By Richard Abbott
Raja Trad has doubled the billings of Leo Burnett in five years. Richard Abbott hears how ‘mental energy’ makes a difference
‘It’s time clients took advertising seriously’|~|Trad,-Raja-200.jpg|~|Trad... ‘When you live in such a tough environment you learn to be a fighter. You have to fight for everything’|~|“We have tried to make it colourful,” says Raja Trad, descending in the elevator at Leo Burnett’s headquarters in Dubai Media City.
Murals stretch along corridors, beanbags gather in corners. Behind a Ramadan curtain there is a hubbub of creative minds at work.
During his time with advertising agency Leo Burnett, the Lebanese-born CEO has seen staff numbers increase from three to 180. In the past five years, billings and revenues have doubled. So, there is justification for the cheery atmosphere.
But it wasn’t always this way.
“It was never easy, this market,” he says, referring to the political tensions and conflicts that have muddied the recent history of the Middle East. “We were always sailing in rough waters.
“When you live in such a tough environment you learn to be a fighter. You have to fight for everything to happen.”
And fight he has.
“We have been successful by believing in what we are doing, by having an aggressive attitude. In 2005 we have won two major assignments without pitch, based on reputation. So we will keep on struggling, keep on fighting,” he says.
Trad is the CEO of the Middle East and North Africa region, which is headquartered in Dubai, with additional offices in Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait, Cairo, Beirut, Syria and Morocco.
He began his advertising career in 1978 as an account executive with Young & Rubicam on the Procter & Gamble business in Beirut and Athens. He joined H&C Leo Burnett Beirut as an account director in 1981. It was the first fully-owned agency in the region.
Soon he was promoted to regional account director on tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris and three years later he moved to Bahrain as sub-regional managing director for the Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait operations, while continuing his role on Philip Morris.
In 1991 he became regional managing director for the Leo Burnett Middle East network and in 1994 he was promoted to his current position as CEO of Leo Burnett Middle East and North Africa.
“We are an agency that prides ourselves on building brands,” he says. “It’s not just empty talk. We have built leading brands in the region. In order to build brands you have to create a partnership that goes beyond the relationship between a client and a supplier. We refuse to act like supplier to our clients,” he says.
He cites long-term relationships with Philip Morris and Procter & Gamble as evidence of his agency’s sound business credentials.
“Whenever we sit with our clients they assess the agency not just on our services but on the contribution to building their brand and creating a difference in the marketplace,” he says.
“For me, advertising today is not just about writing an ad, it is about partnering our clients. They are looking for communication consultants rather than suppliers of a press ad or TV ad.
Trad believes his network has achieved its aim of creating a holistic approach to communications.
Alongside Leo Burnett, he also oversees sister agency Black Pencil, CRM and digital agency Arc, and the PR arm Manning Selvage & Lee. “There is no strait jacketing,” he says.
To this end, Leo Burnett has recently changed its employees’ job titles across the board. Account managers, for example, are now known as communications managers. “It’s not about what the client service used to be, the mediator between the client and the agency, no, he is a business partner in the client’s business.
“It is not about a job title, it is about the client realising that we are about strategic thinking.”
At several stages during the interview, Trad returns to the subject of people. He is passionate about what makes a talented employee and is strongly anti-poaching.
“This business is about mental energy. You build an agency around people. We are an agency that strongly believes you should never bring someone from outside into a senior position,” he says.
“I see some people moving around in circles from one agency to another. The talent pool is not that rich in this region. And agencies start snatching people from other agencies which, in my opinion, is not that healthy.
“If each agency would invest enough in training we would avoid burning the market by snatching people because it’s easier.”
So what does it take to get a job at Leo Burnett? Well, a degree helps – Trad has taken on students following three-month placements from university — but the right attitude will take you even further.
“You have to believe that this is the place you want to be. Are you looking for a job opportunity or a career opportunity?
“For me, it starts there. As a manager I need to be able to differentiate between people who are fishing for a job and those who want a career opportunity. You need the mental energy. You need to keep learning by the day. If you don’t have that curiosity and interest to accept and indulge yourself in training, you will go nowhere.
“Half of what we do in life is about attitude. You can be super intelligent but without the right attititude you will not go places.”
Trad’s next challenge is to convince more of the Middle East’s advertisers to take advertising seriously. He points out that when you compare dollar expenditure to gross domestic product (GDP), the region is still behind some developing countries.
What doesn’t help, he argues, is the costs of running an agency in this part of the world.
“When we get an assignment for the region, you handle it out of seven offices so there is a duplication factor. We have the revenue of one major office in Europe but the expense of seven offices. This makes it very expensive to run a network when advertising expenditure to GDP is so low,” he says.
“And you still have some advertisers that believe advertising is an expense rather than an investment. There are brands that are leaders in the marketplace. And there are the part players. It is up to any marketer to decide whether they want to be passive or active and make a difference in the market.”
Trad has recently joined Leo Burnett’s EMEA committee, something he values greatly.
“Nothing is more important than cross learning. At the end of the day we are one region,” he says.
And he is confident that the Middle East can stand up to its European counterparts.
“In my opinion we stand at equal levels to any European market,” he says. “Today, I feel we are very much a power and in some instances we are ahead. But I would hate to say we have made it, because the day you say that it is the beginning of the end.”||**||