Panda Cheese "Never Say No To Panda" by Elephant Cairo / Advantage Marketing (2010)
Most ad industry insiders asked to recall any Middle Eastern TV commercial from the last decade, could probably name only one, if any at all: "The one with the angry panda". This is not a region where ads - especially TV ads - generally cut through to the wider industry, but an extraordinary series of films in the early 2010s for a previously obscure Egyptian cheese brand created an international sensation with their darkly absurd humour. To-date, they've accumulated somewhere in the region of 150 million views on YouTube and other platforms.
By 2010, Egyptian-born creative director Ali Ali had already spent almost a decade at a variety of international agencies including Leo Burnett, JWT and McCann. Frustrated at the limitations of bigger agencies, and eager to direct his own films rather than just conceive the idea, he set up boutique agency Elephant in Cairo with writing partner Maged Nassar and two colleagues.
"There wasn't any structure," Ali said a few years later. "We were just four creative guys doing everything that we could. I was the default director but we would also hire directors from abroad. But I was the only one that could write and direct. It was just a free-for-all. We didn't really have any hierarchy. We had one big table that we'd all sit at. So it was like our office and our dinner table and our meeting room. It was set up very unconventionally."
The agency had already a produced a number of unusually edgy films for smaller Egyptian brands when they were approached by client Arab Dairy and its regular agency Advantage Marketing & advertising to come up with a different style of campaign for Panda, then a comparatively obscure range of cheeses.
"I find advertising is a very simple process," said Ali afterwards, "but we tend to complicate it a lot more than it needs. It should be just really fun and simple. What we did at Elephant was to always present one idea and one idea only. We felt there was a lack of integrity if you say 'We really really like *this* idea... but we also think you could do this other idea. And we also have a third option which might work. As a billboard, maybe?' It makes you look bad. If you really believe in one idea, they why present four? Why not just the one you believe in?
"That's what we did with Panda Cheese. Panda came from everything we believed in. Actually we never thought we'd sell this idea but luckily we did. We presented one idea and it was a very provocative, eccentric TV commercial for a cheese. Especially if you see the other cheese ads in Egypt. They're horrible."
The darkly humorous concept was for a doe-eyed but extremely aggressive giant panda which appears every time someone says they don't want or don't like Panda Cheese. All soundtracked, for maximum incongruity, by Buddy Holly's 1950s ballad True Love Ways. (You're guaranteed never to hear this song again without thinking of Panda Cheese). The first ad - also directed by Ali - was such a hit that a series of others followed in which the panda disrupts the lives of other everyday cheese-scorners. Though officially shown only in Egypt, the Panda ads quickly turned into a viral sensation, and collected a string of awards on the festival circuit including multiple Grand Prix at Dubai Lynx and several Lions at Cannes.
"Elephant was unheard of until then. It propelled us and put us somewhere else as far as global fame is concerned. The ads got coverage half across the globe... ABC TV news in the US... The Guardian newspaper in London called it the biggest viral video of the year... That made the client very happy. And they made a huge difference in sales for Panda. It went from the number nine selling cheese in Egypt to the number two in less than a year, which was staggering. But the ads' biggest achievement was that they reached out to the US, to China, to Russia, to all those other countries. Unfortunately it was only a local product so all that spill-over wasn't used, wasn't marketable in any way."
However, it provided an important springboard for Ali and Nassar. On the back of that acclaim, they accepted an offer to join DDB's office in Berlin, where Ali became executive creative director. But he soon grew frustrated again with the bureaucracy inherent in the system, and in 2012 quit to take up directing fulltime as co-founder with Nassar of prodco Good People.
He hasn't lost any of that rebellious spirit, though. "People now are in love with the process not the product..." he said in 2016. "All the focus groups and the research, all the bureaucracy, the meetings, the client phone calls. That all ends up killing the work. It leaves very little room for innovation, for changing your mind. It's better to stay naive and stupid. Don't be an expert. Just go out and shoot a film."