By Austyn Allison
In November 2018, agency holding group WPP announced it was to merge the oldest ad agency in the world, J. Walter Thompson, with digital marketing network Wunderman.
The coming-together was rolled out globally, and the Middle East was one of the last regions to be merged. The announcement of that merger was made in March 2020, but played down at the time as it coincided with the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions.
“It was probably a bit inconsiderate or in bad taste at that time to go out [with the news],” says Nassib Boueri, regional CEO of Wunderman Thompson and former head of Wunderman. “We needed to focus on our people, on their mental health, on their wellbeing, rather than just talk about us in general.”
Wunderman Thompson has more than 800 staff spread across 10 offices in the Middle East and North Africa. It took time to merge the regional offices for a number of reasons. The global network prioritised the merger of its flagship US and European territories, and there was also a complicated ownership structure of WPP agencies in the MENA region, a legacy of several founders of agencies having sold percentages of their shareholdings to WPP at different times in previous years.
JWT was owned by WPP and Tihama Al Mona International (TMI, a Saudi company), and Wunderman was owned by WPP and some minority shareholders. Today WPP owns Wunderman Thompson, with “a few minorities left in it,” says Boueri.
Covid-19 slowed down the logistics as well as the announcement of the merger, says Boueri. The pandemic presented “80 per cent of the challenge,” he estimates. “Because you needed to travel to make changes in terms of signatories, in terms of appointing new board members and so on and so forth.”
As well as the paperwork, there were the people: “You need to be physically present in the office to meet people, to talk to people. And it’s not only talking to the MDs or the CEOs or the ECD; you need to bring everyone around, everyone so that they buy in and you know where you are going.”
In the MENA region, the two agencies were lucky that they didn’t overlap too much. They “fitted exactly like a puzzle”. In most geographies only one of the pair had an office, and it was only in the UAE, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and that two agencies had to merge. Wunderman was dominant in the former two countries, and JWT in the latter.
Boueri and his team were keen to make sure the merger was not seen as one company taking over another. He says it was “more of a real merger of capabilities, of adding value to our people and clients as well”. He adds: “Today our clients are able to have a wider breadth of disciplines and capabilities across the board. In the same way, our people today are exposed to those capabilities and to those demands.”
JWT was traditionally stronger in creative, data and service design; Wunderman had more capabilities in terms of technology, commerce and digital content creation. “From the client side it is like a yin-yang or a puzzle,” says Boueri. “They will see that whatever capabilities they felt weren’t there before are there now, seamlessly rather than needing a different team.”
Although three agency heads left, the amount of attrition was limited, says Boueri. Now, coming back to the office will help build agency culture. One of Wunderman Thompson’s clients is Microsoft, a tech client with a progressive work-from-home policy, so the agency was flexible about working arrangements long before the pandemic made remote working a necessity.
However, bringing people together is how to build an agency ethos, he says. “The culture cannot be built at home. People need to come in and walk the corridors, talk to each other, sense these things,” says Boueiri. “People who have joined over the last year have never been into the office physically. They’ve never physically met their manager, their peers, their creative director. They haven’t met a client, even.”
Any move to build shared values is a long-term operation. “Culture, like growth, is not like an on-off switch,” says Boueri. “It will take time to get to the desired culture.”
He adds: “Before you bring in the capabilities you want to rally people around the common denominator. That is first your philosophy or your vision or your mission, and then the culture will blend under that and then the rest of the teams can work together.”
Wunderman Thompson’s official mission is ‘Inspiring Growth for Ambitious Brands’. Boueri breaks it down: “‘Growth’ is a word that everybody is using today. You cannot own the growth; you can be the catalyst for growth. You cannot say ‘I want to grow’ and then everything happens in 24 hours. You need to work for your growth, you need to plan for it. You need to strategise. You need to have a path, a plan for your growth, and then you get there.”
Boueri’s personal mantra plays into this. “When we had meetings at Wunderman, management meetings or client reviews throughout the years, I always asked one question: ‘Are we adding value?’” he says. “The moment you add value, everything else falls into place. Clients want to work with you if you add value. People want to remain with you if you add value. You will work for a company if it adds value. And ‘added value’ comes in different ways. It is not only adding value financially; you can add value with a purpose, with a business insight.”
Boueri says company philosophy is one of the reasons Wunderman Thompson’s clients often stay with the agency for many years. “Ultimately it is not about only the tenure of the client, but in terms of what you’ve done for a client. If you look at Microsoft today, if you look at STC today, if you look at Vodafone today, if you look at a lot of our global clients, be it a GSK, be it a Unilever, these relationships have been there for years and years, and most of them started here even before the global alignment,” he says.
Those names are legacy clients, but it pays to have a good mix of brands – in terms of local and global, and in terms of categories. In terms of where Boueri sees potential for growth, he lists the likes of food delivery and cloud kitchens, and start-ups in general. “Some fail, some succeed,” he says. “The whole business model has changed, and you have to be ready for that and have that mentality.”
The agency itself has to be as flexible as its clients. “You need to be adaptive,” says Boueri. “Thank God we have been extremely adaptive over the last 18 months and our business is doing well and our clients are doing well as well.” Then he returns to areas of growth: “It’s not like areas will die and others will grow; I think everything is going in the right direction. Some are growing faster.”
He continues: “Everything that is about data is growing faster, of course. Everything that is about commerce is growing faster. Everything that is about service design and customer experience is growing faster. The rest is at its own pace; it will grow, you will always have creative, you will always have social, you will always have media. But anything along these four main pillars now is ‘the new’.”
The array of employers competing for talent has widened. Now agencies such as Wunderman Thompson must go up against other agencies, clients, publishers and platforms. The people in high demand are data scientists, technologists, e-commerce experts and those who have skills in both back-end and front-end service design. “They are all in the same ecosystem because they feed into each other,” says Boueri.
The better an agency does at building up its talent, the more its competitors start to circle. Growing skillsets is similar to building up Saudi talent in the past, Boueri says: “We were the first to recruit Saudi talent. At the point you have 30-40 per cent you become a poaching pool for everyone.” But Wunderman Thompson is sticking to its guns. He says: “We will not stop this. We will keep doing this in Saudi and we are doing the same here. We are taking people in at a junior level and building them into those capabilities. Today, anyone who has studied statistics or maths, or has a liking towards a structured way of doing things, is a good data talent to be looked into.”
Boueri is keen to note how grateful he is to his staff, who have allowed the company to do well through the transition. “I’m grateful to every single person that comes into the office every morning and goes back every evening, Covid or no Covid,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot over the last 18 months, it’s been very challenging. What we’ve done is we’ve tried, like everybody else, to be as close as we can to our people. I’m grateful that they’ve all been here, that they’ve all supported us.” He’s grateful to the clients who never stopped trusting Wunderman Thompson. And he says that he is grateful to his wife and sons. “20 years in this business was not easy,” he says. “My wife has been my biggest support throughout and my boys have been my lessons.” When pushed for those lessons, he says: “You learn patience. You learn to listen. You learn to be grateful. You learn to accept being challenged. And you take that to the office every day and you become a better person.”