By Richard Abbott
Fadi Salameh, Promoseven network boss, is exploring unchartered areas of Middle East media. Richard Abbott meets him
Promoseven thinks big with a long-term vision |~|Salameh,-Fadi200.jpg|~|Salameh... ‘At the end of the day we are not doing creative to enter awards. We have to do things that sell’|~|There is an office at Promoseven’s HQ on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road that is painted wall-to-wall with pictures of Ronald McDonald. They don’t serve Big Macs, but the team working inside that office is devoted to advertising the fast food mega-brand across the Middle East.
McDonald’s is just one of the multi-national clients that is handled by Promoseven, which incorporates ad agency Fortune Promoseven, media specialist UM7, PR arm Weber Shandwick and below-the-line outfit Seven Below. Coca-cola, Asafi and L’Oreal also appear on the list.
So it’s not surprising when Fadi Salameh, the affable president and CEO of the Interpublic Group (IPG) aligned company, talks size.
“We are the largest network in the Middle East. We are in every market,” he says.
With offices in Sudan, Yemen and now Cyprus — unchartered territory for most agencies — it is hard to disagree with his statements. Billings in the Middle East stand at around US$420 million.
“We believe that to service our clients you need to be on the ground. You cannot service them by remote control from Dubai or anywhere else. To understand the local market you need to be there,” he says.
“Cyprus is a weird one. It is not part of the Middle East, it is part of Europe. But McDonald’s has tried three agencies locally and could not get the service that it gets from us in the Middle East, so they have asked us to open for them in Cyprus.
“This is a typical example of the way Promoseven operates. It may not make financial sense to open in Cyprus or in places like Iran, but we cannot tell McDonald’s we can service you where we make money and not where you need us. So we go where our clients need us.
“McDonald’s is not an IPG company. They work with either Leo Burnett or DDB. Worldwide they have unified their media with OMD. The Middle East is the only region in the world where they forced a pitch — and we won it.”
This is what Salameh describes as the ‘long-term view’. He says he is passionate about building the advertising industry up in the Middle East for the next generation rather than using it as short-term “cash cow”. He gives the example of his own 23-year spell in Saudi Arabia.
“Unlike other agencies where most senior staff were sitting in Dubai, near golf courses, I was sitting with my clients. That gave us the real growth of the agency. If you are giving them the right service, it is a long-term relationship.”
Salameh has a Canadian degree in business administration. After leaving his native Lebanon he had the choice of going to Cairo, Kuwait or Jeddah.
“Saudi Arabia was not my first choice and I insisted that it was for one year and one year only,” he says. “But once you get to Saudi that is where the real business is.”
Local clients are the bread and butter for the agency in KSA, with multi-nationals accounting for only about 15% of the business. Salameh says the groundwork that has been laid there is the reason why Promoseven is nearly double the size of its nearest advertising agency competitor.
But outside of Saudi, Promoseven is very much a multi-national representative, as was demonstrated by this year’s US$70 million tie up with Unilever. The deal sees Unilever Arabia maintain its in-house media unit, but with Magna — Interpublic’s buying shop — as a strategic partner, responsible for media placement.
“We can both benefit. We will be handling the buying section while they will keep the planning in-house,” says Salameh.
“We want to be totally transparent with all our clients. Unilever has full access to all our negotiations. If this is a long-term relationship, you don’t look for short-term profits. This is probably the reason we have been winning all these accounts over the last few months.”
With so much new business coming in, more people are required with the right expertise to make the accounts work. But recruiting the right calibre of individual has been far from easy.
He admits: “This is the toughest thing the whole industry is facing right now. You need local talent and that is a strategy we follow. However, there are many limitations. Advertising is not a well sought after job. People can get a job where they don’t have to work weekends like advertising does.
“In Saudi we are pushing very hard to train people but out of every ten people you take, you get two who want to stay.”
But there are a few silver linings. In Bahrain, 70% of staff are locals, and in Saudi Arabia — where experiments with western ex-pats ended in disaster with attacks by terrorists— there is now a well-established women’s division.
“We have nine creative Saudi ladies doing brilliant work because they understand their culture better than any foreigner we could bring in,” says Salameh. “I spent 23 years in Saudi but I will never know as much as a local.”
Salameh’s other bugbear is creativity. But he differs from most industry observers. Rather than talking about the lack of awards coming the way of the Middle East, Salameh prefers to take a more pragmatic point of view.
“At the end of the day we are not doing creative to enter awards. We have to do things that sell and that reach our customers effectively,” he says.
“I can only judge creativity in comparison to the rest of the world from the international conferences I have been to. Budget-wise you cannot compare the budget in the Middle East with elsewhere so that effects the quality. But in terms of thinking, creativity and ideas, you can take a campaign from Lebanon that will compare to anywhere in the world.”
But the most pressing issue on the agenda, he says, should be research. Again, the long-term thinking is evident.
“It is as serious as it has ever been. How can we make sure that what we are spending is right? We need better research. That is the only way that clients will increase their budgets,” he says.
“There have been many attempts to create consortiums that get clients and agencies together. These have failed because of special interests. It all comes back to a matter of funding. I sincerely hope clients and media don’t lose this opportunity. It needs heavy involvement from clients. They need to lead it now. It is their money.”||**||