5 Minutes with… Raja Trad
Publicis Groupe, insists Raja Trad, is not a cult. But his affection and loyalty have deep roots – he won’t even countenance the possibility of working for any other holding company. And in an age of fickle clients, and where frequent job-hopping appears to be the norm, there’s something quite inspiring about Raja’s steadfast adherence to a set of shared values. Raja joined Leo Burnett in 1981, becoming CEO of Leo Burnett Middle East in 1991, and then CEO of Publicis Communications MEA in 2016. His new position is part of the roll out of Publicis Groupe’s Country Leadership Model.
But as well as being a Publicis man through-and-through, there’s more to Raja than meets the eye. As a young man he harboured a deep desire to work in a creative field and even flirted with the possibility of becoming an interior designer. These days, he’s passionate about art and delights in discovering young artists. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Raja to find out more.
LBB> What are the priorities for you in your new role?
RT> My priority is to strengthen the group’s ambition, to further develop activity in this specific region and, most importantly, to become the trusted partner of the clients worldwide. I mean, this region is a challenging region and we have passed through so many challenges over the years so we are used to collaborating.
What is going to happen now is that we are going to have greater integration that will help all of us be at the service of our clients. Our clients are experiencing major challenges in the region and they expect a group to be able to give them a total communication solution without having to think about coordinating between X, Y, and Z. We will give them a really integrated solution that will make their lives easier and that will project better on their businesses in the region. They’re looking for a business partner and not just a communication partner.
LBB> And when it comes to that kind of large scale integration, Publicis has done an impressive job – what are the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to that place or how, as a leader, do you get everyone facing in the same direction?
RT> We started on the Power of One journey, before this announcement because, yes, we were not following the country leadership model, but we were working together closely. And every time we have put the Power of One model to practice, whether it is with new business pitches or existing clients, we have been able to bring so many wins into the group. So, it will not be anything new to the leaders of the different hubs. Yes, operationally, we were not under the country leadership, but we were working together, and we grew together as the leaders of the different hubs, so we know how to cooperate. Now this model will allow us to further integrate and to forget about anything else except to put all of our efforts towards serving our clients in the marketplace.
We are definitely in a very good position, but this will allow us to have even more wins and to give to the clients a service and will give us a competitive edge over the competition. When we present to the client they don’t know who is coming from Publicis Media, Sapient and Publicis Communications. We did this with the McDonald’s pitch in the Middle East, prior to our announcement. We were able to impress the client, evidenced by the fact that they have decided to consolidate all of their business in the Middle East with the Publicis Groupe.
LBB> Publicis Groupe has made a lot of progress with the Power of One, but I can’t help but wonder what it means for the individual agency brands like Leo Burnett and Saatchis and the like. What do you think is the future of agency brands?
RT> Absolutely, evidenced by what we represent from the assignment from the multinationals, regional and local clients. I mean at the very end of the day, the client wants a solution; a communications solution, a business solution. And the brand agency working closely with the media agencies and Sapient will be able to give them what we promise, with data at the core and dynamic creativity and digital business transformation. These three come collectively from the different business units operating within Publicis. It will come from brand agencies who are responsible for dynamic creativity at the core, and data. We strongly believe, and our clients are believers, that it starts with data. And when it comes to digital business transformation, we are the only ones who will have this offering in the Middle East. Sapient was able to bring some major, major assignments over the past two or three years.
I’m not trying to give a political answer. Without having big ideas, we will not be able to do much for our clients.
LBB> Shifting focus onto the Middle East – and I appreciate this is a broad question – but which markets are you finding quite exciting at the moment either from a business perspective or from the creative talent and thinking that you’re seeing?
RT> To be very honest, the situation is challenging. As we know, it’s not only the Middle East that is facing economic pressure, it’s universal. So, we are having some tough times. We are fighting - we are hunting if I may say so - and we still believe there are opportunities in the region. Clients are behind quality and clients are behind partners that will help them partner in their business. We are still finding opportunities and every time we are invited to a pitch we believe that what we are offering as a group is something that the clients are very interested to listen to.
Now, Saudi is the main market, as you may know, followed by the UAE. Egypt is a very, very big market – we had difficulties over the past three years because of the currency devaluation but it’s picking up. Then comes the Levant; Lebanon, Jordan and parts of Iraq. So, the markets are there. Is it challenging? Yes, it is challenging. Are our clients having business challenges? Yes, they are. But despite all this we are finding our way and we are able to keep on growing across the region.
LBB> Talking about KSA specifically, it’s somewhere I’ve been researching a bit because of all the economic and social changes happening there quite suddenly. They seem to be, on the one hand, quite scary for certain sectors, but on the other they’re opening up leisure and entertainment. What’s your perspective on the massive change happening in Saudi?
RT> Short term - and I’m talking about today - it’s challenging. But we are very, very optimistic about where are we heading. We believe 2019 and 2020 will present to us more opportunities because of the new dynamics that are in place.
There are new industries coming up. There is entertainment and there were a lot of things that were introduced by the government. And don’t forget that we represent automotive brands and there is a new market in Saudi Arabia - the woman driver. And there are other activities, be it the cultural authority, be it entertainment authority. There are a lot of authorities coming up which need the services of groups like Publicis.
LBB> Your role encompasses the whole of the MENA region, a region that has a huge amount of cultural, social and political diversity. In your role how do you balance the need to show regional leadership but have local understanding?
RT> Data is the source of everything we do. If a campaign can run across the region, we will run it. But when we are informed by data that it will not work, we will design campaigns that fit within the market we are in. In some cases, the Levant is quite different. In so many cases what we do in Saudi can apply to Kuwait and the UAE, and in some cases, we will do something different in Saudi to the UAE. It all depends on the business objectives – what do we want to achieve and with whom do we want to connect.
LBB> Going back a bit, how and why did you get into advertising in the first place?
RT> I graduated from the American University of Beirut and I had a choice between two things that I wanted to do. But let me tell you one thing, this was some years back - I’m not going to tell you how many years! We didn’t get any advice at college and high school that would open our eyes to the different industries out there. But me, as Raja Trad, I was more inclined towards something that was creative.
I thought that could be advertising - I didn’t know because I was just fresh out of college. Or interior design! But I did not study interior design at college, so I could not be an interior designer. So, I need something that could really answer what was in my heart, creativity. I said, ‘Let me try communication, let me try advertising.’ So at that time I joined Young & Rubicam and I stayed for two years. And after that, in 1981, I joined Leo Burnett.
I put myself in this business and I liked it. I am a strong believer that, unless you are passionate about something you will not be able to succeed in life. This is what I say to my kids; if you have passion you will succeed. I love what I am doing and that’s why I stayed in this business for 38 or 39 years.
LBB> Do you ever look back at what could have been if you pursued interior design? Are you interested in architecture and things like that?
RT> Absolutely. I am interested in art and I am very much interested in interior design. When I did up my house in Beirut, it was myself and my wife who designed everything. We had an interior designer with us, but he said, ‘Why the hell are you calling me? You’re doing it all!’ I said, ‘Yes, but this is our house, we want to feel as if we are at home, we don’t want to feel like we are at your home.’
LBB> It seems that once you joined Leo’s, something really clicked. You’ve been part of Leo Burnett and then Publicis Groupe for all that time. I’m really curious, what was it about the culture of Leo’s and Publicis Groupe that resonated?
RT> With all my respect to the competition, I believe that we have a specific culture that I’m proud of. We believe in a set of principles and values. I don’t wish, in any shape or form, to sound like we are a cult! We are absolutely not – but Burnetters are proud to be Burnetters. Today it’s not just about Leo Burnett. When I sit with the Saatchi team, it feels exactly the same. I think the group is bringing all those people together – the values bring us together and the principles bring us together. The destination brings us together, and the humanity. That’s why, had I decided to leave Publicis now or Leo Burnett earlier, I would not have joined any other communications group. Honest answer.
LBB> In your own career, when you started out, what was the best piece of advice you got?
RT> Advice? No one gave me any advice but now I give advice to people. First of all, try to build a career and do not keep jumping from one job offer to another. For me, building a career means you have to have a very clear destination, whatever you want to achieve in life. And it’s about passion. Don’t do anything that you don’t like. If you want to succeed in life, go and do whatever you really want to do. You need to love what you are doing, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. This is what I did, as a matter of fact, and I am proud of it.
LBB> I guess this must vary from market to market, in term of talent coming into the industry in the region, is communications something that is a popular career amongst young people?
RT> Absolutely! You will need to come and visit our different offices in the region and you will get your answer! Definitely it’s still one of the most attractive industries for the young generation.
The industry that we are in today is changing day-to-day. We talk about transformation in the digital age and the social age - people are living it, so it is in their DNA. When we talk about digital and social, it mostly applies to the young and we believe that the young have the answer.
Don’t forget this is still a creative industry. No matter what we say, at the core of everything we do is creativity and idea. Are we the only attractive industry? No. You see some people deciding to move to Google and Facebook, ok, but we are still one of the most inviting and attractive industries for young people in our region.
LBB> Talking about the creativity at the heart of everything – obviously your role is about leading and growing the business, but when you see a great piece of work or a great idea, do you still get those emotional butterflies?
RT> Absolutely. You know, when you are a CEO, you become more operational, managerial and you get a little bit away from creativity. And I hate that. So, whenever there is a major pitch I like to be part of the team so that I am engaged with the creativity. I sit with them, I judge the creative ideas and the whole communication proposition because I still want to be in advertising. I keep myself connected with creativity. Now, is it all the time? Unfortunately, when you are in this position you have a lot on your hands but I keep myself connected with the creative product.
LBB> Over the years you will have worked with many, many clients, each with their own business problems and approach… what makes a good client?
RT> What makes a good client? I always say, if a client will consider me as a supplier, I don’t want them to be a client. I always say to the client that if you believe in a real business partnership, I want to partner with you. This is really important. And we have some clients that have been with us as long as I can remember, Procter & Gamble since 1982. Philip Morris since 1981. I’m not going to name them all, but the enduring relationships that we have are a demonstration that it is about a partnership and it is not just about passing business relationship.
LBB> What advice do you give brands entering the region for the first time?
RT> Most of the clients that exist in Europe, in the USA, in Asia, are already in the Middle East. I cannot really think of anyone who just came into the Middle East – if there are they are extremely few, perhaps a new service or industry or something like that. But all the global brands, all the multinational brands already exist here, and we [at Publicis Groupe], have a very good share of them on our multinational portfolio.
The good thing is that in this region you cannot just operate locally, you cannot just operate regionally, you cannot just operate multinationally; it’s a combination. If I look back at our history when I first started at Leo Burnett, multinationals used to represent 80-82% of our business. Today, despite the fact that the multinationals have grown with us over the years, the multinationals represent around 50% or 45%, and local and regional represent the rest. If you want to really run a healthy operation, a healthy business, it has to always be a mix between local, regional and multinational.
LBB> I suppose that allows you to work with the startups too?
RT> There are some startups that come to us and say, ‘we need your help’. If we believe in what they have to offer, we sometimes accept to take it on, even as a break, because we believe it’s going to go places. In some cases it proved to be extremely successful and in others, well, not all startups can go somewhere. But in some cases it has been really productive and it has paid off.
I’d prefer not to give names, but we have some great examples in Lebanon and Dubai that happened a year ago.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing? What inspires you?
RT> With the time left outside the job I like to travel because I believe it’s invigorating. When you go to new places it revives something in you, so I love to travel whenever I can. Sometimes I go for four or five days just to discover a new country or place.
I follow art because it’s something I enjoy and basically that’s it.
LBB> When it comes to art, is there any particular style or period or artist that you enjoy?
RT> Basically it’s mostly modern art. If you come and visit me, I will show you. It’s a combination of some young artists. I am not a collector who will go and spend loads of money – for me when you are in love with a piece you buy it. I am not an investor. If I like something I react immediately. It’s not an investor mentality.