MBC Group interview: Sam Barnett

Leading one of the biggest media entities in the Middle East with 1,800 employees, MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett talks about his journey to success
Trend People are actually consuming more television today than they did ten years ago, says Barnett
By Shane Phillips
Wed 05 Dec 2012 11:32 AM

MBC Group is one of the region’s iconic media brands with more than eleven channels and two radio stations and three online platforms under its umbrella. Its growth has been impressive, its quality unmatched, and its leadership unwavering. The behemoth media giant was launched in 1991 with only one channel, MBC 1; which is still on air today.

“It all started because Sheikh Waleed [Al Ibrahim, chairman of MBC] felt people in the Middle East deserved to see good quality international content, complemented by quality local coverage in the Middle East and other organisations were not doing that,” says Sam Barnett, CEO of MBC Group. Barnett has had an interesting journey into the top job as he was not always in media; in fact at one time he was the headmaster of a not-for-profit school in a Kenyan village. His career path has weaved itself across the rural dirt roads of Africa, through the high streets of London, and finally into the heart of the 21st century’s biggest boom town, Dubai.

“At the age of 29 I was flying across Ethiopia privatising tea plantations. I doubt I would have the chance to do anything like that if I had stayed in London,” says Barnett.

Interestingly, following his heart and not a scripted career path has served him well. From his early days at Cambridge University he was always attracted to the emerging economies and got the chance to go to Kenya and work for an educational NGO early on.

“My peers from Cambridge thought I was barking mad, however I learned in Kenya how much fun it is to work in an environment where you can have a big impact, where you can actually make a difference.”

The decision to explore the emerging markets as a professional direction early on did afford Barnett an excellent opportunity to develop as he was given a fair amount of responsibility early in his career.

“I was figuratively punched in the face at a very young age as you realise quite quickly that a nicely produced slide that summarises all the information in three bullet points is relatively useless when you are trying to pull a team together in the middle of rural Africa,” says Barnett.

It wasn’t all a romantic adventure across the Serengeti as MBC’s top man did earn his keep as a first class strategy consultant in the boardrooms of London. To round out his executive skill set he then went to INSEAD to do his MBA and, when asked if going back to school was worth it, he says: “I think it depends where you do it and the journey you undergo rather than the knowledge that you acquire. For example, if you ask me to recite the Black-Scholes pricing model I won’t be able to. But what they do teach you is how to work with diverse people under intense pressure. So they put you into groups of six and fill the group with diverse personalities. Then they say ‘we are going to mark you as a group’.  So you have to learn how to be productive with personalities which are vastly different than your own, which is very challenging. Now you are working with people who are difficult and that mirrors what life in the real world is like. So the key lesson is how to manage that and if your MBA gives you that, then it is good value. Your MBA network also helps as the INSEAD alumni is 450 strong here in the UAE and it is a very useful network to have.”

After finishing his MBA, Barnett took a job as a consultant with ricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Tanzania.

“Tanzania was going through immense change and was coming out of being a fairly closed system and PwC was helping the government make a massive transition. They were privatising a lot of their functions and it was very exciting,” Barnett says.

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After three years in Tanzania he followed his wife back to London where he joined Arthur Andersen. Serendipitously, Arthur Andersen was hired by media visionary Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim to do the business case for Al Arabiya and none other than Barnett was assigned to the case. As Arthur Andersen infamously blew up during the Enron scandal, Barnett was immediately approached by MBC to become their director of operations. Catapulted from the swanky streets of London into the dusty streets of construction-laden Dubai, Barnett arrived in 2002 as MBC was one of the original anchor tenants for Dubai Media City.

Barnett describes Sheikh Waleed as a visionary and a true champion of the company’s values.

“MBC’s unwavering commitment to quality and interest in delivering world-class content was inherited from the company’s founder, Sheikh Waleed. He allows for no compromise on quality.  He is a very entrepreneurial and a good decision maker. For example when Sheikh Waleed decided to launch the world’s first free-to-air movie channel, the decision was made in a single evening,” says Barnett.

MBC has the weight of being the biggest media player in the MENA region, complemented by the agility of a boutique firm when taking big decisions. All this makes them a formidable competitor in the business.

When questioned about whether his career path was by design, Barnett says: “It is always easy to connect the dots after the fact but in reality I do not think there was any grand design at work. However, from early on during my days at Cambridge I knew I wanted to be a general manager of a business in an emerging market.  That macro-vision was always there but how or when that would happen I was never sure of”.

Barnett is one of the youngest media CEOs at 42 years old and when asked what is his secret, he says, “I’m not sure, but I am a marathon runner, so to me success is more about persistence and consistency than it is about strength and power. It’s about being able to consistently apply the same amount of effort in kilometre 35 as you did in the first kilometre of the race. If you are clear about your objectives and are committed to them, and you are operating with absolute integrity, you will develop a competitive advantage over time, because your opponents may often not share your resolve. You hope they eventually fold and you will persevere.”

With a decade at the same employer, he definitely has persevered.

Barnett’s focus is on building capabilities and skill sets rather than chasing some elusive career path enjoyed by a previous generation. As the work force braces for the ascendancy of Gen Y, his unorthodox approach to career management may be the way of the future. Technology is moving at such a pace that it is predicted the majority of the jobs people will be doing ten years from now do not even exist yet; so how can you plan a career path?

Driving an agenda of developing capabilities and relevant skill sets that generate value for companies rather than crafting a career path is the next paradigm of thought to dominate career management in the future. Today, not only do executives like Barnett wrestle with sea change on a daily basis but so too do their organisations.

It is envisaged that the world will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 25 years. While some pundits are predicting the death of television many leading practitioners and academics are preaching that the true golden age of television is only just beginning.

“While it is obvious that technology is changing viewing habits, the audience’s appetite for content is exponentially on the rise. People are actually consuming more television today than they did ten years ago.  So for MBC we are focused on ensuring our content and our brands are available on the new emerging media platforms,” says Barnett.  “As these new platforms evolve we are thinking about how we can utilise them. We just re-launched Shahid.net, which has 3.6 million unique users a month. Any episode you missed on TV you can catch on Shahid.net and this will be available on iPad and on other devices as well. So all of the novel things which are happening are actually increasing the amount of TV people are watching, not decreasing it. Thus people are now consuming more content than ever before.”

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Staying current with the technological changes of the market is the name of the game in the 21st century, not just for media companies but for all companies. One senior executive I spoke to recently said the return on investment in social media is simply that your business will still exist five years from now.

Overall, MBC is well positioned to take advantage of the new technology platforms for viewing and consuming content as they already are the market leaders in the GCC. No one else in the region can deliver the same high quality content across a convergence of mediums like MBC can, with a full suite of entertainment offerings including television channels, radio stations and internet concepts. One can begin to understand why Barnett is so bullish on the future of the company.

Regardless of how strong the fundamentals for growth for MBC are, the top job is still a tough one.  When asked what is the toughest thing about being CEO of the region’s biggest media company, Barnett responds: “We have lost eighteen people since MBC launched; mostly from Al Arabiya, and many during the Iraq conflict. When people lose their lives in service to the company it is devastating for their families. That is a huge challenge. We do important work and people do it with courage, and because of that there are groups out there that want to do us harm and many of our people have paid with their lives.  Running a media business in a volatile region with 1,800 employees, that has to be the toughest challenge and a constant risk which we take extremely seriously”.

The work of journalists is outright dangerous and the companies that employ them have to have a deep sense of purpose. Barnett is unwavering in his opinion of the critical role media plays in society.

“To me media is the fourth estate and one of the pillars of the community. It was plain to see the omnipotent role the media played in the Arab Spring, making people across the region and beyond aware of what was happening on a minute-to-minute basis,” says Barnett.

For him and the staff at MBC and Al Arabiya, there is a deep sense of purpose which threads their work. A passion that drives them to ensure the Arab world has an accurate view of current events and that the region is sending the right message to the global community.

As the company matures its focus, it is now becoming more localised and it is now pushing local production. It has released a new daily current affairs show, Al Tamanya, which has been a huge success and is planning several more locally produced shows. It is breathing new life into Arab media and is creating a stepping stone for the future of the Arabic art and entertainment industry.

Whether it was running a school in a Kenyan village, privatising a tea plantation or running the region’s biggest media company, Barnett has always felt the most important thing in any job is the ability to make a positive impact in the community. By following his heart and chasing his dreams he is an example of the next generation of leaders who are emerging in the Middle East. His advice for the up and coming executive? “Take jobs which scare you, take jobs which drastically increase your scope of responsibility and pay little attention to your title and salary early career. Focus on taking on as much responsibility as you possibly can and you will develop the requisite capabilities and skills to be a success.”

From NGO worker to CEO, Barnett is one television executive to watch in the Middle East.

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