It might surprise some to hear that the Middle East-based offices of some of the largest U.S. and E.U. ad agencies have been pretty much isolated from many of these efforts. After all, it is precisely these offices that have the on-the-ground expertise on how to communicate with their respective cultures, nationalities, languages and prevalent political beliefs. These are the main weapons the ad industry has to wage a useful role in the war on terror.
I discovered why this was the case about a week after September 11, 2001. Calling in some favors in the various large agencies I've worked for in the past, I contacted the heads of several Middle East capital offices, asking if they would be interested in helping out with a strategic communications document. All seemed enthusiastic about the effort.
But two days later, when I started to discuss the possible agendas involved, I experienced a chilling realization. The ad executives I'd contacted weren't thinking about communicating a message of peace or cooperation to their own countries. They believed the strategic document should focus instead on communications efforts needed to educate the American people about how the U.S. needed to change its behavior to avoid carnage such as that experienced the week before. Their agreement was the product of a sickening misunderstanding. They didn't want much to do with trying to influence their own countrymen, spreading a more friendly and responsible image of the U.S.
In retrospect, I suppose this made sense. The people running agency offices in the Middle East face the same influences that wash over the rest of the people of those nations. Large ad agency holding companies also give a great deal of independence to these relatively autonomous units. People who have worked in a large agency and tried to deal with inter-office account work will understand that sometimes these offices working under the same banner often act much more like competing agencies.
The Bush Administration has tried using a senior Madison Avenue executive to organize communications. They've tried commissions, committees, broadcast media campaigns and State Department speeches. The most useful resource, however, remains truculent. The foreign offices of American agencies have the research and creative capabilities we need to get across a fair image - if they can be rendered willing.