Can Blackborn clean up Middle East media?

Matt Blackborn has taken on the task of tightening up the books at Starcom. Richard Abbott asks how he is getting on

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By  Richard Abbott Published  March 5, 2006

Can Blackborn clean up Middle East media?|~|Blackborn,-Matthew200.jpg|~||~|Matt Blackborn loves golf. But he has had precious little time to hit the greens since he arrived in Dubai last summer. The CEO of Publicis Groupe Media for the Middle East and North Africa has spent more time taking off than teeing off since he arrived in Dubai from Starcom Mediavest in London last summer, as he gets to know the region. “Yes, it has been hard work,” he says of his whirlwind introduction. Blackborn, an Englishman, is quietly spoken but focused on the task in hand. He needs to be — he has a mammoth job. His two-year brief is to bring the Publicis network’s media agencies — Starcom, Mediavest and Zenith — in line with the accounting procedures that apply to more developed media markets. In an industry seen by many as driven by private arrangements between agencies and media owners that clients are unaware of, the waters couldn’t be much muddier for him. His appointment came after the acrimonious departure of Tarek Ayntrazi, now boss of the Lebanon-based Future TV group, who found himself entangled in a legal dispute with media buying house The Choueiri Group over trading practices. “We are in a market where client contracts are not the norm,” he says. “A lot of business is done on a handshake. We need to be clear on what the relationship we have is with our client, what we are going to get paid and when we are going to get paid it.” Changing decades of local business practice will not be easy, but Blackborn insists the benefits are there — not just for Starcom, but for its clients too. “My brief is to put us in a position where we can say that we are doing everything 100% as multinationals and bigger regional clients would expect, which in itself will have a positive knock-on effect for local clients who want to take advantage of that positive knowledge and approach.” However, he has had to deal with resistance. “Inevitably there are markets like Saudi and Egypt where there hasn’t been the same discipline. Introducing contracts on every single client in those markets is going to take longer,” he says. “The focus when I arrived was to do all of this stuff but I have time to achieve it. My remit is two years and it is viewed as a two-year job. You don’t do any of this overnight.” Blackborn’s biggest challenge has been language. He doesn’t speak Arabic and comes from a very different background to the average Lebanese agency boss. He was surprised at the ‘can-do’ attitude in the market, which he describes as “breath of fresh air”. But he was even more surprised by the lack of basic media research, which he blames on “politicking”. “If you really want to challenge, if you really want to be a hub, you can’t let things like that hold you back,” he says. “I’m sure there a lot of hidden agendas, but why? The surprise was the resistance to change in an environment where the appetite to do things is so great. It just seems like a paradox.” Blackborn reveals with frustration how he has sat in rooms where there has been a positive energy to move forward on research. “But behind the scenes there seems to be a lot of politicking about reasons not to do it, which I find a bit frustrating,” he says. “As an individual I am quite straight-forward. If people say they want to do something, and everyone agrees it is the right thing to do, then let’s get on with it. “That doesn’t happen here. People are holding themselves back, and holding the industry back, at a time when there is so much else going for us.” And he warns of dire consequences if the industry doesn’t pull together. “Clients are demanding more of the agency environment. The GCCAA (GCC Association of Advertisers) seems to be a clear indication of that and the agencies haven’t responded as quickly as they should do. It is not a year ago agenda, it has been going on for five to seven years. “I can only see it as ultimately being damaging to the growth opportunity. If clients are demanding it and we don’t respond, that will be damaging to the agency business. Why would you do that? You have got to change.” Blackborn has a media buying background. He joined the Publicis network in 1995 through Leo Burnett in the UK. It was to be the last full-service agency of its kind before media and creative went their separate ways. He was part of the launch team at Starcom UK in 1999, which merged with Motive in 2000 and Mediavest in 2003. But he always held a desire to broaden his international experience, so he talked to the then Starcom EMEA boss Mark Cranmer. “It was a very open dialogue,” he recalls. “What I didn’t want to do was to move to somewhere that developed my management career but was not beneficial to my media experience. “The only area that I wanted to be reassured on was how it would impact on my ability to keep pushing the media boundaries.” However, once he saw the client base, he was sold on the job. “I didn’t need much more reassuring that I wasn’t coming to a backwater. I was coming to somewhere that could be a real hub,” he says. Clients include Procter & Gamble and Kellogg’s. When asked to give an appraisal on the job he has done so far, Blackborn says the basics are now in place — now is the time to differentiate his media brands in the marketplace. “We have to be the best at buying, at negotiation. That is the core discipline. That is what we do — the bread and butter of our business,” he says. “There is a real opportunity to inject the best tools and systems from around the world and bring it to this market. That will be our big differentiator. I see that as a massive opportunity because there is a real appetite for communications planning.” And the work that he is doing on accounting and contracts will feed into the agency’s new business pitch. “We can make an advantage out of the fact that we are a 100% owned entity, and therefore our transparency and accountability will be an advantage in a market where the reputation is not for transparency and accountability. “When we have scale let’s use it to our advantage. I think media owners can gain out of it too. It will remove the possibility of things slipping through the net in terms of opportunities that they can’t tap into.” And Blackborn has recognised that he can only achieve this by having the best staff. Since arriving he has more than doubled the training budgets — effectively putting his money where his mouth is. With less than a year and a half to go until the end of Blackborn’s two-year brief, will he stick around for longer? “It is too early to say,” he says. “ I can imagine myself getting to the end of the two-year period and feeling that I haven’t finished, because you never do. I have said to people that it’s the hardest six months I have worked. But I don’t see myself taking my foot off the pedal.”||**||

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