Filip Jabbour talks about his new role as GroupM’s first ever MENA CEO
Filip Jabbour, the first ever CEO of GroupM in the region, talks to Iain Akerman about collaboration, efficiency and the leveraging of scale
“I almost feel that I’m going to be in development mode for the next five to seven years. There’s so much to do. And then the key thing is really prioritisation. To be able to identify what are the things that we need to do first.”
The last time Filip Jabbour and I met we were sitting at the bar in the InterContinental Mzaar in Lebanon. He was still with Starcom, it was around 4am, it was cold and it was loud. “I was preparing for the cold and snow of Chicago,” he says with a laugh, having returned to the region from the United States after an absence of three years to head up GroupM.
When we speak, Jabbour has a temporary desk in MediaCom’s offices in Business Central Towers in Dubai. It is to him that responsibility for GroupM has been handed, with his return to the Middle East taking place in June. As the region’s first ever chief executive officer of WPP’s GroupM, the former CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group MENA is now responsible for leading the media holding group’s operations and driving growth in the Middle East and North Africa.
It’s a big role but one that Jabbour has grabbed firmly. Through its constituent agencies – MediaCom, Mindshare, MEC and Maxus – GroupM has billings of $2.7 billion and 28.6 per cent market share, according to RECMA. Jabbour is tasked
with leveraging GroupM’s scale and accelerating the development of its media agency offerings. The focus will be on developments in digital, technology and data management, as well as partnerships with media, entertainment and sports rights owners to create additional value and drive advantages for clients.
“I think for any move a lot of things fall in the right place at the right time,” says Jabbour, who reports directly to Dominic Grainger, CEO of GroupM Europe, Middle East and North Africa. “Some personal and some professional. The opportunity is obviously very big, very exciting and challenging, and it is a market that I’ve spent 18 years in at the end of the day. GroupM and my role is something that is new to the market and, in a way, unique. Four very distinct and successful agencies are coming together and finding a way to accelerate growth. To me that was really exciting.”
With no predecessor, there are also no shoes to fill and arguably no benchmarks of success to be measured against. “And only myself to blame,” he says with a laugh. “The group mentality and mindset is new to the region. I do realise that the agencies – despite being somewhat independent in the past – had some collaborative elements to them. But this is a new dynamic that has the full support of our global net- work and the Middle East itself is such an interesting region with lots of potential. We also have all of the learnings from other regions where GroupM operates, so we can try and minimise the development period and try to achieve objectives across the different disciplines as quickly as possible.
“I almost feel that I’m going to be in development mode for the next five to seven years. There’s so much to do. And then the key thing is really prioritisation. To be able to identify what are the things that we need to do first. Everything eventually is meant to add value to our agency clients but some things need to be developed or are prerequisites for others to be able to follow.”
“Well, making sure that we properly understand the potential impact and opportunities in each of the markets. My mind is working at warp speed about all the potentials and everything that we need to do. There are so many interesting buzzwords but I just have to step back and identify the areas that we could effectively scale while we’re building the technologies and capabilities. But also be able to identify the set-ups that we have across different markets to make sure that the offering that we provide – especially for regional clients and our key local clients – is consistent.
“Internally, I would love us to be able to effectively champion all of the learnings and all of the ideas no matter where they emanate from. And critically, never lose sight of the fact that each agency will need to maintain its unique and competitive edge – what made them what they are and what they’re going to be. And as far as the group is concerned – and the group approach is concerned – GroupM is meant to facilitate and provide solutions, products and services to make the agency brands prosper and grow as fast as possible while they’re taking care of their clients’ businesses.”
The main concern raised by the arrival of GroupM has centred around size. Could the scale of GroupM – it accounts for around 30 per cent of worldwide media buying – mean that its negotiating clout with media owners could be construed as overpowering and little more than bullying? Its formal arrival in the region will have, without doubt, triggered nervous twitches among publishers and broadcasters. Because with size comes scale, and with scale comes the ability to negotiate more competitive advertising rates for clients. As Nicolas Roux, regional head of new business at MediaCom, said in May: “Scale is indeed power in the media world and with the advent of GroupM in MENA it will mean that the four WPP media agencies have a significantly increased impact when it comes to negotiation and premium inventory.”
“If you go by all of the talk and the comments made since this was announced you would think that this was all it was about,” says Jabbour, who most recently was executive vice-president and managing director at Spark in the US, and global business development director for Starcom MediaVest Group. “But GroupM is so much more than that. Sure, we need to leverage our position in the market as best as we can but GroupM is so much more than just about trading. And even within trading, it’s so much more than adding four numbers together and sitting across the table from a vendor and using that as leverage.
“For example, there’s the application of new trading models. With the evolution of digital comes a whole level of new sophistication. The group leverages a lot of technology and data management platforms to bring solutions to clients, so if you look at it there’s an opportunity for new products and services that we can offer, while definitely being able to identify areas of efficiencies in terms of how we manage our operations or our services. Because wherever we can generate that kind of scale we will use it for reinvestment into capabilities, new learnings, data research, analytics, programmatic. I mean, there’s still a big white space of growth where the region is and you can appreciate how much growth and potential the market has, let alone just for our agencies.”
YOU MENTION OBJECTIVES AND OPPORTUNITIES. WHAT ARE THEY?
“Short of telling you what my top secret plans are, there are certain elements that are a given; in terms of identifying the internal financial and talent related management operations and identifying how best to find the most strategic – as well as operationally efficient – way of managing that. Clearly leveraging the scale that we have in the market going forward in terms of bringing added value to our commercial offering. We’ve already – even before I came into the market – launched Xaxis and Light Reaction, our programmatic solutions to our advertisers, and GroupM Connect is to be launched for all real-time and biddable media. Not to mention our data management strategy. These are some of the initial areas that we will focus on.”
WILL A SEARCH FOR EFFICIENCIES LEAD TO THE RESTRUCTURING OF AGENCIES OR REDUNDANCIES?
“It’s too early to tell but we will look at things from an operational perspective. What will never change is the independence and the uniqueness of each of those four agency brands. Those four agency brands were always part of GroupM, irrespective of having the GroupM logo here in the region. That will always be the case. At the end of the day, the talent and the capabilities that go along with that client-facing function will continue to be served that way. From the group, we try to identify technology and analytic dashboards to be able to provide services and solutions that the agencies can then apply either to their operation – in terms of being able to scale and manage their operation more effectively or to introduce new products and new services to their clients. They will always be through the agency. So GroupM, although it is considered a parent company, is also a big contributor to a lot of the operations that the agencies take on to clients’ businesses. Whether it’s from a trading perspective – in terms of consolidating the volume – whether it’s in terms of innovative first-to-market solutions, whether it’s in terms of the technologies and the acquisition of solutions or through analytics and market insight that the agencies will use to improve a client’s position and help bring value to their businesses.”
WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR INDIVIDUAL AGENCIES? ARE THERE ANY PROBLEMS BETWEEN THEM AND THE NEW REALITY OF GROUPM?
“Look, this did not happen overnight. The plan has been put in motion for quite some time and all of the stakeholders, whether regional or global, are fully supporting this. It’s particularly interesting now we’re going through the planning process because this is the first time we’re approaching next year’s planning from a group perspective and everybody realises the impact and the potential of the group.
“Everything about the group is focussed on a collaborative culture. The GroupM mandate is the GroupM mandate. There is a wide spectrum of set-ups in the region but eventually you have to adapt it organisationally and strategically to the market dynamics. What makes it interesting here – and unique and challenging – is that most other international markets or sub-regions don’t have such a multitude of markets and, despite the fact that there are some synergies, there’s so much difference. Whether it’s culturally, infrastructure wise, whether it’s scale wise or the development or the availability of each of the four agency networks in each market. So that almost adds an exponential layer of... an interesting list of things to tackle, let’s put it that way.”
GroupM is so much more than just about trading. And even within trading, it’s so much more than adding four numbers together and sitting across the table from a vendor and using that as leverage.