Rarely has so much Middle East advertising power, knowledge and heritage been gathered in one small room.
On Tuesday, March 12, the Dubai Lynx Festival of Creativity held a closed-door ‘Alumni Round Table’. It was hosted by Philip Thomas, chairman of Cannes Lions and Dubai Lynx, and included not only this year’s Dubai Lynx Advertising Person of the Year, Ian Fairservice, but also four previous recipients of the title. Fairservice, the founder, managing partner and group editor of Motivate Media Group, was joined by Dani Richa, chairman and CEO of BBDO Middle East, Africa and Pakistan, who won the award last year; Edmond Moutran, executive chairman of Memac Ogilvy Group MENA and Advertising Person of the Year 2014; Roy Haddad, MENA director of WPP and chairman of J. Walter Thompson MEA, who was honoured in 2013; and the 2012 recipient, Raja Trad, chairman of Publicis Groupe MEA.
The alumni took part in a broad-ranging conversation that covered topics as diverse as gender diversity, talent acquisition and the future of holding companies.
Partnership of equals
For some years, the representation of women within advertising agencies has been a hot topic not only in the region but also internationally. Panels at the Lynx addressed women’s roles within agencies, and the industry’s attitude towards females in general. In London there has been a backlash that last year led a group of white British men to sue J. Walter Thompson for discrimination. They had been made redundant shortly after that agency’s creative director, Jo Wallace, said she was going to “obliterate” its reputation as an agency full of white, British, privileged, straight men.
But the five men on the alumni panel don’t see gender diversity as an issue – or not an existential one, at least – within their organisations or the regional media, marketing and advertising industry as a whole.
There is often a gender imbalance at agencies, they conceded, but it is usually in favour of women. Trad, for example, said that Publicis’s Beirut offices are 70:30 split in favour of women. The Dubai office is probably half-and-half. Even in the more traditional, male-dominated markets of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the advertising leaders said there is a good balance within agencies. And Fairservice said Motivate employs a significant number of women across all divisions of the company.
If there is a gender diversity challenge in regional advertising, it is at the leadership level, said Richa, especially in terms of creative leadership. All the participants, though, could point to examples of strong female leadership within their own organisations.
Only one woman has been named Advertising Person of the Year over the 12 years the award has been presented: Amina Al Rustamani, CEO of AW Rostamani Properties, in 2015. But Fairservice told the round table that if they were to come back in five years there will be more women. The talent that is coming in at the ground level will rise, he predicted.
Moutran said: “We have got to empower women to make sure they understand that if they are that good they can take over from us. Not because they are women.” And Fairservice agreed that “positive discrimination is a danger”.
The right people
More of a challenge than finding female talent can be finding talent in general, and local talent in particular.
Trad said the industry needs to pull together to attract fresh graduates who might be lured by other industries. “I have to be very honest,” he said. “For the young generation coming out of college and going to build a career, maybe the first aspiration would be go to go Google or Facebook.”
Advertising is still attractive, said Moutran. “People think it is a very sexy industry.” But he admitted that there is strong competition in local markets. In GCC countries the government sector offers shorter hours and more money, and the banking industry too is potentially more attractive.
Impact BBDO’s Dani Richa said there has never been a more exciting time to be in advertising, “because of the connectivity that exists”. He said: “Before, you had somebody just writing or just art directing, or just designing. Now you have people that write, art direct, shoot, edit, produce, engage, use social. So it’s a lot more exciting, it’s a lot more fun.” This means the industry can attract a lot of talented people from different backgrounds.
Roy Haddad pointed out that there are now more options for career progression. The pyramid of agency structure used to be rigid, with few jobs at the top. This meant people would leave from middle management to go to other industries. He said: “Now, with the diversity of skills that the industry needs, there is a horizontal opening up of the industry, because we have so many different verticals of capabilities. That opens it up better to accelerate people’s careers through their capabilities.”
Richa said that the societal impact of advertising is growing. “Young people feel they can change the world by joining our industry, and the campaigns that our networks have done have actually made this world a better place on many fronts.”
The Dubai Lynx itself has helped attract talent from abroad and has rewarded and grown local talent. Through programmes such as the Young Lions, which since 1999 has pitted agency juniors against one another to win a trip to Cannes, the industry is building on that creative culture and feeding it from within the region.
By Haddad’s estimates, WPP’s Saudi Arabia operations will be entirely staffed by Saudi nationals within nine years. This follows in the footsteps of Egypt, a regional market that is largely indigenous.
Cultural understanding within agencies is perhaps at its lowest in the UAE. The agencies in Dubai are staffed by a multicultural talent pool, and are producing campaigns to target a population that is just as diverse. But while it has long been a complaint that striving for campaigns that appeal to everyone can end up creating work that is bland and nondescript, Richa suggested this may soon be a moot point. The targeting capabilities of digital and social media mean that advertising is becoming much more personal.
The jury is out
The question of local culture in work led on to talk about the composition of juries at the Lynx.
While all five of the alumni around the table have been honoured by the Festival, they also helped found it. All were involved with its predecessor, the hotly contested but sometimes flawed IAA Awards, before Fairservice’s Motivate partnered with Cannes Lions to bring an international standard of show to the region.
To distance the Lynx from the politics and prize-swapping that took place in jury rooms before its arrival, it has never had local judges. All its juries are made up of people who work outside the region, often with global remits.
When Philip Thomas asked the table if it was time for that to change, there was a wide range of responses.
Haddad felt strongly that the region should be represented on the jury, saying: “As an Arab, I feel offended” by the status quo, and argued that without a local component, regional nuances will be missed. Trad positioned himself at the other end of the spectrum, saying: “As an Arab, I feel protected.” Moutran suggested each jury be “spiked” with a local representative, arguing that if our region can judge in Cannes, it can do so at home as well. He and Haddad agreed that “local” jury members could be foreigners with 10 or more years in the region, or
Richa said he was not against introducing local jury members, but likes the international standard. Using the example of another regional awards show, he said the Effies MENA “sucks” as it uses predominantly local judges. He also argued that while local creatives may be ethical, they can’t help but favour the work they have been championing throughout the year. Moutran conceded that even his proposal of one creative could potentially swing a jury if that person were passionate enough.
Fairservice rounded off the jury debate by saying that while using local jurors would be simpler and less costly, the reason for having international judges has changed over time: now it adds glamour to the Lynx.
The advertising men at the round table have all built up agencies over many years, and then seen holding companies take first minority and later majority stakes in them. Having experienced first-hand the rise of the holding group model, are they now witnessing its demise?
Trad said the MENA region has led the way for Publicis Groupe’s ‘Power of One’ philosophy, keeping its agencies in one physical location. This model is now being expanded in other geographies.
Haddad revealed that 40 per cent of WPP’s earnings today come not from its big-name agencies but from its client-specific integrated teams. Richa said Omnicom Group is also teaming agencies with one another to serve specific clients, while maintaining each unit’s brand identity.
Moutran has seen Ogilvy’s offering massively simplify from dozens of internal brands across the global network to what is now being called ‘One Ogilvy’. Some people left after the shift happened, he said; it wasn’t for everyone. But on the other hand, others have been keen to join.
From a non-agency perspective, Fairservice said that to a media owner like himself, the organisational shifts within holding companies are less important than the maintenance of relationships, which has been key since he began publishing in Dubai in 1979.
The agency men said clients are looking for simpler, more joined-up models, and in that respect groups are becoming a bit like the Big Four auditing companies, servicing friends and rivals alike. One of the primary reasons for holding companies containing many agencies used to be to keep competing clients apart, but that is becoming less of an issue in the market. Richa went so far as to say that clients wouldn’t sign a non-compete clause saying they will not work with rival agencies; so why should the agencies do the same for their clients?
Around the table on that Tuesday afternoon were five men who helped launch not only the Dubai Lynx but the region’s whole advertising industry. Some of them are stepping back from their day-to-day business commitments while others are doubling down on getting their hands dirty. All of them continue to watch the industry grow. They built it and they have a keen interest in and understanding of it.
But who will take it forward from here? Who will the Lynx alumni of the future be? They will be more diverse, and there will be more women, if these men’s predictions are correct. But how else will they be different? And how will the alumni’s successors deal with clients, holding companies, talent and opportunities?
Time will tell if the new graduates can change the world as much as the old school.