The long road ahead – An interview with Shadi Kandil
Posted on October 25, 2018

Shadi Kandil, Mediabrands’ first ever regional CEO, is preparing to take MCN’s media assets on a transformational journey

Shadi Kandil is sitting in a disappointingly bare office within the MCN Hive. There are no photographs, no paintings, no personal effects. Nothing. Just a desk, a table and some chairs. It’s not what you’d expect from Mediabrands’ first ever regional CEO.

“It’s just a temporary office until the ninth and 10th floors have been refurbished,” says Kandil with a laugh. “But I wanted to be here. I wanted to be close to the agencies, not to be in the corporate office upstairs.”

For those familiar with the region’s media industry, Kandil will need little introduction. Formerly CEO of OMD MENA, he spent a considerable chunk of his professional career in the UAE before heading to Canada with his family in 2013. Now he has returned, not so much as a prodigal son, but as a man focussed on transforming MCN’s media related assets across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.

It’s all very new, of course. Prior to Kandil’s arrival, Mediabrands (which was formed by the Interpublic Group in 2007) had not been present in the region, with each individual agency operating on its own within the wider MCN group. Now that has changed, with Kandil tasked with effecting change across all of the group’s media brands. That means media agencies UM, Initiative and Magna, as well as Platform5, the group’s performance and programmatic unit, and Capella, its analytics and insights agency.

“My teenage self would want a revolution, but my current self is more of a believer in orderly evolution.”

The exact scope of that change is not yet clear, but globally Mediabrands shares a philosophy called ‘Dynamic By Design’, whereby agility is embraced and barriers are broken down. In other words, the building of a single integrated business where communication and collaboration come as standard is the end goal. It’s a sizeable undertaking, but one that Kandil has thrown himself into since arriving back in Dubai in late July.

“My teenage self would want a revolution, but my current self is more of a believer in orderly evolution,” he says. “Making sure that business is not disrupted as we implement change for the future. Nothing will be dramatic. It’s more about strategic long-term changes to the way we run our overall operating system and our vision for the services that we will be delivering in the future.

“Naturally there will be shifts in terms of skill sets that are required. Some might be redundant, some might be emerging that we don’t currently have within the building. I think the best way to describe it is that we will be looking at what types of capability-building are required.”

What might those capabilities be? Kandil remains coy, although it is obvious that some level of pain could be felt along the way.

Then there’s the issue of cost-cutting, or increased efficiency. Where can savings be made across finance, talent management, service offerings, or operating hubs?

“I think it would be presumptuous on my part to say that I need to take certain immediate actions,” he says. “The reason I say this is because the existing leaders of the agencies are doing a great job. They’ve been operating on their own without me for quite some time. The agencies are growing, their client satisfaction levels have been quite fantastic, and I would like to think about the long-term play rather than immediate short-term fixes.”

“If you look at all the case studies globally around companies that have embarked on digital transformation journeys, the biggest barrier has always been people and the organisational structure.”

What is the long-term play?

“Purpose,” he replies. “Today we’re all guilty of continuing to operate within the norms and the terms of days passed. The window for us to change is also closing. We’re looking at so many different things, but it has to do with our operating system and finding our purpose.

“Also, part of the mandate is for us to find more and more opportunities to collaborate across the wider spectrum of the group’s offering. The benefit of having everyone in this building is that we can work closer together at a much faster pace without the perceived barriers.”

At present Kandil is on his own, although he will be developing a core team from existing personnel operating at a group level. The idea is not to create a heavy structure that sits on top as a holding company, but rather to power each agency to deliver on its own mission.

“One of the things that Ghassan [Harfouche, MCN’s group CEO] and I always appreciated about each other is the fact that we’re both believers in science and data-based decision-making,” says Kandil. “We always like to do things based on facts and based on a structural way of doing things. In both of our opinions, growth is a natural outcome of what you do. It’s not an objective in itself, but rather should be the outcome of a successful way of organising yourself and delivering a product that makes sense for the future, that is in tune with the economic and business challenges of your clients, and that responds to the way consumers are changing. So we’re both aligned on transformation. Cost-cutting is not an objective in itself. It’s a more efficient operation that is driving us to do things differently.”

There is a ‘psychological hump’ that will have to be negotiated. Something that every company that undergoes transformation has to do. 

“If you look at all the case studies globally around companies that have embarked on digital transformation journeys, the biggest barrier has always been people and the organisational structure,” he says. “It has never been the absence of a good plan. It’s the existing system. So I would be content in a year’s time if the whole system is aligned around the strategic imperative of changing ourselves for a better future."