Why Saadeh’s still sailing towards the Horizon

Horizon.FCB has undergone a rebrand. Richard Abbott meets CEO Rafic Saadeh to find out what ‘Full Contact’ means

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By  Richard Abbott Published  June 11, 2006

Why Saadeh’s still sailing towards the Horizon|~|Saadeh200.jpg|~|Saadeh… ‘There is no security in advertising. So you need to be constantly thinking about what you must do to stay alive’|~|When Rafic Saadeh started working in advertising, his parents were embarrassed by their son’s chosen vocation. Born in Palestine to a Lebanese family, he studied marketing before entering an industry still in its infancy and dogged by dodgy dealing. “My parents were embarrassed to say that I worked in advertising. The industry was very unprofessional but I persevered,” he says. Saadeh has come a long way since then. He is now the chairman and CEO of Horizon Holdings, which includes Horizon.FCB, media arm Brand Connection and PR outfit Golin Harris. He is on the global board of Foote, Cone and Belding (FCB), the Interpublic network that took a 51% stake in his advertising agency seven years ago. Today, Saadeh is dressed comfortably in a white shirt and jacket. He speaks quietly and eloquently. He is a father of six daughters — two of whom have followed him into the business. Rona works at Horizon.FCB’s Dubai office while Dina works with FCB in New York. He is one of the stalwarts of Middle East advertising, but he steadfastly refuses to reveal his age. “You are as young or as old as your mind tells you, and my mind tells me that I am quite young,” he says. How old does his mind tell him he is today? “Maximum 40.” Saadeh may be an elder statesmen but he looks after himself. He has a basketball court at home, loves windsurfing and recently took up golf. We are at the Kempinski hotel at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates — so new that it is still being built around us. A chorus of drills provides a headache-inducing backdrop. The hotel is a Horizon.FCB client, so it comes as no surprise that it was selected to host today’s company get-together, which has been organised to brief staff about the new global FCB positioning — ‘Full Contact’. What does it mean? “It will not change the company, but it is a new energy that will come into the agency, a new enthusiasm for winning new business and servicing our clients,” he says. “Our business is forever evolving. You cannot stand still.” There’s more on the FCB website. The page about Full Contact argues that the best ideas are produced when customer, client and competitive insights meet head-on. A handful of creatives from across the global network will join forces to attempt to crack briefs, presenting their idea to the client at the end of an intense week of brainstorming. This is termed ‘creative rumble’ and is not dissimilar to Saatchi & Saatchi’s Tribe concept. It sounds great in principle, but will it make any difference to Horizon.FCB’s clients? Moreover, do clients pay any attention to agency branding and positioning? “We assume that clients are experts in their fields and you cannot fool them. “Whatever name you give your positioning, the client will go deep into it. If they believe in you, they choose you,” says Saadeh. “Every agency has introduced a different name, but, for me, whether it is Full Contact or whatever else, it is about what you do to give the best service to your client.” Horizon Holding’s agencies are headquartered in Dubai but Saadeh is something of an oddity in that he chooses to be based outside the Middle East, in the Greek capital Athens. Cynics would argue that this leaves him disconnected, immersed in a more European consumer culture than an Arab one, but he argues that the opposite is true. “I give this a lot of thought. I always feel that being detached from the market, from my offices, gives me the ability to see where there is a problem,” he says. “If I go to Beirut or Dubai, most certainly, 50% of my time will go to that market, seeing the clients and the commercial suppliers.I truly find it beneficial. I am focused on the business without any favouritism.” Saadeh has been on a mission throughout his career. According to his biography, his personal motto is that “the absolute mark of success is purity of character”. Wanting to make his mark on an infant industry that he found “amateurish and unprincipled”, he co-founded Horizon in 1976 as a one-client, two-man office. In 1999, Horizon merged with FCB and, in 2003, he added Brand Connection and Golin Harris to its portfolio, both brands of FCB’s parent network, Interpublic. He readily admits that losing Horizon’s independence was a double-edged sword. “When you belong to a multi-national company, their success in winning and servicing multi-national clients is your success,” he explains. “But many times you will be doing wonders for a client but your partner loses it globally and you lose it too. Maybe I would like to be independent, but you cannot do it alone. You have to be realistic.” Back to that biography: “His steadfast advocacy of professionalism and ethics helped to pioneer the conscience of the industry.” Saadeh says the lack of transparency in the industry, such as over-claimed circulation figures, is dragging it down. He also dismisses the ‘back-stabbing’ that he claims goes on. “It does not fit with my personality. I play fair,” he says. He says that sometimes he might lose pitches because of his integrity, but he is happy to accept that. “Even if we sometimes lose business because of these characteristics, we cannot change,” he says. But, when asked what the industry needs to do to become more principled, he is stumped. “Let’s be realistic,” he says, after a long pause. “Education, maybe time can solve this problem.” Horizon Holdings may be a growing business — the client roster includes SCJohnson, Kraft, Swatch, Revlon and GlaxoSmithKline — but Saadeh is not satisfied with his lot and wants to increase his slice of the pie. “I look like I am calm and satisfied but inside I am not. As a company we have not yet got our deserved share of the industry,” he says. This year the group further expanded its credentials through the introduction of Marketing Drive, a DM agency, and FCB Interactive, in recognition of the emergence of the internet as a communication tool. But Saadeh doesn’t expect growth to come easily. “You can go to the office one day and receive three letters from three different clients telling us that our relationship is terminated. There is no security in advertising. So you need to be constantly thinking about what you must do to stay alive.”||**||

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