Size matters for ambitious Group Plus boss

Georges Chehwane wants to create his own Middle East powerhouse. Richard Abbott meets him

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By  Richard Abbott Published  December 11, 2005

Size matters for ambitious Group Plus boss|~|Chehwane,-Georges200.jpg|~|Chehwane.. ‘I want to become one of the most important media houses in the Middle East’|~|As a young man, Georges Chehwane worked alongside one of the most powerful men in Arab media — Lebanon’s Antoine Choueiri. It is clear he learned a lot from the chairman of the Choueiri Group. Twenty years on, he is running one of the fastest growing media companies in the Middle East, with a pan-Arab outdoor network and interests in both press and television. “I am a hard worker,” he says. “I put in 15 hours a day. I take risks. I believe in people and having good staff if you want to grow.” We are sitting in Chehwane’s modest second floor office in Dubai Media City. Group Plus’s distinctive orange and white branding is everywhere. Few could have missed the company’s stand at the recent Marketing & Media Show, complete with free chocolates and girls wearing unfeasibly short skirts. Chehwane talks about his company’s size a lot, but he insists: “When I say largest, I can prove it. Next year we will have the largest turnover in outdoor.” It’s hard to disagree. From humble beginnings, where he ran an office of four people in Beirut, he now has 350 employees across the Middle East and is opening new offices in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. He has lofty ambitions: “I want to become one of the most important media houses in the Middle East, to make it an institution and not a one-man show.” Group Plus is already one of the largest media groups in Lebanon. It is the exclusive advertising agent for Beirut airport, has a substantial outdoor network (including 2400 megacoms), publishes French language glossy magazine Allo and has a printing operation offering indoor, outdoor and 3D services. And it recently enhanced its portfolio by obtaining the exclusive advertising rights for 60 Mupis in the central Beirut district of Solidere. The group also runs a network of billboards in Syria. Chehwane says outdoor has a market share of up to 45% there. “There is only one TV station — outdoor is a very important medium,” he says. In the UAE, it has lampposts and wall signs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, including the well-known Citibank frontage on Dubai’s Sheikh Rashid road. Group Plus has also secured lamppost sites in the emirates of Fujairah and Ajman, which Chehwane says makes it the only company to provide advertisers with national lamppost exposure. Group Plus is also responsible for the 120 lamppost advertisements around Dubai Media City. “You can be creative with lampposts. You can tell a story. Each image can be different. The lamppost has killed the Mupi,” he says. Recently the firm has become the exclusive sales representative of UAE newspaper Akhbar el Arab and it will commence indoor advertising in the Saudi Arabian cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and Khobar next month. So you can see why Chehwane is working 15 hours a day, spending his working week jetting between the Gulf states and his family home in Lebanon. Yet while Chehwane’s interests have diversified into print and TV sales, his heart remains with outdoor as a medium. “Outdoor is becoming the mass medium,” he says. “It used to be TV, but when you have 500 channels, TV doesn’t give the same efficiency. When you want to reach the whole population, you have to go on at least five or six different stations. “With outdoor you need one single picture, and everyone will see it. This is a worldwide tendency. You can’t avoid it. You have to look at it. It is in front of you. Even by night it is lit.” And he has an optimistic view of the share of the advertiser’s dollar that outdoor is commanding. Statistics from the likes of Ipsos-Stat and the Pan-Arab Research Center tend to put the figure at around 5% on average, although it does vary from country to country. But Chehwane puts the share at about 8% overall, and says it should reach 15% soon in the UAE and Lebanon. But do media buyers understand enough about outdoor? “Some of them give outdoor real importance. Some of them are TV oriented. Clients are asking for outdoor so I can only see its share increasing,” he says. He speaks with enthusiasm about the potential for advertisers in Abu Dhabi, which has long sat in the shadow of Dubai. “The real estate companies, the government and the educational institutions are spending a lot on outdoor,” he says. “We have come to Abu Dhabi at the right moment.” Group Plus has benefited from the trend of Dubai-based shopping malls advertising in Abu Dhabi. Indeed, Chehwane points to studies which show that up to 30% of the cars parked at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall have Abu Dhabi number plates. With outdoor advertising in such a healthy state, he echoed the calls at Campaign’s recent outdoor round table for media owners to form an association that would represent the medium’s best interests. “I believe outdoor companies in the UAE should have a kind of association, with a prize for the best campaign,” he says. “It is difficult, but if four or five players got together they might find a common platform, common interests. I would like to be part of it.” But with so many competing interests in the market (not to mention competing egos), it may take some time for this to become a reality. “We are a little bit aggressive,” admits Chehwane, when asked what rivals would say about him. Later, as Campaign leaves the office, a bag is thrust in our direction, containing a Group Plus mug and an Akhbar el Arab mouse mat — complete with that unmistakable orange and white Group Plus branding. “We really believe strongly in marketing,” says Chehwane, with a smile. I cannot resist asking him for his view on Antoine Choueiri, who was once his work colleague but now his rival. “He is a successful story in the Middle East, a unique man,” he says. “I used to be very close to him and respect him a lot. You either like him or not. I don’t agree with some of his politics. We are not on the same side now but I still respect him.”||**||

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