Ten years ago Elie Khouri ditched a glamorous job in the advertising industry to set up the media agency OMD. His friends thought he was crazy. A decade later, with 450 staff and over $2bn a year in billings, he has good reason to celebrate
Elie Khouri leaves the best to last. It is close to 11pm at the Armani Pavilion in Dubai, where 600 VIP guests have been enjoying a lavish party to celebrate ten years since he first created the media star OMD, part of the global giant Omnicom Media Group.
Everyone has had a good time; everyone is getting ready to leave. Suddenly, Khouri — standing on stage — begins to list the names of the nineteen individuals who helped him form the company in 2002 and are still employed by the group.
“We are going on a trip together that will mark our journey together…a ten-day expedition in the heart of Peru’s rainforest!” he announces.
The trip in March promises to be the mother of all corporate team bonding and motivating exercises, but it would be foolish to expect anything less from Khouri. He likes to do things big, and he does big pretty well. We meet again five days after the event in Khouri’s office, where the party host has metamorphosed back into the corporate animal that has turned OMD into a company that just can’t stop growing. Sharp suited, quick witted and single minded, he reels off the numbers that have shaped a decade. And they are impressive numbers: seventeen staff to 450; two offices to eight, across six countries; billings having grown tenfold with an average compounded annual growth rate of 24 percent.
Oh, and for good measure, this is a man who is not afraid to call the recovery.
“Recession? Really?” He looks bemused at the suggestion. “The recession is over, it is over, and it is over big time. 2012 has been the best ever year in the history of the group, and next year is promising to be even better. We are looking at ten-fifteen percent growth, with the industry looking at seven percent. If you compare to our peak before, in 2008, we are up 20 percent against that figure. Oh yes, the recession is history,” he says.
It certainly is from where the CEO of Omnicom Media Group (MENA) is sitting. According to monitoring sources, billings this year for his media planning and buying agencies OMD, PHD and M2M have topped the $2.7bn mark for the first time. It helps to have an A-list of blue chip clients including PepsiCo, du, Henkel, Visa, Beiersdorf, Mercedes-Benz, Dubai Properties Group and Jumeirah — not to mention some healthy new business won this year, such as McDonald’s, HTC, SABIC, ICT, AAC, Global Village, Qnbn, Waterfront and IKEA.
“This is fun. To get here, you have to be single minded, consistent, and focus on people. And invest in people. Once you do this, everything will follow. I call it ‘PPP’ — people, product and profits. Unfortunately many people do it the other way round, they start with profits,” he says.
It certainly is fun right now to be at the core of an industry that seems to have got back on its feet after hitting rock bottom in 2009. Digital advertising now accounts for just 4.5 percent of the total industry spend in the region of around $4.5bn a year, but that number is expected to reach 10 percent by 2015, a figure closer to the global average. Khouri has been banging the digital drum for several years, and though he admits the rivals are now catching up, he doesn’t sound too worried.
“By the time they wake up we will be doing other things. The other thing now is pretty much mobile. For the last five years, every year we have been saying ‘this is the year of the mobile’, but now we are starting to see the momentum because the technology and speed is available — so is software development. We are trying to leverage that for clients. I won’t say we have cracked mobile, but we are cracking it,” he says.
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