Impact BBDO, one of the region’s largest creative networks, has restructured with the appointment of two chief operating officers. Dubai-based Pierre Azzam and Beirut-based Dani Richa will work within different spheres of influence as the group enters new markets, consolidates its market position and looks to innovate within the marketplace.
Last year the network, which includes advertising agency Impact BBDO, PR agency Impact Porter Novelli, and online agency Impact Proximity, opened offices in Abu Dhabi and Algeria, enjoyed double-digit growth and is looking to grow further this year. Impact BBDO is the Middle East network of BBDO Worldwide, which is part of the Omnicom Group, and won acclaim last year for its creative work, including a TV ad for Snickers. Emirates Business spoke to Pierre Azzam about the restructuring.
Why did you plan the restructuring and how will having two chief operating officers work for Impact BBDO?
The reason why this restructuring happened, and the reason why there has been the appointment of both of us, is simply driven by what we think the future holds for us and for the industry. It’s driven by the sheer size that we have ended up becoming as a group. You have different strategies that corporations usually follow as they embrace the future. You either just say ‘I want to do that’, and you appoint a person to do it, or you have a more focused strategy.
Because the region is quite large – you’re talking Gulf, Levant and North Africa – we are witnessing a multiple number of emerging markets. And because there are differences in the way each market dynamic works, you cannot just standardise the approach as you go to market and apply the same thing. So focus is the strategy that drives that, and for that focus, one person cannot do it all. And when I say one person, it’s not either Dani or me, we still have Alain [Khouri], our group chairman, who is driving all that, and other people who are helping.
But in the COO sphere are Dani [Richa] and myself and both of us have been asked to do this with the necessary focus. I am overseeing the Gulf region and driving the development of all the specialist disciplines. There is more that is required in terms of additional disciplines that our clients need us to be into, or the market potential suggests that we should be into. Dani will be overseeing the Levant area and North Africa.
Two things come out of what you’ve just said. What new markets are you talking about? And what new disciplines?
I’m not sure how specific I can be, because we are still in the planning phase, but we can explore some avenues. In the Gulf the emerging markets are Qatar – I’m not saying we’re going there, I’m saying these are the ones we are looking seriously into. Bahrain is less obvious, but all of a sudden there are a bit more ‘what if’ discussions, rather than ‘no thank you’ discussions. Oman’s time will come, but it will take some time.
In North Africa, we established an office in Algeria last year, so we are already there, and we already have associations in Morocco and Tunisia. The drive here will be to keep developing Algeria and to develop and consolidate further the relationships we have in Morocco and Tunisia.
And new disciplines?
As far as specialist disciplines go, there are quite a few we are looking at. The strategy that we are trying to follow is to pre-empt the next big thing. What is the next big thing? We are talking about client consultancy and we are talking about shopper marketing. Shopper marketing is brand management on premise; at the location of interactivity between the end user and the client, product or service.
So if you take, for example, packaged goods, the first moment of truth is when the end user will be facing the brand on the shelf. What will happen? This is the moment of truth. After all the strategies, after all the creative has been done, after all the sweat and tears have been shed; there they are, face to face. What will happen? Will they blend or will they split apart? So far, what’s happening is that this moment of truth is being created by what we currently do as a communications industry that is we are outside trying to a create a pull of the audience inside. Once they are inside, they are on their own. Why should they be on their own?
We are assuming that the persuasion effect in that environment is driven by the same insights as the persuasion effect that we created originally when we were far from them, for example through a TV commercial. So you get them in the store, but what are you doing there specifically for that period? At the moment, nothing. Shopper marketing is marketing to that same person but as a shopper, not as a media consumer.
Are these being looked at with the view to improve you offering to clients, or as part of a new process to gain new clients?
We are an extension of the marketing team of our clients, and if you are an extension of their team you want to be dependable; you want to be perceived as a dependable and reliable individual. So our mission is to try to increase their sentiment of dependability on us. If they can be more and more dependent on the Impact BBDO group of companies to help them, it doesn’t mean that we are completely indispensable – that would be too arrogant of us to claim. But if we can be more dependable, this means that we are doing something right that has value to them. That’s what the mission is. Everything else revolves around that.
In terms of growth 2007 was a very strong year. How much have you grown as a group and what kind of growth are you looking at for the coming year?
We have been growing on a double-digit basis for the past eight years. The past two years have been very good. Our predictions for 2008 are for a continuation of that, and into 2009 as well. Year-on-year growth such as that when you live in a booming economy is not really an issue. Achieving it should not be a source of self-gratification. In a booming economy, if you don’t screw up, things happen. If you screw up, things still happen, but less than what they could have been. Our whole thinking since this boom started is that a boom is short-term. Boom cannot be eternal. There’s a saying, that you fix your roof when the sun is shining, not when it’s raining. So what we looking at is the post-boom era.
Yes, everybody’s growing, but the question is how are you growing? Are you growing because everybody’s growing, or are you growing because you are doing something right that will stay after the boom finishes? Our focus is on the latter.
With a boom come problems, such as staff retention, or a lack of staff. What problems does the industry face?
You hit the nail right on the head. Our business is people centric and there isn’t enough talent to cope with the growth of business. Getting the right people who can actually make a difference is a very big challenge. We need more talented people across all functions of all the companies. The other problem is… I grew up in a culture where merit drives everything, and effort drives everything, and long-term commitment drives everything. Here, in the last few years, I don’t see that, and I don’t see that in the DNA of the new generation of people.
I don’t know whether it’s the internet, I don’t know whether it’s the MSN chatting, the SMS and all those shortcuts and quick fixes and the artificial first-level kind of engagement tools, but when we look for talent we look for attitudes, for entrepreneurs, and we’re not finding a lot of those. And when you are in a booming region that drives inflation, solicitation of people adds to the problem and breaks all norms of logical business management when it comes to pay levels.
You end up having to pay disproportionately higher than what you think is necessary to keep that talent, and it’s not sustainable.
How can you make money in such situations?
You’re right. How can you sustain the business when you have to pay irrationally? We don’t mind paying because business is there and it’s only fair for those who deserve it.
How do you feel about the whole market? Everyone’s making money, but if you look at levels of creativity, or insight, they appear to be lacking. Do you agree?
If we talk about emerging sectors – and by emerging sectors I mean everything that did not exist six years ago in terms of communication and is now taking a big share of advertisement spend – a big number of them do not have communications history. They have no communications culture and the reason why communication exists in their business model is to drive business – period.
So it’s more about communication that needs to inform, than communication that needs to engage. Now, our position regarding this is that whatever we preach in mature sectors – which is creating brand differentiation – is what we preach for those emerging sectors because you have a lot of sameness.
Just drive and look, left, right and centre and you have a lot of look-a-likes, to the point where you change the logos and the campaign still works. You have a lot of sameness and parity, and our role is to break parity by creating differentiation.
In any emerging sector, in the beginning it’s a gold rush and you are driven by sales and driven by wanting to create visibility and awareness, much more than familiarity and affinity, because it’s relatively short-term and the minute you’ve sold you’re done. The logic is changing now. It will still take some time, but it’s changing and I think that our role in emerging sectors is to create brand equity for emerging brands and services.
Pierre Azzam joined Impact BBDO in Lebanon in 1983 as an account executive, before moving on to the group’s regional headquarters (then located in Nicosia, Cyprus) in early 1984. His rise continued until his first general management appointment as Managing Director of Impact BBDO Cairo in 1991. He became Managing Director of the regional headquarters in Dubai in August 1994. His success led to his eventual appointment to the position of Group Managing Director and now that of Chief Operating Officer. Azzam is also part of Porter Novelli Europe Senior Executive body and sits on the Porter Novelli EMEA region Strategic Advisory Board. In his spare time he can be found improving his tennis skills, managing his 95,000-song music library or crooning.
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