x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Elie Khouri: Successful brand in his own right

Profile: Elie Khouri, the regional chief executive of Omnicom Media Group, surrounds himself with contemporary art. But the advertising executive has no pretensions as an artist, in an industry he says must be judged on solid business results.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

Elie Khouri is drinking his fifth espresso of the day - and the significance of it coming from a Swiss, rather than an Italian, coffee maker is not lost on him.

As one of the Middle East's most prominent advertising men, you would expect the 48-year-old executive to recognise a clever marketing campaign when he sees one.

But that hasn't made Mr Khouri immune to the caffeinated charms of Nespresso, Switzerland's brand of faux-espresso makers, which famously roped in the American actor George Clooney for a high-profile advertising campaign.

"I'm surprised that a Swiss brand like Nespresso managed to conquer the world of coffee, as did an American brand like Starbucks. It's amazing, and it tells you the power of marketing," says Mr Khouri. "That's what we do," he says, smiling.

Mr Khouri, wearing a smart suit and his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, sits in his expansive corner office in the heart of Dubai Media City.

He is the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group (OMG) in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) - and has certainly earned his stripes in the region's competitive media industry.

After almost 25 years in the business, Mr Khouri is counted among the elite guard of advertising executives in the Arab world, almost all of whom are Lebanese.

His company does not specialise in creating advertising but helps brands to plan campaigns through its media-buying agencies OMD and PHD, which between them control between 15 and 20 per cent of the region's advertising spending.

Yet looking at Mr Khouri's office, which features several pieces of contemporary art from his own collection of about 100 pieces, you would be forgiven for thinking he is one of the advertising industry's purely creative types.

It is tempting to draw conclusions about Mr Khouri from the artworks on display.

One is a transparent case containing red strips of shredded paper, which Mr Khouri says represents - to him, at least, organised chaos.

Another is a model gun wrapped in real banknotes. "In the media business, money is power," says Mr Khouri.

He may surround himself with art, but he has no pretensions of being an artist. For while he says being creative is essential, an advertisement is pointless unless it helps to sell more product.

"Advertising is not art," said Mr Khouri. "It is a combination of art and science."

Mr Khouri was born in Beirut in 1964. The peace of his early childhood was shattered when civil war broke out 11 years later. While many people fled the country, the Khouris did not have enough money to leave and endured the difficulties of a country at war.

Perhaps that explains why Mr Khouri has a habit of turning a tough situation into a positive one.

"I was an entrepreneur from the early days. During the war, I sold [items ranging] from firecrackers to canned foods," he says.

Mr Khouri is Christian - his surname is Arabic for priest - and lived on the east side of Beirut. He faced several dangers when travelling to study at the American University of Beirut on the west side of town.

"There were snipers," he says. "There was lots of scary moments, of being stopped at checkpoints, and being on the verge of being kidnapped a couple times."

With financial help from his father, he completed an MBA and decided to try his luck in advertising. Aged just 24, he went to Cyprus to work for the advertising agency BBDO, which is also part of the Omnicom Group, earning US$500 (Dh1,836) a month.

His boss in Cyprus was Lance de Masi, now the president of the UAE chapter of the International Advertising Association, and president of the American University in Dubai.

"Giving Elie Khouri his first job in advertising ought to be on my CV," says Mr de Masi. "With Elie, I really got it right - and I've never been bashful about saying it."

The Cyprus office of BBDO clattered with Telex machines. The agency counted Pepsi and Yves Saint Laurent among its clients, and there was something of the Mad Men TV series vibe to the place.

Mr Khouri found himself travelling between London, New York and Los Angeles, working on shoots for TV commercials.

Amid all the jet-setting, there were setbacks. And while most of us have had the odd close shave in our careers, for Mr Khouri this was more of a literal experience.

He was on the team handling Gillette, which created an alternative slogan to "The Best a Man Can Get" in Arabic, which translated as "What Men Deserve".

While this tagline may have translated well, the TV commercial did not. The agency shot an ad depicting a man shaving off all his facial hair - which was not deemed appropriate for the Saudi Arabian market.

"When it was sent to the censors, they told us it was not going to be acceptable. So we had to reshoot the commercial completely," recalls Mr Khouri.

It was in Cyprus that he met Mylene Khouri, who was also an employee at BBDO. It was both a coincidence and a convenience that she shared his surname because Mylene would later become his wife.

"Luckily for her she didn't have to change any of her IDs or anything," says Mr Khouri. "On the wedding invitation we had "Khouri & Khouri" - inspired by Saatchi & Saatchi".

Mr Khouri later moved to Dubai, where he received a call from his former boss Mr de Masi, headhunting him for a job at Impact BBDO.

He started working there in 1992, the same year he married Mylene. Yet there was a minor problem in all this as Mylene's father is Alain Khouri - the head of BBDO in Dubai. "It's never healthy to have your father-in-law as your boss," says Mr Khouri. "No matter how good you are, you'll always be - in this part of the world, especially - accused of [receiving] preferential treatment."

However, Elie Khouri says he made things work in the job, and, despite now being separated from Mylene, still has a good relationship with his father-in-law.

Alain Khouri, who is still chairman of Impact BBDO in the Mena region, speaks highly of his son-in-law.

"I believe that Elie is respected by his clients for delivering the goods," he says. "[Elie] is appreciated by his suppliers for his integrity. And he is loved by his team for nurturing their potential. This has been his recipe for success."

Ever ambitious, Mr Khouri craved a more senior role. So in 1996, he moved back to Beirut with his wife and children, to work as associate managing director of Impact BBDO Beirut.

He worked closely with Dani Richa, now the chief executive of Impact BBDO in the Mena region and Pakistan, and who was also a colleague in Cyprus.

"In all the years that I've known Elie, I've never seen him angry," says Mr Richa. "He's always positive, always smiling."

Yet this kind nature also has its downside, adds Mr Richa. "The fact that he has a big heart sometimes plays against him. People use the fact that he has this soft spot."

In 2001, Mr Khouri moved back to Dubai, where he later set up OMD, which plans advertising campaigns on behalf of clients. The company is now under the umbrella of the Omnicom Media Group, which has 400 employees across the Mena region.

Mr de Masi says Mr Khouri's leadership qualities enabled him to pursue this path of success.

"People would follow Elie into hell," says Mr de Masi. "His ability to rally the troops around a mission is the factor that explains why OMG is where it is today."

Mr Khouri is a generation younger than the "godfathers" of advertising in the Arab world - the Lebanese executives such as Joseph Ghossoub, Alain Khouri, Ramzi Raad and Eddie Moutran.

Because these men have the same nationality, the industry is sometimes said to be run by a "Lebanese mafia".

But Mr Khouri plays down any negative implications. "I disagree with the word 'mafia'. I would say 'Lebanese dominance'," he says. "These people have built the communications business in the Arab world since the early 1970s".

While Mr Khouri's tough teenage years in Beirut may have helped to shape his character, there is certainly much more to his success than the accident of his nationality.

He prides himself on being transparent and honest in his business dealings, and says he has to be diplomatic as a chief executive.

But humility is, perhaps, the quality most important to him in an industry that he says is full of "big egos".

"You have to always be humble, because life's too short," he says. "At the end of the day, we're a bunch of guys trying to come up with ideas around brands to make them sell more. It's not rocket science."

One finds it difficult to imagine how Elie Khouri could have been anything but a successful brand.

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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