Bassel Kakish, a man for all seasons
Posted on 2023 Jun,13  | By Iain Akerman

He may not like to take credit, but Bassel Kakish is the driving force behind the remarkable renaissance taking place at the Publicis Groupe

If ever there was a man of the moment, it’s Bassel Kakish. Not that he’d accept such a descriptor, preferring instead to be viewed as an enabler rather than as the all-conquering transformer of the Publicis Groupe.

And yet, as the CEO of Publicis Groupe Middle East and Turkey, he has spearheaded the group’s remarkable transformation. A transformation that may have begun under his predecessor, Raja Trad, but has come to fruition during his leadership. You only have to look at the Dubai Lynx to get a sense of that success. Publicis Groupe agencies won all of the top honours (barring independent agency of the year), including network and agency of the year for Leo Burnett and media agency of the year for Starcom. The Lynx even witnessed the revival of Saatchi & Saatchi, something that many had thought impossible. 

“The approach for us was focusing on what’s core,” says Kakish, who has been working with the group since 2002. “And in our business, the core is talent. At the end of the day – and this is what Raja taught me – we are as good as our talent. And that’s one of the key drivers. I wanted to make sure that we have the best talent in the market, because if you think of how Publicis Groupe transformed itself from a legacy holding company to what we call a platform, this happened through acquisitions – be it in terms of tech acquisitions or reorganisation – but most importantly it is talent that fuels everything from end to end.

“So that required us to look for the best. I always say that I’m driving business and looking at growth 50 per cent of my time. The other 50 per cent I’m Jerry Maguire. Making sure that I attract and keep motivated the best talent that we have. And I’m incredibly fortunate that someone like Tahaab [Rais], or someone like Kalpesh [Patankar], or all of the other great hires that we’ve made, believed in what we are trying to drive as a group and as individuals. They have faith that we’re going to walk the talk. I’ve not promised them anything else except to give them the accountability, to give them the empowerment, and to enable them. That’s it. They’ve done all the magic. I’ve done nothing.”

Is he not being overly humble?

“No, seriously,” he replies. “I’m not the creative person. I’m the enabler.”

Amongst the high profile names to have joined are Rais, chief strategy officer for the Middle East and Turkey; Jennifer Fischer, chief innovation and growth officer for the Middle East and Turkey; Nathalie Gevresse, CEO of Publicis Communications UAE; Sebastien Boutebel, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi; Patankar, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett; Gautam Wadher, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi; Nadim Ghrayeb, business lead at Studio M; and Vicky Kripalani, business lead at Leo Burnett. And that’s just the senior hires. Some of these hires have subsequently brought in more people.

The reaction of the wider industry to this talent acquisition spree has not always been positive. Such a rate of high profile hiring – predominantly from other agencies within the UAE – is traditionally classified as poaching. What’s more, nobody – apart from the victor – appreciates any form of market dominance.

“This is natural when your core business is all about talent,” responds Kakish. “So, whether I’m going to continue poaching [or not], I will always poach the best talent that is available in the market. Do I have a specific target against anyone? No, I don’t. Where the talent is is where we’re going to go, and I’m personally involved in this because, again, it’s not rocket science. All we have is talent. There is a limit to what you can do in terms of reducing your price to win a specific business. Eventually the client wants to see value. You don’t see value if the way you build your businesses is a race to the bottom. You build value when you create talent that can provide that value.”

Kakish has spent the majority of his career quietly operating in the background. Self-deprecating but assured, he has held various strategic roles within the group, including chief financial officer, chief integration officer, and co-managing director of Publicis Sapient. Since taking over as CEO in April 2021, the group has integrated its operations across creative, media and Sapient, with a modular approach to clientsbusiness problems being constructed – an approach that is driven by the ‘alchemy of creativity and technology’.


“The proof that what we’re doing is the right strategy is the day after Lynx, it’s the day after the Effies, it’s the day after we announce a new win, when you see the teams in the corridors, in the cafeteria… the bubbliness.”


As CEO, he has focused on helping clients succeed through ‘disruptive creative strategy, analytics and insights’, while strengthening and expanding the groups offering. All of which complements Publicis Groupe’s core philosophy of the Power of One, which consists of a ‘common purpose, a powerful spirit, shared behaviours, and a relentless focus on clients’.

The calmness and confidence of Kakish, who is sitting opposite me at SushiSamba on The Palm, belies any form of doubt or concern. In fact, anyone would think it had been a smooth, frictionless transformation.

“Actually, to be fair, it has been,” says Kakish with a smile. “I mean, I come to the office, I have fun. It’s a fun environment. It’s not like we’re not serious, but even at the most tense moments, it’s just gonna pass, you know.”

Nothing has hindered or caused him concern along the way?

No, on the contrary,” replies Kakish, who began his career at Arthur Andersen & Co. “The subconscious [tells me] that I should not be a road-blocker in anyone’s career. That’s a component, that’s a conversation. You’re looking at it from the creative element, but we’ve also hired someone like Jennifer. She’s a rockstar. I call her Captain Marvel, because I’m into Marvel and Star Wars. Everything we do at the end of the day is in the context of assembling great talent and making sure that you deliver on the requirements and the missions that you have… You want to address it in terms of the career growth and the career motivation that each of these individuals have. And this is how we were able to attract someone like Jennifer. To tell you frankly, we were shaping the role for her. And she shaped her role. Because at the end of the day, you’re not gonna get smart people and tell them what you need them to do. ‘Go ahead, this is the challenge, go do what you need to do so that you deliver on whatever is required’. That’s the way we’ve managed this in an unconventional way.”

Not since 2015, when Leo Burnett was crowned agency and network of the year and Starcom was named media agency of the year, has a similar level of success been achieved. Not that Kakish will take any form of credit, of course.

“They did it. I’m the enabler. Seriously, did I create any of the campaigns that won? No.”

You created the environment to do so.

“Isn’t this the responsibility of all leaders? I did not do anything new.”

But you’ve made it work. Isn’t the Lynx proof that the group’s strategy is working?

“For me, the proof that what we’re doing is the right strategy is the day after Lynx, it’s the day after the Effies, it’s the day after we announce a new win, when you see the teams in the corridors, in the cafeteria… the bubbliness. Trust me, I wouldn’t say it’s more important, but it’s as important as being on stage.”

Those wins have included Emirates NBD (Leo Burnett), Pizza Hut (Publicis Middle East), Almarai (Spark Foundry), Ithra and Sync (Leo Burnett Saudi Arabia), and e& (Publicis Groupe/Saatchi & Saatchi).

“What I say to our talent is that we’re going to continue driving growth, we’re going to continue driving innovation. And the growth component is that we are committed to their growth as much as we are committed to our clients’ growth. But you can’t keep on growing and keep on thinking that you’re going to be successful all the time. You need to also accept that you’re going to fail. And there are a lot of things that we tried to do that failed. But that’s fine, you change course and you do something else.”

Were there ever moments of self doubt?

“It’s only natural,” he replies. “Did I do the right thing? Did I screw up? Again, you’re making it about me, but I can pivot and I can change course. I’m not stubborn. I can admit that I screwed up in a very natural way, but, all right, we can change course.”


“So, whether I’m going to continue poaching [or not], I will always poach the best talent that is available in the market.”


In the immediate to near future, Publicis Groupe is to double down on talent and launch the data-driven marketing company Epsilon in the region. Geographic expansion in the key markets of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain is also a priority, while Sapient will continue to drive significant growth.

“For me, it’s not about the goals. When you are an enabler, the satisfaction you get is when you know that a person delivered on their objectives. When you see that one of our CEOs was able to retain a specific client because they believed they did the right thing. The recognition is not mine. I work for the group – the whole consolidated group. The satisfaction is giving those teams – the talent – the wings, the freedom, whatever is the right thing. That’s all it is. At the same time, satisfaction is knowing that you made a mistake but, you know what, I’m satisfied that I can fix it.”