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Sun 15 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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The last of the old school advertising men

Naji Boulos has emerged from an emotional 2005 with a mission to grow Lebanon’s ad industry. Iain Akerman meets him

The last of the old school advertising men|~|Naji-Boulos200.jpg|~|Boulos... ‘The problem is that we in the advertising industry are not doing enough to counter globalisation’|~|The first thing Naji Boulos does when we meet an hour or so after Memac Ogilvy’s end-of-year party is apologise. Of all things, it’s for speaking Arabic during an emotional speech to his staff.

“I hope someone translated for you,” he says with concern. “But what I said came from the heart, and for that I needed to speak Arabic.”

His emotion is understandable. Another turbulent 12 months in Lebanon’s recent history were coming to an end and the shockwaves from the assassination of publisher, journalist and anti-Syrian legislator Gebran Tueni a few days earlier were still being felt.

“I was saying to everyone earlier that, even with everything that’s happened in Beirut, when you have faith in your country, when you have a vision for your country, small problems are nothing because you believe in something,” he says.

We are sitting in the elegant surroundings of the Metropolitan Palace hotel, just a short hop from Memac Ogilvy’s offices in the Sin El Fil area of Beirut.

Boulos, who is the company’s MD, appears relaxed but weary. He has spent just five days on vacation in the past three years. It’s been a tough year for his country and, as a result, the advertising industry.

Lebanon’s ad spend plummeted from an estimated US$514 million in 2001 to somewhere around US$281 million in 2004, according to the World Advertising Research Center. Figures for 2005 are not expected to be much better.

And yet, Memac Ogilvy’s Beirut office appears to be flying in the face of adversity. Despite the political unrest triggered by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February last year, the company had a good year. Revenue was up 20% on the previous year (with a profit margin of 20%) and its staff count is now 50 compared to 30 in 2003.
“Maybe we believe in something,” he says. “We have a passion for advertising and when you have that I think you can convince a client to spend some money.

“But seriously, we got a lot of new business, we changed our prices, we are now more proactive with clients and we have a strong team spirit. All of these things have helped make us successful and we want to move forward.”

Plans to build on Memac Ogilvy’s recent success include expanding its PR department and Boulos also believes the company can take market share away from its competitors in 2006.

He also points out that an important factor in the company’s development in 2006 lies in continuing the shift away from agency commission to retainer fees.

“People are accepting this — even local clients — and slowly we are seeing the benefits of retainer fees compared to agency commission,” he says. “We had a case recently where we worked with a client for nine months to launch a campaign. The film was ready and everything and yet on the final day everything stopped. So moving to retainer fees is a big step and I think the benefits are enormous.”

Beirut is the head office of Memac Ogilvy, which is ranked as the fifth largest agency in the Gulf region, with 10 offices covering nine countries across the Levant, the Gulf and North Africa.

The Metropolitan Palace, as well as being an imposing Beirut landmark, is where Memac Ogilvy’s chairman Edmond Moutran, Boulos and his father, Jean Claude, met in 2002 and decided to merge their companies. Up until then, Boulos and his father had been running an agency called Inter-Regies.

Boulos is proud of the results.

“It’s the first time in the history of advertising in this region that a merger really succeeded,” he says. “You had different mentalities, two giants like Eddie Moutran and Jean Claude Boulos — who at that time was the worldwide president of the IAA — who put their egos aside, forgot about all the problems, and really believed in a new project.”

Yet to Boulos, his father and Moutran represent a dying breed of dedicated old school advertising men. “I am an advertising man,” he says. “I was born to be an advertising man because of my father, so I believe in this profession.
“But I think it’s the end of the big advertising man — people like my father, like Mr Moutran; the old school. We don’t have the advertising men we used to know any more — the people who dedicated their lives to advertising.”

Having worked in Paris for five years before returning to Lebanon to work with his father in 1993 following the ending of the war, he believes advertising has become too globalised.

“Someone who has huge experience in Russia can probably come to Dubai and work the same way on international accounts,” he says. “It’s the same spirit, the same way of doing things, the same strategy. You can apply that strategy in Peru, in France or in Beirut.

“But I believe in local accounts, in local budgets, because I think this will be the future of advertising.

“Each country has its own specific consumer behaviour and what we have to tell our clients is that you cannot sell products in Dubai like in Lebanon or like in Syria. Even though we now have satellite TV and are speaking the same language and seeing the same programmes worldwide, you still have some specificity of the local market and people sitting in offices in New York, Chicago or London cannot see this because they don’t come and see for themselves that people react differently to a message.

“The problem is that we in the advertising industry are not doing enough to counter globalisation. We no longer have our own style in the creative approach — we have the international approach. When I see some beautiful ads in Dubai, they are international ads, they are not specific to the Gulf.

“I’m talking about our own style, about speaking the real Lebanese language, with the typical Lebanese character. If we can come up with our own way of doing things differently — it’s our job, it’s not the job of the clients — we will probably succeed.”

Hard times, a lack of consumer response, small rewards compared to money-soaked Dubai and a growing distance between him and the creative side of advertising (he was creative director at Inter-Regies and creative director at Memac for two years), is not an ideal situation. Yet he remains filled with a passion for the industry — a passion he is keen to pass on to his team.

“I need them to follow the same spirit I have and to forget about small problems. It’s not easy to manage a team. Even when I worked with my father, he never deliberately taught me something. He never sat with me and said ‘this is how you have to do things’. I learnt by experience, by seeing these people working, by seeing Mr Moutran when he is with a client.

“I can say that I had two mentors, my father and now Moutran, who is always putting the level very, very high. They are always pushing you and I always followed their example. So I hope my team can also follow my example.”
I point out that this means he must be under a lot of pressure.

“I put pressure on myself,” he admits. “I’m hard on myself. I have very strong discipline but I love this. The day I’m not busy I will think something is wrong.”||**||

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