May 09 - 2010

All We Need Is Love

This year’s Dubai Lynx contained no shocks, but there were a few surprises. Chief among them was Memac Ogilvy’s haul of 26 awards across its Dubai and Tunis offices, a stun-ning total that helped the Dubai office on its way to being named Agency of the Year, despite winning just one Grand Prix. But for Edmond Moutran, chairman and CEO of Memac Ogilvy, awards have never been a priority. He sat down with Communicate to talk cheating, challenges, and spreading the love.

What did you think of your success at the Lynx?

Before I tell you what I think, let me clearly state my thoughts on awards. Up until very recently, I did not believe in awards in this part of the world, because I thought they were manipulated. There was a lot of plagiarism, there was a lot of cheating, and there was a lot of favoritism. I will mention neither names nor companies but it was not unheard of for three or four companies to get together and divide the trophies long before anybody saw the entries. So being the kind of person I am, we stayed away. Ossama El Kaoukji, my chief creative officer, shared the view with me that if the work isn’t 100 per-cent bona fide, ethical, and professional, we will not endeavor, invest, and take the time to do it.?We do not wake up in the morning and say today we must make an ad that will win an award. We’re not that vain and we’re not that kind of agency. All our ads were for clients. But recently, we felt things were changing. I thought things were changing at the MENA Cristals, only to discover that they did not. It’s back to the old habits; of course I cannot prove it, but I have a gut feeling that whoever pays the highest price wins the awards; I know this is going to print and I stand responsible for what I say. This is why you will see no more than a handful of agencies actually entering the MENA Cristals. I think the industry should have enough integrity to cancel them.?When it came to the Lynx awards, we started feeling that the International Advertising Association (IAA) is serious about really doing it pro-fessionally. When they entrusted the people of Cannes to organize the awards, that was the sign I was looking for that things are changing. Of course I cannot hold these gentlemen responsible for what happened last year with some agencies, and I’m very angry about that because last year, we could’ve have won a lot more awards if it wasn’t for those agencies that got those awards illegally and unethi-cally.?So, are we paying more attention to awards? Yes, we are. Are we investing more in awards? Yes, we are. And was I surprised that we won so many at the Lynx? Yes, I was. I knew we would win some, and a lot more than in 2009, but I didn’t know we would win as many as we did because I hon-estly thought the competition would be tougher. But in the areas where we were winning, there wasn’t that much competition.

Till Hohmann, your creative director, recently announced he would be leaving for Germany, where he will be chief creative officer at JWT. What are Ogilvy’s plans for when he leaves??

Till was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. For the first time in my career, I’m sending a note with a tribute to Till to all the staff of Ogilvy, because he has left a legacy. He’s left his mark after a very short period of time. People like Till don’t come along every day. It wasn’t just his craft, it wasn’t just his intellectuality, it wasn’t just his brilliance, it wasn’t just his genius. It’s Till as a person that I’m going to miss. He was an amazing guy; he would sit and talk to the executives and help them and teach them in the same way he would sit with me and explain to me why he needs something. He was just an amazing human being and I wish him all the luck, but as I told the troops yesterday, those who found Till can find a second, and a third and a fourth.?Till was a fantastic bus driver, or a fantas-tic orchestra conductor, and I will take not one hair away from him, but I cannot take a hair away from the work of the people who are still here. So if people think that because Till is gone, Memac Ogilvy will not win as many awards next year: wake up, we will. The people who did those ads last year are still here and we’re adding to them.?Till is not the most creative man on Earth; he is one of them. We’ve interviewed three people, one of whom was amazing, and probably far better than Till, but we just didn’t get along on a personal point of view. Ogilvy is a family, and unless you have the character to fit the family, it doesn’t matter what genius you are: you just can’t work with us. We will find some-one, and it will probably be someone from outside the region, because we don’t like poaching people, just like I would have not liked it if someone came and poached Till.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that are facing the industry right now??

The challenges that are facing the industry are several. The first challenge, from the agency point of view, is that everybody is under a lot of pressure with receivables. Most agencies have some form of receivables problem from various types of clients, mainly financial institutions and mainly, shall we say, government. With such pressure on the bottom line because we’re putting reserves through bad debts, you cannot do what you want to do with staff, you cannot do what you want to do with equip-ment, you cannot do what you want to do with expansion, and you cannot invest.?Another challenge is that most clients have cut their budgets, especially in the finance and the real estate industries. I know one client cut 90 percent. How fast is that client going to go back to the way he was? I’m not sure.?The third danger is that since we do not have the profitability, we will not be able to buy the talents similar to Till, to come and help our youngsters develop and reach an international style and standard, and that is a big danger that the industry will face in the Middle East.?The other challenge we are facing is that the industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Where in times like this people consolidate, talk, get together, brainstorm, and work as a team, we seem to have drifted away from each other, and each wants to solve the problem on his own.?
What are the solutions to these challenges?

A relationship of partnership with clients. Clients must understand that we do not find money on trees. If they don’t spend, we will collapse. So one solution is in the hands of the clients where they have got to look after our bottom line a little bit more than before, and they’ve got to care about our brand a little bit more just like we care about their brand.?The second solution will come from the governments that owe money to the industry, to give us a little bit more priority when payments are coming than they have done in the past. That will be wonderful because we are not heavily capitalized and banks don’t usually lend money to advertising agencies because we’ve got no assets.?The third solution is that the industry gets together and conducts some form of seminars to make sure that we explain to the business community that even in downturns, there are upsides; there are things we can do to make sure that we pick up the economy.?Another solution is working together to solve the problems, because we have common problems. With the issue of receivables, I called 11 CEOs and we got together at the IAA, we sat down and we nominated somebody to speak on our behalf to the government, and we met a second time, also at my invitation. But the next day, everybody tried to solve the problem on his own. If we’d stayed together, I think we would have solved the problem faster.??

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be??

I’d put more love. I’d put more love between the agencies, and more respect between the agencies. When Antoine Choueiri died last month – and he was a dear friend – we were all there. You should have seen us; all the agencies were just hugging each other and crying because the guy who was solv-ing our problems has gone. I said to one CEO, “Who is going to keep us away from each other now?”?I’m not sitting here taking advantage of being interviewed to show that I’m better than others. I’m not. I’m as guilty as anybody, because when it comes to war, we put our gloves on, and we some-times forget who we’re damaging.?When we won agency of the year, only two CEOs came and said “mabrouk” (congratulations). This animosity, it’s not there on the surface – when we see each other, wow, we hug and we kiss! But I think we should respect each other, we should teach our people to respect each other, because only then we can have the world respect us, especially clients, media, and the business community. I think the only way we’re going to do that is to recreate something like the Middle East Advertising Agencies Association, which I started several years ago, where we can meet each other and we can meet often to discuss and talk, even if nothing is achieved. Getting together can calm down this animosity between us.??

When we spoke last, you were talking about possibly retiring. What are your plans for the future??

I’m a very realistic man. I’m 65 years old; what I want to do is something but what my legs and body allow me to do is something else. If I’m tired, I’m resting. If I’m not tired, I’m working, but the idea of sitting at home and looking at the walls or reading a book all day, or reading a newspaper, or going to a social club is not me. As long as I can, I’m going to continue to go to the office, but I’m going to take less and less responsibility, and I think the day will come where my job will be that I visit the offices once a year just to show my face. If I can, I’ll travel, meet the clients once a year, and give a lot of speeches internally because I have a lot to teach. So retirement maybe is not the right word.