Intermarkets sets the record straight

Joe Ayoub, general manager at Intermarkets, Beirut

by a staff reporter

Joe Ayoub has recently relocated to Beirut as general manager at Intermarkets. He spoke to Arab Ad about himself, Intermarkets and the Lebanese advertising industry.

AA: Perhaps we could start by finding out who Joe Ayoub is.

JA: Briefly, I’m 34 years old and after graduating from the American University of Beirut in 1983, I started working as an auditor for a leading company. That lasted for two and a half years. My first steps in advertising were at the Promoseven agency which I joined in 1986. I stayed there for six months and then I was offered a job at Strategies where I was responsible for the Fattal group. One year later, in 1988, I got the opportunity to join Intermarkets in Saudi Arabia, handling mainly Proctor & Gamble’s business there. I have been at Intermarkets since then. I was promoted quickly to group account director at the Middle East level for PSC and the Nissan motor company. These were the two major accounts I handled for the past five or six years at Intermarkets. After the liberation of Kuwait, I was promoted to general manager of the Kuwait office before being transferred to Lebanon in 1992 as co-managing director with Sonia Chaanine. And after her departure, I assumed the responsibility myself, managing director in Lebanon.

AA: Do you consider yourself a newcomer to the Lebanese market?

JA: No, in fact, I’m not. I worked here briefly earlier on but I now rejoin the Lebanese market after an absence of five years in the Gulf countries. So, I assume a lot of things have changed. Actually, you could say that things have changed so much that I could be considered a newcomer.

AA: What are these changes which have occurred during the past five years in Lebanon, and how do you intend to face them as a young general manager in one of the bigaest agencies in the Middle East?

JA: First, the most noticeable changes that have occurred have to do with the media scene. A lot of new media have emerged. If we go back to 1986, there was only one TV station, one outdoor network, Pikasso, and probably two or three radio stations. Now the numbers have all multiplied. Second, the level of communication has dramatically transformed. At that time, I recall most of the clients didn’t appreciate any presentation document except the last page where they looked at the budget. At least now we can say that time is being taken in evaluating proposals before evaluating the budget. Third, the number of advertising agencies has also multiplied and some of them are professionals, some are semi-professionals, and the others are unprofessional! So these three factors are the marketing mix; we have to deal with each one separately, while at the same time, taking them all into consideration.

How I intend to face all this, to be honest, is tough because I can’t change much. One hand alone doesn’t clap. What we need is a totally different vision for our industry. We need to pull all the young resources together and generate new ideas to convince more and more clients of the benefit of advertising because some are still not fully convinced. Plus we have to introduce the latest techniques in advertising available world-wide to this market.

AA: Let’s go back a bit to Intermarkets. Rumours have circulated in the past five to six months about employee changes, restructuring, financial problems, and so on. Can you clarify the situation.

JA: There have definitely been a lot of changes going on at Intermarkets and not just over the past five to so months, but for the past two years. Changes at the managerial level have affected the overall image of the company and even its performance at the local level. However, to go back to the past six months, it is true that we have had a reshaping of staff because a lot of old staff left. At the same time, many clients also left but many new ones have joined the agency during the same period of time. While a reshaping of staff can be dangerous, at times it is highly needed. This is what the situation was at Intermarkets. We had a total replacement operation where we injected new blood, professional people previously working at other agencies or in their speciality. It has been highly efficient to us and it has translated into new accounts. In this sense, I’m optimistic. I don’t believe the financial troubles we are experiencing are different than what other agencies are facing these days. A lot of it is mostly rumours and, at any rate, financial problems are affecting the whole country. It’s a general ‘malaise’ existing on the local scene and we are only part of it, not less and not more than anybody else.

A A: You are young and have been in the business for the past six or seven years. What do you bring to an agency which is a pioneer in advertising in the Middle East?

JA: Well, I think I am in a fortunate situation because I can benefit from the heritage and wisdom of such a well established agency. My role is to add to its dynamism. I’m a Lebanese advertising person who has had the opportunity to train outside Lebanon. For example, I attended a four-month training session at Saatchi & Saatchi, London. Working on the P&G account there, I was exposed to the whole philosophy of multi-national agencies; how they operate, how they view long-term thinking, and so on. These are the sort of things Lebanon needs badly. I believe that clients are bored with getting the same story over and over again from their agency. They need something new; something more tangible that can prove to them that their business will get better and better all the time. I hope, with all modesty, that I can contribute in upgrading a little bit the agency’s approach to clients, plus its own internal system and procedures.

AA: I would like to ask you a somewhat sensitive question. Ramsay Najjar left Intermarkets to open a new agency with Saatchi & Saatchi, who were formerly aligned with Intermarkets; Eddie Moutran left Intermarkets to open with Ogilvy&Mather, also formerly aligned with Intermarkets; and Joseph Ghosoub, one of your leading managers in the Gulf, left to join Team Advertising, which is a very successful operation in the Gulf. They were all considered the image of Intermarkets, having done a great deal for the agency. How does Intermarkets let people like these leave and loosen the alignments with the multi-national agencies?

JA: In fact, that is a good question because I’m sure people in our industry are asking the same thing and it has never been answered correctly. Although I don’t have the full answer and I wasn’t involved with most of them, I can say the situation is both a sad and positive one. On the positive side, Intermarkets, in a sense, is being perceived as a school where people come, graduate and go on to make their own fortunes. The sad part is that they had to leave in the first place. Some had their own personal reasons and whatever you do, you can’t keep somebody or prevent him from developing his own interests. It is a shame they left the agency and somewhat regretful. However, one day we may be able to contact them and build something together again. It does not necessarily mean that because they left the agency to form their own alignments that opportunities between us are finished. Chances may still exist; we are still in contact with all these good people. I still believe that once the new generation at Intermarkets, the fresh blood, matures and comes up with its own new ideas, good solid relationships will develop again. Anything can happen. Nobody can predict the future but if the management at Intermarkets is aware of their mistakes, of the past, that’s a start.

AA: Do you consider them mistakes?

JA: Some, Yes.

AA: Do you feel Intermarkets is an old structure requiring new blood?

JA: Definitely, like any other big agency that is old. I want to mention the oldest, Publi-Graphics, which is facing the same situation. They need young blood and they have been recruiting a lot lately. It is a must for the continuation and the benefit of our business.

AA: Do you think this fresh blood is available in Lebanon?

JA: Yes, otherwise you wouldn’t see small creative agencies opening every day, like Sharp Pencil,Third Dimension, Triple H, to name just a few.

AA: You mentioned that you are siil in contact with ex-Intermarkets people. Are there any plans for a super agency that would regroup all?

JA: Well, anything could happen. It is not immediate but the thought there.

AA: You haven’t made any approaches yet?

JA: No, I think it is too early now.

AA: In the last five months Intermarkets has lost a few local accounts and they lost their number one standing in Lebanon. What happened?

JA: Yes, we have lost our first place ranking and this is due to a couple of factors. First, because of the absence of an international link for the past two years, we are not getting the blood of international business which is essential for our billings. Second, the changes that have occurred at the managerial level have definitely had an impact. Our business is a business of people, of communication, so we can’t disregard that over a certain period of time, a manager will develop strong relationships with clients. It is only normal that when he leaves, the client will have the tendency to follow him. However, having said this, I believe that we have to develop and present our billings and relationships so that when a manager leaves, the agency is not trapped like a boat in a storm. This is important and the first task I have set for myself. For the past six months more than 95% of my efforts have been set on this task. I believe that from now till the end of the year, I will have completed this task; that I will have a strong, horizontal structure. What’s left now is to go after new business and prove that, once again, Intermarkets is an agency to be considered.

AA: What is the formula adopted by Intermarkets concerning the agency/client relationship?

JA: We are still following the conventional agency commission agreement with our clients. We try to stick to the legal agency commission without giving rebates as much as possible though we face a lot of pressure and our loss of billings is partly due to this. I don’t want to mention specific clients, but many are shopping for an agency, that will give them discounts and this has affected a lot of us. When you are a big firm, employing more than 45 people, you can’t allow yourself to give discounts here and there. You have to compensate this by providing a better product and more efficient results for the client. I hope that clients will understand and appreciate that by giving an agency full commission, the agency in turn will dedicate itself day and night to service them at their best. So, I must admit that we have lost some clients due to billing procedures.

AA: There have been attempts in the past to remedy this situation through meetings and agreements. None of these strategies worked, why?

JA: Usually, the answers to such questions are very diplomatic. However, I’m not going to be diplomatic. Yes, it is true that no agreement in Lebanon lasts for more than 24 hours. The reason is due to the basis of the agreement’s existence in the first place: it was out of personal interest and not for the interest of the general public.

I don’t think these agreements will ever work as long as we have the same people trying to do what they failed to do before. We have to have new people, new blood trying to change and work for the general interest, to most benefit our industry.

AA: How do you view the Lebanese market? Are you optimistic or do you think the “jungle” is going to prevail for a long time?

JA: I think it will take another generation before we can see a new and completely different advertising scene. Changes will come, but slower than we expect because of these factors and problems. But, I’m definitely optimistic about it and, as I said, it will take a new breed of advertising people and a new breed of clients to make these changes.

AA: In other words, you have just signed a death warrant for the present advertising generation in Lebanon.

JA: No, not a death warrant. We are in a sensitive situation. The industry has not been healthy during the past 15 years. It was growing and shining in terms of billings because people had to spend to promote their products, but that doesn’t mean that the level of ethics and professionalism were up to standards. We are no longer in that situation and hopefully it won’t be long before a completely healthy industry is upon us.

AA: Do you think the next generation will help Lebanon regain the position it used to hold before the war?

JA: Definitely. Who is making the GCC advertising market bloom? The young Lebanese who are bound to return to Lebanon sooner or later and duplicate that success here.

AA: There is a big debate going on today about whether an independent agency can survive alone or should be affiliated to a multi-national. Intermarkets is now an independent company. Do you plan to stay independent or are their plans to align with a multi-national agency?

JA: To be perfectly frank, I believe that unless you are associated with a multi-national agency, your chances of survival are much slimmer. What is happening more and more today are clients switching to another agency because it is affiliated with their inter-national agency.

Since the break with Saatchi & Saatchi, Intermarkets has renewed contacts and connections with many world-wide advertising groups. We have plans and very positive contacts with two major international agencies, and we hope that within one year, we can announce some good news about these plans.

AA: So it’s a new alignment?

JA: Yes, absolutely new.

AA: Do you have any other comments you’d like to make?

JA: I would like to say that I hope readers will take what I have said in a very positive spirit.

Originally published in ArabAd, August 1994

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