how to do a lot with my limited knowledge. All the books that I have published were done on paintbrush not even on photoshop. That’s how stubborn I am.