40 years and counting for Khouri the conductor

The advertising industry in the Middle East is changing dramatically and will be unrecognisable in ten years, according to Alain Khouri, one of its best-known personalities.

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By  Tim Addington Published  May 22, 2005

|~|Khouri,-Alain_M.jpg|~||~|The advertising industry in the Middle East is changing dramatically and will be unrecognisable in ten years, according to Alain Khouri, one of its stalwarts and best-known personalities. Khouri is better placed than most to proffer his views on the state of the region’s creative scene, having been involved in the business for nearly 40 years — from his early days in a Lebanese hotshop, to overseeing the partnership of Impact, his own company, with BBDO Worldwide. In Europe, larger than life personalities in the advertising industry pervade, with the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell and the Saatchi brothers achieving household name status — a trait distinctly lacking in the Middle East market. But at 62, and with a wealth of creative experience and bank balance to match, it could be argued that Impact BBDO’s chairman and CEO is the closet thing the region has to an elder statesman. A distinction he is quick to dismiss. “I don’t see myself as the grandfather of the industry. Frankly I am an ordinary man in an ordinary life doing what he believes in. I have done well, but it has taken many years, and money was never my key objective. Sure you have to make a living, but it wasn’t money, money, money, money. For me it is about achievement,” he says. Khouri’s Impact was the first Middle East agency to partner with an international network. Today, Impact BBDO claims to be one of the top three international agency networks in the region, with a client base that includes Pepsi-Co, MasterFoods, Daimler-Chrysler and Pizza Hut. It has six full service offices and more than 450 employees, who are spread across its advertising division and associated business units, which include through-the-line agency, Impact Proximity, and PR firm Impact Porter Novelli. Khouri oversees the operation from his plush corner office on the 17th floor of Emirates Towers. With breathtaking views of Dubai and the traffic congestion of Sheikh Zayed Road seemingly an age away, it is a space that Khouri enjoys working in, even if 70% of his time is spent out of it, visiting his offices in other countries. Sitting on a leather executive chair, and immaculately turned out in a pristine dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie, Khouri looks the epitome of an advertising exec with bags of experience. But, he says, the industry is changing and despite being a lover of all things advertising, Khouri now considers himself a “communication man”. “Communication is more important now. Advertising is an old formula. We are trying to move from advertising to communication, because this will be the name of the game in the future. A 30 second TV commercial is very good, it is an important part of it, but it is not the end of it,” Khouri says. “You have to create a link between the brand and the consumer everywhere you can. Everything is permitted. Consumers today are bombarded, but you have to bombard them in the right places. I don’t think advertising in ten years will be what we know today.” Khouri likens the changes in the advertising industry to that of an orchestra. “These days you need to have a PR agency, a media agency and an events agency. We need all this to play the tune as it should be played today.” Asked if he is the conductor, he replies: “You know, yes, I think so. You need a person to motivate people, show them how to do it, giving them direction and advice if needed, it is just a shame I don’t have as much time as I would like.” After graduating in 1966, Khouri started his career teaching advertising at the Lebanese University of Fine Arts in Beirut. Then, in the early 1970s, he started a small advertising agency with friends producing creative work that “no one was doing before”. “At that time, we were considered a new generation, because before us it was just a case of announcing things,” he says. “Nobody was trying to communicate. For example, if you sold chicken, you sold chicken, and that would be it. There was nothing creative being done.” The Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s stalled the burgeoning advertising industry and Khouri opened Impact Egypt, where he stayed for three years. An office in Kuwait shortly followed and despite wanting to headquarter the business in Beirut, he realised it was almost impossible. Cyprus was eventually chosen as a base because, at that time, many multinational corporations were using it as a launch pad to the Middle East. It was there that Khouri was first approached by BBDO, who had international clients wanting exposure in the region. “At that time we didn’t need it [the partnership] because we were doing very well. But in Lebanon I saw so many agencies where the bosses were getting older and everything collapsed. And before they got old, they became inefficient because they weren’t linked to anybody,” he says. In January 1979, Impact BBDO was born. “At the beginning it was a mess. I used to be the local guy, working in the local market, and even though I was supposed to be regional, I was still thinking locally. It was an uphill struggle to understand what international clients wanted and asked for, and what kind of people we need to work with us in order to deliver.” In 1982 the Dubai office was opened, which later became Impact BBDO’s permanent Middle East headquarters. “Now we think internationally but act regionally and locally when needed, because the Middle East is a mix. People say the Middle East is one market, I don’t believe this, it maybe one region, but its certainly not one market. Each country has its peculiarities, different populations and different needs, so it is difficult to try and communicate to people in the same way,” he adds. Despite making great progress in the standard of creative work in the Middle East advertising industry, Khouri also says there are still areas that can be improved, before it matches the rest of the world. “Creatively we have good execution, there is a lot of quality in the execution, but there is not enough depth. The day an agency from the Middle East wins a Golden Lion award at the Cannes International Advertising Festival for creative, we will be able to say it’s starting. It is one of our objectives, but we know we will not do it tomorrow. It’s going to take a few years.” And Khouri may be around to see it happen, as talk of retirement lingers near the bottom of his agenda, despite his advancing years. “The first time I thought about retiring I think I was 28 and I said at 35 I would definitely do it. But I am still here. I don’t see myself outdated, so why should I stop.”||**||

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