PR firms need to have big agency goals with a small agency service ethos to become a leading player in the industry, says MENA group director of Four Communications Group as it announces imminent plans to expand into the Saudi Arabian market.
As Four Communications reveals its vertical trajectory in the region - with business growing by more than a third over the past year - its group director Ray Eglington says the secret to success is thinking big, but paying attention to the minute details as he addresses some of the biggest challenges facing the industry in the region.
"From day one, when we started in London, we’ve always aimed to be a serious alternative to the major global players – an independent which offers big agency skills and infrastructure, but with a small agency service ethos.
"We really do try to go the extra mile. That is as true here in MENA as it is in London.
"At a macro industry level, there is clearly a demand for agencies with that independent mindset, who come to clients purely focused on how best to solve their communications challenges. I’d like to see us taking that offer to more sectors and to more markets."
The Middle Eastern arm of Four Communications, which handles clients including IATA, Etihad Airways, Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, Infiniti, the UAE Space Agency, Marriott International, Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism, New York University Abu Dhabi and Honeywell, has been on a "very good run", says Eglington, with ambitious plans for the year ahead.
"As a business, we’ve seen double-digit growth for six of the last seven years and we are currently running at 33 per cent up, year-on-year, which is pretty good for a mature business. We’ve just reached 50 people here in MENA and in 2018, we delivered just short of $5.5m in fee income. We’re the single largest practice in Four, which overall now has around 350 people and is a top 50 global agency.
"This year, we’ve made wide-ranging investments. We’ve brought social analysts on board, now trained in our unique Mapper360 methodology; new paid social capability, by moving one of our London Media team members to Dubai; we are launching a new Saudi office, and we are about to launch a new healthcare practice.
"The core business is performing really strongly but that’s always the time to look at new areas of expansion. Our new Saudi plans are really exciting and I’d like to continue with wider expansion."
The Middle Eastern market is "a lot more competitive" since Four’s Dubai office opened 15 years ago, says Eglington.
"For many years, we were fighting two battles in every pitch – first, to be better than the other agencies on the list; and second, to then persuade the client that an independent agency wasn’t going to be a risky choice.
"Three things have then happened over that time. First, there’s the ever-increasing strength of in-house teams. They help push agencies harder, which is good for the sector.
"Then, it’s a sign of a more mature market that there is now a much bigger group of really strong independent agencies – companies like Toh, Seven Media and House of Comms, to name just a few – who serve big brands with game-changing campaigns.
"And finally, I do think that’s also been good for those global agencies, too. More competition is always good – commercially but really importantly, also creatively.
"I’m really proud to have played a small part in how our industry has developed here over the last 15 years, and I hope it continues to move forward strongly."
Eglington says the biggest regional challenge facing communications firms is the scale of vision in many of the MENA markets.
"To give a small example, real estate is a big sector for Four in the UK – in fact, we’re probably the biggest agency in that sector. Yet there was one point during the property boom here when we realised that our Dubai office was handling clients building more houses not just than our clients in London, but than the whole UK market at the time!
"We’ve been able to work on amazing projects here: the first new nuclear energy programme anywhere in the world for decades, the new railway, new hyperloop technology, the world’s fastest growing airline, new theme parks and major new master developments. That’s incredibly exciting, but the pace and the scale can be a challenge."
This, in turn, is one of the biggest opportunities for those operating in the region.
"The pace of change in many of the MENA markets is exhilarating. Governments and their people believe they can change quickly and decisively, and that change is actually happening."
With all the buzz facing new markets in the region, Eglington still would choose the UAE as the most exciting player in MENA.
"I have to say the UAE, as it’s been my home for 12 years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere. I’ve been based in Abu Dhabi all that time and it’s been brilliant to see all the changes that have happened there – especially the Louvre.
"Then there is Saudi, which is clearly going through massive change, probably more so than any other country in the world at the moment. That’s not without challenges, of course, but there is a lot to be excited about there.
"I am also a big fan of Oman. Some of my favourite projects have been with Omani companies. That us a market with really smart people, making some interesting things happen."
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