x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Eddie Moutran: From the frontier to the world stage

Profile: As a pioneer of the Middle East's advertising industry, Eddie Moutran has nothing else to prove, having built up his agency up from a "one man office" in Bahrain.

Illustration of Eddie Moutran by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration of Eddie Moutran by Christopher Burke for The National

It is difficult to imagine Eddie Moutran cycling from Dubai to Sharjah in the sweltering summer heat.

The world of advertising is all about suave suits, cigarettes and entertainment - or so the television show Mad Men would have us believe.

But Mr Moutran, the boss of the advertising agency Memac Ogilvy in the Middle East and North Africa, could have been a million miles from Madison Avenue when he started his career in 1973.

Mr Moutran, now 67, was frequently asked to travel from his base in Bahrain - and it was a far from glamorous life. One of his jobs was to deliver advertising reels to a cinema in Sharjahand the first time he did this, he took a cab from his hotel on Dubai Creek.

"The cost of the taxi was more than the commission I was running for putting the film in the cinema. So the next time I rented a bicycle and biked all the way to Sharjah," says Mr Moutran. "It was June, it was hot. I lost weight."

He once had an enthusiastic smoking habit similar to that of the fictional stars of Mad Men- he was on five packs a day before giving up eight months ago.But one cannot imagine Don Draper making such an arduous bike journey.

Yet such comparisons are not really relevant because Mr Moutran, a consummate ad man, helped to write the rules of the industry specific to the Middle East.

He was born in Lebanon into what he calls a "comfortable, middle class" family. His father - an immigrant from Turkey - was a tailor and his brothers were in the goldsmiths business.

If advertising is a sexy profession, accountancy certainly isn't - and not even the cleverest of TV commercials could persuade people otherwise. Yet one of Mr Moutran's first jobs in Lebanon's 1960s golden era was as a bank clerk and he dreamed of studying accountancy at university.

He went to the United States to begin his studies in 1966 and was promptly persuaded to change course to marketing by a fellow student.

"One guy explained: 'If you're an accountant, all you're going to do is sit down and chew numbers all your life. But if you go into this field you'll be doing all sorts of exciting things,'" Mr Moutran says.

Back in Beirut after completing his course in marketing, he received the job offer that changed his life.

"It all started in 1973," he says. The young executive had been offered a job working for Intermarkets, the oldest advertising group in the Middle East, in Bahrain.

Mr Moutran claims to be the first in a long line of fellow expatriates to move to the region to work in the industry.

When Lebanon's civil war began a few years later, many Lebanese came to the Arabian Gulf, including many of today's big names in advertising. They included Joseph Ghossoub,who also worked at Intermarkets early in his career.

But Mr Moutran started the trend when he moved to Bahrain to open a "one-man office", where his clients included Rothmans cigarettes and Unilever.

He travelled frequently to places such as Dubai, Jeddah and Muscat. His accommodation was often less than glamorous, sometimes sleeping in hotel lobbies or sharing rooms with other guests.

The workload was also heavy. Mr Moutran recalls facing a difficult decision when work and personal plans clashed.

"I announced my wedding, only to find out after the invitations went that there was a trade mission coming to Abu Dhabi at the same time," he says. So what did he do? "I postponed the wedding," he says.

Mr Moutran says everybody in the region's fledgling advertising industry had similar experiences. And he does not like it when such "pioneers" of the business are not given due credit.

"It saddens me for people to show any sign of disrespect to these pioneers that actually built the industry, protected it and explained it to people. Nobody knew what advertising was when we started it. We didn't pitch for business, we explained what advertising was."

After working at Intermarkets for 11 years, Mr Moutran launched his own agency in January 1984. He named it Memac - short for Middle East Marketing and Communications - and based it in Bahrain.

"I had US$13,000 [Dh47,749] saved in 11 years, and I started Memac with that money," he says.

The company grew and eventually launched offices in markets such as Jeddah, Dubai and Kuwait.

Today, Mr Moutran oversees the agency's network of 13 offices. The company claims billings of more than $700 million and clients such as IBM, Coca-Cola, American Express and British Airways.

Yet while Mr Moutran was a pioneer of the Middle East's advertising industry, his business is also one of its most notable exceptions.

Many of the Middle East ad agencies have been snapped up by the world's "big four" communications companies, namely WPP, Publicis Groupe, Omnicom and Interpublic.

In 1986, Mr Moutran's business formed an association with the international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.

Twelve years later, Ogilvy bought a 20 per cent stake in Memac, which then changed its name to Memac Ogilvy. Following the 1989 acquisition of Ogilvy by WPP, Ogilvy purchased another 20 per cent of Memac in 2002.

Yet WPP still holds aminority stake in Memac Ogilvy, unlike most of the other global holding companies, which generally bought majority stakes.

Some in the industry suggest privately Mr Moutran made a mistake in not sellinga majority stake during the boom years,buthe says he does not regret his decision.Either way, he says the arrival of the big advertising networks in the Middle East has done the industry a lot of good.

"It gave us financial maturity," he says. "It lifted the standards of the industry because you are no longer judged by local standards, you are judged by international standards. It gave us the absolute conviction that you can only grow by being very creative."

Proof of Memac Ogilvy's creative credentials came at this year's Cannes Lions advertising awards, where the agency picked up three Gold awards in what was a generally good year for Middle East agencies.

Mr Moutran said those awards showed his "little agency that started in the Middle East" had come of age.

"It was the pinnacle of my career. It was among the absolute highest accolades that you could have... You're rubbing shoulders with the best of the best."

Mr Moutran's industry peers describe him in glowing terms.

Elie Khouri, the chief executive of the rival firm Omnicom Media Group in the Middle East and North Africa, says Mr Moutran has "a big personality".

"He is someone of great charisma. He built a network from the ground up and is highly respected by his peers," says Mr Khouri.

Lance de Masi, the president of the UAE chapter of the International Advertising Association, describes Mr Moutran as a "pioneer". He has a "fierce sense of independence and pride in the Middle Eastern communications industry".

But perhaps the biggest testament to Mr Moutran's success in advertising is the fact that three of his children work for Memac Ogilvy or related entities.

His son, Nabil, is the regional director of OgilvyOne Middle East, the direct marketing arm of the network.He says his father is "the kind of leader that you aspire to be one day".

"We were never forced into agency life. It sort of happened by default," says Nabil.

"We were brought up with advertising being discussed at the dinner table. As far back as I can remember, it was and still is the only thing I want to do."

Eddie Moutran foresees the day when he gradually withdraws from his firm andin the next few yearsplans to "go home and let the young ones run it".

But today he still holds the reins, and says he is the happiest he has ever been.

"I wanted to build the best agency in the Mena [Middle East and North Africa] region... I think I can safely say that I have delivered on what I was hoping to deliver.

"I am blessed with wonderful children, who are all in the business that I love. And they love it more than me. I'm blessed with grandchildren. And I'm blessed with a beautiful, adorable wife."

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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