Against All Odds, Crisis-Ridden Lebanon Remains Region’s Creative Hub: Memac Ogilvy’s MENA CEO David Fox Eyes the Future
Posted on 2022 May,10  | By Christina Fakhry

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Spearheading Memac Ogilvy since March 2021 after over six years at the helm of Ogilvy Australia, CEO for the MENA region David Fox has been looking into new ways of expanding the network’s outlook and propelling its legacy into the future amid transformative post-pandemic times. And with Lebanon still at the core of the agency’s operations as a regional creative hub bustling with good talent across the board, a trip to Beirut was inevitable in the wake of eased travel restrictions down under.

The anticipated 4-day visit took place at the end of March, with a handful of firsts on the agenda, from finally getting to meet the team off-screen to embarking on select Lebanese cuisine discoveries. Right in the midst of it all, ArabAd sat down with Fox for a quick chat centered around Lebanon, creativity in times of crisis and the shifting dynamics of the ad industry.


First things first, what brings you to Lebanon at this critical time?

Having been CEO for the MENA region for just over a year, COVID had unfortunately prevented me from traveling to world markets. So now that travel restrictions have eased and I am able to visit new markets, Beirut was obviously on the list. Besides being home to our founder Eddie Moutran who sadly passed away around a year ago and whose office has been kept intact as sort of a shrine, Beirut boasts a growing team of over 65 people with many talented young Lebanese. I am here to meet the team and talk about our ambitions as an organization as well as the important role Lebanon has in our network across the Middle East. A lot of our clients have also moved into the heavy post-COVID digital space, which prompted a change in consumer behavior.

In 2020 alone, traditional advertising dropped by 20 percent in the MENA region, which led clients to accelerate into the digital space and look at how they can connect with consumers through online platforms. We have 15 dedicated technology specialists here in Beirut who work with all our MENA offices to deliver such tactical digital solutions to clients, practically servicing all the market. In light of this digital shift that has truly come to the foreground, Lebanon is a very important market for us because we have skilled key creatives doing work from here for clients around the region in this aspect.

How would you assess the overall pulse of the Lebanese ad industry? 

The Lebanese market is tougher because of the many challenges present across the market as you know. We have got a few clients here like the American University of Beirut, which is a very prestigious client to have, and Café Najjar among others.

I think the Lebanese advertising market is doing okay: it may have not fully recovered yet but it is slowly recovering nonetheless. What I admired the most about our 65 creatives upon spending time with them is the resilience they have shown. They keep going, working and trying no matter what.

In light of the ongoing crisis, Lebanon is facing a talent crunch like no other due to massive brain drain. At the same time, companies here and all over the world are struggling to hire and retain talent amid shifting workplace dynamics. In what way are you dealing with such talent shortage?

Lots of Lebanese people are getting out to Dubai, Qatar and many other countries. In order to retain talent, you first got to answer the question of how you can build a strong culture that people want to remain in and be part of. In other words, you need to make them feel part like they are part of something bigger. Yes, they are based in Beirut but they are doing work for clients anywhere from KSA and the UAE to Kuwait and Jordan. We do not necessarily do the same kind of work in our Dubai offices; it is mostly based here. This is our creative hub for the MENA region and we are investing more into it.


"Lebanon is a great cost-effective model at the moment, while other markets in the region such as the UAE are more expensive."


How can you make sure that Ogilvy Lebanon is still attracting top talent, bearing in mind the skyrocketing inflation rates and drastic lifestyle changes coming into play? 

I think this has a lot to do with the type of work and the purpose behind it. There is a generation coming through that wants to work for an organization that does not just sell services. We believe that we can work with brains that impact the world in a positive way. Of course, our clients still need to sell their products and build their brand but we would also like to work with clients that have a bigger purpose such as AUB for instance, which can exert impact on the future of education in Lebanon and the region.

In terms of incentives, we always look at how we can help our people to the best of our ability, bearing in mind that inflation is not limited to Lebanon but rather present across a lot of our other markets at the moment. We are trying to support as much as we can. It is not easy because we also cannot suddenly give everyone pay raises; this is not really how it works. What we have to do is think of all the benefits, from training and self-development opportunities to purpose and making people feel part of something bigger.

Lebanon, previously the hub of creativity in the Middle East, is currently going through unprecedented drought when it comes to outstanding creative projects. Meanwhile, for the first time ever, the UAE has broken into the Top 10 Creative Countries with a score of 700 points according to the 2021 WARC Creative 100 report. As Lebanese creatives continue to be further scattered around the globe, can Lebanon still be a market of interest amid the current situation?

It all really depends on the ambition of the brands in this market to rise above and do something interesting. There are big brains in the UAE who are trying to do big things: the UAE has ambition on a global stage, which also applies for Qatar. This kind of ambition attracts talent. We go back to the question of how to attract and retain talent. While we obviously grow talent through hiring talented graduates from Lebanese universities but the challenge to make them stick around is to cultivate the ambition of our brands and the sense of purpose behind our work. This is exactly what keeps people interested in staying in the market.

Beirut being the creative hub for the whole MENA region for Memac Ogilvy is definitely a good way to retain talent here. Lebanon is a great cost-effective model at the moment, while other markets in the region such as the UAE are more expensive. We always look at how we can benefit our clients and our staff at the same time so we got many of our local creatives to work with the UAE from here for instance. It is a double-wheel: we keep people in Beirut and they get to work on big brands across different markets anyway and on the other hand our clients also benefit from a competitive cost model. We always have to look at the other side of the crisis and a big positive that emerged is the cost-effectiveness of our creative hub here.


"We believe that we can work with brains that impact the world in a positive way."


Everyone talks “culture” these days, it has become one of the most bandied about topics in companies everywhere. Employees and creatives, regardless of their level of seniority, have come to value recognition, meaning, flexibility, and most crucially, growth, be it intellectual, emotional or financial, like never before. Perfecting company culture, however, requires the right climate to thrive, which is hard to achieve in Lebanon nowadays. What’s your take on this particular notion and how do you think a country like Lebanon can still have an edge in this regard?

The way we look at it from my perspective is to define what we can control and what falls out of our control. I cannot control what happens out there but I can control what happens in here. I can build a work culture people want to be part of. We talked about this with the team during our first meeting where we got to chat and exchange questions and distribute awards. It was really nice to see people who have been here for years such as our receptionist who has been working with us for 27 years. To reinforce this kind of longevity, we have got to build an Ogilvy brand that people want to stay. It is all about focusing on the things that fall within your control and doing the best you can so that when people turn up to work, it is a good escape for them where they can feel fulfilled, purpose-driven and part of something bigger. When I first joined the agency, I could not travel anywhere so I did team calls with teams around the region and everyone said the same thing, whether in Lebanon, Bahrain or otherwise: they want to feel part of something bigger. This is exactly what we strive to cultivate in our Beirut hub.

The cumulative effect of the pandemic, the Great Resignation and the proliferation of “hustle culture” is changing creatives’ approach to work worldwide. Instead of landing full-time agency jobs, it seems as if everyone wants to be a freelancer these days in quest of relatively higher income and more freedom. How are you reacting to such industry developments that are not specific to Lebanon per se but fall within a global job market shift?

Whilst we do work with freelancers and love having them around, they are not going to be involved in training activities and other perks of the agency job. Our task is to become a magnet for great talent who want to be part of the company and not just sit on the sidelines. Sometimes we need freelancers because the workload fluctuates a lot. This is not something we can always control but what we can control as an organization both globally and in the MENA region is the culture we create. And when I say culture, I do not me fluffy cuddles. If we look at the culture of any successful sporting team or individual, it is all about discipline, hard work and accountability. Culture also means having core values and holding onto them. Yes, we need to be transparent and have a vision and all that kind of stuff but none of that is going to work unless we actually reinforce discipline and accountability. No successful sporting team or artist has ever made it to the top with no discipline or hard work.

The pandemic has challenged managers and marketers to rethink the way they do business and plan the future of their organizations. What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward as CEO of Ogilvy MENA?

One word: talent. We always go back to the challenge of finding, retaining and growing talent. That is pretty much it. If we are to think about the talent drain agencies are experiencing globally through technology companies, big brands and even startups, then what we have to do as agencies is remain interesting and relevant to our people so that they want to stay around. It is all about people. If we have great people, we are going to get great clients and do great work but if we are struggling on the people front, we cannot create anything. We cannot compete with client salaries or tech giants like Meta or Google but where we can compete is building a culture that our creatives believe they can thrive in.

Speaking of challenges, what are the biggest challenges facing the ad business in the remaining months of 2022?

Short-term is not good for brands. While reaching customers through digital and social media platforms is great for brands because they can see the return on investment, what they could be risking over time is losing the emotional connection with the audience. We need to focus on both fame and function: fame stands for the traditional way of connecting with brands through ads such as during the Super Bowl and function is all about how do I carry the message through to people. Basically, if clients are doing short-term technical work all the time, this becomes detrimental to their brand. We would advise clients to do both. Yes, you need to sell through socials. Yes, you need to do tactical campaigns through Facebook and Google Search but you still need to build fame by building a good brand that people are attracted to.

Most of our large clients are publicly listed and they report quarterly so they understandably want results, yet if we look at the most successful brands over the last few decades, we can see that those that managed to recover from crises and remain relevant were able to do so because they build fame. The best three examples in this regard are LEGO, Nike and KFC: LEGO sales dwindled in the 90s with the rise of electronic games such as Nintendo but the brand bounced back to the point where today we even have an international television show dedicated to it called LEGO Masters, Nike impacted the cultural narrative by supporting athletes who have a distinct voice such as Colin Kaepernick and finally KFC was able stand up to McDonald’s. At the end of the day, you need to build a cool brand. While digital platforms have led to new behavior, customer needs have not drastically changed; what has changed is the way we solve or access a certain need. And this will continue to evolve as technology develops. People definitely want to access their needs more efficiently than ever before but they also care to build connections.

The tenure of leaders is also shortening across the board, not just in adland. The median tenure of chief executives at large-cap companies has fallen by nearly a year to five years since 2013. Even football managers are suffering from a greater lack of patience from stakeholders when it comes to achieving desired results. While some see lurching from leader to leader as a sign of desperation, others argue that change of such a rhythm can have a positive impact by making way for more modern leadership styles. What can we make of these changes?

This attitude is mostly due to short-term thinking because the market wants instant results, whether you are a football fan or you hold shares within a particular company. The challenge of a great leader is to sit back and plan for a five-year period and build their brands accordingly. Brands are about building. People tend to want instantaneous results but brand-building happens over time, so what leaders got to do is to run their day-to-day and overnight work while also building something bigger over time in parallel. They need to run a two-speed model that answers the following questions: first, what am I selling now that is good and relevant, and second, what am I doing for the next three to five years?

Great companies are always a work in progress but they also explore two parallel tracks: they look at what they have and maximize it and they look in parallel at what is coming and what they can do to maximize it by exploring new frontiers. If you are not doing both these things as a leader, you will fail to achieve top-line growth.

Clients have become “smarter” with where they place their advertising these days. Where does “new business” typically come from today?

In this region, business traditionally still comes from advertising but we have noticed a huge PR surge, not as in traditional PR but more like content creation and digital transformation, which are more on the functional side because all clients want to look at their own assets, from websites and apps to social media, in order to maximize the opportunity of keeping people around once they visit their platforms and ultimately sell them their products or services. Clients are looking to maximize this whole digital experience but the problem is that many brands only always want to talk about themselves while in fact modern brands talk about humans. There is a big difference between the two.

What are some of the biggest advertising opportunities to snatch now that the world is opening up again?

The first opportunity as previously discussed is building a work culture that allows for attracting and retaining great talent. If we can retain great talent, we will get great clients. The type of work are we putting forward is also much more focused on digital, which has paved the way for more consulting opportunities globally. We have to look at digital transformation on the behavior-side as well as sustainability. These are some of the biggest opportunities both agencies and brands are looking to explore further. If your company or brand does not have a sustainability plan, young people may lose interest or jump to other alternatives. The same applies if no clear plans or purpose are set in a way that is relevant to the brand and not just a tagline. One of the most striking examples of this is again Nike, which does not shy away from bold messaging and social advocacy around current issues.

What kind of industry-related shifts do you foresee in light of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war? Has the impact of this conflict already started to show in the advertising sector or is it still too early to tell?

The war has definitely impacted the sector in Europe. While the impact has not been felt here yet, the ongoing conflict could have a global effect moving forward. In Russia for example, some big brands are pulling out of the market, which also means that advertisers are following suit. The downturn has been felt both in spend and in the activity of those markets, notably with Russia being a huge market occupying a whopping 11 percent of the world’s landmass.


"We want to be the most relevant and distinctive agency across MENA markets that goes beyond a good traditional brand and moves towards a more modern communication approach, as to deliver consulting, digital and social media services to accommodate everything our clients may need." 


Memac Ogilvy recently appointed Regional Managing Director Samer Abboud as its first Regional Chief Growth Officer for the MENA region. What can this role bring to the table? And does this mark a change in the agency model or is it just an adaptive extension of its long-standing legacy?

The new role can bring a lot to the table. It was created with the intention of both expanding the scope of services provided to existing clients in order to help them solve emerging problems via non-traditional methods such as consulting and attracting new clients through tailor-made innovative solutions. Growth comes from selling broader capabilities to our clients. In addition to advertising, they can work with us on their sustainability strategy for instance. Bringing additional resources to clients helps them solve emerging issues while also growing our business model.

When it comes to attracting new clients, we are working to position the Ogilvy brand as a more modern communication company as opposed to a traditional ad agency. We need to focus on different types of innovation: incremental innovation whereby we improve our existing offering by introducing additional services in small bits; architectural innovation that helps us take our industry expertise and apply it to new areas to the benefit of our clients. What we are looking at the most at the moment is architectural innovation, which for us constitutes a fantastic avenue for growth.

Lastly, what’s on your vision board for 2022 For Memac Ogilvy Lebanon? Any last words you would like to add?

We want to be the most relevant and distinctive agency across MENA markets that goes beyond a good traditional brand and moves towards a more modern communication approach, as to deliver consulting, digital and social media services to accommodate everything our clients may need. These services are not just add-ons but will be integrated in the heart of what we do. Creativity remains the driving force behind our work, even our approach to consulting is rooted in creativity as well as how to use creativity to solve arising problems. We also want to work on retaining talent in Lebanon and the MENA region through reinforcing our purpose as an organization, not only in what we do but also in what we stand for.