Reda Raad: ‘It’s always about the creative product’
Posted on 2018 Jul,20  | By Iain Akerman

TBWARaad is an agency at the top of its game. Reda Raad, the agency’s chief executive, talks Cannes, disruption and data-led creativity

“It’s been a good year for the agency so far,” says Reda Raad, chief executive of TBWARaad. As understatements go, this one’s up there.

In January it was ranked among the top 10 ‘bravest and best agencies on the planet’ by Contagious magazine. In March it was crowned both agency and network of the year at the Dubai Lynx for the first time in its history. In June it picked up six lions at Cannes, including two golds. If 2018 isn’t TBWARaad’s year, then what kind of year would be?

All of which has been complemented by a succession of new business wins. Six on the bounce in fact, including du, Careem and Mai Dubai, proving that growth and industry accolades can walk hand-in-hand.

For some, this is a strange place to be. TBWARaad, although relatively successful in the past, has never attained the level of pre-eminence it now enjoys. It has reached unprecedented new heights, not only in terms of recognition and awards, but in terms of new business, growth and outlook. For the casual observer this might be explained by fate and luck, but it is in fact the end result of years of sometimes painful transformation.

“Some of the decisions we have made over the past three years have been tough but, as you can see, they are paying off. We’ve adjusted our structure, become more consolidated, more integrated, more fit-for-purpose. In a way we have disrupted ourselves. We’ve practiced what we preach.”

“None of this has been easy,” admits Raad, who is sitting in his office in Emaar Square. There’s a baseball bat from global on the table in front of him (it’s all about the home runs) and a big cuddly toy in the shape of a lion from OMD. On the wall hang various images, one of which shows the team celebrating its agency of the year title at the Dubai Lynx.

 “Some of the decisions we have made over the past three years have been tough but, as you can see, they are paying off,” he says. “We’ve adjusted our structure, become more consolidated, more integrated, more fit-for-purpose. In a way we have disrupted ourselves. We’ve practiced what we preach.”

Over the course of the past few years the agency has been busy knocking down silos, folding DAN and Integer into the mother agency and into one single P&L. It has also hired data directors and data analysts, brought in new skill sets such as motion designers, scriptwriters and social directors, and changed its management team. Integration, data and content are the key pillars of the agency going forward.

 It has also taken its disruption ethos to the next level, creating Disruption Live, which identifies triggers in culture that are meaningful to its clients’ brands. Triggers that are interpreted in real time and acted upon immediately.

“Whenever you’re changing and having to let people go is always painful,” admits Raad. “They’re part of your organisation, part of your family. It’s hard. But you’ve got to think of the type of people you’re employing and the attitude and the skill-sets that you need. We wanted to become an innovative agency that’s powered by disruption and data, and that takes hard but necessary decisions.

“Plus there’s always that self-doubt that comes with any transformation story or any sort of re-engineering. But as a leader you’ve got to take it all in, internalise it, and have this outward posture of optimism and confidence because you have to rally the troops around you.

“For a while, after you’ve put in the building blocks and you expect things to happen, they don’t. So you’ve got to course-correct, you’ve got to fix this, you’ve got to fix that. It was a case of us having to unlearn old ways and relearn a more collaborative, more open, more data-driven way of doing things. And you’ve got to surround yourself with people who believe in the vision and are willing to go on this journey with you.”

Such success, of course, comes with its own set of challenges, not least the quest for talent and the issue of space. Around 40 new people have joined the agency so far this year and almost every seat in the office is taken. All meeting rooms are occupied and even Walid Kanaan, TBWARaad’s chief creative officer, is office-less, having given his personal space to Fouad Abdel Malik, the agency’s executive creative director. But all’s good, says Kanaan from his make-shift space in one of the agency’s meeting rooms. He travels a lot and is primarily based out of Beirut.

“For me, the validation of what we’re doing was winning agency and network of the year at the Lynx,” says Raad. “And, hand-in-hand with that, winning du. It proved that all the consolidation, all the risks, and all the pain associated with transformation has been worth it. It was an affirmation that data-driven creativity works and that a team that believes passionately in what it’s doing can achieve almost anything.

“The main indicator of creative excellence is either consistency or progression,” he adds. “We’ve developed both in the last couple of years. The real achievement is not the fact that TBWARaad was the most awarded MENA agency at Cannes, or that it was TBWA Global’s second most awarded agency this year. The real achievement is that we did it all with campaigns that ran for weeks and that people actually saw and interacted with.”

The question now for TBWARaad is whether its momentum can be sustained. And if it can, what shape that momentum will take. Raad says the agency is on course to hit solid double-digit growth in 2018, which is exceptional given the economic circumstances, but also applies pressure for continued growth.

“We just came out of a management meeting and it’s a case of ‘do you just keep going and not look back? Or do you make strategic plays to consolidate further?’ These are the sort of discussions we’re having now,” says Raad.

“What I do know is that we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re young, we’re fresh, it’s just the beginning. I also don’t believe you can plan a year in advance anymore. You have to do it month-by-month. We have something called ‘always in beta’, so we’re always changing and customising and moving to make sure we have something that works. There’s never a sense of rest. There’s always a sense of continuous improvement or fine-tuning.”

Raad’s priority? To bed down the new businesses, to deliver for clients, and to maintain the agency’s passion and momentum. Passion that led to Nissan’s #SheDrives and the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s ‘Highway Gallery’, both of which won gold at Cannes.

“For me it’s always been about the creative product,” he says. “Advertising agencies who think anything else is more important just don’t get it. It’s always about the product. We have to obsess about it. We have to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. And the moment we lose passion, or the moment we lose our love for the work, then it’s over. That’s the way it has to be, right? Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”