Since I formed my consultancy just over a year ago, I have been to some strange and esoteric places. My overseas travels took me to Tehran last week, where I presented at the 4th World Advertising & Branding Forum. (When I mentioned to my host that it was a world event attended only by Iranians, he replied “well, the Americans call their baseball championships the World Series, so why not?”)

I must confess that I really didn’t want to go; I had a week full of travel, the bureaucracy behind visa applications was a major hurdle and I was slightly nervous about the impact of a Romney victory on short-term US-Iranian relationships. In the end, not only was I glad I went, I found it an enlightening experience.

In fact – and this is a word those who know me well have rarely heard me use – it was quite humbling.

For all of the above reasons, media and marketing experts from the west rarely visit Iran and there has been a scarcity of information or insight available to the Iranian business community. This means there is massive demand for conferences like WABF; almost a thousand attendees paying top dollar (literally) to attend a conference over their weekend break. Now there’s commitment to trying to develop a business in even the most trying of circumstances.

It certainly is a challenge. In Iran, TV is still king, mainly through the state broadcaster, IRIB, although supposedly illegal satellite dishes are increasingly popular. There is a healthy print market with 20 daily newspapers alone. Digital is naturally restricted, not only because of low penetration rates but also state disapproval; for example, Facebook has been blocked several times and owning a Facebook account is still perceived as an act of defiance.

Not to mention the massive restrictions on what you can actually advertise, or how. For my second presentation, I had gathered together a group of examples of fantastic campaigns around the four major themes of my first presentation; engagement, storytelling, sharing and trust. I had naturally taken out the more raunchy ads, such as Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Still Red Hot’ campaign, but I was astounded when a number of others had to be discarded because of the occasional glimpse of a bare arm or background kiss. It did make me realise how much sex and glamour is so pervasive in our big brand advertising (and how boring it would be without it!).

Yet, despite so many restrictions on their media and marketing communications, every delegate I met was enthusiastic and eager to share their experiences. They were amongst the most interactive audiences I’ve ever presented to and asked some of the most thought-provoking questions. There was full attendance for every session of the two day conference and a real desire to learn from our experiences.

I’ve always believed that restrictions can breed creativity, and I saw many examples of brilliant marketing – sampling, point-of-sale, billboards (one of the highlights of the trip was seeing my ugly mug beaming down from several billboards around the conference centre), crowd sourcing and blogging. There was a strong entrepreneurial instinct and desire to innovate. Not surprising, given Iran is the youngest country in the world with 70% of the population under the age of 30.

The constant thud of technological disruption and shifting consumer behaviour can sometimes deafen us to real-life creativity. When you live in a theocracy that limits your interaction with the outside world and restricts what you can say, show or do, that can often mean going back to the marketing basics.  It is humbling to see it done against such a challenging backdrop and with such panache.

  • Claire Willers

    Really interesting stuff. I would love to read a follow up on what advertising you encountered there, from a consumer POV, and how you found it.