Edmond (Eddie) Moutran is the founder of the advertising firm Memac, and is now the chairman and CEO of its successor, Memac Ogilvy. As the first Lebanese advertising executive to open shop in the Gulf in 1973, he is a pioneer in the world of Lebanese marketing. He spoke to Executive last month.
E Will you tell me a bit about the early days of advertising in the region?
When I graduated from university in the States and came back here — this was 1972, there was a good industry, and I joined a small agency. In today’s terms they were very small, but at that time they were very big. It was an agency like any other agency, creating some ads for local clients, but mainly what you do is take pictures of the product, put them up, stick them on a piece of paper, write a couple words on it, and that was the ad. Sometimes they adapted international material for local consumption. That was the main function of local agencies.
I went to Bahrain in 1973, and I was the first Lebanese, believe it or not, to leave Lebanon and go to work in advertising in the Gulf.
E What was going on in Bahrain then?
In Bahrain at the time the agency had made an agreement with an agency in the UK to service Unilever products, and the head of Unilever at the time was living in Bahrain. Also what was then TEI, — Tobacco Exports International — they had an office in Bahrain. So I went and I started a one-man office there. I have had a home in Bahrain ever since.
Then, in 1975, when the Lebanese crisis started, the industry started evacuating and going to the Gulf.
E So, a lot has changed since then?
A lot has changed. The biggest thing that happened is this enormous speed with which the advertising industry caught up with the 20th century, and the enormous effort that is in place to stay with the rest of the world in the 21st century.
E Two years ago, you told a conference in Dubai that Memac Ogilvy was falling behind in the digital revolution…
We were. But that was two years ago. I think in the meantime we are leading the digital arena, without a doubt, because we’re not just supplying digital advertising on the web, we’re applying digital to every single discipline you can think of.
E So is it your view that the changing technologies are going to have a major impact on advertising?
Absolutely. Five years ago Internet penetration in the Arab world was 2.4 percent, today its 36 percent. Billions of people everywhere, not just in one country. Maybe the [United Arab Emirates], Lebanon, are ahead of the rest, but I don’t think the infrastructure is fast enough to keep up with the changes. I mean here, with one of our cellular providers you can’t use a BlackBerry because there’s no data service. Can you imagine? We are in 2009! Unheard of! So they’re not keeping up with the changes demanded by the consumer and demanded by the clients.
E When you look at two seemingly opposing environments — Lebanon’s, which is stable, and Dubai’s which is plummeting — what do you see happening for advertising?
What’s happening in both places, actually, is a very, very serious development. But the development is stemming from the fact that clients are holding us more accountable, and clients are demanding a lot more justifications on their return on investments. There’s no easy money anymore in the world. So every penny they spend has to be justified.
E But of course the crisis has also been an impediment.
The crisis hit everybody. I would dare say it hit us harder than most industries because the first thing that’s cut in a crisis are [advertising and publicity] budgets, so we’ve been hard hit. Some agencies have suffered a lot more than others. It depends on the portfolio of clients you carry, the sophistication of the portfolio you carry, the number of offices you have, how many markets you’re in, etc.
E What do you see happening in the next five years?
In the next five years I hope to God the client will allow us to do our job. The client in Lebanon fancies himself as a trader, fancies himself as a solid businessman. He understands banking better than his banker, and he understands advertising better than his agency. I have one client who makes chocolates. I said to him, “As long as you make chocolates and I write the ads, we’re going to be ok. But if I make chocolates, and you write the ads, we’re going to [screw] it up.” Advertising is one of those subjects that everybody has an opinion, and rightly so. But the difference between an agency’s opinion and a client’s opinion is that the agency’s opinion is based on a lot of experience and is based on a lot of consumer insight.
E Are you optimistic that firms will be able to adapt to a changing advertising environment? Or do you see some major losers in the coming years? Television? Newspapers?
If you talk about possible losers in the media, there are to me possible losers. When television was invented, newspapers panicked, and radio panicked. What’s going to happen is people are always going to find time to watch television, but now it’s going to be the quality of the programs they create. There was a Turkish series called “Noor.” It had four million addicts that would not skip a second. It was a wonderful program, everybody was talking about it.
What newspapers have to do is evolve. They’ve just got to find out what the consumer wants. There’s still something to sitting, having a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. But they’ve got to find out how you want to, where you want to, what time is good, and what do they need to do for you to continue to read it. Today, consumers have become much smarter than ever before. They rule the game. It’s no more a sellers market. So the more research you do to find out what the consumers want, the better off you will be armed to charge the future.
E Do you feel confident Lebanon will remain at the forefront of innovative advertising?
Lebanon has always been a very creative place. But if you look at Tunisia, Tunis is a very creative place. Dubai is highly creative, Bahrain [also].
We have fantastic creative directors in Lebanon, but it’s past their day. Once they get older, and they’re all getting old, is there going to be a replacement to keep Lebanon where it is? Or is another city going to have these young shining stars grow up there and take the center stage? I hope we continue to grow the talents in Lebanon, but these are things nobody can predict.
E Another thing you said back in Dubai two years ago is that you’ve turned over creative decisions inside Memac Ogilvy to a younger generation.
It’s gotten to the point that if I like the ad, I tell them, “Don’t run it.”