How to get ahead in advertising

Elie Khouri shifted to advertising in the late 80’s to escape the Lebanese civil war and the global financial crisis.
How to get ahead in advertising
By Melissa Sleiman
Sun 23 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

Regional manager of Omnicom Media Group Elie Khouri shifted to advertising in the late 80’s to escape the Lebanese civil war and the financial global financial crisis. He has since worked his way to the top. Melissa Sleiman meets him.

"The interview is about my life, right? Not just business," 44-year-old Elie Khouri asks me as I walk through the door of his office in Dubai Media City. The regional managing director of Omnicom Media Group (OMG) appears to be tired of discussing the current economic situation. But it was a rocky time like this, the stock market crash in 1987, to be exact, that pushed him to move to where he is today.

Khouri is wearing an immaculate navy blue suit. His office is elegantly stylish, half of which consists of floor to ceiling windows boast a spectacular view. We look over a lake with ducks as we sip cafe lattes from his fancy coffee machine. The picture looks good, as does the track record of his business.

The New York-based holding company OMG has had a terrific year, both regionally and globally. Last year's worldwide revenues equaled US$12.7 billion. The company scooped the accolade for Agency of the Year at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, which ire renowned as the most prestigious advertising festival in the world.

OMG's business in the Middle East is led by the Dubai office. Since the three advertising network companies of Omnicom - BBDO, DDB and TBWA - united in 2001, it has grown into one of the biggest media and marketing giants. Khouri spearheaded a team that brought the partners together.

But he has not always been as successful as he is now. "I come from a very modest family," he says, with a smile. "I was raised in a conservative way. My parents invested time of time in injecting the right values and the driving principles in life."

The Lebanese-born executive studied business administration at the American University of Beirut, and graduated in 1986, during the civil war in Lebanon. "I was studying under the pressure of bombs and the problems were really tough," he remembers.

"But we survived it." He then started working at a financial trading company while doing his MBA. The job focused on financial aspects, such as bonds, securities and trading currencies.

"I thought: ‘finance is the way to go'. It's accountable, you can quantify everything you do and I like to look at results. Then there was the stock market crash in '87 - my biggest disappointment. I saw that all the wealth and people's lives were destroyed for no reason. It seemed unreal. The illusion that finance is something you can plan, forecast and anticipate vanished. That was my first exposure to the real world."

Khouri's friends pushed him to get into communication and advertising, "which was beginning to become something interesting at the time". The situation in Lebanon remained unstable. He opted for an offer in Cyprus in 1988, one year after the stock market crash. The company he joined was Impact BBDO, a regional advertising and marketing communications part of Omnicom Holding.

One of the reasons he initially left BBDO, was because he was dating the chairman's daughter, Mylene, who is now his wife. They met during a social event in Cyprus. She was in the country to visit her father. "Everyone told me: ‘Don't touch! It's too crazy'," he laughs. "But when you're young, you don't care and just do what you think is right." The couple got married in 2002.

"My connection to Alain [Khouri, Impact BBDO Group chairman and his father-in-law, who coincidentally has the same surname] has always made my job more difficult. It meant that I had to prove myself more. Alain was tougher on me than on other employees. He wanted to make the line between family and business clear. My wife used to work for the company as well, but she resigned when I started taking more senior jobs. Again because of the family thing."

Khouri moved to France in 1991, as he holds a French passport. He was offered jobs and wanted to work for a big advertising agency, but quickly realised it was "the worst time" to relocate as it was at the beginning of the recession.

A few months after his move to Paris, he joined the Dubai company Lintas/Gulf Advertising. Khouri worked with them for a year and then moved back to BBDO.

They offered him a position as an account director with a "challenging portfolio and good career prospects." He lived and worked in Deira - the centre of Dubai at the time.

"It was the beginning of the hub," remembers Khouri. "Dubai was fun, small, we all knew each other. It was a simple life, unlike today. I preferred it like that. The furthest place [of the city] was where Burj al Arab is. If we really wanted to go far, it was to Jebel Ali Hotel. Small roads took us there. All of this" - he gestures around him - "was desert."Dubai started developing and the company increased and moved offices.

"The whole business has evolved - we were a team of 20 people, and today we have in excess of 300 people."

After a four year stint in Beirut between 1996 and 2000 to co-manage the office of Impact BBDO, Khouri was asked to set up OMD with the partner agencies in 2001 and that materialised a year later.

They took the media resources of the three agencies BBDO, DDB and TBWA and set up the new company from scratch. "That was a challenge. I left a job which was secure. I was even a partner in that company.

"Bringing three different companies together was a huge deal. We didn't fire anybody. Throughout the process they had to come to grips with how things should be done. We put pressure on them to adhere to the standards we set. Management is about lending direction. Those who picked it up, were successful. Those who didn't cope, left by themselves.

"Media is changing," he says of the developments. "It's becoming much more about communications. We're investing in digital - things like branded entertainment - and investing a lot in research. We are competing with brand agencies and creative agencies because we're investing much more in knowledge than they are. "

Khouri has also been through tough times during the course of his career. The Gulf war in 1991 was "a very critical slowdown".

Clients froze their investments, which meant that the agency had to put a hold on recruitment, lay off employees and even talked about salary cuts. The latter wasn't implemented, because the market had stabilized itself. A second slowdown occurred between 1994 - 1996. "And now, we're looking at the mother of all battles", Khouri smiles.

His assessment for the near future is changing by the minute, he says. His optimistic scenario for the GCC is for the markets to stagnate. In the worst case, he predicts a drop of 15 to 20 percent in the volume of media investments. For the whole region he "definitely" thinks a stagnation in 2009 will take place. "Everybody is suffering, to be honest. We'll work on tightening the belt too. What will make it up for us, is to keep the talent pool intact.

"I believe that if you have a motivated and empowered team, everything will go perfectly well at the end of the day. The business will take care of itself if you take care of the business - that means the people who drive it. The ‘bottom line' is not my first priority, although I've always been competitive and financially driven."

A memory from his childhood springs to mind. "Even when I was young, I was buying and selling things." He laughs, as he tells me how he used to buy things from the supermarket and sell it at a retail price to his own family. "They knew it. That was the fun part of it. I also did business with my friends - I'd buy clothes in bulk from Italy and sell items to them."

That entrepreneurial spirit undoubtedly comes in handy in the media and marketing business. "It's cutthroat," he says, showing no sign of guilt. "There are four holding companies which compete with each other on a global scale. Us, Publicis, WPP and Interpublic. Everywhere we are, we kill each other." He snickers. "This is the daily adrenaline and the fun. We compete on ethical terms."

He feels "lucky" to have grown to be as successful as he is today. "I never expected to grow as fast as I did," he says modestly. I must've done some things right as well. We all have opportunities in life. What differentiates somebody who succeeds from someone who doesn't is that the successful one identifies an opportunity and takes it."

Meanwhile, Khouri aims to guide his three daughters (aged 15, 12 and 9) to combine their skills with a business sense. "My eldest daughter wants to go into arts or photography. I think she can do very well if she thinks about the business side of it. How are you going to monetise your photography? Will you make deals, go to big agencies, sell it to museums? In life, you have to think about these things or you'll be living on charities all the time."

But his job as a father is not easy because of his demanding work. His wife and daughters moved to Beirut this year.

"They missed the social connection." Khouri visits them every 10 days, for a few days. Is that difficult, I ask. "I travel a lot," he shrugs. "Even when they were in Dubai it was the same thing."

But Khouri doesn't think being a hard worker is the key to success. "It doesn't help to sit in the office until late at night if you don't produce results.

"You have to be a smart worker - get things done quickly, be focused," he emphasises. "Actually, it's even better to be a smart and a hard worker!"

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