Investing in the future can help keep OMD on top

Elie Khouri has taken OMD to the top of the media tree. Richard Abbott meets the man who looks after number one

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By  Richard Abbott Published  October 9, 2005

Investing in the future can help keep OMD on top|~|Khouri,-Elie200.jpg|~|Khouri... ‘Our key goal is not necessarily to become number one but to be the best’|~|When your business has just reached number one in its field, some bosses might put their feet up, grab an espresso and think about their bonus. Elie Khouri’s agency OMD can now claim to be the Gulf media agency with the largest billings, according to data from Ipsos-Stat. Rival agencies naturally question the figures that place OMD above its nearest competitor Starcom, but bragging rights, for now, lie with the Omnicom-owned business. So Khouri is entitled to an espresso or two, which he pours himself from a natty little machine in his smartly appointed office overlooking the lake at Dubai Media City. But his mission is far from over. Indeed, over the course of an hour, he reveals how OMD is looking to increase its muscle further. “In our business clout is important. Our key goal is not necessarily to become number one but to be the best,” he says. “We were late to come into this market. Because we were late we wanted to be different. We focus on creativity and media firsts. We want to be the most innovative, the best place to work. Now we are number one, the challenge is to stay there.” Without clout, says Khouri, it is very difficult to compete for business. He believes only the top five agencies — OMD, Starcom, MindShare, Universal Media 7 and Mediaedge:cia — are capable of giving clients the service and buying strength that they demand. “Only the top five matter,” he says. “You need sufficient scale to drive value for your client. Your size has to be translated into good negotiations.” So what goes through a client’s mind when they are deciding which agency to hand their business to? “Usually price is the driving factor. I’d give that 50% of the weight, especially in this part of the world. Then it goes 30% on planning and 20% creativity.” It is a damning verdict on clients. When so much emphasis is placed on buying media at the cheapest possible price, will agencies ever have enough to spend on pushing the boundaries of creative and strategic planning? Khouri sighs. “It is worrying because it means commoditisation. What has become less important is the intangible side, the quality of the thinking.” He says OMD sometimes turns away business where the client is looking for bargain basement rates. “We are here to make money at the end of the day,” he says. “But local interests dictate that you fight for the business until the death.” Now there is another contender to fight for business with, albeit a sister agency. Khouri is to supervise the launch of PHD in Dubai, and he says the relationship will be “two brands, different cultures.” The UK-born agency, which broke new ground in the 90s with its emphasis on strategic planning rather than buying muscle, will compete with OMD for business. Within OMD, Khouri will be rolling out new divisions and offices this autumn. He says that OMD Digital will launch this month, offering a bespoke approach for OMD’s existing clients in the digital market. As the demand for quality market data gets ever more intense, OMD Metrics will launch next year, he adds. OMD Metrics takes sales data, consumer tracking data, prices — basically anything that can be fed into a computer and merged together. The results advise planners how many units were shifted by a certain campaign at a certain time. Agencies in Western markets now have large teams of number crunchers who use data in this way. “It is important for us to have this kind of research because media companies can be held much more accountable than anyone else,” says Khouri. In addition, OMD boasts a unit called Integral, which specialises in consumer insight, with a panel of consumers across the Middle East continually monitored. “The most important thing for a client is to rate the importance of the different touchpoints of the consumer. We all know the consumer is exposed to different media but what weight should we allocate to each touchpoint? “The challenge for us as media buyers is to find quanitifiable solutions because the client is coming to us to see how effective our media buying solutions are to his business. Is he going to get more margin on his sales?” Khouri, who has dual Lebanese/ French nationality and a French wife, came into media through a creative background. He worked in client services at BBDO in Dubai, Beirut and Cyprus and says “media was a new word” when OMD launched in the Middle East in 2002. Since then, the company has grown quickly. It now has 120 staff across the region through its purely-owned offices and affiliate offices. Oman, Bahrain and Qatar offices are scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2006. This growth, however, hasn’t been reflected in the region’s maturity, he argues. “We have to become mature in this part of the world. There is a need for some common sense and wisdom. There is a lot of shooting from the hip,” he says. And he is angered by the constant whispers about under the table deals. “If we keep calling each other crooks, no one is going to win. Let’s be sensible. “Foreigners come here and they don’t understand the politics,” he says, adding: “Well, not the politics, the culture — the psychological make-up of the people in the driving seats. What we need is a more mature dialogue between clients and media on the best way to move forward.” Khouri has more important issues to occupy his mind than petty squabbling. One of the biggest is finding talented people to work for his agency. He is blunt in his appraisal of the local skill-set. “In this part of the world, there is zero talent. I meet people with no skills who give a bad image of their company. The only way to move forward is to capture the young generation and put them on the right track, keeping them well trained,” he says. “My driving force is that we need new talent. This year’s priority is to train the best talent and provide the mechanism within OMD to train them properly.” To this end, the company has set up its own training school, the OMD Academy. By investing in the future, Khouri clearly intends to stay number one for some time.||**||

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