Raffi Niziblian:

Raffi Niziblian:

“Twelve years ago there was more raw talent”

Raffi Niziblian repatriated to Armenia from Canada in early 2000’s and soon became one of the pioneers of the local creative industries. In 2006 he founded Deem Communications, a full service agency that is now one of the leaders of the sector. Regional Post talked to Raffi about different aspects of the creative industries in Armenia, including marketing campaigning, films and visual arts.

 

Interview: Artavazd Yeghiazaryan

 

Mr. Niziblian, how did you start your career in Armenian creative industries?

— My background is in communications studies and my interest was always in art film production. Back in Canada I was doing short doc-fiction films mostly related to Armenian topics. When I came to Armenia I started working for Land and Culture Organisation and soon after VivaCell as the first Commercial Manager. It entailed sales, marketing, advertising, communications, public relations, customer service - all within my department. And it was very challenging. When I had to come up with advertising, clips, ideas, I realised there was a lack of ad companies. There were a handful of decent start up agencies with very little experience. We also had an event management component - organising of meetings, conferences and concerts. It was real chaotic, because we couldn't outsource many of them. The same with web-design and customer service. I was in my position for over a year, after which I founded my own full service agency. We started with designing and publishing books, organising events and concerts, creating award winning CD designs, developing and implementing marketing campaigns, and eventually gained momentum in the creative industries. It wasn’t just commercial activities, but also cooperation with museums, tourism departments and government agencies. This is how it all began.

It’s been already 11 years. We position ourselves as a Western-oriented, transparent, happy and bright agency that focuses on positive messaging – nothing to do with the so called black PR. We are also part of several global networks, as the Armenian representing entity.

Recently we’ve been championing international organizations that want to do campaigning, messaging, raising awareness in Armenia. European Union, GIZ, UNICEF are among them. We also have a positive history of cooperating with different Armenian governmental institutions.

Is it easier to work with this kind of organizations than with a private sector?

— I’ll be honest: there’s not a lot of money in the commercial sector anymore. Although we have several key accounts, we’ve seen that the market has changed a lot. Bigger companies either have inhouse teams and they do marketing and communications themselves, or they have reduced budgets al together. Digital communications has also gained momentum: one person can manage Facebook and other digital marketing platforms, which seems to be enough for some. But entities like Habitat for Humanity, World Vision or GIZ need external support, and here we are.

How did the industry in Armenia changed over the years? Are you satisfied with what you see around you?

— There are some solid agencies, that have a solid foundation and a really international level quality. They do pretty good on branding and events. But in Armenia in general there’s a lack of good marketing campaigning. It also partially comes from the clients, because they still want to dictate this part of business. One of the reasons for that is a lack of trust and knowledge. There’s a big gap between what the expectation is, what the delivery is; what the delivery can be. Sometimes, after implementing a campaign we can’t even get statistics from the client to understand if our event, advertising or campaign was successful. And if I don’t know where I failed, I can’t change my approach and do better next time, right?

On the other hand, the Armenian market is so small, we have maybe a million and a half potential buyers for mass production, and much less if it’s specifically targeted, so I understand companies who don’t want to spend huge amounts of money. This is also part of the challenge. But I can’t understand, when customers fishe ideas for free, and then says we don’t have a budget. Ideally, they should inform the budget within the brief so you offer ideas within their range. Many think we creatives have a magic wand which brings us ideas in thirty seconds! Creative concept development is a lot of work and time consuming.

What other problems do you see in the industry today?

— We don’t have a lot of experimental or a political art. We have artists that make beautiful paintings, but very little related to causes. Those who do, either don’t have a platform to present their works, or very often just get banned. I remember the case with an exhibition on Soviet repressions of 1930’s at Hovhannes Tuamnyan’s museum. Why was it banned and closed? What about freedom of expression? If this photo exhibit was banned, then would another artist who wanted to do similar work spend time and energy on that? They would probably turn to photographing cute cats and squirrels.

You said that in the very beginning you were more involved in the film industry. What can you say about that sector?

— I returned to film production in last three years, so I know the field from the inside. I was working on a few projects as producer and was able to travel extensively participating in big and small festivals, workshops and forums. Cannes or Berlin, those huge film events, enables the understanding of the lack of infrastructure, capacity and support that Armenia is offering to its filmmakers. Let’s bring it close to home and compare to our neighbours, Georgia. That country has really become a high quality world cinema producer. I don’t compare it to Hollywood of course, but to art films. Georgia has put a lot of money and effort, created partnerships with international bodies that would provide further support, co-production, knowledge and money – a real industry. Armenia is just now talking about a new law, 26 years in its independence. We are already late. But this law has its own problems. At most, a film will get a hundred or two hundred thousand dollars over a year or 2. But if your film costs, say, seven hundred thousands, you are already a minority producer, because the rest you must find from abroad. At the same time, for countries like Germany or France, they are not interested in co-producing anything cheaper that a million euro. So, this in itself is a challenge for the Armenian producer. But this is not only about producers, it is about creating incentives for foreign films being shot in Armenia, about creating platforms for Armenian films to be shown locally or internationally, it is all about creating a financially sound industry.

What is the reason for this situation?

— We don’t have a smart set of laws that allow film to flourish. We have talented filmmakers, but not all of them can get through these obstacles. Well, we have commercial films in Armenia that can get sponsorship through product placement. But in three weeks you forget about these films.  At the same time, our cultural elite throws around names like Parajanov or Peleshian, to show the glory of Armenian film culture, but don’t want to support future Parajanovs and Peleshians to flourish. It’s obvious, that cinema may become a brand for a country. Look at India. Bollywood is that country’s shining symbol! And it is a huge industry with thousands of professionals and high turnover. While in Armenia, we maybe have two or three festival-worthy films a year, but who’s going to sell them to festivals and international markets? It’s a huge and difficult job, certainly not what directors should be doing. We need producers and sales agents.

Do you have any idea how it could change?

— I hope we can bring some changes with the newly created Independent Filmmakers’ Club of Armenia (IFCA). We are pushing the envelope, we have met with the ministry and discussed the film law, we have raised issues related to infrastructure and organisation, we are trying to raise momentum about the topic. We are now planning to organize workshops for producers with international organizations, particularly with the EU-funded SMEDA project, and hope that it will bring about some positive change in the industry. But then again, no real large-scale change can be done without state support ad political will.

Many industries in Armenia are suffering because of the lack of the new generation of professionals. Do you feel it too in your work?

— Armenia is hurting. There’s a large number of exodus. And it’s not only about people who are seeking better economic situation, but also artists, creative people, engineers, who have good work in Armenia. They leave never to come back. Trying to hire a qualified employee in our industry has become a major challenge. Quality and qualified designers, editors, content writers - it’s difficult to find them. When I started twelve years ago, there was more raw talent, more people who were hungry to learn and work.

But we have a professional creative education. Where are those young students who want to conquer the world with their creativity?

— Where are the people who are teaching them? Or I should say, who are they? Either they are Soviet leftovers who have no idea about, say, digital marketing, or young people who just graduated few years ago. What can a 25 year old professor teach kids? He doesn’t have the necessary field experience! And overall students in Armenia are extremely passive, they don’t demand. As a youth, I was interning, volunteering and working for all sorts of short and long term projects to learn, to practice my skills and to gain experience. This is lacking today. University graduates call themselves experts and want to be paid the same as their senior.

What about the future of the industry? Are you still positive about it?

— There’s a lot of potential. You can see that there’s a willingness by a certain segment of people to try hard and make it right. We have great fashion designers who just came together, did their best and now produce lots of cool items and even export them. Look at the IT sector –  tech oriented people are doing much better.. I know several marketing companies (like us) who export their ideas to Russia and the West, which means they provide high quality services. Though local market is too small for any serious growth to happen, there are people who want to stay here and grow while developing their sectors. For me, living in Armenia means living the good life. Yerevan is small, I can do more in my day, I feel safe, I am more or less free to express my opinions without being repressed. And a lot of creative people around me who work, create and succeed feel the same. I just wish more creatives would see things like I do and stay by our side.

We have potential and talent, we just have to sell it better to the rest of the world.