As Chief Executive Officer of Y&R/Wunderman for the Middle East and North Africa, Nassib Boueri has had a lot to deal with in the first half of 2011. Shrinking budgets, unstable conditions and constant evolution have left some of the advertising industry’s cash cows dry. Executive caught up with him to talk about lessons learned and challenges faced during and after the ‘Arab Spring’.
What have you learned about the advertising industry since January?
The whole region has changed a lot since then. But I am a very strong believer that life goes on. Yes, there is a huge impact on business in these countries. There is a huge impact on consumers as well in terms of spend. But then again, we have learned from lessons in the past that people move past a certain moment and they move on. Yes, it has had a great affect on the economies and the spend in the advertising business. But if I look at places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi today, our industry is slightly picking up.
Saudi has always been and will always remain one of the most sustainable economies in the region. So as much as there is a downturn, or fear, there is always also an upturn somewhere else. [Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022] is also a sign of things to come. Maybe it will not affect our industry today, but it certainly will in the next five or six years.
The economy is still bad in certain countries and it hasn’t picked up, but then again I haven’t seen anybody, neither our competitors, nor ourselves, close down in these countries that are in turmoil. You cannot pack up and leave the next day.
Regimes will change, be it Syria, be it Egypt, but the country is still there. The economy is still there. Economies do not disappear. They go through difficulties, but they don’t disappear. Countries don’t disappear – leaders do – but countries don’t. And our industry will get affected here or there but it will not get wiped out. So as a group we have not gone backward in terms of revenues or billing. And we are witnessing growth in certain markets and we are holding on in other countries. We have not closed our office in Egypt. We have not let anyone go in Egypt. Our global clients are spending; the budget cuts are minimal. The local client base has been affected that’s for sure. But nevertheless, business goes on.
What kind of questions has your board in New York asked you and what have you told them?
There has been a lot of change at the global level for Y&R. There has been a new CEO and he has formed a global executive committee, which I am on. The challenges have two axes. One is the economic crisis, which is affecting the whole world. And then there is ours, which is the political unrest in the region. But we all still believe that this region is a region of opportunities and a region of growth and they see that as well. Companies don’t look at things short-term.
Today, if we have to be very simplistic about things, Iran has untapped potential for business. Because of the embargo, nobody can go there yet. Iraq has untapped potential. We are there but remotely and we are increasing our presence there as we speak.
Egypt has huge potential regardless of how you break it down between the rich, the poor, you still have 80 million people. If you move from there you have Algeria. Algeria has surpluses of billions of dollars in the banks and this is one of the key issues in Algeria because the government is holding onto the money. And the people are in need of a structure — education, healthcare, services. I have been to Algeria twice this year and the potential there is huge.
When you look at our region, there is potential for the years to come. And like anywhere else in the world you go through difficulties, but I don’t fear for the region and I don’t fear for the future of our industry.
Our issues going forward are not mainly the economies of the region. Our major problems are how to develop our business; how to get the clients to understand that they need to spend. How do we tell them that what they are spending today is way less than the global average? How do we help them to build their brands? How can we keep the young generation interested and excited about our business, which is becoming less and less attractive and exciting?
Why do you feel that young people are less and less interested in working in the advertising industry?
Today it is difficult to keep people interested in this business the way they were 20 years ago. This was a very flashy industry 20years ago. Today it is banking and finance. When somebody graduates today, they are looking for opportunities, for money, for salaries, so they look where the trend is going. In the last five years, all those who were in brokerage and investments made tons of revenues and returns. Today we are still a sexy industry. Then again, it is not easy getting people into Saudi. It is not easy getting people into the Gulf anymore because it is becoming even more expensive.
Today retention of talent and getting new talent is a challenge. Growing the brands and ensuring that the clients understand that the investment they put behind the brand is not an expenditure, it is an investment. When done properly, it is an investment.
What is your opinion of using images from events such as the Egyptian revolution in advertising campaigns?
To me, anything that is taken from its own context, to be used in another context, is unethical. So if I am going to use a picture of a revolution anywhere in the world for a cause that is different than the revolution, then I don’t believe in that on a personal level.
What about recreating images or scenes similar to these events?
I believe in recognizing causes and efforts. Recreating will always depend on what is the usage of this material. If the usage is to diminish from the cause itself then I am against it. If it builds on the cause then I am totally for it.
Let’s assume I take what happened in north Lebanon in 2007or the demonstrations that happened in March 2008 and there were some plastic chairs and you promote ‘I am selling the plastic chairs [from the demonstrations] so my plastic chairs are stronger. Look! I’ve sat 100 million people on them.’ This takes away from the cause. If it is something that builds on the cause then it is fine to be nationalistic; I am more than happy. I am for creating these campaigns. I am for national pride. I am for patriotism. I am for using the local insight to build that, but not to abuse it by diminishing it into something else.