An Ad Agency Blooms in the Desert

McCann Erickson set up a branch in Mitzpeh Ramon, far from Tel Aviv’s insular advertising industry. A handful of hipster employees have gladly followed, and say there’s no going back.

An outsider won’t have an easy time finding McCann Erickson’s new branch on Nahal Salit Street in Mitzpeh Ramon. Far from Tel Aviv’s media and communication hub in Ramat Hahayal, 200 kilometers from the restaurant Cantina where many of their ad industry colleagues congregate, the biggest advertising agency in Israel decided to open a new branch under the name McCann Valley.

It would be hard to come up with anything more alien to the surrounding cliff landscape, the railroad tenements of Mitzpeh Ramon and the desert wilderness than a Tel Aviv advertising agency. Parking problems are nonexistent.

McCann is renting the building from the Jewish Agency. In the past it housed two preschools, but for the past seven years it stood empty. The rent is NIS 5,000 for 150 square meters, significantly less than what it would go for in Ramat Hahayal, but not cheap considering the location. McCann says this apparent anomaly is due to the lack of available commercial space in the town.

This desert branch is the product of a vision shared by Hana Rado, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer of McCann Israel, and Michal Romi, a native of Mitzpeh Ramon who is editor-in-chief of the magazine Route 40.

“We met at a coffee shop,” Rado says. “Michal actually intended to sell me advertising space in her paper. She said she was moving back to Mitzpeh after a brief exile in Tel Aviv, but would go on working in Tel Aviv. I suggested she set up McCann Valley with me, and she jumped at the idea.”

“We’re a combination: Hana is McCann, and I’m Mitzpeh Ramon,” Romi adds. “I’ve been here since 1979 and every year I hear, ‘things are going to be this way and things are going to be that way here.’ But until this project, Mitzpeh has been a tragedy as far as I’m concerned. The mere fact that this project is already happening makes it different from others. This is a project that brings together the Tel Avivian and the Mitzpeh-ite.”

Happiness and wariness

McCann’s enterprise is not the first ambitious business venture in Mitzpeh Ramon. Over the years quite a few entrepreneurs have tried to make the wilderness bloom with all sorts of ideas. Back in 2005, Ketty Bar, an arts entrepreneur and curator, approached the head of the tourism department at the Mitzpeh Ramon municipality, Yaacov Shmul, with an idea of establishing a local branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, but nothing happened.

Nine years ago the local authority planned to push a project for setting up a customer service and information call center. The project was supposed to employ 100 to 200 workers, and had even been allocated a 700-square-meter hall close to the local council building, but it never got off the ground.

 But no one ever had tried to open an ad agency there.

The locals’ reaction to the new project has been a mixture of happiness and wariness. “Every once in a while there’s talk of a new project, but the in end it fades away,” says one resident. “There’s no one here to work, nobody to employ, and there are many more problems besides earning a livelihood.”

Aren’t you afraid this initiative will fall through like others before it?

Romi: “This business is already up and running. We are recruiting people to work on site, and we are deeply motivated to see it grow and succeed.”

McCann invested around NIS 20,000 in refurbishing a temporary building, raised another NIS 300,000 for landscape development from the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, and hired seven employees. The company plans to have a modern office center with 120 workers within five years.

McCann hasn’t tried to push boundaries – it is not yet asking major clients with big budgets for television and radio advertising to wend their way down to Mitzpeh Ramon to view presentations. What was relocated to the Negev is the digital and new-media activity, and the agency admits that if clients decline to be transferred to the care of an employee in Mitzpeh Ramon, they’ll find a way to assuage the customer by committing to meeting with them in Tel Aviv as the need arises.

McCann Valley, where Rado serves as CEO and Romi is the project director, will provide companies with new-media services – managing Facebook pages, YouTube postings and so forth. Part of the activity will be transferred from Tel Aviv, and part will be for new accounts.

Rado promises that clients of McCann Valley will receive the same service as in Tel Aviv, and remuneration will be as is customary, based on a monthly retainer. “At Mitzpeh Ramon we will recruit small and medium businesses as well, the sort that wouldn’t normally turn to McCann,” she says.

Profits, but with a larger goal

“The business model is simple: We’ll collect a monthly retainer from each of the companies to which we provide services. Naturally we don’t want to lose money; in fact, we must profit and are trying to recruit as many clients as possible, but this goes beyond that. We’ll put the profits back into the place, into the workers, into training. We’re totally invested in this, and it doesn’t stem from business considerations,” Rado notes.

“There are cynical people who want to know what’s in it for us,” Rado says, “and obviously McCann intends to profit. But the goal is larger. We believe this project is a reality-changer and we’re treating it as such.”

However, for the agency to grow and change reality, as McCann wants, Mitzpeh Ramon requires a much more comprehensive solution. Due to a serious housing crunch resulting from years when no apartments were built there, there are very few rental apartments. The town can currently absorb up to 15 new families; beyond that there would be nowhere to house new employees. Local health services barely exist. There is a night doctor, but he has minimal ability to solve problems. Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva is an hour away by car. The high school offers a limited education, cultural life is meager, and infrastructures are problematic. The winding road that leads to Mitzpeh Ramon has no streetlights.

“Last year we said, ‘We’ll get going and it will be all right,’” Romi says. “Now we understand that we need to get the government ministries to provide a holistic solution for the community. We’ve met with government representatives and we’re hoping to recruit philanthropists to build here. There’s also a lack of work space. The building that was refurbished can hold 30 people in close quarters, and there is a shortage of vacant buildings in the vicinity.”

A real house, not a teensy apartment

The union McCann is trying to forge between Tel Aviv and Mitzpeh Ramon is hardly self-evident, as Romi puts it. Mitzpeh Ramon has known a diverse population over the years. The base was the old generation that founded the community in the 1950s, and then came immigrants from North Africa and Romania in the ’60s.

Then came the career military people who served in the region and moved into neighborhoods that were built for them in the ’80s, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the ’90s. The place is also home to a group of Black Hebrew Israelites and to a community of secular people with a spiritual orientation who began trickling in over the past decade.

But among all these, the presence of McCann is undoubtedly the most surprising. Anyone familiar with the advertising industry knows that it is a self-contained clique whose members hobnob among themselves and defines for themselves the right places to see and be seen, and the right brands to wear. Mitzpeh Ramon is far from all this. True, there’s a Cafe Neto branch in the town and a branch of Aroma at Ein Avdat, 15 minutes away by car. But you can forget about takeout and the newcomers concede they were forced to learn to cook. Those looking to keep fit will have to trade in Holmes Place for “the community gym,” as a sign posted on one of the buildings in the town puts it.

The first question that comes to mind on seeing the place is what could make the eight workers already employed there, some of them diehard Tel Aviv hipsters, move to the south.

“I moved because I wanted a change in life,” says Elian Lazovsky, who moved to the Negev three years ago.

“I was fed up with city life, which is all I had known. I wanted to live in a real house, instead of in a teensy apartment for NIS 6,000. I had a gut feeling that Mitzpeh Ramon was the right place.

“I did a bit of a bungee jump. I came here alone with a dog, and half a year later I was fired from the newspaper Maariv. I worked odd jobs in editing and writing and with at-risk youth, until the offer from McCann arrived. I have lots of friends who want to come to Mitzpeh Ramon but are afraid. For me there was something right about it,” she says.

Ran Kochman, who was training to start working at the agency, says: “I dreamed of moving here for many years. I passed through here many times on motorcycle trips, and I made the actual decision in August. The night sky was full of meteorites, and I decided that I’m moving and am willing to work at anything – be it managing a gas station or one of the hotels – to live here. And then a friend from McCann told me they’re recruiting workers and it fell on me from heaven. Like destiny.”

A different kind of leisure

May I ask what you do here, other than work?

Romi: “What’s the matter with you, there’s major action here.”

It is an utterly desolate place.

Romi: “That’s a question asked by people who come from the city and are used to city action. Leisure time is different here, but loads of things are going on here below the surface. There’s a jazz club in a hangar in the industrial zone and lots of shows come here.”

Lazovsky: “The action here isn’t in coffee shops and restaurants. Leisure takes place in friends’ homes. Besides, if I wanted 17 movie theaters under my house I wouldn’t have left Tel Aviv. There is a different leisure here. Lots of hiking. On rainy days you drive to the cisterns that have filled up with water, and the kids swim there.”

What about the contradiction inherent in the fact that moving to Mitzpeh Ramon is a declaration that you’re sick of living with all the consumerism in the center of the country, whereas your goal as employees is to increase consumerism among those same urbanites you’ve gotten away from?

Rado: “The goal here is to make a living. I don’t think anyone dismisses his livelihood.”

Lazovsky: “Life is full of contradictions. There is a contradiction here, but it balances out. Spirituality and consumerism are two extremes, and we are seeking balance between them. It’s not that we want to drink mud and eat sand. Tel Aviv is the heart of everything, with the best sushi and the best cafes. And that isn’t bad. It’s great. When I come to Tel Aviv, I’m crazy about it. I have nothing against it. I just had too much.”

Is there some expectation that working from here will have an effect on your advertising or graphic language, on the type of materials produced here?

Romi: “That there will be a desert graphics? I don’t believe so.”

Rado: “I think people find it easier to work here. There’s less background noise.”

We want to bring change

Maoz Degani moved to Mitzpeh Ramon at the beginning of the year with his wife, actress Ilanit Ben Yaakov, who has to travel two hours each way for auditions in Tel Aviv, and their two young children.

“We spent a long time looking for a way to get out of the center,” says Degani, who prior to the move worked as an editor for the website Mako. “We wanted a change, and the cost of living gave us further motivation. Livelihood is the important part in this move: unless you know you have a job, you won’t move to a dump like this.”
Degani says he is satisfied with the community’s school system: his children attend the preschool for 3- to 6-year-olds, and three days a week they spend the day outdoors in a local grove. “They just go wild outdoors, climb trees, have a bonfire.”

About 1,200 of Mitzpeh Ramon’s 5,000 residents are between 20 to 40 years old.

“Only 30 or 40 of them actually leave the house in the evening,” Romi says. “There’s a lot more to be done here. For example, they don’t screen movies here regularly the way they did in my childhood. That needs to be renewed. A while ago they showed a film at the community center, and the place was packed. We want to set up a film club here, in addition to the youth club that’s already in operation. The residents need to be taught to go out.”

Meital Shaked, who manages the town’s youth club, came to Mitzpeh Ramon because of her husband, an Israel Air Force man who serves in the area, and their two children.

“I grew up in Ra’anana and I always thought I would live there, but I fell in love with Mitzpeh because of the way you can raise kids here. Today we stay here because of me. I’m thankful for every day I get to live here. There’s something about the sense of community here, about the fact that the kids grow up in an environment where everyone knows each other.

“I believe McCann’s project will draw in a new population. We’d like to establish an institution of higher learning here, with Sapir College lending its auspices to study programs in Mitzpeh Ramon. There is a group of young people from here who raised families and want to come back here and build a future.”

Inbal Ron, the director of the local boarding school, also views the awakening in Mitzpeh Ramon as a comprehensive move. Ron belongs to the Dror Israel movement, a group of whose members settled there and operates the local consumer cooperative, Ha’agala ‏(the cart‏). “Mitzpeh lacks social stability today, and it is important that the people come here choose to live here. We want to alter reality, create a much richer social fabric that will link the residents.”

NIS 2,700 for a four-room apartment

From an economic standpoint, moving to Mitzpeh Ramon entails significant advantages. Thanks to the tax relief the state grants, net salaries are much closer to gross salaries than for employees in the center of the country. Rent and municipal property taxes are relatively low. Degani pays NIS 2,700 a month for a four-room apartment, “albeit in a railroad tenement but with a backyard, front yard and storage room,” he says. Lazovsky pays NIS 2,000 a month for a single-family house with three rooms and what she terms “an enormous yard.” Municipal property tax is NIS 300 to NIS 400 for two months. Romi laughs when she hears how much her colleagues from the city are being charged for rent and claims they were taken for a ride.

They work the same number of hours as their colleagues in Tel Aviv, but as Romi says, “the fact that Maoz can take a half-hour lunch break and that at 5 P.M. his wife can come to the office with the kids – that’s something that couldn’t happen at an office in Tel Aviv.”

“I wouldn’t be able to work for an ad agency in Tel Aviv,” Lazovsky says. “The ad agencies in Tel Aviv – it’s like Babylon. That’s how it has to be, but I couldn’t work today in a place where Segways are parked outside, and the girls come to the office in the latest designs from a Swedish label.

“Doctors say you should lower the stress in life for the sake of your health. Here you immediately feel the stress level go down by half. In Tel Aviv, when I would return home from a friend’s or a date at night, I’d be afraid. Here I’m not afraid to walk in the street, even at 2 A.M. Not that there aren’t any characters here, but there isn’t a violent atmosphere,” she notes.

Isn’t your stay here merely a kind of hiatus as far as you’re concerned? A year or two to clear your heads in the desert and then go back to Tel Aviv?

Romi: “The moment you’re in, you can’t leave.”

Shaked: “No chance.”

Lazovsky: “I don’t see myself returning to the city. A desert person can’t see himself going backward.”

Degani: “My future for the long run is here. I want to grow with a place, get a place started. It’s fun.”
 

David Bachar