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Pandemic Perspectives: Hubert Boulos


Pandemic Perspectives: Hubert Boulos

How Covid-19 is changing the business and the industry at large, according to DDB’s Chief Executive Officer for the Middle East.

How is the Covid-19 crisis reshaping the marketing and advertising industry in MENA?

There’s a lot of conversation going on around this subject. But with specific mention to the region, Covid-19 has accelerated our pre-existing structural problems. The industry was already in pretty bad shape [before the outbreak,] and Covid-19 only made matters worse. The problem in this region is that oil prices were too low, and the outbreak only helped drop them further, which made our problems much worse than anywhere else in the world. Our [journey] out of this crisis will be more difficult in comparison to other countries, because of the low oil prices.

How does this impact differ in the region’s different markets?

I believe some markets outside of the GCC will be hit extremely hard due to social unrest and political instability. If you recall, the Arab Spring began right after the financial crisis of 2008. I predict the same [will happen] and probably worse because, as the Prime Minister of Lebanon already highlighted, some countries will face hunger and misery. [We need to] be ready for that.

What measures have you taken to mitigate this impact (restructuring, staff reductions, etc.)?

DDB has taken all the sanitary measures and [followed all] the guidelines provided by governments of the countries we operate in and our holding company Omnicom. Until today (May 2020), we have taken zero measures when it comes to staff or salary reductions, because we had a very strong start to the year and a spectacular string of new business wins in the midst of the crisis. This has allowed us to protect everyone so far.

How could this crisis lead to deeper transformation and change the way you operate in the long-term?

Videoconferencing has taught us how to work differently. This obviously raises questions about the use of office spaces, and whether every company will be needing them in the future. Beyond that, I truly believe this is the time to begin operating as a network of people, without geographical boundaries. This is something I had actually started [doing] before the crisis, by deciding to work with talents, regardless of their geographic base. Now, I believe this will increasingly be the new norm, which also means that you can work with any client, from anywhere in the world.

How have clients reacted to the crisis and what do you advise them to do?

There isn’t one type of answer when it comes to client behavior, nor one type of answer when it comes to advising them. Each category has its own dynamic, and this crisis is nothing short of a World War. I would however urge [clients] to read the brilliant article from Les Binet, Head of ROI effectiveness at DDB: “Navigating Covid-19: Survival, adaptation, and recovery.” Basically, there are no cookie-cutter solutions; each brand has to think, and the article definitely helps you think instead of pontificating.

What lessons from previous crises have helped you face the current situation?

As an agency leader, previous crises have taught me to be patient and not to react haphazardly. You need to remain focused on your strategy whilst adapting to the situation. They also have taught me [the same lesson almost] every time: there is always sunshine after the rain, so try to limit the damage, especially when it comes to preserving your talent.

What will you take away from this pandemic once we’ve passed it?

Personally, I’ve learned to doubt everything I hear or read about it. I’m curious to see how history will write about this moment in time. On a less dramatic note, I never thought ad agencies could operate without anyone in the office. If you had told me the same thing in early March, I would’ve considered you stupid or deranged. I stand corrected. Now I know it’s possible.

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