He survived the Lebanese civil war and built an agency, but this year has been as challenging as anything Joseph Ghossoub has ever faced.
'The godfather' of advertising
If the early 21st-century Middle East advertising boom had a face, it belonged to Joseph Ghossoub. His marketing and communications company, named The Holding Group until September this year, rode the swell of double-digit advertising growth nearly every year since its founding in 1999. A decade later, it had 1,200 employees in 57 offices scattered across the MENA region.
By February last year, near the height of the ad boom, his firm attracted the interest of WPP Group, one of the global "big four" advertising firms, which bought a majority stake in The Holding Group. At the same time, Mr Ghossoub was completing his two-year term as the president of the International Advertising Association. A year later, the property bubble burst, savaging corporate advertising budgets. The Holding Group announced a major rebranding, becoming the MENACOM Group to better reflect its regional focus and a new strategy emphasising efficiency in a more austere time.
Mr Ghossoub, a keen observer, forecast this reversal of fortune for the industry. His prediction last year that UAE advertising spending would drop by 25 per cent proved to be accurate, as it has declined 30 per cent in the first nine months of this year. "I hate New Year's parties," he says in a baritone made gravelly by Kent cigarettes. "Why? First of all, because they make me grow by one year, which I don't like, and at the same time it's too crowded.
"But this year, I can't wait for the 31st of December. It's going to be my biggest celebration. Why? Because I just want this year to end." Sitting in his spare, temporary offices in Dubai Media City, the charismatic Mr Ghossoub speaks in the direct fashion his friends and colleagues say is characteristic of the ad-man nicknamed "The Godfather". His face can change from charming to tough in a flash. Even for someone who has lived through civil war and built his own company from the ground up, he says this year has been the most challenging of his 30-year career.
"We've done over 12 budgets for every company" in MENACOM, he says. "We've done eight budgets for the group. We keep revising our budgets because things change as you go. Clients tell you they are going to spend this much and they spend something else. Sometimes more, sometimes less, more less than more." More than any of the middle-aged Beiruti ad-agency bosses in the region affectionately referred to as "the Lebanese mafia", Mr Ghossoub has been the spokesman for the industry. Journalists turned to him for years to make a bold prediction or clearly sum up growth prospects over the next quarter.
He might be more at ease offering those numbers because, thanks to the sheer size of his firm, he may have more control over just what those numbers are. While the global recession has shaken that sense of control, it has not damped his enthusiasm for straight talk. "It's because too many elements have gone through this year to make this year one of the most difficult ever," Mr Ghossoub says. "We didn't know where we were going."
He became involved in advertising originally to get away from the kind of uncertainty that crisis brings, specifically the Lebanese civil war. Born in Beirut in 1954, the oldest of three children, he was raised by his grandparents in Lebanon while making frequent trips to visit his parents in Ghana, where his father worked in the timber industry. "It was a very good upbringing and childhood, actually, because I used to get whatever I wanted," Mr Ghossoub says with a laugh.
He studied business in college, but the war was under way by the time he graduated. "Everybody was looking for an escape from Lebanon at that time until things calmed down," he says. His exit route came from a friend, Nadim Sfeir, who was working in Saudi Arabia for one of the oldest MENA advertising groups, Intermarkets. Mr Ghossoub joined him in 1979. "I convinced Joe to join, which is how he started his career in advertising," Mr Sfeir says. "I offered him a job as an account executive because he did not have any previous experience in the business. So I taught him the business." Mr Ghossoub immediately took to the business side of advertising. Today, Intermarkets is part of the MENACOM empire, a fact that fills Mr Sfeir, the chief executive of Intermarkets, with pride. "I was his mentor, but at the same time I will admit that sometimes the student can be better than the teacher." Mr Ghossoub worked in Jeddah for a few years, then returned to Beirut to work for Intermarkets in the early 1980s before moving to the company office in Dubai. He eventually left Intermarkets to head up Team Advertising and Marketing in 1993, which later became Team/Young and Rubicam, before starting The Holding Group in 1999. Mr Sfeir says he could tell early on that Mr Ghossoub had what he called "the texture of an ad-man". "He had all the ingredients to become very successful," he says. "He's very street smart, very intelligent and he knows what he wants. He's a great thinker, clients are happy and he's a good negotiator. Most of all, he's got vision. I think this is what made him what he is today." Mr Ghossoub puts a lot of stock in street smarts, which is another way of saying he has little regard for formal education. "Our business is a funny business," he says. "You cannot study it. You study theory, yes, but nothing gives you what the hands-on experience is. This is a business for those who have good common sense. Without common sense and without logic, you cannot work in this business." He believes advertising requires a "special breed of people" who are passionate, curious and as driven as he is. "I spent 10, 11 years not able to take a holiday," Mr Ghossoub says. "Every time we had a holiday planned, we had to cancel it at the last minute. It really takes somebody to love this business to be able to do something within it, because it takes everything from you." The cancelled holidays were apparently not a discouragement to his three children. While one is still in university in Lebanon, the other two work for MENACOM; one at Team/Young and Rubicam and the other at the communications planning agency Mediaedge:cia. "When they were studying at university, I was in favour of them looking at other things, but at the end of the day they ended up in marketing and advertising," Mr Ghossoub says.
"Not that I wanted them to. It just came. And they are doing great. I don't get involved in what they do. They are in their own places with their own bosses." Even before the economic crisis hit, Mr Ghossoub was making noises about trying to slow down a little bit, to spend more time with his wife, Da'ad, and on his golf game (he plays with a handicap of 11). But the radical change to the marketing landscape may have thrown a wrench into those plans. In addition to making a enough budgets for a decade in a single year, the group has had to do some soul-searching and restructuring. Along with a new name and logo, it is pitching its services in a more integrated way to cash-strapped clients. "We want clients to see us as a united front and want the clients to address us as one group," he says. "If you use three people instead of 12 people, it's a reduction of your cost because we charge by time." Sunil John, the chief executive of Asda'a Burson-Marsteller, the largest public relations group in the region and one of the more successful MENACOM divisions this year, has said the new structure may result in savings of up to 20 per cent for clients who employ multiple MENACOM agencies. Mr Ghossoub is also working to manage expectations for a year when advertising spending in the UAE has dropped by about a third in the first three quarters, compared with the same period last year, according to the Pan Arab Research Centre. "If anything, we can say that we are slightly, slightly down for the year, but we have to see how the next two months play out," he says. "If we are down 5, 6 per cent, I think we have done well as a group. More than that is still acceptable but I don't see it happening. My aim, which everybody is working hard on, is to make this year a flat year on 2008, which is going to be difficult." Calling himself "an optimist by nature", Mr Ghossoub expects advertising spending to pick up as much as 6 per cent across the region next year, still enough to be called a recovery but nowhere near the blistering pace of recent years. Mostly, he is focusing on cutting costs, designing services to match the needs of slashed client marketing budgets and being ready for a shift away from general brand awareness towards messages aimed at specific consumers. He is also looking forward to the return of hotels, restaurants and other former advertisers who were squeezed out by property companies at the height of the boom; what he calls the silver lining of the crash. Reflecting on the past year, Mr Ghossoub finds himself thinking of something he was told when he was still a boy. "My grandfather used to tell me, 'Son, remember, this world shakes but never falls. It will stay here and life will go on'," he says. "Being optimistic helps you look at the opportunities to come from all of this." firstname.lastname@example.org