There was something intriguing about The Network Communication Group (TNCG) making a big deal out of the anniversary of its 22 years in business. Why 22, and not 21 or 23? We sat with Roger Sahyoun, the advertising veteran behind Arabian Gulf Advertising (AGA, and the future TNCG) since 1997, to discuss why 22 would be of importance, and more.
Congratulations on this 22nd anniversary, but why the focus on this year in particular?
Firstly, AGA was created in 1997 and became TNCG in 2012, which we never properly launched. People know about it of course, but not well enough. It was time to introduce it the right way.
Secondly, I personally have been in this industry for 31 years. I witnessed all the changes in the region – how we learned advertising and what’s happening now with the rise of digital and a new generation of managers. Yes, 22 is just another year but we wanted to state that we’re here, and here to stay, that we know and are going to grow this market, thanks to a total solution across all disciplines.
You mentioned a plan for the next 22 years. What is it?
We’re turning all our advertising agencies into digital advertising agencies, meaning we’re experimenting with the digital world. We’re training all of our people and working with our clients to think about digital in all aspects of the work and from a consumer point of view.
What will happen to your traditional agencies?
Our clients still need different services according to their needs, so we work across all four disciplines: media with Equation Media, PR and events with Pencell, advertising with AGA ADK and digital with Wetpaint. Online and offline must work together seamlessly, they are inseparable. Take a huge online player like Trivago for example, it still advertises on TV.
However, the industry will eventually end up having only creative and online solutions. There will still be on-the-ground activities, but they will be part to these digital solutions. Consumers are changing the way they buy. E-commerce might not be coming fully strong in the region yet, but it’s getting there. Nobody from the young generation goes to shops, they buy online; and if they do go inside [brick-and-mortar] shops, they do so using technology. For example, we are currently developing for one of our clients a smart wall: it’s a wall, that could be put in any outlet or supermarket, but it displays images of products instead of products themselves; you just scan the image and that’s it, the product will be delivered to you. Even TV will have to evolve or die. All young people are on Netflix now, they don’t watch regular TV.
How are your clients reacting to this new strategy?
Unfortunately, clients are not yet understanding what digital means. Firstly, they think about prices and bottom-lines, but this is not a procurement business. Secondly, they believe they need posts, but digital is not a post. It’s not Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, with all my respects to these platforms. For example, ten years ago, Lebanon had a magazine called Mondanité; it was basically Facebook on paper. Facebook today is the same [as Mondanité]: it’s a medium. At the end of the day, a Facebook post is an advert. If it’s not part of a larger digital strategy and thinking, it won’t achieve anything, just like a traditional advert alone won’t achieve anything. That’s where experienced advertising people have a role to play: to develop a lead campaign that will direct the end user to eventually buy your product. After all, the client’s endgame is to sell, as it’s always been.
That’s what agencies have been arguing for years now. How will you be different?
My years of experience make a difference. We’ve seen the good times and the bad times, and we understand this region. The old generation, that built this industry in the Middle East, understands how it works, its culture, its diversity, how to talk to the people who matter here. We’re in a people business, relationships are still very important. So, the fact that we’ve been around for 30 years doesn’t mean we’re too old, to the contrary. It gives us an edge.
I have 52 big international clients. One has been with me for 30 years. This means credibility and equity for the company. This also means we are committed to our clients; we’ll do everything to keep them up to the standards. We’ll always have to be ahead, be the first to bring the technology, dare to make changes – otherwise we’ll be yet another advertising agency.
We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, we’re in a fast-changing world but we’ve been here for a long time and we’re adapting to a new era, taking our clients in the future.
How do you prepare for something that you don’t know will be like?
Thanks to my partners [Japanese ADK International]. We’re benefiting from their experience and their technology – and Japan is really ahead of anyone else in terms of digital and tech. For example, ADK has a new agency in Tokyo, 1-10imagine [specialized in experimental design and digital technology]. They are geniuses and they are all about experience. We’re learning a lot from them. For example, we’re developing a robotic coffeeshop for one of our clients in Dubai: patrons will choose their order from hologram menus, a robot will prepare and deliver it to them using their data to know their preferences – sugar, milk, etc. This is creative thinking, with an investment in technology.
How does working with Japanese partners compare to working with Western or regional ones?
Japan and the Middle East are two different worlds. Dealing with the Japanese is not easy; either they completely trust you or they don’t at all. There’s no middle ground.
They’re very good at building brands (not so much at sustaining them – where are Sony, Sharp or Hitachi today, compared to where they were 20 years ago?), so you can definitely learn that from them. You can also learn how to focus only on the consumer – which is all you need to do these days. And of course, there’s the technology. The workforce in Japan is divided between doers and thinkers. Each focuses solely on either one or the other and excels at what they do. I have learnt the thinking from the Japanese.
What are the next steps for TCNG?
Besides focusing our agencies on digital primarily, we’re investing and experimenting. For example, we’re creating our own e-commerce business and services applications and testing them in Lebanon; if they’re successful, we’ll roll them out on other markets like Saudi Arabia. I’m also in talks with someone in Europe; I cannot discuss this further as it’s not finalized yet, but you’ll be the first to know when it is.
This article has been printed in our June print edition.