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INTERVIEW: ‘In our business, change is a constant,’ says boss of award-winning ad agency Havas Middle East

DUBAI: Havas Middle East, a multinational advertising and public relations company, scored a big victory for the region at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2022, viewed by many as the industry’s premier awards program.

The agency won seven trophies at the event last month, all for its work with its client, Adidas. Its Liquid Billboard campaign bagged a Grand Prix, one gold trophy, two silver and one bronze in the outdoor campaign category and a silver in the media category. The agency also won a silver trophy in the Entertainment Lion for Sports category, for its I’m Possible billboard campaign.

Havas Middle East’s CEO, Dany Naaman.

Havas Middle East’s CEO, Dany Naaman, told Arab News he has been on a mission to improve the creative reputation of the agency and put it in the global spotlight, “so winning seven Cannes Lions” awards is a “great feeling.”

The Liquid Billboard campaign marked the launch by Adidas of an inclusive swimwear collection. Studies have found that 32 percent of women globally feel uncomfortable swimming in public, and in the Middle East the proportion rises to 88 percent.

Adidas therefore created the world’s first “swimmable billboard” in Dubai, which encouraged women to dive in, regardless of body shape, ethnicity or ability.

“Adidas is committed to making the future of sport more inclusive,” Naaman said. “The campaign ignited a conversation around body positivity that rippled through the region and out in the world across six continents and more than 60 countries.”

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Adidas Liquid Billboard.

The impact of the campaign worldwide is “a testament to the global reach of Dubai,” he added. The UAE was the perfect place for Adidas to launch its new collection and the campaign because of the varied population and inclusive nature of the country, he explained.

“They openly promote tolerance through all layers of an incredibly diverse and multicultural society, which is leaving a mark on culture,” Naaman said.

The UAE is not the only country in the region that is evolving and developing. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development and diversification agenda and the resultant national transformation is turning the Kingdom into a business hub.

“We have a sizable team already in place but we continue to launch new initiatives to accompany the vision of the Kingdom,” said Naaman.

This year, the group will launch Havas Events in response to the Saudi Arabia’s growing investment in the local entertainment and events industry. It will also support the Royal Commission of Riyadh City’s Noor Riyadh festival in October.

From the stunning success at the Cannes Lions event to expansion in Saudi Arabia, the past two years have been a period of growth and transformation for Havas Middle East. Although the pandemic severely affected its media business, the creative and PR sections remained largely unaffected, said Naaman. In fact, the health crisis served as a growth accelerator, especially in the areas of e-commerce and digital transformation, with the group attracting several new clients including Adidas, L’Oreal, the Museum of the Future in Dubai, and telecoms company du.

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Adidas Liquid Billboard.

“However, when you’re faced with challenges — and of this size — you need to review your business model and look at your structure,” Naaman said.

“Restructuring is always painful, too, (but) you need to ensure that you have the right people in the right place for the next phase of development.”

Even during the restructuring phase, he added, the company “kept the channels of communication open” and launched a number of new initiatives, some of them relating to mental health, to help employees stay connected and well. In fact, he said, employee satisfaction levels actually improved during the pandemic compared with the previous year.

“In our business, change is a constant,” he said. “So, you assess and see who fits where, and you reorganize yourself in order to make sure that you are ready for the next wave of changes.”

Right now, the next wave seems to include buzzy technologies such as NFTs, blockchain, the metaverse and Web3. Naaman believes the metaverse, a proposed immersive version of the internet accessed using virtual reality technology, “is the next revolution in computing.”

“It is believed to be the successor of the mobile internet, so all signs point to massive potential and possibilities, including new opportunities to redefine consumer interaction,” he said.

Havas, which refers to its company offices as “villages,” launched its own virtual village this year in The Sandbox video game, offering clients an augmented experience. Last year, it launched Metaverse by Havas, a new consulting, creative and media offering dedicated to helping brands embrace the potential of the metaverse.

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However, for now the metaverse is still effectively a buzzword, said Naaman, it “is not a complete universe and there are silos.” In other words there currently various platforms in the metaverse, each of which requires the user to create a separate avatar, which results in a divisive experience.

“It’s all about how quickly things will get together within the metaverse but it’s definitely a space that we are watching closely,” he added.

Ultimately, Naaman said, Havas aims “to leave a mark on culture and create meaningful communication that impacts the world,” whether this happens in the metaverse or on a billboard.

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