Grey’s CEO and Hug’s founders talk plans for their new union, including regional expansion, pooling resources, winning awards and moving in together

L to R: Oussama Jamal, Nirvik Singh, Tim Baker

“There is no reason why Cairo should not be the back end of lots of parts of Grey,” says Nirvik Singh, chairman and CEO of Grey Group Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

He is in Dubai at the tail end of a regional road show where he and his new colleagues at Hug Digital has been showcasing the combined capabilities of Hug and Grey to their offices and clients around the region. In Dubai, Hug was hosting “Crunch”, a creative brunch for peers to hear speakers from across the industry, network and talk shop.

After protracted negotiations, WPP-owned Grey Group bought Dubai-based digital shop Hug in August of this year, and now Singh, along with Hug’s co-founders – chairman Oussama Jamal and CEO Tim Baker – is looking at how the two agencies can make the most of their new marriage.

One way might be to take advantage of the 90-person office Hug opened two years ago in Egypt and use it to service more of the Grey network.

Jamal says Hug and Grey have been “aggressively pitching” in the past three months, and two weeks ago Hug won UAE dairy giant Lacnor.

“That’s big business,” says Baker, who adds that Hug and Grey are collaborating on the planning process of other pitches.

Hug launched in the UAE seven years ago, expanded into Egypt two years ago and then opened a support office in India. This year it has begun expanding into Saudi Arabia, where it has a general manager and a social media lead sitting in Grey’s office. Six people in Cairo support the kingdom exclusively, and Jamal says the agency now services “four or five businesses” there.

“In the Middle East, it’s fair to say that Grey has been an underrepresented agency given its reputation,” says Singh. “It should have been much larger and it should have been future-facing. We were a traditional company, and in today’s world, where digital is the heart of everything we do, not to have that sort of cutting-edge digital will never make us future-facing.”

Grey lacked a strong digital presence in MENA, he says, “Now we’ve gone from a Middle East network with 150 people to a future-facing, future-ready network of 300 people.”

There are no plans to merge the Hug name into Grey. “Why would I take the strongest name in the Middle East and dissolve it?” he asks. “That would be really stupid. We brought the branding because it’s so strong.”

However, he says that Hug is now “central to us”. Grey are “storytellers” and Hug “can amplify that in the digital space”.

In Dubai, Grey is now in the process of moving its office to a floor below Hug’s Media City headquarters. Hug’s team is already ensconsed in Grey’s Saudi office, and when Hug expands regionally it will cohabit with its new partner as well.

Singh, Jamal and Baker say there has been no friction so far in bringing the agencies together. “I think we are both listening to what each other wants,” says Baker. “It took us a while to finish this deal because we all wanted to get comfortable.”

Jamal adds: “At the end of the day we don’t compete, we complement each other. As long as you complement someone there are no issues, at least as long as there are no egos.”

There may be some adjustments, though. Hug has been meeting Grey’s Beirut-based digital team, and Singh says that in 2018 the management will need to look at how to transition them from being “somewhere in between” Grey and Hug today. He adds: “We are very clear they are not going to be siloed,” and emphasises that he has made 10-15 acquisitions across his wider region and “we have made probably most of them work”.

So might Grey be looking at further acquisitions in MENA? “We look at something if it comes along,” says Singh. “I speak to anyone that comes my way.”

If he was looking to buy, he says, he would be examining areas including event management and shopper marketing. Those are offerings that Grey doesn’t have in the Middle East.

Immediately, though, Baker says Grey and Hug “have a big bet on research and data management”. He says: “We are looking at how we manage data and how we take the right decisions with that data. We are looking at creating products.” Singh praises Hug’s social listening capabilities.

Hug may even get some silverware out of the marriage. “We are changing each other for the better,” says Singh. “Our creative part is improving. Grey won at Cannes Lions, we won a Grand Prix at the Lynx. I think there will be amazing product innovations that will come from the Hug partnership.” Hug us set to become more creative, and “if it leads to awards, so be it”.

He concludes: “We are genuinely excited. We’re going to have fun.”

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