Osama bin Laden and Me

Osama bin Laden

At approximately 9pm, I landed at Dubai.
It took an hour to clear Customs and Immigration, and to collect my car from Hertz. I drove the short distance to the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel. The night air was hot and humid, so the brief walk from the car to the lobby was an instantly sweaty undertaking.
I was in Dubai to pitch for Cadbury’s Middle Eastern business; and, until this particular trip, I had never lost a pitch for Cadbury’s business.
After I had checked in, two smartly dressed, and big, security guards took me to one side and frisked me, which seemed a bit odd, but it seemed just another of international travel’s little irritations.
When I finally got to my room, I switched on the TV. The Towering Inferno, which I had never much liked, was playing on cable, so I turned away and rang Room Service. I ordered some foul meknes, a club sandwich and half a bottle of Lebanese red wine. As I got out of the shower, my mobile phone rang.
“Stephen,” said a woman’s voice. “Are you alright?”
I stood dripping water, with the phone to my ear, looking at the TV whilst an aircraft slammed into the second of the Twin Towers in New York. I suddenly recalled that an Indian gentleman at the Hertz desk had told me that a light plane had hit The World Trade Centre. The caller was a woman who used to work with me, and who was on her way to New Zealand to live there permanently. She was calling from Singapore.
This woke me up. Whatever was going on?
The next day was hard work. Rohit Misra picked me up from the hotel. We met Pierre Soued in Euro RSCG‘s Dubai office, who told us that Andrew Baker, who was in charge of Cadbury’s Middle Eastern business, had confirmed that the pitch was still on. Pierre was Euro RSCG’s country manager.
I was introduced to Amgad Sabry, a Coptic Egyptian who had, until recently, been the marketing director for The World Trade Centre in Cairo, so he, understandably, was quiet. He had known a lot of people who had just been killed in New York.
It soon became clear that we were not really in any state to pitch. Some of the team, who came from Beirut, applauded the attack. One said to me, “I’ve been bombed in Beirut too many times by the Israeli Air Force. They are supplied by the USA. Why should I cry for the Americans?”
The two main creative teams were composed of South Africans. They were exasperated by the whole thing. “Bloody well stop acting like a bunch of bloody girls, and start bloody doing some bloody work!”
My Pakistani driver, shimmering in white and emerald green with a beard as black as the night, said, “I have read the Koran a thousand times. Nothing in it justifies this attack. But now, in the eyes of Westerners, I can never be a good Muslim.”
The day of the pitch arrived, 13 September 2001, or 9/13. Andrew Baker and a colleague entered the room, and we started. Against expectations, Amgad was sensational. He was brimming with emotion, and he addressed the Cadbury men with a delicate intimacy as if they were the wise elders of his family.
But it wasn’t enough. We didn’t get appointed. In twenty-one years of working, on and off, as Cadbury’s account man, I had never lost a pitch. But I did that day, on 9/13.
That said, nobody else got appointed either, as far as I know. Or maybe someone was, but we were never told. Actually, I prefer it like that. None of us really had our heart in it.

Pierre Soued

Pierre now is on Euro RSCG’s global management team. Rohit has gone back to India, and is looking for something fresh to do (you can get in touch with him via LinkedIn). Amgad is back in Cairo, running an advertising agency which he bought from Leo Burnett.
I had a large arak in the Emirates Business Class lounge in Dubai, and slept all the way back to England. There, in the Arrivals Hall at Heathrow, someone told that a madman called Osama bin Laden had been responsible for the whole experience.