BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia editions, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
Today we’re catching up with David Fox, who recently moved to Dubai from Sydney, where he served as CEO of Ogilvy Australia for six and a half years. His move comes at a time when markets like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are investing heavily in tourism, leisure, technology and business and David sees exciting opportunities for the agency, particularly in the realms of experience, design and consulting as well as creativity. Memac Ogilvy was founded in 1984 by Edmond Moutran, who sadly died in February this year – David is looking to build on his legacy to lead the agency to become the most admired in the EMEA region.
LBB> What appealed to you about the role?
David> I have always been fascinated by this region’s diversity, culture and closer to home, how Ogilvy has approached business here under MEMAC Ogilvy’s founder, Eddie Moutran and then my predecessor Patou Nuytemans. I see so much opportunity across the markets as the Middle East continues to invest and make itself a global powerhouse in the areas of business and tourism. The ambition in markets like Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE is incredible and something I wanted to be part of as I see big opportunities for the evolving Ogilvy business here in the region.
LBB> You’ve just been in Dubai a month – I’d love to know how you’ve found settling in and getting acquainted with the city and region? How does it compare to Sydney so far?
David> We call it the Middle Feast. It is an amazingly diverse, vibrant, and dazzling landscape and the food is unbelievable as is the tightness of my belt now. It is a similar feel to Sydney – open, warm, and friendly but has a cosmopolitan feel like no other and is open all hours. It does not have the deadly animals we have in Sydney so that is a bonus. Everything works and brand Dubai remains on the ascent through investment, vision, and a laser focus on defining the future. The biggest challenge – taking a role as CEO when there is next to no one in the office, and you cannot travel to the markets. It feels strange to be a new leader in these times.
LBB> What have you been doing to orientate yourself with the team and the regional markets?
David> In my first 30 days I have so far spoken with seventy-seven of our team members, which represents around 15% of the company. This was across all levels to understand them, how they are going, what works, what we need to focus on to improve. Most importantly I wanted to speak to them to glean their insights and ideas about our business. My commitment is to speak to 90% of the staff by Q4 this year to really understand what is going on in our company across the many and varied market environments. Sadly, right now I cannot travel which is very frustrating as you try and understand a region, so my next best approach in meeting our fabulous talent and understanding their points of view is via Zoom.
LBB> And what have been some of the themes coming out of your early conversations with clients and partners in the region?
David> The war on talent is number one, two and three. The ongoing challenge of finding, keeping, and growing great talent in a highly competitive marketplace. A marketplace where not only other agencies are lurking but also platform businesses and client-side roles which are attractive options for some of our best talent. Our greatest investment costs are salaries – people are our most important asset – we need to be world class at managing them and growing them.
LBB> Speaking to leaders in the region, especially in Dubai, I think there’s an interesting diversity across the region in terms of challenges, culture. On the one hand the Gulf markets are going through massive change, lots of investment in tech, science, design, and culture as they gear up for a post-oil economy, which is super exciting and optimistic. On the other, some sectors are seeing a real squeeze, exacerbated by Covid, and some specific countries like Lebanon are having a tough time. So, coming in with fresh eyes, what’s your assessment of how buoyant or challenging things are for the advertising and marketing region generally in the region?
David> We all brand it a region however the difference across these countries is remarkable, so for me the only regional part is the geography. The difference between Dubai and Beirut, Qatar, and Kuwait and between Jordan and Riyadh is incredible. It means that we need to look at the future as a collective but get they are at different speeds. This is totally fine. Change is a process not an event so patience is important however a collective understanding of where the future is across our company is important. Clients in different markets will change their spend but at their speed based on their consumers and we need to be ready when it happens.
LBB> Ogilvy MEMAC has a reputation of being a real creative pioneer in the region – how are you hoping to build on that legacy and evolve it?
David> We will never walk away from what we are best at – emotive communications for our clients’ brands that drive positive results. Today however we have an increasingly splintered media landscape and a whole lot more competition as consumers, and therefore our clients, continue to move into the digital and tech platform space for their comms. The advantage we have is agencies like Ogilvy have always been world class at building brands. Any shop can do tactical comms on a brand however, the magic is when your agency knows how to define your brand in the boardroom and then knows how it should show up in traditional comms, earned and owned media and through experience. The growth for us is not dropping traditional communications and content but making it work in harmony with short form communications, PR and the digital experience space thus ensuring our clients brands turn up consistently across every touchpoint.
LBB> In terms of capabilities and talent, where do you see Ogilvy MEMAC’s strong suits and are there any areas you are really hoping to develop?
David> Creativity will always be at our core. We continue to be strong in advertising and content and PR and Influence continues to be a growth play for us. My focus is still these important disciplines, but we will also be driving our Experience and Consulting offers along with our Health practice and our growing social practice. We have a great experience team and are building out a hugely credible and viable consulting offer which for us is important for our growth. Having your agency not only solve problems through communications and experience but also work with clients to frame problems through consulting is a big opportunity for us. I think how we then integrate these capabilities at scale and speed for clients will be the challenge and if we get it right, we will grow with our clients.
LBB> On the surface of it, Australia and the Middle East seem super different in terms of market but also creative tastes - where have you been finding interesting differences or surprising similarities so far? What could the two regions learn from each other?
David> I think there are big differences in the tone of the work which is all based on the relevance required for the consumer. I see the work here has a more traditional style of communications to reflect the consumers. Australian humour and language are strangely unique and very different and, of course, would be lost here. A lot of brands in Australia build themselves around humour and making fun of Australians or our rituals.
It is not like that here and neither approach is right or wrong – it must be what is relevant and meaningful for the consumer in the market. The challenge for every brand is how does it show up in a consistent way at every touch point. Every market is grappling with this and whilst no one has it right, there are some brands that are ahead of the curve. In my view one off communications was once interesting but this style of comms is starting to get lost in the clutter. The brands that will thrive are the ones who have enduring platform ideas and that live with consumers in culture and stay with them in a relevant manner over time.
LBB> We’ve been really loving the creative coming out of the region, what have you made of what you’ve been seeing?
David> I am still in temporary accommodation, so I am living off a diet of BBC news and Netflix – not ideal for an integrated communications agency CEO. So, excluding our work I have seen very little in my four weeks here to be honest. I saw the winners at Dubai Lynx and there was some amazing work there. My favourite work is great creativity on big brands that drives big results. Its great work that works – It is that simple. I worry for our industry when we are awarding work that is not commercially successful or has a slight smell of “scam” about it. I hate scam work and the negative effect on our industry. We are employed by clients to drive their business results through innovative ideas, and this is what we will be focusing on at Ogilvy.
LBB> Experience and design are two of Ogilvy’s huge pillars, aside from communication, and it seems like there’s a real appetite for that, especially in the Gulf - what sort of opportunities are you seeing there?
David> Huge – looking at Experience Design is a big area, and we have a great team, and we will continue to invest in this as we move forward. We also will focus on how CRM plays a role in the customer relationship as we work with clients to not only sell but to maintain ongoing relationships. The benefit we believe we have is understanding how a brand shows up at every step of the customer journey in a consistent manner – that is after all brand building.
LBB> What are your aims for this first year in the role?
David> I would like to start achieving long term sustainable growth of our people, different shaped ideas for our work and of course financial growth to keep our existing talent and attract new talent to the agency. I am on a steep learning curve about the region, the cultures, our people, the clients, and our business. I really want to accelerate our move into being an integrated, modern, creative, and effective business which drives growth for our clients. We are a very good agency, and it is a privilege to lead it however as with all businesses in a rapidly evolving marketplace there is a lot to do – we are a constant work in progress. We have a great team so I am blessed to have the foundations – next we must build the most admired business in MENA and then EMEA. This is no mean feat with the competition we have however good competition can only make us stronger and more laser focussed on what we want to achieve