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French Version

Advertising guru insists freedom is key

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Eli Khoury is confident about the future of Lebanon

Business in person

Creativity and persuasion are very important in the advertising business.

But to some people, these essential qualities may not be enough if they were not matched by another crucial factor: "freedom of thinking." Eli Khoury, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi for Lebanon and the Levant countries, is one of those who firmly advocate free thinking in the advertising business. Khoury's principles have paid off as is clearly evident by the number of awards his company has won over the past few years for best commercial advertising productions and ideas in Lebanon and other countries in the region.

Sporting a simple shirt and army-fatigue pants, the 45-year-old Khoury talks in a low-pitched but authoritative voice about the glamorous world of advertising.

"Freedom is quite important in the advertising business because it helps us to become more creative," Khoury said.

After working for some years in the United States with some publications, Khoury decided to come back to Lebanon to start a small advertising agency.

"The company grew very fast during a short period but then I got an offer to become a partner in Saatchi & Saatchi," Khoury told The Daily Star in his office.

Saatchi's offices in Beirut and the Levant are partly owned by the main company in London and the remaining shares are divided among Lebanese shareholders, including Khoury.

Contrary to the typical CEOs who have their own fancy offices with black leather seats and expensive desks, Khoury does his work in the conference room of Saatchi's offices at Quantum building in Sioufi area.

"Everyone says that he wants regional creativity. I don't like this Middle East theme at all. I decided to come to this country to have creative flexibility rather than the big budget."

Khoury recalls that winning an advertising account before the war broke out was really exciting even though the budgets were considered small.

"Advertising business picked up very fast in Lebanon in 10 years before it slowed down recently."

Surely enough, the volume of advertising business in Lebanon shrank from $100 million four years ago to almost $60 million.

Lebanon is considered as the pioneer in the advertising world in the Middle East where most of the successful regional firms are run and managed by Lebanese.

Khoury said that the advertising business in Lebanon grew rapidly when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri came to power in 1994.

During this era, Khoury and his company introduced some new concepts in the advertising market which encouraged other agencies to do the same.

But the high public debt, estimated at $36 billion, and the decline of the purchasing power due to the economic stagnation, have affected the advertising world.

"We had few advertisements and commercials here and there over the past four years but nothing really major," Khoury said.

He added that no one is in the process of building brands these days.

"Advertising agencies are trying to stay in the black and not the red."

Khoury does condone the argument that talents and good taste will be the main victim during an economic recession.

"Good brands are made in good times and bad times," Khoury stressed, adding that some of the best brands were actually launched during the Lebanese war.

Saatchi's survival did not rest on the small and shrinking Lebanese market but rather to the larger regional market.

"Our balance sheets are not affected by the local market because we also count on other markets in the Levant and the gulf region."

Many of the prominent advertising agencies such as Saatchi, which set up main offices in Beirut, branched outside Lebanon and set up footholds in the oil rich Gulf States.

Khoury notes that Beirut remains the heart of the advertising business in the Middle East because "it is sending all of its talented and gifted advertisers to the rest of the region."

The CEO of Saatchi's fondness of Lebanon despite the recent security incidents and constant political bickering has no bounds.

"If I had the chance again to operate from an Arab capital I will choose Beirut again."

The March 14 massive demonstration which grouped more than one million Lebanese calling for the withdrawal of the Syrian forces has truly inspired Khoury and made feel more confident about the future of Lebanon.

"I have great hopes for this country and I expect the size of business to grow next year."

He expected that be the end of 2006 advertising companies will grow faster and Lebanon will be another Middle East hub for media and advertising.

"Although some of our universities are poorly equipped, they remain the only colleges in the region that teaches advertising."

Khoury said that a country which has a free market does not mean it is not monopolistic or enjoy freedom, qualities which Lebanon cherish and uphold.

"The ministerial statement was quite important because it touched on many issues, including marketing Lebanon to the outside world. Lebanon from now on should not only advertise its self to the Arabs but to Europeans and Americans."

20-second resume
In the Family: Single
Last Vacation: "Long time ago. I am trying to get one soon."
What was the last book you read? Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"
What car do you drive? Hummer and Mercedes 500.

Beirut 12-09-2005
Osama Habib
The Daily Star

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