It took Raja Trad 37 years to climb to the top office of the Middle East branch of the world’s oldest and third largest advertising agency, but he hardly remembers it as a climb. Instead, his levitation from station to station was the natural consequence of the passion and effort he put into every job he was given.
Raja started his advertising career in 1981 as an account director for Leo Burnett Middle East, working his way up to CEO 10 years later. He was CEO of the Leo Burnett Group of Companies MENA from 2001, including when Leo Burnett was bought by Publicis Groupe in 2002; he was promoted in 2016 to CEO of Publicis Communications ME, a division of Publicis Groupe; and again in 2018 to chairman of Publicis Groupe Middle East – placing him in charge of the entire Groupe’s operations in the region.
“I never asked to be promoted,” Raja says. “How did I do it? There are three things you need if you want a career in communications. First, passionate commitment, meaning a desire to make a difference. Second, curiosity, to ensure you’re always challenging yourself. And third, to be true to yourself, no matter what.”
This is precisely what Raja was doing as he repeatedly decided to stay in the same field and the same company over the past four decades.
“What made me stay is the challenge. As long as there is a challenge in front of me, I never give up. The minute I feel that there are no more challenges, then for me it’s the end of the journey,” he says. Such a moment shows no sign of arriving at Publicis. “There’s no finish line for me,” Raja says.
The demands of Raja’s job have expanded over the years, but while he carries the future of Publicis Groupe Middle East on his shoulders, he still makes sure he gets involved in the everyday tasks that keep the organisation running.
“When you are a chairman, a lot of your time is taken up by client relationships, taking care of the balance, the people, the challenges, the growth. But I always keep myself involved in the business because this is what I love most.
“Whenever we have a new business pitch, especially when it is a regional one or a major one, I will involve myself and I will be part of the pitch team, contributing everything I can offer to our clients.”
Maintaining a deep understanding of clients’ needs is part of what Raja says is his secret formula for effective communication.
“Unless you attend to the business challenges in the marketplace and make a difference to your client’s business, then you’re off. You’re not doing what you are supposed to do. It’s all about transformation,” he says.
Reviewing some of the major clients he has represented in the Middle East, including Procter & Gamble, FCA and McDonald’s, Raja sees a track record full of transformations.
“I can proudly say that we were able to create leading brands in the region. As long as your clients see you as a business partner and not only as a communication partner, you are doing something right,” he says.
“As long as your clients see you as a business partner and not only as a communication partner, you are doing something right.”
One challenge Raja has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in clients’ advertising budgets. Between 2014 and 2018, he says, advertising expenditures dropped by 47% – “It was a huge challenge for every group.”
The smaller pool of funds available for advertisers sparked a price war, with competitors lowering their prices and undercutting each other, resulting in a race to the bottom. According to Raja, this practice has done a disservice to the entire industry.
“If you take a client and only break even or lose money, you will not be able to retain your client because you will not be able to put the right talent behind the business,” he says. “Retaining the best clients requires retaining the best talent, and this requires giving them a career path with the promise of financial appreciation.”
“If you take a client and only break even or lose money, you will not be able to retain your client because you will not be able to put the right talent behind the business.”
Power of one
In a proactive move, Publicis Groupe designed and implemented a new model that put its clients at the centre to facilitate access to all its services in a fluid and modular way. “Through the ‘Power of One’ model, we are able to deliver winning solutions to our clients as one connected company for the connected age,” he says.
Raja has been pleased with the results. “If you look at the results for 2019, the Middle East has shown major growth in a very challenging environment,” he says. “I would say that the Middle East is very much an asset to the group, which is a great point of pride for my team.”
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