Arriving by parachute clutching a fistful of airmiles

Shortly before I came to the region, I had lunch in London with the boss of an international agency network. I won’t say whether we’re talking media or advertising, but he was responsible for all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  March 5, 2006

|~||~||~|Shortly before I came to the region, I had lunch in London with the boss of an international agency network. I won’t say whether we’re talking media or advertising, but he was responsible for all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The Middle East was responsible for a tiny part of his revenues — much less than 10%. But it was causing him to tear his hair out. The problems he was being caused were out of all proportion to the return he was getting. Phone calls, e-mails and far too many 36-hour round trips to the region were taking their toll. The glamour of international business travel had worn off long ago — despite his marvellous collection of air miles, he was becoming psychologically unable to enter another air terminal. (Actually, I sympathise with the novelty wearing off — once you’ve watched Emirates staff physically restraining a Emirates colleague at King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah to stop him from fighting a passenger, you know you’ve seen most sights worth seeing). But in his case, the biggest frustration was that he was too far from the action and too far removed from the culture. When problems occurred — and there were lots — he had no idea whether the truth of the matter was what his staff on the ground were telling him or not. And this tends to be the problem for the Middle East — when it comes to being managed at the EMEA level, the centre of power is usually London. While the time difference may be just a few hours, and the geographic distance just a couple of thousand miles, the way of doing business can be a couple of decades apart. So for someone not steeped in a culture where relationships come first, second and third, and business justification a distant fourth, understanding the market can be virtually impossible. This is why we sometimes see someone sent in from London to try to sort things out. Matt Blackborn, who features in our profile on page 9, is such an example. His appointment as boss of Publicis Groupe’s media operations in the region followed the departure of Tarek Ayntrazi. In Starcom, Ayntrazi had very quickly built up a market leading operation. But when the bust-up with MBC and the Choueiri Group occurred, his London management were a long way from the action. So we had Blackborn, a trusted man with his boss in London — Mark Cranmer (who’s own job move we report on page 30 today) — parachuted in to clean up the mess. And that was virtually the way it was portrayed by the company, with the initial announcement stressing that he’d be on a two-year mission to see that the agency met with international accounting standards. You don’t have to be a genius to crack that code. For Starcom, Blackborn’s arrival has coincided with seeing OMD go past into the market leading position. But in the medium term, his appointment is the right one. Correctly, international advertisers do not have a great deal of confidence in the cleanliness of the region’s media market. And until a far greater level of transparency occurs, they will hold back on the levels of budgets they commit. It’s an issue that Dubai’s financial markets are already waking up to, particularly with the region playing a bigger role on the world stage with the likes of the World Trade organisation. So for Starcom, and sister agencies Zenith and Mediavest, there is a medium term business advantage in positioning themselves as the industry’s cleanest agencies. Clients will need somebody they can trust fully. But in the longer term, agencies need to wake up to making this happen at a local level, with local managements — not somebody from another continent. Quite soon, clients will have it no other way. The increased investment will soon make the changes pay – and just think of all the air fares from London they’ll save.||**||

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