26 Questions with Omnicom Media Group MENA’s inspirational CEO, Elie Khouri

The founder of OMD and Great Places to Work’s Leader of the Year on digital disruption, the unique energy of Dubai, and the all-important value of empathy

July 6, 2018

The founder of OMD and Great Places to Work’s Leader of the Year on digital disruption, the unique energy of Dubai, and the all-important value of empathy

Elie Khouri is not your average agency group CEO. As the founder of OMD, he helped to invent the media agency model – and he’s played a leading role in helping advertisers to navigate a rapidly changing media landscape ever since. Now CEO of Omnicom Media Group MENA, he’s regularly ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s most influential executives – and in 2017, received the inaugural Leader of the Year award from the Great Places to Work institute. All of which makes Elie Khouri an ideal subject for LinkedIn’s 26 Questions hot-seat. Here are his quickfire responses on changing agency business models, the secrets of effective leadership, the inspiration he found in a war-torn childhood in Lebanon, and the industry buzzwords we need to stop over-hyping:

1.     What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Like most days, when I’m home, I start with a bowl of chia seeds, nuts, almond milk and honey.

2.     What’s the last great thing you binge-watched and why?

Peaky Blinders on Netflix. I loved the accent, but the English subtitles proved very helpful!

3.     What’s the industry buzzword that annoys you the most these days?

How long do we have? If I have to choose I’d say Blockchain and AI. These two technologies are interesting and show a lot of promise, but we’re at a very early stage and we are overhyping them.

4.     Where do you stand on the media agency transparency debate at the moment?

What debate? We’re past that stage. Transparency is a given with key multinational networks but people often forget that such concerns can be successfully addressed with contractual agreements and rules governing rebates.  

5.     What’s the last great book you read? Why was it great?

I am an avid reader but I am much more likely to read articles or reports online than books.

6.     What’s your favourite vacation spot?

The Maldives is where I totally switch off and recharge my batteries: a perfect and total escape.

7.     What’s the biggest change in the agency business since you started?

Definitely the digital technologies enabled by the Internet. These have disrupted the balance of power between brands, agencies, media and consumers, profoundly altered behaviours and business models, and transformed marketing at breakneck speed.

8.     How have you (and your agency) adapted?

It’s a process that started over 10 years ago. New people, new profiles, new approaches, new services, new technologies, new processes, new KPIs, new contracts, new forms of remuneration… Must I go on?

9.     What’s your proudest moment in business?

My decision to move from advertising to media, when I agreed to form OMD after years at BBDO. Some called it madness, even career suicide, but this is where the action is, the frontline so to speak.

10.  In life?

Every day I spend with my three daughters, watching them grow into strong, kind and fulfilled women.

11.  What’s the most important way the rise of social media, from YouTube to Facebook to LinkedIn, has changed the way companies reach their audiences?

Relevance and precision. I know that’s two ways rather than one but they’re both equally fundamental to the transformation of our work. With a better understanding of mindsets and behaviours, we can help brands play a far more meaningful role in people’s lives.

12.  Digital ad spending now exceeds TV ad spending. Is this a problem for agencies or an opportunity?

The rise of digital presents both a problem and an opportunity. The digital ecosystem forces a rethink of traditional approaches and formats. The transition can and will be painful at times but there’s no turning back. This is a fantastic time to be in this industry because it’s not just about media or even advertising anymore. We’re talking about far bigger issues and topics, looking at business models and technology stacks.

13.  What is attractive to you about living in Dubai?

There is so much more to it than the lifestyle, the year-round sunshine and amazing infrastructure. There’s an energy about the place, an infectious restlessness that leads everyone to aim higher, often literally.

14.  How has the availability of data changed marketing (or not)?

It has eliminated guesswork and approximation, which, by and large, has improved performance and effectiveness. Of course, we’re still learning and there’s still progress to be made, but John Wanamaker would be very impressed by where we are now.

15.  How do you use LinkedIn — for networking? For content marketing? Searching for talent? For sales prospecting? For staying abreast of news?

LinkedIn is an all-rounder for work and professional development. It’s a great way to build and strengthen both your corporate and personal brands.

16.  How do you use LinkedIn advertising for your clients, and what’s working well for them?

We have found it to be particularly effective in terms of content marketing, including video, and targeting for specific brands and categories.

17.  What is your top-secret superpower?

Empathy. You can’t have meaningful and respectful relationships without it.

18.  Who should play you in the movie version of your life?

That’s a tricky one. Al Pacino maybe?

19.  If you weren't at Omnicom what would you be doing?

I would have loved to be an architect. I deeply appreciate craft, art, design and all that is beautiful.

20.  What do you have an irrational hatred for?

Hypocrisy and lies. Nothing drives me up the wall more.

21.  Best movies ever:

This may sound like a cliché, particularly for us in the advertising business, but it would be The Godfather. It’s a movie with a brilliant cast and an iconic script that single-handedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy.

22.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

My father was a chef so I guess, like most children, I wanted to be like him. I was definitely an entrepreneur from a young age and this, unlike cooking, has remained strong throughout my life.

23.  What's your most annoying habit?

None of my habits annoy me.

24.  How long would you survive a zombie apocalypse?

Hopefully long enough for humans to regain control. I have lived through a civil war so I guess I have some experience of surviving a conflict. Humans’ ingenuity and survival instinct should see us prevail, no matter what.

25.  What jobs did you have at school and what lessons did you learn from them that you still put into practice today?

At school, I made a living by selling my own clothes in the neighborhood. This entrepreneurial spirit was key to my success and made me consider execution and the bottom line more than just ideation and conceptualization.  

26.  What are you most looking forward to this year?

Like every year, spending more time with the people I love.