Commencing her journey in the advertising world in 2006, Lara Arbid went on to become the first woman to establish and lead a media house in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Lara Arbid, a seasoned professional with over 17 years of experience, currently holds the role of Regional Managing Director for Initiative and Magna Global across the MENAT region. Her extensive journey in the advertising industry began in 2006 when she transitioned from banking and finance to become a Media Executive at Starcom MediaVest Group. Working with prominent clients such as Saudi Telecom, Emirates, and General Motors, Arbid honed her expertise in strategic planning and holistic operations. In 2016, she made history as the first woman to establish and lead a media office in Riyadh, successfully launching Magna Global and achieving profitability within a remarkable three-month timeframe. With her unparalleled drive and dedication, Lara continues to shape the industry landscape, driving growth and delivering exceptional results.
How did you start your career?
I began my career in the banking industry in Beirut shortly after graduating. In 2006, due to the war in Lebanon, my family and I had to flee, and we returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I was born and raised. During that time, job opportunities for women were extremely limited. Women were typically restricted to working in women-only businesses, such as spas or salons, or becoming teachers. Initially, I taught for a few months, but I was determined to find a more challenging and exciting role. To expand my network, I actively socialized and shared my CV with everyone I met, until I secured an interview that eventually led to a job at the renowned Starcom MediaVest Group. During this time, I discovered my passion for the media industry while working with some of the most exciting brands, including Saudi Telecom, Emirates Airlines, Rabea Tea, and General Motors, among others.
What encouraged you to shift from banking and finance to advertising and media?
As a recent graduate, I found the banking industry to be limiting, and the tasks and responsibilities assigned to me were not stimulating enough. Even when I attempted to challenge the existing processes and find ways to make them more efficient, I was discouraged from doing so and asked to maintain the status quo. This resulted in work limitations, I was being held back from thinking ‘outside the box’. I realized that this was not the right fit for me. That’s when the media industry captured my attention. Its fast pace, constant curiosity, and ever-evolving nature demanded drive, perseverance, and passion, which made the shift even more enticing.
What inspired you to take on the responsibility of setting up headquarters for the media-tech agency - Magna in KSA? Share with us some of the challenges you faced in the process.
I must admit that when Bassem Massoud, our CEO, approached me with the opportunity to establish Magna’s office in KSA, I thought to myself, “This sounds like an incredibly difficult challenge!” Suddenly, a multitude of obstacles started flooding my mind. To begin with, I am a woman in an industry that is predominantly male-dominated. Furthermore, as a non-Saudi woman, I knew that my access and support would be severely limited. It became apparent that I would often find myself as the only woman at the table during meetings, requiring prior approvals to access buildings/offices, and sometimes even being denied entry to specific partner offices and government entities. So, how could I possibly make this work? Although I was aware of my skillset, experience, and competence, what truly mattered was my determination and unwavering desire to make a meaningful impact in this industry. Being an ambitious individual, I have always understood that embracing difficult challenges is the key to driving myself forward. It is by pushing beyond my limits and venturing outside my comfort zone that I discovered my true potential in advancing the goals of my company.
What were some of the turning points in your professional and personal journey?
Defying all odds and becoming the first woman to establish and lead a media agency in KSA was a significant challenge. However, what truly revealed my true potential was the speed with which I transformed it from a newly established office with just two interns into an SR100 million business in less than three quarters. This realization reinforced the importance of maintaining an ambitious mindset and a relentless drive to consistently deliver results, both of which played a pivotal role in our agency’s success. I defied preconceptions, earning the respect and trust of numerous business partners along the way. By fostering teams built on a foundation of trust, we achieved outstanding outcomes and accomplishments, and, most importantly, forged enduring relationships that transcended the realm of the business. This personalized and fulfilling work experience made every endeavor personally rewarding.
Do you have any role models or mentors that you looked up to or still look up to guiding you through your professional journey?
My father, a veteran in the media industry, has been and continues to be my role model. He has always believed in me and my capabilities, pushing me relentlessly to aim higher and reach new heights. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, women are rarely encouraged to thrive in their careers, challenge norms, and achieve their growth objectives. However, I was fortunate to grow up in an advertising “environment” within our household. I vividly recall engaging in healthy debates with the workforce at my father’s office from a young age and being exposed to industry leaders and the business when I was just 8 years old. Recognizing my passion and potential, he motivated and supported me to pursue a career in the same industry. Years later, as my career progressed, I transitioned from being an employee to becoming a leader, all with my father’s unwavering support. He instilled in me the belief that I could simultaneously be an ambitious career woman and a devoted mother. Balancing work and personal life is a challenge many working women face, but his support was crucial in easing my concerns and excelling in this juggling act. I vividly recall a conversation we had after the birth of my first child when I had to return to work immediately. My parents reassured me that I could trust them to care for and give attention to my child while I focused on my job. My father’s unwavering belief in me, coupled with the support of my mother, paved the way for all of my accomplishments.
Tell us about some projects that you’re proud to have worked on.
One day, while working on a collaboration with an international bank in KSA, the creative lead and I engaged in a discussion about potential media placements that would fit within our limited budget. Given the multi-product nature of the brief, we brainstormed a remarkably simple yet brilliant idea: in-context advertising during a running movie on TV. To bring this idea to life, we established a close partnership with a TV station. Together, we carefully selected three upcoming movies from the TV schedule and identified specific scenes where the banking product would be highly relevant. For instance, during a car crash scene, an ad would seamlessly appear on the side of the screen offering car insurance or a car loan. The concept was refreshingly straightforward, cost-effective, and completely unprecedented. Our innovative approach garnered widespread acclaim and recognition. The campaign received numerous awards and achieved the remarkable feat of being shortlisted at Cannes, making the Saudi bank affiliate the first-ever bank to achieve such recognition at the prestigious festival.
What is your advice to young Arab women aspiring to work in advertising and marketing communications?
Don’t stop. Along the way, find allies who will help you climb and break the glass ceiling in your career. Find mentors, challenge pre-conceived ideas, and focus on business results. Many women often forget to ‘sell’ those results and business achievements and, instead, rely on them selling themselves. It is not enough. Achieving is a prerequisite, but selling achievements internally and externally is just as important for career growth. And finally, you can thrive in all the roles you play in life, you just need to find the right balance and support.
This piece was first published in Communicate's Women to Watch Issue 2023.