Poetry in hand, Randa Abdou would stand before luminaries of Egypt’s opposition movement. Her parents, founding members of the Al-Wafd party, urged their young daughter to recite her writings at their home. The audience comprised of individuals suppressed under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime for their political activities and journalism, having done their share of jail time.
“I was very shy,” Abdou recalls. And yet, she mustered the wherewithal and read aloud. “They encouraged me and this gave me a lot of courage to address people publicly,” she says. “If these people faced what they faced, what is it that I could fear?” she says. “It gave me something in life. It gave me another perspective to life…there shouldn’t be any fear.”
Although she didn’t follow in her mother and father’s political footsteps, Abdou has dipped into that fearlessness cultivated within her at that early stage in making her mark in the business world as CEO of the Creative Lab Group. She founded Marketing Mix in 1996 and two spinoff companies, Creative Lab, an advertising agency, and then Ice Branding, a corporate identity, packaging and branding firm. Abdou has elevated Egyptian brands on a global scale, proving they can outwit international labels and even attract multinational acquisition. Yet reaching that point has called for Abdou’s restoration of confidence in their potential, through belief in oneself, in one another, in one’s place-still essential as Egypt reshapes, or rebrands, itself as a country.
Abdou had done well working in marketing at international firms, Proctor & Gamble and then PepsiCo. Looking more locally in the mid-1990s, however, she noticed a gap. “I learned a lot from these two multinationals and what I saw around me was a lot of Egyptian companies that had the machinery, the products, the sales reps, the everything, but they didn’t have the right marketing, or the right brands,” she says. “I saw an opportunity there and I said, ‘OK, fine. If what I’ve been doing for the past years is this and I know how it could be done, then I’d rather go out and help these companies have their own brands and establish strong brands.”
She then left the job she loved. Throwing herself into the unknown, her mother was left perplexed. Other major companies also approached her with offers, but she was determined. “I remember very well that I was sitting in my room, on my bed, and my mom was really worried about me and she was like, ‘Why don’t you look at any of the opportunities that you have?’ And I said, ‘PepsiCo will be the last company I ever work for,'” Abdou says. “There’s just maybe a certain level of confidence that someone needs to get into this and I had it at that point of time. And I could feel it.”
Her business launched with merely a laptop and printer at her home. She wore golden eyeglasses and overly formal suits and asked her partner, who had joined her from PepsiCo, to grow out his mustache, in an effort to appear older. Their competitors, at the time, were mostly university professors who worked as marketing consultants. Initially, the pair had to build confidence and convince clients that what they offered was something new. “We were actually redefining or launching a new concept to the market, which is hands-on marketing. And our slogan then was, ‘more than just consultancy,'” she says. “We follow through until the implementation.”
Even at age 30, when she started her enterprise, Abdou had created a self-brand of the know-how and performance that she represented. A friend of a friend owned a cheese brand and from time to time, Abdou had passed on ideas for his product. “Never stop giving, because when you give, you get paid back,” she says. When that man learned she was starting up her own consultancy, he asked for a meeting. Abdou scored her first contract. Best Cheese Company is now the largest manufacturer of dairy products in Egypt, known for its President label, as well as the top food exporter in Egypt. More than 15 years later, Abdou still counts the company among her clients.
More than luck, Abdou points to her previous years in the field and the relationships she had sown for essentially bringing business to her. She says there’s a need for people to recalibrate their views on work in relation to their employers. “People think that they work for the companies, but I say they work for themselves,” she says. “A lot of people, they get frustrated because of their bosses. They get frustrated for many reasons around them and they just don’t do the right job, because they are feeling they don’t deserve this. They deserve this amount of my time or of my energy or of my life or anything. This is totally wrong because, at the end of the day, you are working to build a CV and this [is the] CV that you’re going to sell yourself with later on.”
Before quitting PepsiCo, Abdou had worked on Lay’s, the chip brand, but left before the launch. She was approached by Chipsy, the Egyptian snack maker, to do consulting, but the idea of moving from one company to work with the competition right away didn’t feel ethical, at least not before one year passed. More than a year later, the call came: “We want you to do a commercial for us.” The company had been spending a lot of money, with no results. Abdou explained that her firm did marketing, not advertising. “They said, ‘We don’t care. We want you to come back tomorrow with an idea,'” she says. She and her team were unsure whether they could pull it off. But they put their heads together. Brainstorming ensued. And she penned the script for their first commercial. “Sometimes the opportunity comes, either you grab it or you just don’t. And this is one of the opportunities that came to us. If we had said, ‘We’re sorry, we don’t do it,’ khalas, the opportunity would have gone forever.” From there, many other companies approached them for advertising services, giving birth to her second company, Creative Lab.
Chipsy became her biggest client. Lay’s had taken a big bite out of Chipsy’s business. Just as she had set out to do, Abdou stepped in to promote the homegrown brand. Consumers said they had grown up with Chipsy and felt bad about the foreign brand edging in to destroy it. Her team zeroed in on this emotional link. “We felt that we need to capitalize on this,” she says. They developed a patriotic, even nationalistic coated campaign. They contended that if you’re partial to the brand, you call yourself chipsawy and by association, you’re masrawy, Egyptian. To love the brand, meant loving the country. “We were the first brand to come out and say, ‘Hey, we’re Egyptian. Be proud,'” she says. “This was in 1998 and this was not a popular approach at all. The popular approach was, ‘Hey, I’m foreign. Come.’ So, we reversed the whole thing and since then, this kind of advertising has been like really growing, until we got our revolution, you know,” she says with a laugh.
The evocative message, interwoven with identity and aplomb, even caused Abdou to become emotional during presentations about the brand. She says achieving success with a multinational brand brings satisfaction, but with an Egyptian product, it’s extremely fulfilling and an unparalleled feeling. “I don’t know why in Egypt, sometimes we don’t believe in ourselves,” she says. She remembers her first client questioning how they would compete with foreign outlets. “It’s human beings who would manage the brands, who create the brands, who put [out] the plans. You need the expertise and you need human beings,” she says. “So, when you have them both, I don’t see why we cannot compete and why we cannot be as big as multinationals. We just need self-confidence, that’s it.”
Such assuredness resulted in Chipsy regaining all the shares it had lost to Lay’s. Doomed to being forced out of the market, Lay’s made a move — buying Chipsy at three times its stock-market value. Sitting in her office when she heard, Abdou cried.
Unable to deny the power of the local brand, the chip bags still bear the original Chipsy name. The new management went with other agencies, with Abdou’s firm losing Chipsy. Beyond being their No. 1 client, it was a brand with which they had become utterly attached. From the business angle, “this taught us a lesson, not to put all our eggs in one basket,” she says. Instead of focusing on a couple of big brands, they shifted the strategy to spread work across several names in different sectors.
Abdou’s businesses have gone on to work with other large Egyptian and multinational companies, unfurling new concepts and products, from youth debit cards to tortilla chips, to the market. They’ve also had to evolve as the marketing profession developed in Egypt and companies opened their own in-house departments, making her selling point the depth of expertise that can be partnered with what’s already at a company. She finds her biggest competition nowadays in advertising, with brands in the region drawn to international giants, such as Leo Burnett and BBDO. “This is a very big challenge because these agencies, they come with a halo around them,” she says. Still, brands turn to her — some have come after being with multinational firms — which she says is a sign that her business possesses the same standards and is as competitive as any other in the big league. And she hopes to expand elsewhere in the region.
While education and training in the field is here, Abdou senses a missing dimension. “For me, marketing needs a lot of creativity,” she says. Once she reviewed graduation projects at a university and found the students’ analysis exceptional, but inquired: Where are the ideas? “The brand will not sell because of the analysis, it will sell because of the ideas,” she says. “And I feel there is a gap between business thinking and creativity.” In addition, creativity is critical when, in marketing, one is thrown into varying industries. Abdou cites an example when her firm did consultancy for ExxonMobile’s industrial lubes. They didn’t have any experience with industrial lubes, but they borrowed strategies they’d used for cooking oil.
It’s about the ability to look at things differently, she says. Abdou believes the solutions she’s come up with over the years that have turned brands around speaks to her creativity. It is, in fact, the state when she is perhaps most in her element. Slight and attired in a dark suit, Abdou points to a chair on the long end of the table in her company conference room. That’s where she usually sits. Never at the head of the table. But there, right of center. “I don’t like sitting at the head of the stage. I like to feel more of the group,” she says. In brainstorming sessions with the team, she listens, maybe jumps in with an idea, as the energy intensifies and concepts are birthed and pruned. “These are my best moments actually, because everything is possible,” she says. “You see, it’s like we’re starting from nowhere… We can go this route, go that route, anything. So there is no limit really to what we think — except the client.”
Along the way, Abdou has been flanked by committed partners who equally keep the show going. The threesome worked together at PepsiCo, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Now Abdou’s role is as an advisor and focusing on the strategic direction for brands, while one partner manages Creative Lab and the other manages Marketing Mix and Ice Branding. “One basic thing we have in common is our values,” she says. They are three very different people, but egos are set aside. Abdou says having the same ethics and values keeps them together when running the business.
The buzzword of entrepreneurship entered Abdou’s parlance in the last decade when she began receiving invitations to participate and speak at programs on the subject. “I don’t know why, but for me entrepreneurship, it’s an attitude more than starting a business. Like, you could be an employee, but an entrepreneur at the same time,” she says. “It’s more of like the ability to take risks, the ability to make things happen, not to be like stranded or feeling like you cannot do it. No, it’s self-confidence. It’s a lot of things. I think it’s too limiting to say entrepreneurship is starting a business. I feel it’s a way of life.” For anyone looking to set up their own enterprise, Abdou insists that they need to have the right level of expertise and experience before diving in.
When she began, there weren’t too many ladies starting such businesses from scratch. For women, especially those with access to higher levels of education, she sees no barriers to taking initiative in the business world. “See, it’s all here,” says Abdou, gesturing toward her head. “We cannot say that women don’t have, never got their chances, because I believe if a woman with that education says that — ‘I didn’t get the right chance or I was not given the chance’ — then I’m very sorry, this is something in your mind. It has nothing to do with the society or with men around you or anything, because we cripple our own selves.”
Abdou’s outlook might have to do with the way she was raised, her parents telling her nothing was impossible, as long as she worked for it. She had two strong figures before her. “I never thought of my mother as a mother really, because she was always active. She was always outspoken and she was always pushing my father to write,” she says. Her father wrote several books and weekly pieces in the Al-Wafd newspaper, openly criticizing former President Hosni Mubarak when he first came to power in the early 1980s. In reading his articles now, Abdou is riveted by the last line of her father’s published work, printed a week after his death in 1986: “If there’s no democracy, the people will revolt and only God knows how ugly that would be.”
Flash forward nearly three decades. “Reading this sentence didn’t mean much because I never thought that there would be a revolution one day,” Abdou says. “But it happened and it was the last thing he wrote.” Egypt’s image got a boost in the process. “The amount of marketing that was done for Egypt during the revolution is amazing and we created the best brand image you could have for a country during the revolution,” Abdou says. For their part, Abdou and her colleagues created an online campaign to promote the country, with posters in several languages — including Russian and Japanese — bearing messages such as, “Support Freedom, Visit Egypt,” displayed on Facebook and social media sites. “But we’re losing it,” she says of the brand the revolution created. “I think we will have to do something about it. But when the time comes, you know, where things need to settle down and then we’ll start from there.”