Ghada el Khatib: the Giant Leap?
Posted on February 20, 2017

Seasoned communication professional, Ghada el Khatib, who was at the helm of two companies in Beirut (PR company Asda'a BM and ad agency Y&R) joined Plus Holding company as chief operating officer early on this year. With blunt sincerity, she tells ArabAd what prompted such decision and how this will affect her on the personal and professional levels.

What prompted your decision to leave Y&R and Asda’a? It probably wasn’t an easy decision, was it?

My decision to leave Y&R and Asda’a was not made on a whim, but was rather a well thought-out decision, which once reached was, in fact, easy to make. After having spent 25+ years in the communications industry - well over half of my life - and 8+ years as the Managing Director of Asda’a and MD of various other companies, including Wunderman and Y&R, I felt it was time to do something new.  I have reached full professional maturity and my expectations are high career-wise. I’m not interested in doing something routine, managing the status-quo, and giving 150% to a company every day with little recognition, reward and return. For me, I would give 150% where I can spread my wings and deploy the full scope of my potential in terms of strategy development and leadership in a less constricted environment that enables me to continue to grow and expand professionally and personally. 

 

Was part of the reason to quit the communication field because you felt there was not much happening anymore, or was the personal drive no longer present at your former agency?

I do not agree that not much is happening in the communication industry.  With the digital revolution, information consumption and consumer behaviour are constantly changing and this is impacting the tools, mechanisms, and strategies that media, advertising, and PR agencies use.  In my opinion, what has been happening to the communications industry in recent years is nothing short of an industrial revolution - truly fascinating and interesting times to be engaged in this industry.  

It is a time when agencies need innovative strategic thinking, which regional and corporate headquarter units should help lead, but also a time when agencies need to think and act quickly to respond to the rapid technological changes and resulting changes to consumer behaviour and client expectations. The Communication industry is becoming more centralised and corporate, which is reducing the autonomy of regional and country offices, restricting their ability to respond quickly to the industry changes, and reducing the personal touch that is so important in this industry and expected by clients, especially in the MENA region. 

 

Do you find it easy to switch sides and occupy the client seat? 

I have been successful over the years, whether as a Managing Director or a Client Servicing Director, precisely because I was able to put myself in my clients’ shoes and see their needs and concerns through their eyes. For me, agency or client side, the heart of the issue is one and the same – every organisation needs to be appropriately structured, staffed with skilled, hardworking, and motivated employees, have solid processes and procedures that don’t choke the creativity and ambition out of its staff, efficient, and flexible in order to perform to its fullest capacity. 

From what I’ve seen, having worked with many companies in many industries over the years, those that are most successful are the ones with excellent leadership and high quality management that focus on setting the right course strategically for the company and excel at operationalising and managing the implementation of that strategy. In order to obtain maximum force and effectiveness, the strategy needs to be communicated to and understood by all staff in the organisation, and duties, responsibilities, and performance metrics for all positions need to be tied to the strategic objectives. In this way, every effort exerted leads to the goal and in this way every employee is acutely aware of and constantly monitoring environmental changes and market swings that can potentially impact the business. A committed workforce is one in which staff know their jobs, understand how their work contributes to the bottom line, and is invested in the success of the company. 

 

What will be some of your objectives at Plus Holding?

My objectives at Plus Holdings revolve around providing the type of leadership outlined above. But first and foremost, I intend to make a difference at all levels of the organisation. And in my capacity as COO, I shall have the tools and the means to succeed.

 

What have been the greatest challenges faced during all these years at the helm of Asda’a and Y&R? 

The challenges that I faced at Asda’a BM are different than what I faced at Y&R. I headed Asda’a - even before it became Burson-Marsteller - for eight full years, lifting it from the doldrums of anonymity to rank among the leaders in the market place, from a company that was consistently losing money to a highly successful profit center. I was given full authority and latitude in managing Asda’a, in part because it was such a a failure when I took it over and nobody believed it could become the success that it is today. I am rather proud of my achievements at Asda’a BM, proud of what the company stands for today.

Y&R is a different story. I spent around 14 years in this company. I left as client servicing director and moved to Asda’a BM for eight years, before adding Y&R back to my portfolio as MD. By then, Y&R had been acquired by WPP, and what they did was to replicate WPP’s management style, regulations, and processes in all the region. This produced a highly bureaucratic and centralised system with excessive and unnecessary paper work, time-consuming reporting that was often not useful nor relevant, and a severe reduction in decision-making power and authority at the country level - all of which created unending obstacles to our work. You could not enlist a new client without having to ask for his pedigree and history and clear it through HQ, or take to lunch a valuable contact without having to fill forms that required a number of signatures, let alone recruit and hire new staff without a long approval process from HQ that took months and was often delayed much longer.  

Y&R flourished in Lebanon and in MENA back when its operations were managed locally and led regionally by one of the great pioneers of the industry in MENA. Unfortunately, the highly centralised and constrictive system imposed does not enable the country teams to respond to industry challenges quickly enough to be competitive and serve its clients well.

 

What do you believe will be your next biggest challenge?

My next biggest challenge, entering an entirely new field, is to quickly master its rules and procedures and modify those procedures that are unnecessary in order to facilitate efficiency and ensure the organisation can quickly respond to operational challenges and changes in the market. Alert to the history and potential of the company I just joined, I intend on making a success out of it and leaving my imprint. There is much I need to learn and this is extremely exciting for me...