Last month Leo Burnett was named Network of the Year at the MENA Cristal Festival; the Beirut office won two Grand Prix, five gold, three silver and nine bronze awards and was named Agency of the Year for the third consecutive year. Executive took the opportunity to congratulate Nada Abi Saleh, Leo Burnett Beirut’s new managing director, in person and learn some of the secrets of the firm’s success.
From an industry perspective, what has been the trend in the last three years?
There are three buzzwords: digital, integration and innovation. These are the trends. At the same time these are the big challenges that we need to face and work against. Most articles summarize the digital revolution as either digital or data. Today the digital transformation is part of our daily life in how we do business, how we live, how we book things – it’s everywhere. So this is the big challenge and it has many consequences.
One of the biggest consequences of digital is the integration. We used to look at advertising as the binary approach: above the line and below the line. It was easy. Now we look at it in a more global way as through the line. It’s integration of any touch points that you can think of. So this makes the challenge even bigger. It’s about PR engagement, digital engagement, social media, real marketing, and e-commerce. And in the end it’s of course about brand building.
The reaction of people today is preceding the marketing strategy of the brand and a communication agency because they are on the net, on social media, to spot on any situation, any problem, any crisis. They are here and they react. If you don’t have any kind of real marketing approach to things you’re out. You’re dead.
The third layer to this is innovation. Today innovation is not only using the new media, not only being open to new trends, not only considering innovative marketing strategy, but also being at the core of product and client and brand innovations. This is where it starts. Today an agency should not wait anymore for a client to come to us and say, “I have this product, I have this service, come up with an ad.” With the digital activation, the agency can go to the clients and tell them, “For this kind of product or service this is what you have to do,” and it starts there. The biggest campaigns are product innovative-related. Today it’s not about communication, it’s really asking your consumer to act and interact with your brand – engage in the conversation. It’s not news; it’s a one-on-one conversation.
So it makes it at the same time broader. It’s very broad because you can engage with millions of people but at the same time it’s one-on-one communication.
But what you’re describing is heavy on the balance sheet and the cash flow. To keep progressing, you have to follow international best practices or trends in your industry. How is it justifiable in the Lebanese market today?
Very challenging. As far as Leo Burnett is concerned, whether it is on the network or global perspective or when we come to Lebanon, we are looking at it. We can add a fourth layer to this – profitability. This is the big challenge that we are facing, along with integration and going digital and innovation. Because at one point you have to invest in talents, upgrade your talents, and integrate new specialties that you probably didn’t have, and you have to make them work together in a profitable way because today performance is the name of the game. Specifically for Leo Burnett where we are part of a bigger holding and we are liable to our stakeholders. We are a public company. Profitability and our balance sheet come first even before winning awards, before anything.
Lebanon as a market, it’s very difficult if not impossible. The market is small. The budget is small. We have many socio-economic and political challenges, and we know that we have to look at growth opportunities, whether we have to make things differently, transform the agency, restructure, or look at growth opportunities outside Lebanon within the region. This is how we can look at it in a more positive way and keep going.
How has the performance of Leo Burnett been over the last three years? Have you bee able to grow your client base?
Yes, we have been able to grow our client base in a significant way. For instance just last year we have included Gandour in our portfolio. That is a big account. It is not a trend in Lebanon; we know the market is much smaller. I can name a few clients like Gandour and Liban Post, but this is not what can help the agency grow significantly. We know that the market is limited. We have the international accounts that we still can bank on, and these, as far as Leo Burnett Beirut, have been significantly growing, and you have the regional accounts, which we don’t handle directly. The local accounts are small by nature but give another kind of opportunity.
So basically as far as agency performance is concerned, we’ve been doing well, and we’ve been growing year-on-year.
Now we have a new government. What is your wish list for this industry to progress? And what would be your role in making sure that this progression will happen?
It’s not a wish list. It’s an objective to come back to this position because we’ve been there. It’s no secret that Lebanon used to be the le joyau de la publicite regionale (the jewel of regional advertising).
It was a source of talent, a source of innovation. Advertising was spearheaded by the Lebanese brains and Lebanese agencies, which developed regionally. This primary position has been eroded over the years because of the limitations of the market, and because of the sociopolitical and economic situation that Lebanon as a whole, beyond the advertising industry, has been suffering from.
If you were face to face with the communications minister, what three requests you would make?
Definitely a bigger reconstruction in terms of communication, telecom and digital empowerment, which we are still lacking and suffering from. Even 3G is not totally 3G.
These last two years were really great in terms of improvement, but we’re still not there. We know that the infrastructure needs a lot of money, and this is from a communications perspective when you talk about telecom or the infrastructure in terms of facilities – we’re not there yet. It’s up to each and every industry or institution to overcome the limitations of the current situation. This would be a primary objective.
What about talent retention? We’ve seen a lot of talent leaving Lebanon and eyeing Europe or the US or the Gulf…
This could be a very big objective or wish that I would eventually address to the prime minster, but I don’t know what we can do in six months. The erosion of talent, the scarcity of talent, the migration of brains – we’ve been suffering, particularly in our industry, because we were the receptacle of this from a communication perspective. And today the brain drain is across all categories, but specifically in the advertising and communication business. So my wish would be to encourage those people to stay. How? I don’t know.
From a micro perspective we’re working a lot on this, but from a macro perspective I think it’s an issue that all Lebanese and all industries are suffering from. So basically this could be a second big wish – to encourage the youth to stay. Not only to stay but to grow and develop. Because some people, some youth, stay here because they have no means to go abroad. So they will work, and we will invest in them for years, and then at one point they reach a status – whether in terms of growth or promotion and salary – when they are obliged to look elsewhere.
What have you been doing internally to curb or at least to minimize the effect of this high turnover?
At Leo Burnett we are the ‘human kind’ company. Human kind doesn’t mean that we are human in the charity sense. It means that we invest a lot in people, and we understand the motivations of our people, and consumers, and it also starts with understanding this behavior and the psyche of people. On the other hand, internally, it means we believe in training people, in growing them, in motivating them, in inspiring them, and we give them many tools, whether it is from the philosophy of human kind, or pure training opportunities or growth opportunities – even if they are not really related all the time to salary promotion. It can be, but we think about it as more horizontal growth and motivation. The good thing also about Leo Burnett is that we have a very strong reputation in the market, whether in the region or in Lebanon in particular, we are viewed by the youth as a school. And whenever you look at someone as being like a mentor, or being someone you can gain experience from, you tend to drive these talents more than other agencies or industries. So basically we have this kind of attraction that even people who question staying in Lebanon and consider leaving, they join Leo Burnett because of this aura, this reputation, this performance in the market, because of our ethics and because of our performance across the board and our international aura as well.
There is another strategy that we are investing a lot in – the internship. We provide opportunities for internship that are systemized. We have a developed strategy of internship where we have deals and associations with the major universities, and we provide this opportunity on a yearly basis, not only in summer, for people to come and train and learn. And this constitutes a big reservoir of talent because once they graduate; they tend to look at Leo Burnett as their first professional encounter. So they know how we think, how we operate, and they are inclined to come and stay. As for the existing talents that we have it has become more and more challenging. Because I mean the youth today look at their CV as a commercial commodity to put “I work at Leo Burnett” and they can use this as a step to go elsewhere. Now we face a tough situation whereby some of our best people want to leave the country. It had nothing to do with Leo Burnett. We can help them, we can convince them, we can give them some qualitative reasons to stay, but whenever they decide they want to emigrate it is something that we cannot really change.
Today the youth are much more aggressive. They say, “I can make it on my own. I don’t need to be part of a big structure.” We always argue the contrary because there is a lot of learning and learning is continuous at Leo Burnett. They appreciate that we give them opportunities to look beyond Lebanon. I mean with all the international rules and all the campaigns and brands that we have, we give our talents the opportunity to think big, and you know the world is open to them.
The Lebanese advertising industry in general, and Leo Burnett in particular, has been very successful in winning a lot of prestigious awards. Only a couple of weeks ago, at MENA Cristal awards, Leo Burnett again was among the leaders in getting these awards. How is this an integral part of your strategy? What is the value added from getting these awards?
Winning awards is not a strategy for us. It’s the result of excellent work. It comes hand in hand. Awards are not an end, but they are part of the game. Whenever you do good work you get rewarded.
Now I must acknowledge that we’ve been good at it, because it’s also part of the culture of winning and being aggressive, whether it is in the marketplace with our brands or with growth, and it’s part of what we do as well. It is true that lately Leo Burnett as a network has had a fantastic performance, and it’s not only this year.
We look at advertising or communication differently and we’re able to do it in many of our brands, whether it’s current brands or NGOs. And we’ve succeeded. We were among the first agencies, if not as a local agency, to win in Cannes. Three years ago we were the sixth creative agency in the world. Awards have been coming naturally and consistently at Leo Burnett Beirut. It’s something that comes with hard work.
How are you going to differentiate yourself through your own management style and leadership skills in order to contribute to the growth of the agency? What is your personal touch that you will be remembered for in the future?
As a manager, I tend to look at delivering ‘Best in Class – Creative’. Whenever you have this, growth will come, awards will come, and brands will come to you because they know that you are here to give them ideas. Ideas will be the name of the game. Whether it is ideas to transform the agency strategically, or to transform the agency from a managerial standpoint, the beauty of our industry is that whenever you become a managing director, you know you have the numbers, you have the balance sheet – you have this, but it’s not as thrilling. I will give my ideas as I always have. My touch has been what I have given to this agency and it will remain even more so on the creative ideation level. Perhaps because of the challenges ahead, I look at my philosophy and the Leo Burnett philosophy in a more tangible way. Our motto is “When you reach for the stars you may not get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” I think this will be my touch. This will be my strategy.
I do not look at this position as totally new. Leo Burnett has been part of my DNA. I’ve been part of this agency and part of this family and network since 1988. Leo Burnett is who I was, who I am, and who I will be. I’m so proud, so happy to be part of this network because it’s a totally different way of doing things. The other side is that the people we work with – I mean, we work hand in hand, it’s not you know, some people look at a managerial position – it feels lonely at the top, I think it’s totally different. I look at it as a total partnership as we’ve always had at Leo Burnett.
Whether it is on a global basis, at a regional level, or particularly in Beirut, it’s not the success of one who will make it. It’s the success of all of our talents. I look forward to working even more hand-in-hand with everyone at the agency, whether it is from the PR perspective, planning, digital, creative, or the communications people, it’s all of us that will make it.