Meet Middle East media’s most hated man

Unilever’s Mike Gillam has enjoyed a colourful career and is relishing his latest challenge, writes Richard Abbott

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By  Richard Abbott Published  January 22, 2006

Meet Middle East media’s most hated man|~|Gillam,-Mike2006.jpg|~|Gillam... ‘People hate my guts. It wasn’t a popular move’|~|Mike Gillam went through a number of guises before he settled on advertising as a career. The regional communication channel manager for Unilever Middle East has been a fighter pilot, travelled first class around the world and toured with The Who. Nowadays, he runs the advertising business for brands like Axe, Omo and Lipton and plays a high profile role within the new GCC Association of Advertisers, which seeks to protect the interests of advertisers. And, contrary to what many in the industry would believe, he is a good friend of media moghul Antoine Choueiri. We are sitting in Gillam’s living room, which is surrounded by wall-mounted electric and acoustic guitars, including an axe that was once wielded by Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame. Music is very much part of Gillam’s heritage. Born near Birmingham in the UK, he moved to London in his 20s and worked for Polydor Records. “I used to go on tour with bands making sure that record shops were stocked up with records. I had a company Cortina. I was Jack the lad,” he recalls. James Last, Slade, The Osmonds, The Who, you name them — Gillam has met them. He tells a story of how he once leaned out of an upstairs window at Polydor’s office to keep a crowd of screaming Osmonds fans happy. “In those days I had a centre parting. And I suppose from 100 yards I look like Donny Osmond,” he says. After Polydor, he joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. “When I joined the air force I had no idea that anyone would shoot back at me,” he says. Next, he went to university and got a BSc in economics, from which stemmed a career in econometrics — the use of market data and statistics to forecast and explain consumer habits. Gillam developed media planning software that is used the world over. So he recognises the irony of ending up in a part of the world where data is somewhat thin on the ground. After his studies, he joined Saatchi & Saatchi in London as an account manager. “I was a suit,” he says. He worked alongside the two Saatchis — Maurice Saatchi (“ a really nice chap”) and Charles (“more firey”). He had spells at BMP, TBWA and Ogilvy Media Europe (which became MindShare). “As the econometrician I was trying to correlate sales with advertising,” he says. “I correlated GDPs, reach and frequency to awareness. It became a major advantage in new business presentations. “Everybody wanted it, so I spent three years flying first class around the world telling people about it.” He left to become a freelance media consultant and even wrote a column on advertising for the UK’s Financial Times. Some econometrics work in South America and Asia Pacific for Unilever led to a more permanent position. “The trouble with being a consultant is that it is so bitty,” he says. When the Middle East role came up, Gillam jumped at it. “It was a great thing to do. I came from an agency environment, which you are told is meritocratic, but it is not. Unilever is. You can pick the ball up and run with it,” he says. But he really made the headlines for taking Unilever’s media planning and buying operation away from incumbent MindShare and into a new in-house unit, although Unilever later entered into a strategic partnership with Interpublic buying house Magna to get a better negotiating position. “I thought we were getting awful media value. I said we should take it in-house. It was a massive corporate decision,” he says. “The great thing about Unilever is that if you want to do it, you can do it. It is a monstrous amount of responsibility to place in someone. “What I have done, I don’t think I would have been permitted to do anywhere else. It was a very brave decision by Unilever. I was amazed that Unilever went for it.” And the move was not exactly greeted with open arms by agencies. “People hate my guts. It wasn’t a popular move,” he says. “There were agency heads going round media owners threatening them that if they did business with Unilever they would get no business from their agency. The industry closed ranks to ensure that our initiative failed and that no other client even considered going down that road.” Gillam admits that he received some personal threats. “People told me to be very careful,” he says. But the proof came soon after when the negotiation process began. “When we took our business in-house, my spot price on MBC1 went down by more than 40%,” he says. The issue runs much deeper than this. Spend an hour with Gillam and he will give you his eye-opening take on exactly what goes on behind the scenes in Middle East media. But he insists that this remains off the record. One subject he is happy to go on the record about is the GCCAA. “As far as I am aware the IAA has achieved nothing in the area of TV research. So we formed the GCCAA and called for proper TV research,” he says. And what of auditing — and the recent creation of the Circulation Audit Steering Organisation (CASTOR), which is calling for advertisers to boycott titles that do not have an independently audited circulation? “They should give all publications an amnesty,” he says. “If your audit comes in at 50 and you have been claiming 100 we will not ask you for compensation for the last five years. “I have told every client to tell their agencies — before you put any title on the negotiation list for 2006 I don’t want to hear anything unless you have also heard their plans to audit. They have got to show a plan.” The industry observer would expect Gillam to have a severe dislike for Antoine Choueiri, boss of the powerful media sales house The Choueiri Group, which controls a significant amount of TV airtime in the region and has been accused by some of having a monopoly position. But he claims the opposite is actually true. “People ask me what I don’t like about Antoine. He is a lovely guy,” he says. “Every fight I have ever had with Antoine is because he is just doing his job. But he is just trying to get more money. I respect him above anyone else in the business here. “He is good, and what makes him good is that most people in the industry are very bad.”||**||

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