By Sindhu Nair

“When you love what you do, you live it and then encourage others to love it as much as you do,” says Edmond Moutran, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Memac Ogilvy & Mather, about the big love in his life, the advertising industry, one that he has helped nurture in the Middle East and North Africa.

Edmond Moutran, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Memac Ogilvy & Mather

Just when you have been reinforced with a rare sense of confidence, a chance interview with Edmond Moutran, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Memac Ogilvy & Mather, who has been in the advertising industry for over 40 years, makes you reflect on the irrelevance of your decade-long contribution in publishing. Moutran, who rode the first waves of the Middle East’s advertising industry in the early ‘70s, has had a bird’s eye view of the sector. At the Four Seasons Doha lounge, he sits rather awkwardly on a small arm chair that is not tailored to confine this giant of a persona, but is not the least uncomfortable as he recounts some memories and in numerous insights harnessed during his career in the advertising industry.

“When I arrived in Bahrain in February 1973 there was almost no media to speak about. There were two or three magazines in the whole of the Middle East, including Qatar, all of which were social in content with some informative news and very little political coverage. There were no dailies in the whole of the Gulf and only national radio and television. There were no commercial programmes.

“Looking at the Qatar television scene from an advertising perspective, there was just one channel, Qatar Television, for the whole family, which used to air programmes dictated by the management. If we were lucky, and if the weather permitted, we could catch a glimpse of some programmes aired from Tehran. They had some movies and a few Western programmes which were of interest.”

Moutran paints this scenario to compare with what we now have literally at our fingertips: hundreds of stations on radio and so many more channels on television, to cater to the choices of each family member. In the late 90s, social media as a medium multiplied the list of choices for the consumer, and the market broadened so much that it is now quite impossible to keep count of the various ways of engagement in the entertainment segment.

“The consumer is spoilt for choice,” he says. “We as advertisement specialists have a large medium to cater to and media planning is proving to be paramount in our industry.Who is watching what, and when, is a question we begin to ask ourselves when we start with our media planning.

“From a messaging point of view, the diversity or the creation of these messages has become revolutionary not evolutionary. The change that has happened is indescribable. Today the content that we, as professionals, create is a result of enormous research: brought together by the studyof the consumer, the product, company, market and the environment. It is then that the message is created.”

But the core principle of messaging, according to Moutran, still remains the same, through all the changes that have flashed past. “If there is no core idea that is creative while throwing light on the benefits of the product; then your message is a waste. Messaging needs to have a purpose, it has to be memorable and effective to create an impact, and that is where professionals like us come in to make an impact through influential messaging. We create messages that are powerful and penetrate through to the people.”

Has messaging got tougher due to the plethora of devices that are lined up to deliver the various messages?  “It is not tough, but yes, it has become more challenging. Nothing is tough when you put your mind to it. We need to think and articulate much more. The competition is high, the economic situation is not healthy, the clients are hard to come by and hence the ROI for a client has to be absolutely impeccable. If we do not deliver, the client will make sure that we are replaced.”

Reminiscing about the first ad space he has published, Moutran relives nostalgic moments. “The very first ad that I published in my professional life was a Space for Rent ad. My landlord had space on the main road for rent and wanted me to insert an ad for him, a gift for me for choosing his property. The very first campaign I did was for Singapore Airlines which was also my first international client, for which the material came from abroad. My biggest local client was Zayali, a Bahrain-based car dealers.

“Khalid Zayali, who is now a dear friend, asked me a few questions and asked, “You don’t seem to know much about advertising, and you are running an ad agency?” I said, I might not know much today, but I promise you that I will learn about it tomorrow. And Khalid said, “I believe you.” He is still a dear friend and we have a 44-year-long association.”

Moutran’s memory of his first trip to Qatar and his associations thereafter are still fresh in his mind. “I first came to Qatar in 1973 and started to work with Al Arab newspaper. I am proud to say that the first advertisement that appeared on Qatar TV was booked by me. We remained one of the biggest advertisers with them for years and years.”

Sheraton Hotel’s advertising and PR were handled by Moutran’s agency for the launch of the hotel and he remembers the first GM of the property, Gerhard Fotlin, “a very tough but fair gentleman”. He remembers being involved in the launch ceremony of the first mall in Qatar, The Center, and “bringing four hostesses from Bahrain for the welcoming committee and that was done for the first time in Doha”, bringing the World Cup Team of 1966, England, to Qatar and then later the same teamin 1974 to play against the Qatar team.”

Moutran travelled with King Abdullah of Jordan to Qatar when he was the Prince to drive in a rally against Qatari Said Hajri and Emirati Mohammed bin Sulaim. Mourtan was in charge of the advertisements for Silk Cut cigarettes for the ChallengeCup “we sponsored the Prince and got a lot of publicity because of that.”

The stories of earlier associations are plenty and Moutran has a flawless memory of all things past. “When Concord, was being launched, it was based in Bahrain. We had many heat bearing trials to go through and also initial test flights were conducted here. We even took the Emir on the Concord on a test flight to Kuala Lumpur,” he says. First flown in 1969, Concorde entered service in 1976 and continued flying for the next 27 years. It is one of only two supersonic transports to have been operated commercially and British Airways and Air France was the only airlines who operated the Concorde.

Did being in the Middle East in the early 70s put the focus on the lack of availability of talent in this part of the region?

“Talent is talent; there is nothing called global and local talent. You have amazing talent in every nationality and it applies the other way too. Talent depends on the level of education, experience and motivation people get from their leaders.”

Moutran disagrees, “Talent is talent; there is nothing called global and local talent. You have amazing talent in every nationality and it applies the other way too. Talent depends on the level of education, experience and motivation people get from their leaders. I have seen in this region people who are brighter than anyone I have ever met in my life, and many of them even without much education. Their brilliance shows even in the absence of the polish that education gives and their wittiness has been a proof of their talent, a reflection of the local environment in which they are bred.”

Moutran feels that the eye of the local or a Gulf consumer in tweaking an ad is much superior to any other individual. He explains, “The Gulf consumer sees things in an ad that a normal consumer does not. The West has lived with advertisements their entire life, we have not. When I explained that I was in the advertisements business, people asked me what that was. When they have not seen advertisements how do they know what it is? It was more a form of boosting something which was not acknowledged as a form of business.”

He tries to explain the impact ads had in the early 70s and 80s in the region, “In 1980, when Saudi TV first accepted advertisements, the advertisement breaks in between were one of the most popular on TV because the rest of the programmes were restricted. On Kuwait TV, you would be lucky to get six slots for advertisements; getting two was normal, more than that was a luxury. This was similar for Qatar TV too.”

Hence they scrutinize ads with great attention, go deep into it and look at it from all angles and to get the right message it is always worthwhile to get the locals to comment on the message that the product wants to portray.

“If you ask an expat to comment on a product, say about silk, he or she would say, it is soft and silky while the Gulf consumer would add that it is a female product. They associate everything they see with their local tradition or even to the Quran, in which silk is classified as a female product. It is these nuances which makes it much interesting to work with the Gulf consumer as they bring out small facts that might otherwise be missed.”

But having said that Moutran picked a new talent from the West for the agency. Paul Shearer joined the group as its Chief Creative Officer, two years back, bringing 25 years of experience in advertising to his new role and he is based in Memac Ogilvy’s Dubai office. “Paul is one of the most awarded guys in the industry, his record speaks for itself and we are confident that he will drive our group forward to even higher creative levels,” says Moutran.

“Hiring people like Paul is a major step for us. When you look at the way advertisement is consumed and see how advertisement is designed you get to know that many of the big local clients go to the West to get their messages designed. Clients like Qatar Airways and Qatar Foundation are always going outside the region to get their creatives. Looking at that phenomenon, I decided it would be better to bring those people who design those ads to our agency,” he says. “So the philosophy behind me hiring people like Paul is very simple: to get these local clients get their attention on local and regional agencies. We win all the design awards in Cannes and our office in the MENA region is the third most creative agency in the world and now we have talent from around the world, all that we need now is to be given a chance by these local giants to show our expertise.”

This preference for global agencies is more prevalent in Qatar than in any other country, remarks Moutran.

On what 2017, a post oil-era and a Trump-ruled America holds for the region, Moutran first asks for a crystal ball, but later he reflects, “2016 was the toughest year for me, from all angles.  It was tough economically because of low oil prices; it was tough politically, because of the problems in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Luckily we do not have a problem socially, but slowly, people are regressing, as we go into a modern era, globally we see an era which is more recessive than it ever has been.

“It is not happy days for people who have business; I worry about the salaries I have to pay my staff. Luckily for us we have had good financial wisdom over the years and we are quite solid with reserves which we have put aside for days like this.”

“Sometimes we need a Trump in our lives to shake things up. We do not realise our blessings until we have something like this weighing down on us. Trump makes us appreciate the Bush, Clinton and Obama era.”

On the Trump-era, he says with wisdom, “Sometimes we need a Trump in our lives to shake things up. We do not realise our blessings until we have something like this weighing down on us. Trump makes us appreciate the Bush, Clinton and Obama era. But I do have to say that Trump is only doing what he said he would, so why are we shocked?”

Moutran offers his advice on the path the publishing industry needs to take in these difficult times: “Nobody can cancel anybody. What I mean is that when television came, radio did not get cancelled. Similarly when social media became popular, no one stopped reading magazines or newspapers.

He says that it is the traditional media which is promoting social media across mediums. “The moment you stop that, their importance will die. The reason why social media is so popular is simple; it is their ability to talk to each one of you directly and hence the euphoria is much more. It gives power to everyone. It is built on the power of human vanity.”

Moutran believes that the social media onset is a phase. “People use it because it is ‘the’ in thing to do. Imagine saying to your friends that you do not have a twitter or Facebook account. It is almost a crime not to be on the social media. It is like asking your friend whether he has read the latest best seller; you have to confirm to the majority…”

But Moutran believes that even this phase will die down. “Everything has its own place. As long as all media outlets are informed about their readers, know what their readers want, have a pulse on the readers interest, they have nothing to fear from. If you know your reader, then you are a smart publisher. So don’t just sit on the problem at hand, get out there and if you want to survive, find out what you need to do.”

“If I was a publisher, I will conduct research after research to understand what the readers expect from me and keep changing as they dictate.”

Moutran’s one philosophy that has always been his lucky charm: “Work, work and work,” says the man who is touching his mid-70s, known in the marketing field as the man who created many “firsts” with his special “Eddie way”. “The more I work, the better I get, and the luckier I am.”

The Details

Moutran’s business career began in 1973 when he joined Intermarkets in Bahrain. His career moved quickly and in 1976 his focus on international expansion – a hallmark of the years to come – bore fruit with the opening of Intermarkets in Saudi Arabia and UAE first and others in the years to follow.

Expansion coupled with Eddie’s understanding of the entire marketing mix was exemplified when he set up Burson Marsteller Intermarkets in Bahrain in 1978 and opened the doors on a new industry for the region – public relations. In 1984, he began his own agency, Middle East Marketing and Communications which became better known by its initials: MEMAC.

Today, Memac Ogilvy is one of the largest marketing services companies in the region supporting clients from every industry and sector. The portfolio includes Coca-Cola, American Express, Al Marai, Sunbulah, KC, IBM, Bupa, Volkswagen, Abu Nayyan Holding, Indomie, Huawei, Vodafone, Qatar Islamic Bank, Qatar Tourism Authority and Roche to name just a few.