Close Up

WPP’s man in Beirut

Roy Haddad, WPP’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, talks GroupM, JWT Dubai, and the problems facing the market

It’s late morning in Beirut and Roy Haddad is swinging around a lightsaber. “My kids got it for me for my 50th birthday,” he says, the weapon’s distinctive hum rising in pitch with every rapid movement. “We’re a family that is Star Wars crazy.”

These are eventful times for WPP in the Middle East and North Africa, and no-one can begrudge the holding company’s regional director a bit of harmless fun. With GroupM formally launching in the region, JWT Dubai in a state of flux, and the departure of Joseph Ghossoub leaving Haddad to fill in as interim chairman, the lover of all things Star Wars has his hands full.

“Did you know that Julie Christie used to be an account executive at JWT?” he asks following a brief discussion of Star Wars: Episode VII and the remake of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. It is the latter that prompts Haddad’s question, with Christie starring in John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation opposite Terrance Stamp. “There is such a mystique for all of us with Star Wars, so you don’t want a disappointment – a remake that doesn’t work. Not like Far From the Madding Crowd.”

Haddad is responsible for co-ordinating WPP’s operations in the region, with a key part of his job leveraging the holding company’s collective strength in order to provide greater value for its clients. It has been almost three years since he first took on the role, leaving his position as CEO of JWT MEA, but retaining his non-executive chairman position at the network.

“At the heart of my role is ‘how do we deliver more value to clients in an effective cost structure?’” he says. “The scale that we have in the region allows us to do that by identifying initiatives where, if you look at our costs, you have the talent, which is basically where the added value happens, and you have the back office. Can we rationalise more and more our back office? Can we scale all our procurement, and that be reflected in the pricing to our clients without devaluing the value we add? Clients are doing that, so why shouldn’t we?

“We want all the different agencies within WPP to be competitive, and fiercely competitive, because that’s what drives quality. Competition drives quality. But that’s exactly the challenge. Where you identify the commonalities in the business among all these brands, and where you can generate cost savings and so on. How do you protect each agency’s specific identity? Even though, more and more, we’re offering clients team WPP solutions.”

Where does GrouPM fit into this?

“Again, it’s around scalability of talent, of resources, of trading, coming up with new initiatives, and adding value,” replies Haddad.

It is Filip Jabbour to whom responsibility for GroupM has been handed, with his return to the Middle East taking place in June. As the region’s first ever CEO of WPP’s GroupM, the former CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group MENA will be responsible for leading the media holding group’s opera- tions and driving growth in the Middle East and North Africa. Its constituent agencies in the region are MediaCom, Mindshare, MEC and Maxus.

“We didn’t want to pick someone from any of the operating companies because we didn’t want to affect those operating companies,” says Haddad. “It’s really a partnership of egos. The way GroupM works is this: GroupM is a centraliser where each brand continues to have its own life and its own objective and its own character. But it’s the aggre- gator of services. This is where, again, we want to bring in more value. Scalability for his role within the media environment will be like my role on a larger scale for WPP.”

Could the scale of GroupM – it accounts for around 30 per cent of worldwide media buying – mean that its negotiating clout with media owners could be misconstrued as bullying?

“You can’t bully anyone in life without paying the price at some point or another,” replies Haddad. “You don’t bully. I think what makes commercial sense will happen for every party. Effectively our job is to give the best value to our clients. Their job is to make sure that they’re profitable and there is always a happy medium. Bullying doesn’t work and I’ve never bullied anyone. You know quite well my character.”

Haddad’s character is in many ways intertwined with that of JWT. Although he holds a WPP title, he remains as non-executive chairman of JWT MEA, whilst the agency he established in London in 1984 was the seed from which JWT MENA originally grew. Although the network is performing well on a regional level, with JWT Riyadh winning Saudi Arabia’s first ever grand prix at the Lynx in March, JWT Dubai is currently witnessing significant change.

As of early May, up to eight people had lost their jobs and a further four had resigned from the agency’s creative department. Amongst those who had either been fired or handed in their notice were creative director Michael Fillon and associate creative director Youssef Gadallah. The upheaval followed the departure of executive creative director Seyoan Vela, who had relinquished his role at JWT Dubai to “pursue other ventures” in March.

All this has taken place since the arrival of Mohammed Sabry, who took over as managing director of the Dubai operation in January. Reporting to former Dubai managing director Michiel Hofstee, now JWT’s CEO for the Gulf region, he has been making his presence felt. Chafic Haddad has also been appointed to the newly-created post of chief creative operations officer for the MENA region, and although he retains his leadership role for JWT in Saudi Arabia, he now leads all internal creative operations and is responsible for the network’s creative delivery in the MENA region.

“People talk about the people who have left, but they don’t talk about the people who have joined,” says Haddad. “There’s a new managing director and he wants to try his thing. Einstein used to say that the craziest thing you can do is try to do new things while doing the same things again and again, and thinking something new will happen. This guy wants to try something new and he’s embarked on his project.”

Are you not worried that, in the short term at least, there will be damage to the brand? That too many people have been fired or resigned?

“People come and go, but you guys like to dramatise these things, otherwise you won’t sell magazines,” he says with a smile. “There is intellectual capital in every company, and if that intellectual capital is alive and well managed, people come in and it’s business as usual, or better than usual.”

Was the agency under-performing on a creative level?

“Probably that’s the point of view that the new managing director took. There are creative reviews that happen in the company, and there is a creative board that meets every quarter, so that’s probably a judgement that took place. The good thing for JWT now that Chafic has his new role is that it will allow for more dynamic talent management, better career planning and so on, and that opens up opportunities to everybody in the company.”

Meanwhile, Haddad is overseeing Menacom, part of WPP and Y&R Brands, with full management authority and responsibility for the group until a decision is made about its future. With Y&R, Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, MEC and Wunderman within its ranks, Menacom is one of the region’s leading communications conglomerates, with more than 940 employees in its network of 33 offices.

“Obviously, when Joe [Ghossoub] decided to resign there was a vacuum, and part of my role is not to allow any vacuum and to make sure that things go on as they are,” says Haddad.

Why did he resign?

“You’ll have to ask Joe.”

What next?

“It depends how we see the future of the four [WPP] brands that Joe was so successfully running. Menacom is effectively a back office machine for the four brands and historically the four brands have always communicated to their counterparts in EMEA. They always had these reporting lines for everything that was qualitative, and the Menacom office was managing more the quantitative side of things. Obviously Joe was involved in all four companies, but will that role continue? It’s to be seen. The Menacom back office structure may continue, but Joe’s executive role overlooking all four companies may not.”

The appointment of Haddad almost three years ago was a direct result of the region’s increased importance, with WPP applying greater focus to the region through its creation of Haddad’s role. However, these are troubled times, with the region facing multiple challenges, not least a multi- tude of conflicts and the low price of oil. Haddad asserts that WPP is growing in the region, having added new business and increasingly working across various disciplines with its clients.

“Now, is the market growing? No. And it’s only normal. The only growth we see is in digital and if you take the total market, which in my point of view is around $4.2 billion, you see very little growth on the traditional side of the business. The real growth is happening in digital.”

He adds: “Politically, the whole Levant is regressing, plus you have a brain drain. It’s getting harder and harder to find talent in the Levant and the Gulf is feeling the impact of oil prices, plus you have the impact of what’s happening politically. From a macro perspective, there is nothing to be optimistic about or confident about. Our business is doing okay. We’re not growing as we used to in the mid- 2000s, obviously not, but we’re growing.

“The only way you can run a company, a regional com- pany, and to ensure that we grow as much as we can, is to keep travelling around. I never believed in remote control management. That doesn’t work. You have to feel the market, you have to feel what’s happening in a place, nothing beats being there. Even at JWT, I was always going around, because it’s important that people feel there’s an interest in the market. This is why we’ve been so successful in Saudi and in Egypt, by going there and ensuring that things happen. And I will continue to do this, no matter what.”