It’s time to stick your heads above the parapet

Mike Gillam once gave me a lift. It was a frightening few minutes as we dodged in and out of the Sheikh Zayed Road traffic in his Porsche. I swear that at one point we were going so fast we actually went backwards in time. I’m sure I glimpsed dinosaurs.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  January 22, 2006

|~||~||~|Mike Gillam once gave me a lift. It was a frightening few minutes as we dodged in and out of the Sheikh Zayed Road traffic in his Porsche. I swear that at one point we were going so fast we actually went backwards in time. I’m sure I glimpsed dinosaurs. If I’d only known at the time that he was an ex-fighter pilot perhaps I might have felt slightly safer in his company. Still, if he took seriously the threats he has received — which fortunately he doesn’t seem to — then he wouldn’t be feeling very safe himself. As we report today, he’s been getting threats over his crusade to clean up the region’s media agencies. Mind you, if you take a look at his picture, you’d realise it would be a brave media agency boss who would set out to whack him. With no disrespect to Unilever, the very fact that Gillam works for the multinational leads you to expect an urbane, but perhaps slightly grey marketing type. But no, he’s very much the old time media bruiser, with the robust personality to match. Sailors would be extremely jealous of that vocabulary. He’s a man for whom the phrase ‘larger than life’ was invented. And in a region where people are terrified of putting their heads above the parapet in case they get into trouble, Gillam is what is needed. Many Western expats come here and quickly fall for the mentality of “It’s not the real world, so why fight it? I’ll put my principles on hold for a couple of years and sit back and enjoy the lifestyle”. Fortunately, he’s certainly not opted for the quiet life and is still fighting. And if he wins his battles for greater media transparency and more honesty in the media buying transaction, then it will be a favour the whole industry should thank him for. Once the industry cleans itself up a little then many international advertisers will have the confidence to spend more money on this market. A potential result of that is media owners actually having a little more budget to spend on decent programming, which will in turn hopefully deliver more audience. Of course, one man and his mouth can only take an industry so far. Gillam has made a pretty good start by being a driving force behind the GCC Association of Advertisers. It’s certainly got many of these issues on the agenda. And, of course, others — for instance, we talk to GlaxoSmithKline’s Sameer Desai and Emirates’ Steve Wheeler this week — are getting behind the drive for auditing of print titles. But it needs lots more people to start looking above the parapet and to come out fighting too. This is a good moment to join in. There is momentum for change. Again driven by the GCCAA, there is a realistic possibility of TV audience metering in Saudi Arabia. Media owners are realising they have to clean up. Some media agencies are beginning to wake up to the fact that soon their business success may be driven more by great planning than brown envelopes. Indeed, presenting yourself as a cleaner than clean agency could soon be quite a clever marketing position to have. But victory for transparency is by no means certain. There are lots of vested interests that could yet prevent it. Many of the media agencies are quite happy with their media owner kickbacks, thank you very much. If everyone sits back and waits for the likes of Gillam to sort things out, then this momentum will be lost. To reach tipping point, several more large, and medium-sized companies need to join this fight and start punishing the opaque by actually taking their business elsewhere. Then, change will happen fast. But this is the best opportunity the industry has had for a long time. Gillam has unlocked the door, so why not join him in pushing it all the way open? I just don’t recommend you accept a lift home from him afterwards.||**||

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