24 April, 2010

Melbourne family creating a new Afghanistan

Herald Sun 24 April, 2010

A Melbourne family is fighting the Afghanistan war - through advertising. That's right. Galloping heroes, cuddly babies, billboards, press, TV and radio commercials, the whole armoury of a modern advertising campaign, without a shot being fired.

The ads are the idea of the US Army's Lt Col Allen McCormick, chief of information operations in eastern Afghanistan. He figured that if you want to create peace, people must first know what peace looks like and understand why what the Taliban are doing is wrong.

45 per cent of the population is under 15, so they have never known what a normal world - where nobody blows you up, summarily shoots you or terrorises you - looks like. McCormick, a Proctor & Gamble marketer back in civvy street, decided to try the kind of advertising that had never been seen in the country before. But who could do it?

Advertising agencies are thin on the ground there, but one stood out. Lapis was given the job, as a core player in Afghanistan's nascent media. It's part of the Moby Group, the local phenomenon owned by a Melbourne family.

Now this is a great story in itself. The Mohseni family were well settled here when, in 2002, they decided they had to help their newly-emerging homeland. But they were not ordinary returnees, they were very smart business people.

Saad Mohseni was an investment banker, Zaid a lawyer, and Jahid an administrator. Then there was their sister, Wajma, a marketer. (It just so happens she's also my daughter's best friend, which is how come I'm so familiar with this story.) They determined to save Afghanistan not through hand-outs but through business, specifically the media which had been destroyed by the Taliban.

Within months they created the country's most popular radio station - when music had been banned for five years, but 45 per cent of the population is under 15. Their mixture of Indian and Iranian film music and selective Western pop was snapped up.

In 2004 they opened Tolo TV, the nation's first independent TV station. They had to produce their own programs including a hugely successful daily soap opera, news, current affairs, even a comedy show that lampoons their self-important politicians.

They had to develop an Afghan music industry, with a studio and record company, and produce countless video clips. They set up a film company that has also been involved in international movies like The Kite Runner.

Most famously they created Afghan Star, a TV series based on Australian Star. Thousands of young hopeful singers paraded before judges and were gonged out, just like here. But they also had to learn not to make a fuss or come back later with guns for revenge, if they were told how bad they were.

The final contest of four runners-up was a nail-biter watched by all Afghanistan (including Taliban). It was filmed as a documentary which won major prizes at the Sundance Movie Festival.

The Mohsenis continue to grow in influence - and wealth - though they are constantly at loggerheads with the government and parliament, who hate them nearly as much as the Taliban do. Hopefully the advertising campaign and the closer ties with the US military will give them some muscular friends.

As for Wajma, she is the Moby Group's Marketing Director, but recently moved her operations to the group's huge Dubai offices. We heaved a sigh of relief at this - for years we worried about her, a high-profile target for enemies on all sides of the political spectrum. For her the best times are when she visits Australia. No guns, no bodyguards, no armoured cars. There are benefits in a quiet life.

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