Beyond Ad Bots: Elias Karam's human-centric vision for advertising

Abha Garyali Peer |

Elias Karam, Strategy Director at Grey Dubai, stands at the forefront of advertising innovation, constantly challenging conventional norms. In this exclusive interview, he sheds light on a critical aspect of AI in advertising—its inability to generate captivating positioning or creative ideas. From his journey spanning finance to marketing and now advertising, Elias shares insights into his passion for understanding human psychology and crafting strategies that resonate. Join us as we delve into his experiences, strategies, and vision for the future of advertising.

Please share your professional journey with us. How has it been with its highs and lows?

It’s been nothing short of a rollercoaster, I’ve always been about having a job that excites me and challenges me, and I’ve dedicated my career so far in search of that. I started out in finance in a tobacco company, and found it too mechanical, lacking the human relationships that I found more interesting.

After completing my master’s programme, I transitioned into marketing in hopes of finding what I was looking for in that field, but it wasn’t long before realized that the aspect of the work that I enjoyed the most was the one around brand perceptions and consumer behaviour, and, amusingly, it was there that I discovered the world of planning in the advertising field. Like a puzzle that finally fit, I discovered a profession dedicated to my love of writing and deep interest in consumer psychology.

Making the shift though was an incredible challenge for me and it was only later that I realized that planners were not only a scarce commodity in the industry but also one without a clear linear path to break into, so understandably few agencies were willing to take a bet on me. By serendipitous fortune, after a series of interviews and a case study, I got a chance at Publicis to be a planner.

Ever since, I’ve been hitting the ground running and grateful for every moment I’ve been a planner.

As you have mentioned you started with finance, then marketing and now in advertising. So where does your real passion lie? How would you rate yourself in advertising?

My passion lies in decoding human psychology, what motivates people, what interests them, and, more importantly, why it does. I've recently been fascinated by the signals and behaviors that many platforms capture to paint a personalized portrait of people. I see the potential for marrying my role as a planner with technology to transform our conversations with consumers, shifting from generic shots in the dark to ones of intimate understanding.

It's hard to say how I would rate myself in advertising, but I do love smart campaigns, ones that zero in on an insight and then through the power of creativity and technology deliver on something impactful. A great example is Cadbury’s ‘Shah Rukh Khan My Ad’ which brilliantly blends all three components. The industry is constantly evolving, and the lines between where advertising starts and stops is getting blurry; so what we may have known about advertising a few years ago may not apply today.

Can you describe your experience in developing and implementing successful advertising strategies at Grey Dubai? What is your approach to understanding a client's business and target audience when developing a marketing strategy?

I’ve had a great time developing both campaign and brand strategies at Grey Dubai. We have such a diverse set of clients across different industries from FMCG to retail to fintech, and the approach is almost entirely different each time.

Going back to consumer behaviour, within each category there is a sandbox of emotional territories to tap into that the brand can credibly deliver on to its target audience. At Grey, we employ our 'Famously Effective' Methodology to uncover and pinpoint that space within the context of culture, ensuring it holds unique and relevant meaning for our consumers.

Can you provide an example of a campaign where your strategic direction significantly contributed to the client's success? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

Out of respect for my current clients and the confidentiality of our recent projects, I'll share an example from a previous campaign I led for Nescafe.

Around two years ago, Nescafe was gearing up to launch a second burst of its Nescafe Ice product, and they sought to adapt the previous campaign to fit the summer season. The challenge presented itself twofold: how to uphold the essence of the previous campaign's line and look & feel while infusing it with freshness, and how to avoid succumbing to the temptation of portraying the ice beverage as merely a means to cool off in the scorching Gulf heat.

By delving into what the category did and how people’s lifestyle changes during the summer season, I noticed that people struggled to maintain that coolness and cheerful state during the season as everything became indoors; friends and family were out of town, and all iced beverages could do was keep them refreshed during the heat. So we leveraged those two realities to create a new take on the season that fit well under the ‘Be Ice’ platform for the product. It was one of those moments where the creative work and strategy were harmonized and in sync that it immediately got bought in by the client from the first round.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of digital advertising, how do you ensure that your strategies remain innovative and effective? Do you think AI is the next step for innovations?

I often work on an integrated level, getting insights and data from media, social agencies, and platforms to understand what elicits the best results and what is trending. A big part of planning is research and staying up to date on the latest campaigns, new approaches, and new trends across social to best leverage where it's relevant for our brands.

AI is indeed becoming increasingly indispensable in our daily operations. However, its Achilles heel, in my view, lies in its inability to make the creative leap when it comes to crafting intriguing positioning or generating innovative ideas. While AI text generators like Bard and Chat GPT can offer smart and logical strategies, they often fall short in presenting something truly creative or disruptive.

What role does consumer research play in your strategic planning process, and how do you ensure that insights are effectively incorporated into campaigns?

It’s the cornerstone of any campaign or strategic task, that serves as our starting point for what the brand can do for a consumer. Consumer research comes in many forms, and at Grey we try to collate as many different sources as possible from focus groups to commissioned studies to trends tools to create a data-driven approach from the smallest moment marketing campaign to a brand repositioning strategy.

Obtaining data is one aspect of the equation; the other lies in transforming that data into actionable insights for the creative team. I typically ensure insights are integrated into the work through two methods. Firstly, during the briefing, I showcase references that encapsulate a similar insight and initiate discussions with the creatives to gauge their thoughts on it. Secondly, when the creatives present their concepts, I reverse engineer the idea to verify if the insight I arrived at aligns with the one used in the briefing.

As a strategy director, how do you balance the need for creativity with the need for measurable results in advertising campaigns?

What really matters here is understanding what ‘measurable’ results we’re looking for to help inform the type of creativity we need. My role as a planner is to keep adjusting the thermostat on the creative license as we go through the funnel, helping them dial it down when giving way to more specific messages that have little flexibility.

What emerging technologies or platforms do you believe will have a significant impact on the advertising industry in the next few years, and how are you preparing for those changes?

Generative AI is revolutionizing our industry, with tools like Runway and Midjourney becoming essential not only for creatives with an art background but also for planners seeking to bring their strategic propositions to life. These tools have democratized the visualization process, granting individuals without an art background the ability to act as visual creators with just a few prompts.

Another key platform to watch out for is TikTok which has redefined what content should look like. Once upon a time, classic 30-second films needed high production budgets and a very staged look. As TikTok took the world by storm, we saw more and more consumers want authentic raw content, demanding the insights, the casting, and the content to feel closer to home. This had larger implications on how consumers wanted to see content, even outside TikTok.

While these are just two of the many new and changing faces that are impacting the industry. We have already made great strides in embracing those changes rather than pushing them away. We work closer with the platform, using different tools to understand new trends and content formats that best serve the consumer. Regarding Generative AI, an increasing number of team members across departments are enhancing their capabilities through these tools to streamline processes. However, it's crucial to ensure that despite the utilization of AI, the creative and human touch remains integral to our work.

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to answer this question with any degree of accuracy; I often change my point of view within months! While I don't know where I’ll be, I certainly know that what I’ll be doing will revolve around data & technology and using it to better understand human behaviour to help brands genuinely get closer to its audience.