The game of advertising has a paramount survival rule: adaptation. Successful strategies and campaigns inject creativity into marketing messages that are tuned to the demands of clients and the psyches of their customers. Good marketing communications agencies sniff out trends just when they are about to bud and blow them up into big balloons of consumer attention. It is a game that the Lebanese are apt at, to the point of being the industry’s dominant players in the Middle East and North Africa.
This year, Executive has taken on the mission to highlight successful and influential Lebanese across industries and countries to inspire the country’s youth and start building a global Lebanon. Aware of the immense role of Lebanese expatriates in the regional advertising industry and aided by the MENA Cristal Festival held in the snowy Faraya mountains in Lebanon, Executive kicks off this series of very special reports by meeting with the Lebanese top guns of advertising communications.
A holy trinity
Lebanese leaders in regional communications today constitute a community spanning several generations. The founders’ generation are unforgettable characters, personifications of advertising godfathers and charismatic entrepreneurs who spin great tales of pioneering the Arab advertising market by setting up shop in Kuwait, Greece and Cyprus in the 1960s and 1970s.
A second generation, in their 30s and 40s, are already running numerous advertising agencies and media planning companies, and a third generation of millennial Lebanese are nipping at their heels.
Members of the founders’ generation, many of whom have been active in the industry for 40 or more years, today are chairmen of regional advertising groups and subsidiaries of global communications conglomerates. Others of these network pioneers have given up their official positions — usually to ‘retire’ into new applications of their skills in cultural, social, environmental and even political spheres.
One will find Lebanese of this generation wherever one looks among the ranks of top executives in regional affiliates of the big four global marketing communications groups: London-based WPP, Paris-based Publicis, and Omnicom and Interpublic from the United States. How the Lebanese ad men (in the founders’ generation, the frontline faces were all male) swept the region with their bravado, charm, wit, entrepreneurship and advertising skills is a question that industry leaders answer in different ways, but they usually refer to two common elements: the openness of the Lebanese to business and the displacement pressure they experienced from conflicts ravaging their home country between 1975 and 1992.
Lebanon’s advertising diaspora
One explanation for Lebanese dominance in the Arab advertising industry, provided by MENA head of British multinational WPP, Roy Haddad, is the country’s choice of adopting a free economic system that encouraged entrepreneurial thinking. Lebanese started setting up their own advertising agencies early on.
With the onset of the 1975 Civil War, several ad men and their clients left the country. Alain Khouri, founder of advertising agency Impact, for instance, fled to Cyprus as the civil war wreaked havoc on the country.
“Automatically, you had clusters of regional clients and agencies operating out of Cyprus,” says Dani Richa, chief executive of Impact BBDO, a company under the Omnicom umbrella. “We had no business in Cyprus, we were all offshore, covering the Middle East from there.” Athens was another hot destination.
As Dubai started gaining importance in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several Lebanese ad agencies started moving their head office to the emirate. And as they moved to Dubai, they continued hiring from Lebanon.
As the Gulf economies developed, their governments needed to hire locals to join the workforce and help build the infrastructure. Large institutions, from banks to insurance companies and with deeper pockets than ad agencies, soon followed suit.
“When it comes to us [advertising agencies], we could not compete with the big boys because [our industry involves] hard work and little money,” says Eddy Moutran, chief executive of Memac Ogilvy — and one of the first Lebanese ad men to move into the region by setting up an advertising company in Bahrain in 1984. “The Gulf people had a choice: work for a bank and earn X or work for an agency, put in 12 to 16 hours a day and earn half of X. That’s why it was practically impossible to recruit locals.”
The increasing attractiveness of regional markets to multinational companies manufacturing anything from soft drinks to luxury sedans meant that the global advertising conglomerates started to hunt for regional partners, and the Lebanese agencies welcomed them.
“A lot of agencies saw the need to partner with multinationals to be able to attract multinational clients, as they tend to work globally with agencies,” says Impact BBDO’s Richa.
This trend, which, in the case of Impact’s partnership with BBDO, went back as far as 1979, built up over the years.
In the early days of the current century, partnerships turned into larger shareholdings by the multinationals, and progressive integration into the global corporate structures and governance patterns of the big companies followed suit.
The second generation
The next generation joined the advertising fray beginning 20 years ago and saw massive changes in their work environments while growing into the business. The leaders of this generation are today highly positioned in operational management. They describe their roles, motivations and targets differently from the first generation in a number of ways.
One significant difference is the replacement of Lebanon’s civil war by the ‘Dubai factor’ as a main motivator to seek regional fortunes. As Tarek Daouk, regional managing director for StarcomMediaVest Group (SMG) puts it, Dubai for him was a career opener and “a destination of hope, like America in the early period of the [last] century when everyone was looking for opportunities in the New World.”
Having had a quality education in Lebanon, Daouk found that there was good work for him in the Lebanese advertising industry, but Dubai provided much broader opportunities. “The size of the business and the whole economy in Lebanon doesn’t allow you to grow as much as you can,” says Daouk.
Shadi Kandil, chief executive of rival media planning agency OMD MENA, sees the shift from international affiliations of regional networks to full ownership by global organizations (SMG is part of Publicis, OMD part of Omnicom) and the awakening to good governance practices as the biggest changes for the middle generation.
“Our preceding generation was a generation of entrepreneurs who passionately loved advertising and owned companies,” Kandil says. “Today, we live with companies that are owned by big conglomerates that are publicly listed on stock exchanges around the globe and driven by governance protocols. We are supposed to be aligned along compliance rules, and there are certain cultures that drive us. [The industry] was entrepreneurial; now it is institutional.”
In his view, Lebanon missed two opportunities; first in the 1990s and again in the past decade when it could have claimed more of a hub role in the regional advertising industry. “As far as the communications industry is concerned, the train left the station a long time ago. Dubai has created such a solid gap that Lebanon can’t compete against it,” he says.
Indeed, the physical evidence of the regional head offices of media groups in Dubai speaks volumes to the growing width of that gap. In February 2011, when Executive made the rounds to advertising and media agencies in Dubai, its visits included quite a few experiences of meandering hallways, darkish meeting rooms and offices that real estate agents politely call “Grade B” spaces. On a similar visit this year, every regional group with a Lebanese DNA component was found residing in a building with their name on top, branded with the group’s regional identity.
Although some of the agencies in Lebanon are nicely done in the creative-welcoming matrix, no agency’s space in Beirut comes even close to what the big agency hubs in Dubai Media City and nearby areas provide, the most recent example being the MCN Hive, a brand-new tower housing the agencies of Interpublic-affiliate MCN.
Talent above all else
The geographical shift of head offices notwithstanding, regional companies still thrive on their strong Lebanese components. As Tarek Miknas, chief executive of agency FP7 and board member of MCI Holding, sees it, Lebanon holds its space in the industry because advertising leaders like to live in the country. “You have the art schools, the new ways of thinking, [and] new young talents like crazy. Lebanon is a source for talent for this industry, no matter where [it is based] in the region.”
An important consensus between the two leadership generations that Executive engaged with was the assertion that this industry is driven by talent, not by nationality, communal affiliation or “flag waving”. According to Miknas, today’s mantra in the Dubai hub is about, “preaching inclusive, participatory cultures. When you look at a CV you don’t look at the name, you look at a person’s portfolio and when you see bloody good work, you say, ‘that is the person we want’”.
Raja Trad, chief executive of Leo Burnett Group MENA, says, “Lebanese are still playing a major role, but it’s not just Lebanese anymore. In Leo Burnett Dubai, there are 38 nationalities in one building; things are changing.”
Nonetheless, around agency offices in Dubai, the realistic chance is that you will find a Lebanese who knows other Lebanese working in advertising. An elevator test demonstrated the idea: sharing a ride down from the office of media agency Mindshare with two people, Executive asked if one of them knew a Lebanese advertising leader of the middle generation and immediately was given two names. The young woman who provided these leads in the Dubai elevator was Lebanese and in advertising.
The Lebanese ranks in regional advertising are joined by European nationals and enterprising global career seekers, as well as Egyptian and Jordanian talents. Integration of more Gulf nationals into the industry is happening, but thus far, as Elie Haber, the Lebanese general manager of Mindshare UAE, tells Executive, “In the way that the media industry is structured in the UAE, 60 or 70 percent of the people are Lebanese.” He adds that the industry has to overcome its deficits in reaching out to universities, attracting young male and female professionals locally, and showing young people in the Gulf how much fun it actually is to work in media and get the satisfaction of sweating out late hours to meet client needs.
From Executive’s experience covering the industry, ambitious young people who join communications companies in Saudi Arabia are not impossible to find. However, Saudis and Emiratis who join a Dubai agency office are still precious exceptions, birds-of-paradise and hopefully augurs a future where this industry’s opportunities for creativity will motivate more young talents from Gulf countries.
This unfortunate scarcity of Gulf talents explains the concern of some industry leaders that the emphasis on Saudization and Emiratization by the respective governments could bring in some individuals who are not driven by the passion, skills and experience needed for this job. “They are not there necessarily because they went to a communication school, received training or managed large budgets,” says Ramzi Raad, chairman of TBWA\Raad. “With no proper training, growth in any particular market will be greatly affected by the [potentially deficient] quality of the people running the process. I don’t want to be insulting of young nationals; all I’m saying is that we have to accept that professional training is a must.”
Talent worries in the regional advertising industry have fluctuated in recent years. In the pre-2009 boom period, any newcomer could get hired, however inexperienced. However, after the crisis, firms had to work hard to keep the best talent while restructuring.
All agencies confirmed in their interviews with Executive that they count young Lebanese among their ranks of promising potential. Lebanese talents of the current, millennial generation will play a role in regional advertising and have the drive to become leaders.
“I am happy where I am today and I obviously hope to get to the top level one day,” says Cirine Mazloum, a Lebanese millennial and American University of Beirut graduate with four-and-a-half years of experience in a media agency.
She definitely can envision herself handling a management role on the regional level. Still, in Cirine’s words, “if you look around in the UAE, you notice that the industry is dominated by the Lebanese, but it doesn’t really matter if you are Lebanese. It matters how good you are… and how passionate you are in this job. You have to like it in order to excel in it.”