S'porean to grow professionally and personally – in Iraq

S'porean to grow professionally and personally – in Iraq
Wednesday • July 7, 2004
AT A time when countries are issuing travel advisories against travelling to Iraq, one Singaporean is deliberately going there.
Mr Gabriel Teo, 28, set up an advertising agency, Blankcreative LLC, in Baghdad late last year. Despite the troubles in the war-torn country, Mr Teo will head to Baghdad again in about two weeks.
He will get there via Syria and a 16-hour detour around Iraq's border. The shortest way to Baghdad is through Fallujah, but that battle zone is closed to travellers. He will be based in Iraq for two-and-a-half years, leaving his wife and three children in Singapore — "the biggest sacrifice", he calls it.
A familiar name in the broadcast animation industry in Singapore, Mr Teo has worked with companies such as Siemens, Nokia and the Disney Channel. In 2001, he won the merit award at the Comgraph Asia Pacific Animation Competition.
So, why is he going where few others dare to go? "There's a lucrative market in Iraq. There are huge budgets for our creative services. The market is in need of world class professionals who can deliver," he said. "It's a rare opportunity. We're handling huge campaigns so you can imagine."
According to him, Iraq's economy is not in as bad a state as outsiders might think. He said: "People prefer to stay low-profile."
Iraq was handed over to an interim government on June 28. In this new climate, Mr Teo expects a growing demand for media campaigns for the Iraqi people and advertising for emerging Iraqi companies.
One media campaign that his company is handling is called "Free Your Mind". The objective is to educate the public, especially children about violence using mixed media, including cartoons.
He said: "We advise Iraqi children against the use of guns and educate them to love their country. These children only know violence. We feel the only way to reach out to them is through media campaigns."
Teo refers to his Baghdad-based company as an "Iraqi company". Its team of 26 artists are all Iraqis. His business partner is also Iraqi.
He said: "The good thing about an Iraqi company is that we're there to help the Iraqi people. We don't touch on politics."
His partner is guiding him on the protocols of appropriate behaviour in Iraq.
"My whole trip to Baghdad is being structured by Iraqis. It's quite difficult for a new company to start up there especially when they aren't Iraqi companies. Because we're Iraqi, we're able to deal with the Iraqis ourselves," he said.
"We understand their needs, concerns and which locations we can film at. We don't waste time trying to access places."
The pioneering spirit may drive him, but he is very aware of the dangers involved. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has advised Singaporeans to avoid Iraq, and Mr Teo will register with the nearest Singapore consulate in the Middle East and keep them updated about his whereabouts.
He said: "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't dangerous. I can't travel after 6 pm, I have to always be with Iraqis and never alone and I have to stay close to the office. We have a guard with a machine gun at our office because we have to protect our equipment from looters."
It helps that he is not new to the Middle East and its culture. After graduating from Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, he was in early 2001 headhunted by a games production company in Dubai. He worked in Dubai for about two years and met his business partner, with whom he hatched the idea to set up an advertising agency in Iraq.
"There are obviously people who say I'm crazy but amid this craziness, I'm looking at the brighter side of things — the amazing opportunities there, the respect for our work and the huge need for professionals. If I tackle this, I'll grow not only professionally, but personally as well," he said. 
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