Searching for the next generation

The average Middle East agency boss is entering veteran status. Steve Wrelton asks where the next generation of leaders will come from and whether they will signal a change in thinking

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By  Steve Wrelton Published  May 14, 2006

Searching for the next generation|~|Naidu,-Vikram200.jpg|~|Saatchi & Saatchi’s Vikram Naidu|~|“Have you been to the IAA?” asks Elie Khouri, regional managing director of OMD Middle East. “Look at all those people that are representing the big multinational companies — you will notice that a lot of them are still stuck in the past, in the good old days of the advertising and communication business.” According to Khouri the present generation of advertising and media bosses has been happy with the status quo for too long. It has failed to embrace the ‘new world order’ and has been slow in adapting to change. “They’re still hanging on to all of their beliefs and the way that they have been running the business,” he says. “And you know, that’s a bit unfortunate, because things are changing much faster than this.” Khouri is not alone in thinking that the industry could do with a bit of a shake-up. Sunil John, managing director of Asda’a Public Relations, agrees that the time has come for a new guard to step forward. “The present generation is most definitely out of touch,” he says. “I think that there’s a generation that’s still in control of most of the industry but I also think that the industry’s probably on the cusp of change. “Some of these so-called owner managers will have to shift because the market will push them out. I think they’re used to doing the old ways of business and the markets have actually grown at a faster pace than their mindsets and they have been left behind. “You can feel the pressure now, because clients almost dictate what needs to be done today.” However, not everyone agrees with the premise that leaders are out of touch and holding things back. “I think maybe agency bosses were stuck in their ways, but not any more,” says Vikram Naidu, co-chief executive officer of Saatchi & Saatchi in the Middle East. “They’ve realised what’s going around. They’ve seen the changes and I think that they’re attempting to change as well.” And Raja Trad, chief executive officer of Leo Burnett in the Middle East and North Africa, says that it is wrong to tar everyone with the same brush. “I think that existing bosses differ )from one place to another,” he says. “It depends on the culture, the mentality. What do you want to do with your company? Do you want just to sit and maintain the same — or do you want to keep on challenging yourself and build for the future?” According to the chief executive officer of JWT in the Middle East and North Africa, Roy Haddad, the industry definitely needs new blood. “We’re not stuck, but I think that it is time to pass on,” he says. “Certain leaders have been at it too long and I think it’s time to pass things over. It’s happened at Promoseven and I think it needs to happen in a couple of other agencies. I don’t see that in other agencies there has been a real pass-over, a succession that’s happened. I think this is what breathes fresh air into an agency.” So where do agencies turn when they’re looking for the bright young things of the future? “Without being biased I would say that we look towards Lebanon,” says Khouri. “I would also look at the UK and India. We try to have a mix of talent in our group because I think every nationality has something to offer. With the Lebanese, there’s cultural understanding, relationship building and negotiating skills. “The UK brings knowledge and know-how from the best media and communications centre in the world. And India brings systematic thinking, discipline and rigorous strategic development. So if you combine all the three pools of talent you can have an unbeatable formula.” Samir Ayoub, CEO of Mindshare in the Middle East and North Africa says that he is focused on hiring young Arabs, who can offer a level of insight into local media that expats cannot. “We’re bringing in graduates, particularly Arabs, irrespective of nationality — though it happens to be by default Lebanese, because the majority of the industry are Lebanese, but we are bringing in other Arabs from Egypt and Jordan as well. “Primarily Arabs. Why? Because this is what the industry needs. Five or six years back we used to go to India and bring back talent from India, but we realised that there can be an obstacle with language and the Arabic media and so now the focus is on Arabs, to bring them on board and grow them for the future.” Interestingly, both Ayoub and Khouri say that they have noticed an increase in interest from graduates in a career in media — something that they are both excited about. “Now is much easier than five years back, because then, fresh graduates wanted to go into creative, client servicing — nowadays the majority of them want to work in media planning and buying because they feel that this is the future,” says Ayoub. Trad does not rule anyone out when he looks for new recruits. “For me, talent comes from everywhere. If you look at the different nationalities in this building you will be amazed,” he says. “New Zealand, Australia, England, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, India, Philippines, Singapore. It’s a melting pot of so many cultures and nationalities and I encourage this because I think bringing people together like this is healthy. “In some cases you might say that an Arab is necessary because he needs to travel to Saudi, he needs to interact with clients and he understands the culture, in some cases yes. But those are, in my opinion, odd cases.” On the PR side, it’s no secret that many agency bosses are concerned about an over-reliance on expatriate Westerners to fill key positions. The Middle East PR industry is still young, so recruiting from the UK, Australia and the US is understandable, but there is a consensus that a greater proportion of Arabs is required. Sadri Barrage, chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association and managing director of Headline PR in Dubai, says that while PR is becoming more widely taught at universities, particularly in Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE, there will be a gap before much-needed Arab talent is ready to take the reigns of power. “On the short run, to be honest, we don’t have the talent,” says Barrage, candidly. “There are numerous PR practitioners coming in at the entry level and we will see more and more — but those guys are going to need another ten years before they reach management level.” Khouri, like Barrage, also argues that there will be a skills gap, due primarily to an older generation of bosses who have been preoccupied with themselves. ||**||Searching for the next generation|~|Khouri,-Elie2002.jpg|~|OMD's Elie Khouri|~|“I think that there is going to be a gap, unfortunately, because of the lack of training. I think one of the mistakes of the old generation is that they have been focusing on the ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘myself’ kind of thinking. They haven’t been building teams around them, they haven’t been educating and raising people from the ranks, they have been focusing on themselves and building their equity, unfortunately.” Sunil John, however, is more upbeat about the number of Arabs working in the industry and says that a healthy mix of Jordanians, Western-educated Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians are beginning to make their mark. “There is a new generation of Arab youth,” says John. “I see it in my office and I see it in my industry. These are people who have a very strong local knowledge, they understand its sensibilities, what works and what doesn’t work and they have an international outlook — these are the people that have the future.” Curiously, it seems that while there is concern that there is not enough training in the industry, bosses are more than happy to talk up what their own agency is doing to foster the next generation. Almost every large agency now has a ‘university’ or ‘academy’, and when you ask about how they rate in terms of their commitment to what has recently become known as ‘succession management’, the present leaders are confident. “I tell you what. If I look within our organisation, people who are running the show now in our offices, five years back they were media managers or media directors. Now they are MDs and they are all in their early or mid 30s,” says Ayoub. “If you look at our Lebanon office, for example, the lady who runs it — Hana Khatib — started with us back in 1994 as a media planner. Twelve years along the line she is now running the whole office.” Asda’a employees are sent on training courses at Edelman University, OMD has the ‘Omnicom Academy’, while those who join JWT have a 10-year ‘university’ programme to look forward to. Leo Burnett, which invests 2% of its revenue in training initiatives, runs what it calls ‘Leo College’. “Anyone that joins has to go through 30 models which cover the basics for someone to be in the business,” says Trad. “The second fold is training that is designed and co-ordinated by the HQ in London. We also have indirect training where we send people to congresses and conferences where they can learn. For example, to Cannes, this year we are sending 18 people from the region so they can see creativity from across the world.” This commitment to ongoing skills development, Trad says, is central to the agency’s ability to find the right people for senior positions from within the company itself. “If you look at the managing directors, the regional account directors, the senior art directors, creative directors — they all came from within the agency. We keep investing in our people so that the new generation will take from the older generation. I have absolutely no problem. Because for me, each key position in this agency there is a second man in place.” Finding and then retaining talent is on the top of every agency boss’s lips — especially if it is employees who start at the bottom that end up at the top. “The challenge is attracting big talent — it’s a huge challenge,” says Naidu. “For me it’s the number one. Paying the right wage, motivating them and putting them on a career path. They need to know exactly where they are going. “The problem is that the young guys can get very restless and they want to move after a couple of years. How do you hold on to your good talent, how do you nurture them and groom them — that’s the challenge for the future.” It’s fair to say that the current leaders have been slow in modernising the industry, especially when it comes to issues such as transparency and auditing. Will the new generation of leaders signal a change in this regard? “On the brand agency side I don’t think there is an issue about transparency because most of the work is just done on fee basis — you either pay or you do not,” says Haddad. “On the media side, however, I think it is very much growing because otherwise they will not be able to sustain their presence in future.” Ayoub says that progress on transparency will be made in tandem with the ongoing efforts to train the client-driven leaders of the future. “Growing talent, transparency, auditing, we have to do all of that for the benefit of the whole industry. You can’t do one at the expense of the other. For example, growing talent is important for us, but it doesn’t mean that we slow down or ignore working on transparency and auditing — and vice versa. “Irrespective of whether you are old or new, I don’t doubt that everybody is pushing for auditing because it’s for the betterment for everyone in the industry. It’s just a matter of time.” If the commitment to training and career development is as genuine as many like to say it is, then it would seem that the outlook for the industry is positive in terms of the calibre of the leaders of tomorrow. The difficult thing will be for today’s bosses to know when the time is right to step aside and make way for them. And while most bosses say that they expect the new generation to come on board in the next five to 10 years, some think that the changes will be seen a lot more quickly. “In the short term there will be a bit of a flux because there will be the battle of the agendas — the old mindset versus the new mindset,” says John. “But I see that change happening within the next 18 to 24 months. New blood will come in and take over and change the industry. Because you know what? There is no choice.”||**||

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