Black and white
Eric Hanna, group CEO of Grey MENA, is no longer stuck in the past.
January 31, 2015
There was little communication around the departure of Philippe Skaff and your appointment as CEO three years ago. Why so?
It’s a mistake, because we had a lot to say in the past three years. I was focused more internally, rather than externally. I was part of the [Grey] team before I moved to Mediacom – also under WPP – set it up and ran it for two years. When I came back [to Grey], keeping the team together was the biggest challenge and, then, replacing those that had to leave – or talents that we didn’t believe were talents. There weren’t issues in terms of the longevity of our relationships with clients; the agency was dormant for the past three years, [but] that’s when we managed to win 40 to 50 clients. This is what helped us to basically re-establish the agency.
What did this re-establishment entail?
Strategy and digital were two things that were relatively not at the heart of everything that we did. So, bringing them to the forefront and making sure that the team – as opposed to another entity or division that came on board as and when required – integrated them as part of its everyday work was key. One of the big statements we made was the relocation of the agency’s Beirut HQ from Beit Mery, where it had been for 19 years, to Horsh Tabet. It wasn’t a decision that made me popular among the staff, but it’s something we had to do. We also relocated our offices in Qatar; at the time we handled the Asian Games [account], we moved closer to the games’ stadium, and we moved back to the center of [Doha] last year. In Saudi Arabia, we refurbished the offices and we’re also looking at moving out of [our office] here [in Dubai].
How have your performance and operations changed across the regional network?
From a revenue perspective, every operation grew. In Saudi Arabia, we had a series of new clients, including Saudi Kayan and Nadec Foods, which refreshed our offering. For a period of three to four years, the office did not have an MD. It used to be run out of Beirut and that was not [the best] option. So, one of the first things we did was hire Marc Bou Harb [as MD of the Saudi operation]. He rebuilt the team from scratch. The Qatar office’s recent wins such as Qatar Rail, Supreme Council of Health and, recently, Barwa Bank Group have helped put the agency and the network on the map. Some of the projects we’ve worked on lately, such as Majid Al Futtaim and Ferrero – which was a big win last year – have also consolidated the role of the Dubai office as a semi regional hub.
We hear both agencies and clients in the KSA are facing challenges due to intensified Saudization efforts, pressurizing them to employ local talents that are not necessarily well equipped. What is your take on this?
Saudi has always been a challenge when it comes to talent. That is not to say Saudis are not talented. They are, and you’ll find more of them joining the ranks of agencies. [But] Saudi clients have, in the past five or six years, poached some of our Saudi talents, which is a pity, because there’s a quite a bit of investment that goes into training anyone we bring over. From an operational perspective, the main problem is visa issuance, since the operation relies on expats. Qatar, on the other hand, is a place where a lot of people go and stay. It is much less transient than the UAE. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid win – regardless of all of the politics and controversy around it – the [world-class] rail system and the growth of Qatar Airways, the country’s investing heavily, both inside and outside.
Which are the least performing markets in your network?
The most challenging market is North Africa (NA). Even though talents are there, integration isn’t yet and budgets are relatively small. For our clients, NA has not seen the investment that the GCC has. Between Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the Levant has its own challenges because of the political instability. We were in Erbil – where we used to handle telco operator Korek – for a certain period of time and closed approximately a year and a half ago. To say that [the instability of the region] is new to us would be a lie. Our priority today [remains] the GCC, followed by the Levant.
What are your investment and expansion plans for the short term?
We want to reopen in Egypt. We opened there in 2004, mainly for the multinationals we used to service and, since they’re no longer with us, we pulled out in 2010. Obviously, we’ll be looking at acquisitions there, as well as other markets. [In saying that], we will not be looking at minority equity for these acquisitions. Aside from geographical expansion, we’ll be looking at having a retail arm and digital investments. There’s no timeline for these plans. It’s not so much about planting the flag as much as it’s about making sure we have the right offering.
What has changed in your approach toward awards where you’ve also been relatively low key?
When I used to work at Saatchi, we used to mention in our credentials that agencies that said awards were not important were those that didn’t win any. I’d made a conscious decision to focus on some of our clients internally and also on new businesses. The flip side was that creatives missed entering awards. But, that’s going to change, especially that Marc [Chalhoub, chief creative officer at Grey MENA] is keen on making this happen. I have no choice, so staying in my closet will not work anymore.