A patient pioneer

In Advertising, Communicate, Dubai, Profile, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm

TBWA/Raad boss Ramzi Raad relishes the road less traveled. He talks to Communicate about potholes and partnerships

Originally published in Communicate, September 2007

Ramzi Raad is set on uncovering new paths. In his youth he hiked all over Lebanon, discovering caves and trails, taking Boy Scouts to interview villagers about their superstitions, and exploring and documenting the countryside. Now the CEO of TBWA/Raad sees the agency he founded as a chance to break the rules and cover uncharted ground in advertising.

When he founded the Lebanese Potholing Club, Raad would delve into the caves of his native country, marking them so that others could follow and share his discoveries.

“I was with an old friend recently,” he says, “remembering when we ran short of carbide for our lamps. We had gone in and slept inside a cave system, and it was on the third day we ran short of carbide, so we had to rush back.

“You know, as you’re going in, you’re discovering. So your path is very slow. You have to mark all the time, and you have to remember where you are marking. And if you get into a hole with many entrances, you have to make sure you mark the one you came in through. Luckily the way out is much faster, because it’s all marked.”

Professionally, too, Raad has come through situations where time and options were limited. When he was executive vice-president of Intermarkets in Dubai, he initially worked with numerous international agencies before Intermarkets joined forces with Saatchi & Saatchi in 1982. By the time Saatchi decided to set up alone in the region in 1986, the only agency left for Intermarkets to affiliate with was TBWA.

Although his choices were limited, Raad is keen to emphasize that Intermarkets’ ties to TBWA were not a last-ditch attempt at international respectability. “When my colleagues started asking, ‘Why did you pick TBWA?’ I told them it was partly because I was forced into a situation, but more importantly it was because TBWA represents where I would like to be, because of a number of factors.

“It’s a truly multinational agency where you can grow, and you’re not worried that you cannot become more than a senior person in the Middle East because there’s a hierarchy of Americans or French or Brits on top who have been there for a longer period.”

In 1991, TBWA ended the affiliation with Intermarkets. Raad left the agency later that year. He eventually reestablished the relationship, launching TBWA/Raad in 1999.

“I was fifty-something years of age,” he says. “And people said, ‘Ramzi Raad has become cuckoo, he is losing it, he is starting again. Who has the passion to do that?’”

For an agency run by a suspected madman, TBWA/Raad hasn’t done badly. Today, its roster includes Etihad Airways, CNN, Standard Chartered Bank and Nissan, and it was shortlisted at Cannes this year for its “Tears in Lebanon” campaign for the Trillion for Lebanon charity.

Raad is immensely proud of his agency. His work, he proclaims, is about “the young agency, not the old man.” Youth and innovation are words that continually crop up when he discusses his agency and its work.

When Raad launched TBWA, he says, he took on board their motto of the time: “Change the rules.” He says you can see how his agency is different by looking at the accessibility of its management.

“We are a small group of people,” Raad says. “We’ve built an agency with no walls. This is how we started, because each one of us is part of this bigger team and we are all going to work for you and you’re going to see us. My promise is that no matter how much we grow, you will continue to see us.”

Perhaps Raad’s preference for an open-door, all-involved team atmosphere stems from his introduction to the industry. While he was studying Arabic literature at the American University of Beirut, Raad took up a part-time job as an account manager at the Publicite Universelle agency. When he graduated, he joined full-time. “I did it all,” he says. “I was the account handler; I was the idea generator, working with the creative people. I was even the photographer. I still keep my portfolio. I’m so proud of the work.”

One of Raad’s employees describes him as “a kind and patient man,” although Raad admits this might be changing. “I’ve started losing my temper more,” he admits. “Because of age. But I have always been accommodating, teaching people who make mistakes rather than punishing them. And forgiving them too. Because my great belief is that in every human there is a good side and a bad side, and a good manager is the manager who takes the good side in every individual, polarizes it and makes it bigger. That’s what I’ve always done.”

Raad may believe in leading the way, but he likes to take the path less traveled. When Communicate asks what his failures have been, he answers, “We could have grown bigger, much bigger.” A man of measured speech, he weighs each word carefully. “We should have sobered up to the reality that good work alone will not win you the business every time. I will say, to be polite, that we underplayed the personal [relationships] aspect. But in all honesty, I did it consciously.”

One day, Raad intends to return to his home country. “I am from central Lebanon, from the mountains. We have a very nice family house there, which is like a fortress. It’s totally wrecked, though, and my dream is of starting work on it and repairing it.”

However, as TBWA/Raad outgrows its offices – there are plans to move into larger premises in Downtown Dubai – and wins such coveted pitches as MTV Arabia, Raad’s retirement seems a long way off.


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