Bowling for the Middle East with a ball full of PR

Phillippe Skaff’s Grey Global is breaking the boundaries of the traditional Middle East network. Richard Abbott meets him

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By  Richard Abbott Published  May 14, 2006

Bowling for the Middle East with a ball full of PR|~|PHILIPPe200.jpg|~|Skaff... ‘The 30-second agency is dead. There are other things that matter’|~|With a typically flamboyant action, Phillippe Skaff sends the bowling ball crashing down the lane into the pyramid of pins. They all fall down. He swivels to salute his staff, fist raised, before running over to embrace his seven-year-old son David. Today is the final day of Grey Global’s Middle East and North Africa management get-together. A team bowling competition is underway, with a prize of free flights and hotel accommodation anywhere in the region for the six winners. Competitive spirit is understandably high. After a week of meetings and presentations, today is about having fun. The bowling alley bar is open and the Al Maza beer is flowing. Skaff, the agency’s CEO and chief creative officer for the MENA region, wears many different hats. Part agency boss, part Lebanese TV celebrity and part film director, he is one of the most colourful characters on the Beirut creative scene. After the game is over, he reluctantly leaves his colleagues to play again while he sits down with Campaign. We retire to a terrace above the bowling alley that overlooks the mountains and pine groves around Beirut. It’s a different world from Downtown, but just a 20-minute drive away. Skaff, who is dressed in an untucked white shirt, jeans and black New Balance trainers, drives a massive 4x4 and smokes even bigger cigars. He was born in Beirut but spent his early adult years designing clothes in Hong Kong. His first foray into advertising in the Middle East was with JWT, before he set up his own agency, CSS, in Nicosia, Cyprus. Grey joined as an affiliate partner in 1993 before taking an 80% shareholding six years later. Skaff owns the remaining 20%. The network includes advertising agency Grey, direct arm G2, media agency Mediacom and PR operation GCI. “Grey were pushed by P&G to establish a presence here. We were young, we were keen and still at the dreaming phase,” says Skaff. “They thought it was appropriate to test us. The relationship solidified and they bought shares in the agency. “What made the Grey brand different was that typically in the region you found talent but you didn’t find integrity with it. “There were two kinds of agency — honest, transparent, law abiding on the one hand, then you had the agencies that had the wheeling and dealing mentality and these were the majority. I like to think that we offer total transparency from day one and a focus on the product. “We were this hero that came from nowhere, a bit like Rocky.” The network has expanded outside the confines of the traditional Middle East and North Africa territory with offices in Nigeria and Senegal, largely prompted by the needs of clients like Nokia. Grey Global MENA now employs 320 people and has an income of more than US$37 million a year. Its opulent and modern offices, complete with dome-shaped boardroom, are just around the corner from the bowling alley, in the town of Broumana. Skaff says there is no need for an agency to be based in a city centre. Location, he argues, can inspire ideas. “You sense the difference from the start. You are dealing with a different type of agency. What difference does it make to a guy sitting in New York or Brussels? To us, it makes a big difference.” He says that having the head office in Beirut, rather than Dubai, also makes for a more creative service to clients. “Beirut has the highest per capita creative staff than anywhere else in the region. We have 13 creative directors sitting here, which says a lot about Beirut being a creative centre,” he says. Skaff has recently been putting the finishing touches to his debut film, called Lesson Number Five. It is a socio-political satire set in the ancient city of Byblos, and concerns an eccentric English teacher who helps a gaggle of old men obtain Green Cards and emigrate to the US. But they get more than they bargained for when they discover that the American people are off to Mars. “It gives a new angle to the so-called clash of civilizations,” says Skaff. “An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind — that is the idea behind the film.” He has also invaded the small screen by appearing as a judge on the LBC show Mission Fashion, a reality game show where designers and models compete to be the next big thing on the catwalk. I ask him what people make of his eccentric style. “L’enfant terrible is my nickname in advertising in the Middle East. I take it as a compliment,” he says. “I am an ideas man, and I am also an idealist, which is hard in this business. You need edgy, out of the box thinking.” At times during our conversation, Skaff appears distracted, keen to be back in the midst of the fun downstairs with his colleagues. I ask him about his management style. “Empowering others, a lot of delegation, no compromise,” he replies. “I surround myself with talented people. I like to be challenged. The biggest mistake we can make is to surround ourselves with ‘yes, sir’ people.” Skaff is a firm believer in pushing creative people into management positions, but he feels better training is needed so that writers and art directors are better prepared for the day-to-day demands of running an advertising business. “My first boss asked how can one be a poet and a gladiator at the same time?” he says. “Universities and academies are doing a disservice to artists because they are not teaching them business. I don’t see why an artist should not also become familiar with business practices. “I like to see myself as the example to follow. I would like to think that creative people are being given more of a chance. They are more honest, more idealist than people from business school. They are less corrupt and they probably do a better job.” Top of Skaff’s to-do list are the expansion of G2 into Saudi Arabia and North Africa; the expansion of media agency Mediacom; and the rollout of PR outfit GCI across the Middle East. He cites the examples of the Danish cartoon furore and the recent collapse of the Dubai Ports World deal as examples of how the Middle East could do with upping its game when it comes to PR. “The 30-second agency is dead. There are other things that matter,” he says. “The region’s business is very government driven. It is an area in crisis. There is a problem of perception with the rest of the world. PR has to become a major pillar in any sizeable communication in the region. Clients have been asking for it. We have been reluctant to say we can until we felt ready to tackle major public relation assignments. Now we are.”||**||

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