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H+K’s Middle Eastern presence spans nine countries across MENA, making it one of the top three players in the sub-region, highlighted by its selection as our 2020 Middle East Consultancy of the Year. The firm has grown considerably over the past five years under CEO Bashar AlKadhi, whose remit expanded last year to include Continental Europe and the Nordics. There is particularly strength in energy, finance and economic/cultural development — bolstered by the expansion of the firm’s Studio creative offering.
Headquartered in Dubai, there are 250 people across nine MENA offices, with particularly strong operations in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The Middle East region grew by 17% in 2021, with half of that growth coming from existing clients and profit margins among the best in the region. The health and wellness practice was a top performer, up by 85%, but the technology and sports and entertainment practices made impressive contributions too, as did The Studio, which now has teams in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. New business came from a mix of local clients such as the Royal Commission of AlUla, the Abu Dhabi Government Communications Office, Dubai Holding, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Petroleum Association, and Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City, and multinational corporations like Ford, Walt Disney, Meta, Virgin Mobile, Visa, Bayer, Amazon and Coca-Cola.
Hill+Knowlton’s commitment to diversity looks different in different markets, but in the Middle East it takes the form of an international workforce (more than 40 nationalities), a commitment to advancing women in senior management roles as one of the top five workplaces for women in the GCCC, and three local leaders on the global DE&I Council. The firm has also been named as the 16th best place to work in the UAE by Great Places to Work. As for talent, there were significant new additions in 2021 including Nick Tapley as director of creative strategy following stints at media agencies OMD and MediaCom; Ahmed Dahduli, formerly with AbbVie and Raytheon, as GM in Saudi Arabia; Richard Deleven, returning to the firm from the Qatar Foundation as a senior consultant.
Some of H+K’s most extravagant creative work came out of the Middle East, including some massive special events (not unexpected in a region that hosts so many) but also some purpose-driven programming (perhaps less common). For Soundstorm and XP, the firm handled the return of Saudi dance music festival MDLBEAST, managing everything from driving attendance to crisis messaging; it worked with Twitter to launch its Arabic (Feminine) language setting, reshaping how the platform engages with Arabic-speaking women, and making Twitter the first social media platform to offer such a language setting; and for the Royal Commission of AlUla, the firm created a “Journey Through Time” celebrating the region’s culture, history and landscape.
— Paul Holmes
Since acquiring local consulting firm JiWin in 2010, corporate and public affairs specialist APCO has grown its presence in the region considerably, from 35 people to more than 200. The firm’s expertise in serving government and public service clients has clearly been a competitive advantage, and the core of its business is still corporate and public affairs work. But APCO is also a powerhouse in the digital realm, with about 60 people in its regional digital practice and specialized services, customized for the Middle East, such as its Build-Operate-Transfer model for training in-house talent and its AI Comms Lab, a global innovation center based in the the Dubai office.
APCO’s Middle East footprint includes offices in in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Manama, and (new in 2021) Amman, Jordan, while the firm is also present in political and financial capitals around the world, from Washington, DC, to London to Brussels to Beijing..
APCO’s positioning as a firm that can solve the complex problems that occur at the intersection of business, politics and social change has served it well throughout the pandemic, and 2021 was another strong year for its EMEA operations, which saw revenues increase by 23% to $72 million (out of global fee income of $172 million). In the Middle East, meanwhile, fee income was up by a similar 22%, boosted in part by the launch of .Pomelo, a new creative team—including an advertising practice—largely based in the new Amman office, and the establishment of a practice focused on gender issues in MENA. New business came from the Technology Innovation Institute, the Saudi Ministry of Culture, Emirates Diplomatic Academy, the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, Soudah Development, Jada Fund of Funds, the Dubai Future Foundation, Emirates Development Bank, the UAE Space Agency, the UAE Ministry of Defence, VMWare, Tetra Pak, and Sunbulah Group.
The Middle East region is led by Mamoon Sbeih, and features a diverse and talented team of executives such as Elizabeth Sen, who leads the brand marketing practice and the new gender practice. In addition to helping clients achieve their own diversity goals, APCO has been walking the walk, promoting gender equity in its own ranks, and establishing a European diversity council that has more than 100 members. People moves included two significant promotions: Samer El Hachem was named to a dual role as chief operating officer MENA and senior director of global transformation, while Faten Al Masri was named chief client officer MENA.
High-profile assignments have included providing support for the 90th Saudi National Day—including a video that featured, for the first time, a Saudi woman singing the country’s national anthem—as well as COP 27 and COP 28 climate conferences, both of which will take place in the Middle East. The firm has also worked with the US Chamber of Commerce in the UAE on a campaign designed to hasten the region’s recovery from the Covid pandemic, launched Cruise Saudi, the region’s first cruise line; and provided PR support for the March of the Mummies, a parade featuring the remains of 22 ancient Egyptian kings and queens, while the digital team produced a cutting-edge website and virtual press office for the annual Hajj pilgramage, helping the authorities keep communications flowing despite the pandemic.
— Paul Holmes
Now in its 22nd year, Asda’a BCW has always been a regional industry pioneer. Born in the UAE, with a distinct Arab identity, from day one it disrupted the industry model by targeting a market that had never used PR before: local governments, family businesses and emerging regional brands with global ambitions. The agency continues to be led by Sunil John, who founded the agency in 2000 before selling a majority stake to Burson-Marsteller in 2008; in 2021 his contribution to the industry and the region was recognised in his appointment to the advisory board of the new Dubai International Chamber. Asda’a BCW works across corporate, consumer, financial communications, public affairs, and enterprise and technology and further strengthened its capabilities in specialist healthcare communication this year by launching the Middle East office of BCW’s global healthcare offering, GCI Health. The firm also runs data, social media and design consultancy Proof Communications and PSB Middle East, the regional arm of WPP’s polling and attitudinal insights firm.
Asda’a BCW has seven wholly-owned offices in UAE (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), Saudi Arabia (Riyadh and Jeddah), Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan; and 11 affiliates in Oman, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Israel, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Kuwait, Egypt and Palestinian Territories.
The agency grew its 2021 revenue by 16% and won record levels of new business, worth more than $20 million. Asda’a BCW also hired over 50 consultants across its regional network, bringing total headcount to more than 200. The firm now serves more than 100 clients, with new work coming from government departments including Abu Dhabi Tourism, healthcare companies including AstraZeneca, and telecoms company Etisalat, which joined a client roster that includes Visa, Emirates bank, GE, Jumeirah Hospitality Group, Nestlé and Air Arabia.
In the annual BCW Global Employee Engagement survey, 93% of the regional team said they were proud to work for Asda’a BCW – the highest score within the BCW network. The agency also scored highly for inclusion, with 84% of employees from around 30 nationalities feeling their cultural differences are valued and respected. The agency partnered with the global BCW network on various initiatives that promote diversity, inclusion and wellness, including Destination Inclusion, BCW’s 21-day topic-driven framework to encourage an inclusive culture; the Growing Leaders platform; the EDGE mentoring program; and Propel, which engages early-career, underrepresented talent in marcomms. Key new hires included Mary Smiddy as SVP of GCI Health Middle East, returning to the firm after originally leading its first healthcare practice from 2001-2006.
The firm’s Arab Youth Survey remains one of the most valuable pieces of research and thought leadership in the industry; its 13th annual edition in 2021, titled Hope for the Future, canvassed the views of 3,400 young Arab men and women in 50 Arab cities across 17 nation states, once again stimulating lively debate about the region around the world. Asda’a BCW was shortlisted for four SABRE awards, including the Arab world’s first post-pandemic in-person aviation event for Air Arabia. Outstanding work over the year also included the rebrand of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, leading to the highest number of visitors ever recorded to the Emirate, and announcing that Anghami would be the first Arab tech company to list on NASDAQ.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
When Edelman acquired fast-growing independent Dabo & Co in 2015, the deal created a firm with 150 people across the region, a market leader in the making. But within less than two years, the world’s largest PR firm was shedding jobs in the region amid a downturn, and Dabo’s founders and managing director were headed for the exits. There’s no doubt that Edelman’s reputation in the region took a hit as a result, but over the past two or three years it has been rebuilding both the business and the brand, and there’s a case to be made that the comeback story is now complete.
Edelman is the only multinational agency with its Middle Eastern headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and also operates offices in Dubai and Riyadh.
Last year was Edelman’s best in the region for quite some time, with fee income up by about 15% (the firm now derives close to $22 million from its consolidated Middle East and Africa operations), with almost two-thirds of that coming from existing clients. Headcount was up 50% so that there are now 100 people across the three offices, and the firm’s Smithfield financial operation now has a footprint in the region with 10 people. Significant new business came from Saudi Arabia Ministry of Culture and the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism, the new King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Global Market, and the emirate’s holding company ADQ. They join a client roster that includes Mubadala, Samsung, Mitsubishi Power and Saudi Arabia’s “city of the future,” Neom.
Edelman has been emphasizing its culture—with a renewed focus on DE&I, a country-by-country approach that includes benchmarking, training and partnerships—leading to some of the best employee net promoter scores of recent times. With Jordan Rittenberry serving as chairman for the Middle East and Africa, day-to-day leadership of the region is in the hands of CEO Omar Qirem, who has been adding depth to the firm’s talent pool in the region, with new hires including Mazar Masud as head of Abu Dhabi from Kekst CNC; Kenana Dahlan as head of Saudi Arabia, after stints at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and NEOM; Simon Hailes as head of financial communications from Barclays; and Portia Gibbs, who was promoted to technology practice lead for the Middle East and Africa.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer research is without question the PR industry’s most valuable piece of thought leadership, especially in recent years as trust in institutions has declined sharply, and the firm has been expanding its geographic reach to include markets like those in the Middle East. As for the client work, Edelman has been at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to move away from its dependency on oil to develop leadership in other sectors: one example being the work for NEOM, launching The Line, a 170km belt of hyper-connected future communities that will be built around nature, without cars and roads. The firm also worked on The Rig, a project that will see a former oil rig transform into an offshore amusement park, and on another effort that will see palaces transformed into boutique hotels.
— Paul Holmes
It was a landmark year for Hanover’s Middle East operation, thanks to its work on reputation and crisis communications management for the region’s biggest-ever event, the pandemic-delayed Expo 2020 in Dubai – the client the agency was effectively set up to service in 2017, when its Middle East team trebled in size after the 23-year-old firm founded by Charles Lewington bought Bell Pottinger’s business in the region. The consultancy, led in the Middle East by managing director Jonty Summers, has true trusted advisor status and focuses on strategic communications and public affairs; over the past five years, the team has developed a market reputation for doing the ‘difficult bits’ of comms and helping clients see round corners, as well as working at speed in times of uncertainty to deliver clear, considered and commercially intelligent counsel.
Hanover Middle East has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The firm, which was sold to Avenir Global in 2019, is headquartered in London and also has offices in Brussels and Dublin.
Hanover’s Middle East revenue for 2021 was up 23% to £3.2 million, with EBITDA of 19%. Key account wins over the year for the 16-strong team included the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MOFAIC), NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), Barclays, Petrofac, Takeda, AstraZeneca and Linklaters. The agency has worked with Expo 2020 Dubai, Alvarez & Marsal and S&P Global Ratings for five years. At group level, 65% of Hanover’s growth over the past year was from new projects for existing clients, and this was also reflected in the Middle East, where growth was driven by additional projects for existing clients in areas including research, employee engagement, creative work and digital activation. The agency’s work in healthcare, which overall represents 38% of revenue, also grew in the Middle East, as work for pharmaceutical firms increased.
In the Middle East, Hanover’s team is 75% female (including two thirds of directors), and encompasses nine nationalities and five religions. In 2021, Hanover enhanced its already-comprehensive LiveSmart wellbeing programme, including updated flexible working policies. This enabled employees to shift their working hours so they could spend more time with their families, or simply log off earlier if needed. Training for leaders helped them identify signs of burnout in their teams. Thanks to Hanover’s previous investment in software, which provides it with datasets that flag when staff work excessive hours during a week, it was able to manage and rebalance workloads where necessary. The Middle East team also have access to the group’s Employee Assistance Programme, which provides 24/7 support across a range of areas, including stress, anxiety and bereavement, as well as a mental health first aider, and coaching sessions to help identify and manage stress effectively in themselves and in their teams. Help isn’t limited to people who are facing challenges: the agency also ran wellbeing workshops, covering topics from mindfulness and sleep, to financial management, available to all employees. Hanover delivered 30 hours of training to further advance the skills and expertise of its communications professionals in the Middle East in 2021, and its consultants held a number of external workshops, including crisis management workshops with MEPRA (of which Summers is currently chair) and the Dubai Business Women Council.
Work of note over the past year included leading the communications response around critical issues relating to Expo 2020 Dubai as it re-launched following a year’s postponement, working with the strategic communications unit of MOFAIC to tell the UAE’s economic and cultural story in European and Asian markets, and strategy work in Saudi Arabia for the National Development Fund. In January, Hanover helped launch ROSHN, one of the latest giga-project launches by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The team also guided private hospital operator NMC Healthcare on a media journey that took it from the brink of bankruptcy through administration in Abu Dhabi Global Markets (a first) to its new period of ownership. The healthcare practice also launched the IBD Patient Support Association, the UAE’s first patient group.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
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