Sep 11 - 2012

Branding’s Big Guns

Memac Ogilvy is one of a handful of agencies region-wide with the clout to create or revitalize even the biggest global brands. Founded back in 1984 by the iconic ad man Edmond Moutran, what has kept the agency ahead is his relentless focus on training. A close look at two agency clients reveals the results.

Branding is daunting for any business – and even more so for the start-up. With a team often broken down along the lines of design and sales, who’s to spend their time creating the identity of the company? Who has the talent or know-how to create that emotional connection every company seeks between its products or services and its clientele? And we’ve all seen the dazzling missteps even made by some of the most cutting-edge companies in the global market. (Facebook’s notoriously opaque privacy policies, coupled with a disastrous IPO, anyone?)

The ubiquitous “360 degree” catchphrase is tossed around to describe the goal: A cohesive image across the company, whether we’re talking advertising, logo, events, customer service or even the office décor. In the Middle East, the pioneering ad man to take on the challenges of branding is Edmond Moutran, voted “Man of the Year” by the trade magazine ArabAd back in 2002. He’s an imposing figure: his thick-set frame behind a thick-set desk, there’s nothing to suggest an agile entrepreneur. Yet Moutran’s biography verges on legend. He launched Memac in 1984 in Bahrain with $13,000 in capital, a secretary, an artist for creative work, and an account executive for their one account (a cigarette company). Now it has grown to 14 offices across 12 markets with over 1,500 employees and a partnership with Ogilvy & Mather. Their first real office was a failed nightclub Moutran nabbed for three years without rent, on the promise that they renovate the space. “The bar became the conference room,” Moutran remembers.

He started with a depth of advertising experience that far exceeded Memac’s size. Previously, he’d been with Intermarket’s offices in the Middle East. As he describes it, “I was the managing director of the biggest office at the biggest agency”. The first trick was to brand his own agency. They were undeniably small, but with Moutran’s background, hardly untested. “So we positioned Memac as a boutique agency that can deliver as much as anyone else, because we’ve always done it,” Moutran says. “Being a big organization was in our blood, even though it wasn’t yet a reality.” Today, Moutran is unequivocal about what sustains Memac’s edge despite the tough field of competitors. “Training,” Moutran declares. “I spend an unbelievable amount of money on training. Internationally, it’s accepted you spend around 1% of your revenue on training. We spend a minimum of 2.5%. We’re literally talking millions of dollars on training.”

What was a staid interview on advertising suddenly turned into an unscripted speech on the virtues of offering educational opportunities for your employees. “People come and give you their time, their talent, intelligence and experience,” Moutran remarks. “And what do you give them? Money? Anybody can give money. So we created an environment where people are motivated, an environment where people learn and enjoy working.”
Moutran continues: “The industry’s moving so fast that nobody can keep up. Because of the web and social media, our lives have changed faster in the last five years than in the last fifty. How do you keep up? Especially in this part of the world, how do you keep up with cities like New York, London and Frankfurt?” Moutran’s answer? Train, train, train. “Either we can go over there to get training or we can bring them here,” Moutran says. “So that’s what we do.”

Training not only helps to foster the talent, but it creates an agency-wide environment that helps to ensure success. “I don’t believe in looking at the list of winners at Cannes Lions, picking up the phone and calling them,” Moutran says. “It doesn’t work like that: Ideas come from an entire team, not just one individual. After we were awarded ‘Agency of the Year’ in 2010 at the Dubai Lynx Awards, I lost nine out of eleven people in my creative department the very next day. How smart for my competition to steal them. But they’ve hardly won an award since. Here at Memac Ogilvy? We grow our own.” What sort of work does the culture at Memac Ogilvy produce? We spoke with Tanya Dernaika, the agency’s regional planning director, and Ossama el Kaoukji, the chief creative officer, to talk the nuts and bolts of big brands.

SPELLBINDING BRANDS For coming from two sides of the branding coin, planning and creative, Dernaika and el Kaoukji have a shared vision nonetheless for what makes a brand: magic. “I like the use of the word magic,” Dernaika says, prompted by el Kaoukji. “Because branding’s about building a relationship, and the best relationships always have a bit of magic in them. That’s what keeps a relationship going for the long haul.”

They’re in agreement too on the work-flow of brand creation. “It’s funny,” says Dernaika. “We work simultaneously together, but you could say the beginning of the process is my responsibility – the logic department – and then moves into creative – the magic department.” The “logic” of the branding spell involves understanding the market, and the space for the product within that market. “Brands today stand for much more than just the product or service,” Dernaika continues. “They stand for a value system, a mission, something that people want to rally around, affiliate themselves with, and feel close to.”

Coming to develop that brand requires understanding what Dernaika refers to as the “cultural tensions” in the market. “We look at our brand as having a role in helping to diffuse that tension. That’ll involve research, gut feeling, and having a hypothesis from the beginning. You don’t just sit there and think, ‘I’ll get the research, and see what the findings tell me.’ No, everything starts with a gut feel.” The role of the “gut feel” is evident enough in a simple observation el Kaoukji makes: “Take the research done by a company, and provide it to three agencies. You’ll get three completely different ideas as to what that brand should be. It’s a very subjective thing based on your experience and vision, as well as on how you interpret that research.” The spell also involves three parties: the agency (Memac Ogilvy), the company and the public.

“A brand at the end of the day comes to a consensus: It has many mothers and fathers,” says el Kaoukji. “Brands change over time. They’re not necessarily linked to a vision.” Dernaika quickly follows up on the idea. “You can put your ideal brand out there, but it’s how the public forms a relationship with it, and what baggage they bring, that counts. Jeremy Bullmore [industry sage and current WPP advisory board member] once said, “People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon.” The team at Memac Ogilvy have recently brought their branding power to two brands with an immense regional presence: Arab Bank and Coca-Cola.

Dernaika is clear that Arab Bank boasteda strong brand to begin with. “Arab Bank has over 80 years of heritage; the brand has a strong equity with consumers in the region, and people feel strongly toward it as a brand.” Their challenge was instead in the demographics. The independent public policy organization The Brookings Institute estimates that 50-65% of the population in the Middle East is under the age of 24. And Arab Bank’s clientele was overwhelmingly from the older generation. They were, in short, “your father’s bank.” The task? Reposition Arab Bank’s brand to attract the youth.

“So we had to understand the new generation’s psyche,” says Dernaika. “Young affluent professionals: what are they thinking? What are their anxieties? Their worries? How do they handle money? How can this wonderful brand help to diffuse these tensions?” To bridge the gap between the older generation and the younger, Memac Ogilvy focused on those ties that bind: values. “Arab culture prizes warmth, entrepreneurism, generosity and wisdom,” Dernaika says. El Kaoukji notes that within the younger mindset, “I’m different from my father in terms of behavior and social activities. But I’m not different from my father when it comes to be being proud and generous.”

Then history stepped in – the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt kicked off. “These countries were perhaps not key markets for our bank,” Dernaika says, “but you can’t ignore the shared sentiment that flows throughout the region. So we positioned the brand as reflecting the resurgent pride in Arab values, but kind of twisted it to make it fresh and relevant.”

Arab Bank was a natural vehicle for the branding tack Memac Ogilvy chose. The simple fact that it’s called “Arab Bank” allowed them to easily capitalize on those shared regional sentiments amid the revolutions. This wasn’t “Cairo Bank,” “Jordan Bank,” or other such hypothetical bank name. This was the bank for the Arab peoples. Its outlook was avowedly – and explicitly – transnational. As a bank, it played to a cultural apprehension. Dernaika observes that Arab society is traditionally collective. Whether it’s your cousin or aunt, there’s always been someone to turn to. Now, “we’ve lost that safety net as we’ve progressed in modern life,” she says. And the political upheaval has hardly helped to restore that sense of safety. Banks, on the other hand, are reliable, especially one that has been around for as long as Arab Bank. “You don’t want a strong political point of view from your bank,” says el Kaoukji. “You want a resilient bank, no matter the government.”

But the success of the campaign was not strictly due to Memac Ogilvy’s efforts. Arab Bank’s leadership – still family owned – worked to create a bank culture to match the more youthful image. “In this case, the client was courageous,” Dernaika admires. “It’s difficult for a bank, especially one that’s family-owned to make that step toward the younger generation. There’s an impulse to say in line and stay traditional.” That meant an internal absorption of Memac Ogilvy’s message from the owners, on down to entry level staff and even on to bank décor. El Kaoukji sums it up: “No young professional wants to walk into their bank and hear, ‘where’s your dad?’”

Coca-Cola has arguably been the quintessential American brand. Alongside Levi’s jeans and McDonalds, it has captured the purchasing habits of countless world-wide. Today, Coca-Cola’s goal is to be the Ramadan fast-breaking drink of choice. But even with America’s controversial Middle Eastern foreign policy in mind, the jump from the iconic American soda to Islam’s most sacred month of the year is less severe than it seems. “With the world becoming a global village,” says el Kaoukji, “some brands like Coca-Cola have gone to the universal level. They came to own the idea of ‘optimism,’ and in doing so shed the American flag. Optimism’s a way of life, no matter where you’re from.” Its CEO is also Muhtar Kent, who’s notably Turkish-American and Muslim. Dernaika condenses the “big idea” behind Coca-Cola’s brand to the simple belief, “wouldn’t it be great if the world saw the glass as half-full, instead of half -empty?” But no matter how universal the belief may be, the month of Ramadan poses unique challenges. She asks succinctly: “How would a thirst-quenching drink resonate when people are focusing on the virtues of fasting?”

A carbonated drink like soda also faces an iftar menu traditionally comprised of syrups and juices – homegrown products. “People skew toward local brands,” says Darnaika, “unless they feel it’s a trusted international friend.” She reports that studies on Muslim consumers, spearheaded by Miles Young, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, demonstrate that products used on the body, like lotion or make-up, or products that are consumed, are more heavily influenced by consumers’ religiosity.
Getting Coca-Cola on the iftar serving tray requires a new regional public perception of Coca-Cola. The “glass half-full” sentiment has to link up with the values of Ramadan. To do so, Dernaika says, “Coke will be engaging in activities to support the holy month that’ll help people in need.”

“Consumers judge brands the same way they judge others – by their actions,” she declares. “If you want to be part of my Ramadan month, consumers say, show me how you’re going to be. Give generously, but act in a delicate way. If you do charitable works, just don’t boast about it. But it’s a delicate balance. Local brands can behave differently; they’re born with the credibility.”

Of course, there are local alternatives to Coca-Cola on the market, they just haven’t fared so well – despite their overtly religious branding. “I remember two brands,” el Kaoukji remarks. “Mecca-Cola and Zamzam Cola. They were introduced as an alternative to Coca-Cola. Zamzam, you know, is the well at Mecca.” Dernaika has no trouble identifying the problem: “Consumers can see through opportunism.” Consumers, she believes, accept companies want to make a profit, but there has to be some give-back; something has to be provided in return besides the product. “Build my planet, build something for future generations, help our society,” she exhorts. The bottom line for Dernaika? “Zamzam Cola and Mecca-Cola considered consumers to be morons. Consumers are not morons. So they didn’t buy it.”