Thursday, October 22, 2015

An idea-lized happiness with Farid Chehab

As the launching of Farid Chehab’s new book nears on October 29 a question kept popping up in my mind: How can I interview him for the blog? The problem was easy to solve, I have his cell number, he calls me “friend”, we hang out together, whatsapp often enough… So where was my dilemma? You see, I have been involved and enamored with the book from day one. I am responsible for the English version which will be published soon enough after the French, and I know every twist and turn in the book from working so extensively on transposing it as it was being written from one language to another.
So, the answer was simple, to make the interview worthwhile, I was going to play the devil’s advocate. So far, the press has been in awe of the book, and it is easy to understand why. Filled with thoughts, extrapolations, hints, anecdotes, and a hoard of other things, the book stands as a testimony for the life, career but also conceptual mind of Farid (OK, I am dropping the pretense of calling him by his last name a I only did so only once via email exchange and that happened before we even met in person).
One of the first elements that attracted my attention was the name of the book “Du Bonheur et des Idees” (Of Happiness and Ideas). In a world of Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, happiness comes from shedding a few pounds, or owning a pet, so the word has been bastardized, and indeed what kind of happiness does he harp on when he speaks, I ask: “I thankfully have no pretention of approaching happiness in the way everyone looks at, I do so only via ideas, in my career I noticed every time I was fiddling with ideas or was surrounded by people who were, there was exuberant joy and happiness around me, so was enough for me to go from that angle.”
Well, yes, it is easy to be happy to call home a semi-industrial duplex in a hip building, what’s there to nag about? The blue eyes sparkle and the smile flashes in return, “oh, happiness is not in the material things. As soon as you put the material aspect as a benchmark someone will come and top you; you bought a boat? Someone just moored an even bigger boat next to you, and you’d feel sad and deprived.” This reminded me of the first meeting I ever had with Farid in a café in Jounieh where he was showing me names of business people in Lebanon, “look at those, they are ten times richer than I am. But it’s OK, you can’t have everything!” he added nonchalantly really meaning that part.
“Material comfort is not the aim, and I know for a fact that living in wealthy material circumstances does not bring in happiness, most of my life, I have been too busy cracking ideas to enjoy the material wealth they brought, and frankly, even till today I have to be very careful with my expenses when I travel, and trust me I am by no means a wealthy man.”
And the house? I insist. “Well, the house is a minimum requirement for someone who has been toiling all his life. I am not an investor, I do not believe in Return On Investment that my money brings. I actually despise money. The only thing I concentrate on is the creative mind.” But does it pay the bills? “Yes, because I speak not of creativity for the sake of creativity, rather I link it to on-the-ground productivity in a bigger economic cycle.”
Well, when Farid said “toiling all his life” he meant it, as the book details trade-offs at school between his genius at drawing against ice creams and sandwiches. Should you wish to know how this landed him in hot water, just read the book (hint: erotic drawings were part of that!).
“Let us say I shall divide this between creative ideas and industries, any industry. My job is to sell an idea which means to push physical productivity a positive point, not just as a product, but as a quality as well. Take Exotica, the H&C (Homsi & Chehab the agency now known as H&C Leo Burnett) idea for them was built on a simple premise – the idea that Exotica fills your life with joy, so whenever you buy Exotica you get a joyful experience.” Indeed, the first selling line for Exotica was “plante la joie” – or “plants joy”. “H&C had the purpose of creating ideas that added value to the mind, today, it is well known that every brand has a purpose which is to bring you happiness. Here I go back to the Humankind philosophy which I helped initiate at Leo Burnett which is if the idea does not bring a positive purpose to life then it is not a good idea. Idea, happiness, that simple.”
“I shall even elaborate on a company, I do not know personally, the Rifai group which specializes in nuts. They had that genius idea of vacuum packing the nuts to extend their freshness and conditioning so that people would enjoy that for a longer time. But they did not stop there, they kept experimenting with how to even enhance that formula, to even increase the experience.” Case in point, the first tagline for Rifai when it appeared on television was “drives you nuts” which like its Exotica counterpart, stressed on emotions and experiences. “Starbucks goes along those same lines, it is not just about having a coffee, but also about the full experience as such, the purpose is to build a connection, it is an experience maker not just a coffee maker.”
Well, considering the book is based on personal experiences, and since as an advertiser he spent his career beautifying the truth, was there such embellishments in the narration, I wonder? “Listen, we built H&C with ideas that gave an added value to the mind. Exotica, Dewar’s White Label (with its famous “when it’s love in never varies” line), and later a part of Leo Burnett, specifically the Humankind philosophy. None of that was lies, and Charles Homsi and I built it that way.”
Well, to be honest what annoyed me was that Farid went into a coma due to a skiing accident, and this was the jumpstart of the whole book – a “therapy” he even corrects me – “but you make it look like a picnic that coma!” I add frustrated. “What can I say, I am an optimist and maybe even lucky. I always saw an opportunity in new things. We started H&C in 1974 with a bank loan and in 1975 all hell broke loose with the war. So we packed and went to Paris to keep the business afloat, and me being me, I was more excited to leave for Paris and enjoy it as opposed to lamenting the dire state of business in Beirut! So the coma simply hit me in the same way – an obstacle turned into an opportunity.”
Is this like all those Lebanese who say “rizk’Allah” about the war days? Because, as the book details, the function of the mind is mostly for preservation and war gives the mind the necessary rush to activate it. “I guess we must differentiate between reminiscing about the war, and being stuck recreating the circumstances that bring it again. There are two options – either look forward or complain. As Lebanese we have a problem going out of our comfort zone, to team together and work for a common purpose, to think as a team and create. We are selfish, unable to listen to others, cannot work together to bring the lost happiness.”
The words “lost happiness” strike a nerve with me, because if everything was so hunky dory, how come we ended up with the 1975 war on our hands? The book is full of references to what is generally considered the “golden age” of Beirut and the glitz and glamour of the St. George Yacht Motor Club days with sun-tanning beauties and frolicking men around them. “True, the memory does have a tendency to psychologically embellish everything related to the past” Farid admits. “Look at Gone With the Wind, the American movie, it is full of reminiscence of the past, but it is a past full of slavery and other such atrocities. I guess we enhanced the beauty of the 60s to give us hope to go on living, but the mistake many people are doing is that they remember without doing any practical action on the ground.”
Is this why a Bet For a National Conscience, the earlier book penned by him was born? “Oh yes, “A Bet” was indeed an idea, a brand, a calling for the Lebanese to gather around one federalized plan which would even out our differences so much that a hundred thousand voted yes for such a project, but wicked people endangered the plan. Maybe due to ignorance, maybe bad faith or mercantilism. But as long as I can contribute to that awakening I will. But let’s face it, as a country we barely had our independence. So there was no time to build a national spirit. Basically all militia leaders came from the same mold: I rule, I steal, I destroy, I hate, I kill. No time to build an education for a generation, where neighbors are respected, where people talk in a civilized way in restaurants, where parents tell their children to be quiet in pubic, where people learn to stay in lines, where no banana peels are thrown on the street, where we live in an egalitarian society … This is the work for two or three generations to come but we must not let our hands down unless we continue, we would have failed already and that is not an option.”
The words “egalitarian society” reminded me of the round table Farid is throwing on the 29th of October – the names of the participants are Bechara Mouzannar (an advertiser), Chawki Azouri (a psychiatrist), Fifi AbouDib (a writer), Nadine Labaki (a movie director), Rabih Keyrouz (a fashion designer), in addition to Farid himself and with a moderation by Bernard Khoury (an architect) which will take place at the Antoine library stand at the BIEL exhibition hall on the 29th of October this year. There was nothing “egalitarian” when one invites the crème de la crème of the creative industries in Lebanon, I say.
“Look, I wanted to invite my concierge who does beautiful homes from matches and proudly shows them to me because they bring him so much happiness, he is a living proof of my idea that ideas do indeed bring happiness and joy, but if I invited him to talk, would this have brought people to listen? I truly doubt. So I went the other way and eventually got these people who are known to be crowd-magnets for us to have that discussion. Still, the happiness brought by ideas is real, it could be a dish being cooked or flying a remote-controlled plane, or whatever, and everyone has their own happiness, their own idea.”
With this, the “interview” part was over, I shut down my notebook (a real notebook, not a computer, I am still very retro as a journalist) and the rest of the time? The rest of the time was what always happens when with Farid, talk and ideas and thoughts and camaraderie that goes beyond a silly age difference, and then he says “happiness, is to spend time with you speaking of these matters!” Yes, I too was feeling so much happiness for having shared such ideas with him, even saying that sounded redundant, even a bit futile. After all, he has written a full book about it!

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