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Omnicom Media Group (MENA) CEO says Launching a Career in the Media Industry Takes Risk

In part three of the Intern Diaries series, we sit down with Elie Khouri, CEO of Omnicom Media Group MENA, as he shares his career journey from working in finance in Beirut, to advertising in Cyprus, and finally media in Dubai, with all the risks, inspirations, and people-watching along the way. In Intern Diaries, we’re asking industry leaders/interesting people to share stories from early in their careers.  

Where did you begin your career?

I graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1986 with a B.A. in Business. My dream was to be in finance and work towards a CPA, so as soon as I finished my undergrad, I applied for an MBA straight away.

This was my first mistake. You should never do that. As a fresh graduate, you need to gain a few years of experience to understand the working world.

During my MBA, I started working in finance and while I was enjoying the job, I didn’t love it.

That was my second mistake: doing something just for the sake of doing it. You need to be passionate about what you do. Finance is very fickle and frenetic.

The choice is simple really. Compromise if you want or need to, or find something that you truly love.

How did you get that first finance job and how did your career evolve afterwards?

Besides applying to a lot of banks and financial institutions, I also used my university and professional networks to expand my reach. Eventually, I found a connection who set up an interview for me in the same company, as my background in finance was perfect for an opening they were trying to fill.

When the market crashed in 1987, all the theories about stock optimization and market value I had learned during my MBA went right out of the window. Around that time, a friend from university was constantly telling me about his life in advertising. “It’s a cool business, we create campaigns for big brands, it’s glamorous, it’s fun, it’s exciting…”, he would say, and this appealed to my creative side.

So, I decided to apply for advertising jobs and ended up with offers from BBDO in Cyprus and FCB in Athens. I made my decision based on the $50 difference in monthly salary and went for the highest one!

Joking aside, I went for BBDO because the opportunity seemed bigger and more promising. I felt like my two years in finance hadn’t taken me where I wanted to go and needed to start afresh.

My first title in advertising was “Account Executive Trainee”, not exactly commensurate with my MBA, but it was the logical first step in my new career. I eventually became a partner at BBDO, after working with increasingly large and prestigious clients. In 2001, I accepted the challenge to create OMD, before incorporating Omnicom Media Group and PHD a few years later.

What were the most difficult parts of your early career?

Getting a foot in the door was the hardest part. When you’re trying to enter the working world, finding an opening, let alone the ideal one, is difficult. It’s even more so today with the growing reliance on technology and automation, the greater number of graduates and the increasing competition and disruption being faced by most industries.

Before, it was your qualifications that mattered. Now, you need the degrees and a great personality. You need to fit into the culture of the company.

You may think that this first break will never come, but persevere and it will.

Was there any experience that affected you on a personal level or something that changed you?

I left advertising to go into media at the height of my career, which some people may have considered crazy. Why would anybody want to take that kind of risk? For me, it was about wanting to try something new, leave my comfort zone, after being well mentored and molded, and grow professionally. I didn’t know what I was doing or how I was going to learn what to do, but I was driven and determined enough to just go for it. And that’s exactly what I did!

The first three years of building my new career in media were the hardest and I got a big dose of reality very early on. I had to learn a new industry, understand how to navigate a very competitive environment and make a lot of changes to my management style. I did a lot of things in those early days that I hadn’t done before, in a space that hadn’t existed before, but it was one of the most creative periods in my life.

The challenge was to build something that didn’t exist, and that meant big risks needed to be taken.

It was a huge success. But it wouldn’t have been without the risks.

One of the most important things I learned about running a company was the culture. It became obvious that it wasn’t about the product or the money and when I realized this, it changed the way I worked, communicated and managed my team.

How do you spot that opportunity?

It’s a gut feeling, something that your intuition will tell you when the right opportunity comes along. More than that, it’s about connecting the dots, seeing where things are moving, observing, and reflecting on your surroundings. If you see things taking a certain direction, make your move. You just have to be paying attention.

When you see an opportunity, you have to go for it. You must have the ability to spot, assess and above all, risk taking the break. Ditching the MBA route, leaving Lebanon for Cyprus, entering the advertising industry, moving to Dubai and then making the final switch to media, are some of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken, but each of them have proved the right call.

Where do you get inspiration today?

Everywhere. By going to art galleries, walking down the streets of a city, people-watching at the park, day-dreaming on board of a plane, reading an article in a magazine or online.

Life is about grasping the things around you and continually innovating rather than standing still. It’s experiences that inspire and help you identify the right call and when to make it. There is no obvious connection between waking down a street in Paris and trying to decide between two job offers. They are unrelated, yet they complement each other.

You need to live in the moment and actually be present. Show an interest in the world around you – politics, philosophy, psychology, cooking, books, movies – everything.

What’s your timeless piece of advice for interns/students, specifically in the MENA region?

Never take the common route and just send out your CV. Today’s opportunities won’t just land in your lap, you need to put yourself out there. Networking is very important when you are looking for your first job, so work your university connections and speak to your friends. You never know where a conversation may lead.

An excellent education is not the only reason why people attend the best universities, it’s also about the people they mix with. Universities offer the best opportunities for networking, given the diversity of their students, faculty and curricula. These people will always be around you and you’ll grow with them.

How do candidates impress employers and stand out from the crowd?

1. By demonstrating passion: Be expressive of what you enjoy and why. Excite those around you.

2. By working both hard and smart: Working hard is not enough anymore. You must demonstrate that you’re working well in the hours that you’re working hard.

3. By having the right attitude: Be positive as a person. Negative people never make it in life, let alone in a company. Even in the early stages of your career, be resourceful and encourage people to keep learning and getting better.

Organizations should hire for attitude. The skills will come later. 

  • Han jabb

    Amazing! Your life choices and your mentality inspired me so much. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Siddique Mohiuddin

    Worth the read. Seriously.