The president of Horizon Holdings on his adman hero, loving his childhood “hotel life”, the impact of Saudi Arabia opening up and “brand” Dubai
Covid-19 saw the agencies of Horizon Holdings – Horizon FCB MENA, BPN MENA, GolinMENA, Fuel Content and Blue Barracuda – work hard and fast, to keep clients present and relevant during a most unusual year. The result is, reckons Mazen Jawad, some of the best and most exciting creative work in the company’s 44-year history – including a campaign work for FINE masks about the environmental impact of disposable masks that has made headlines around the world and a Clorox TikTok ‘workout’ challenge that reached and engaged with 1.4 billion people.
For Mazen, who was promoted to the role of president of Horizon Holdings in January 2019 but has been with the company since 1994, his priority was to look after the agencies’ employees. He’s proud that they’ve managed to avoid redundancies during a very tough year and says that the family’s co-owned business sees the wider Horizon community as an extended family.
For a consummate international traveller and lover of hotels, the year has also seen Mazen’s own wings clipped but on the other hand, he’s excited about the fact that creativity within his own agencies and across the region is truly soaring. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Mazen to find out more.
LBB> Your relationship with Horizon FCB is a long one and you’ve spent your entire career there – where does that connection come from?
Mazen> My uncle was the founder of Horizon and he's the chairman and CEO today. I grew up close to him being the one who really took care of me. He even sent me to university during my time in Chicago and supported me throughout. I remember in summer when I was a teenager, my brother and cousins would go to the beach while I used to go to the office to watch creative reels along my cousin Rona!
He was my idol as an adman, as an entrepreneur, as one of the ad mavericks of our industry in the region… one of the few who started his own ad agency in the ‘70s and remains today. Most importantly, he's also a close friend before being family.
Therefore, we naturally connect on a professional level. He created this amazing place that myself and a lot of the employees call home.
LBB> When did FCB and Horizon come together?
Mazen> Horizon started in ‘76 and a couple of years later, Rafic did an affiliation agreement with FCB. It started as Horizon, and exactly like how we started in the ‘70s, we wanted to stay with FCB. We have a loyalty with our friends and partners that comes above and beyond everything and hence our never-finished relationship with FCB remains as solid as then.
LBB> I noticed that you studied hospitality – what motivated that?
Mazen> Travel was a big part of my life – and it still is. I travelled a lot as a kid because of the Civil War that ravaged Lebanon. I travelled through Europe with my family as they were trying to choose a new place to settle. Switzerland was one of these places where I spent a lot of time between Geneva and the Swiss Alps.
So, we resided in many hotels and they became a big part of my life. I loved the hotel life, hence decided to enrol into hotel management. You get to see the service corridors, the kitchens and the laundry halls amongst other departments. It was interesting and I was surely enriched to learn about the things hoteliers do to make people so happy, comfortable and excited during their stays. But after this was done I discovered that my real passion was my first joy, advertising.
LBB> That must be so useful – emotion and experience are so important to agencies’ work now…
Mazen> True. Especially at a time when data and technology are prominently dominating. One can’t live without the other, they have to work hand in hand.
LBB> How are you surviving since travel is so restricted?
Mazen> Dubai is such a beautiful place to rediscover again and again so I don’t have much to complain about. I lived a significant part of my life in a boarding school and learnt to create my own happiness wherever I am regardless of the external factors that are beyond my control.
LBB> What was your first job in the industry after university?
Mazen> This was my first job – at Horizon! I started as an account executive in Lebanon working on the Swatch account. It’s really an exciting brand. My uncle told me to give it a try for a couple of months and then we see what comes next… next was 25 years of advertising!
After Beirut, I went to Saudi Arabia to learn and experience close and personal the heartbeat of the region for three years. Then I went to Chicago for three years, working for FCB on SC Johnson for the US market while doing my MBA at night… and then I moved to Athens. In Athens I headed the Clairol brands as our client had the headquarters of Bristol Myers for the MENA region based there. Soon later, we won Samsung globally which required a lead role in Dubai, so I moved again in 2001 and remained here since then.
LBB> What have been the really important lessons or bits of advice that have really stayed with you?
Mazen> There’s one piece of advice that has been given to me in many, many forms and even my aunt Mary uses it in my personal life. It’s that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Sometimes when you want to impress someone you think that by being complex and a bit too sophisticated you might do the job, but simplicity is usually the best way to make sure that your message is understood.
LBB> Over your career, how has the advertising industry in the region evolved?
Mazen> When I think about it, when I started in 1994 everything was under one roof. We were in charge of everything, advertising, brochures, events, PR, media, so we understood a bit of everything. And then the industry started to disintegrate into specialised companies. And it’s funny, because today in my role as president of the holdings I’m back dealing with everything at the same time. We have the creative, media and PR of course, and then there are things like e-commerce, data analytics, digital solutions, social media and video content productions added to the spectrum. We’re seeing it coming together and regathering in one place.
LBB> Internationally, we hear a lot about Dubai as a regional hub and of course Lebanon has a great creative reputation. But as you spent time in Saudi Arabia, I’d love to know what the flavour of the advertising is like there? How would you describe it?
Mazen> Saudi Arabia is the heart of our region due to its big population and its big potential.
So you can imagine the amount of creative people and creativity there. We’ve started to see them coming to the forefront more and more in the past couple of years especially since the country started opening up. People felt more free to express themselves, and women felt more empowered to share their creativity, whether in fashion, in entrepreneurship or anything they chose to pursue. The creativity we see in Saudi today is mesmerizing. It makes us really happy and proud.
We launched Becks, the non-alcoholic beer of AB InBev in Saudi Arabia last year and we used the creativity of the people as drivers of the brand. If you see the content that we created, it was all about those upcoming creators who are very talented, creative and unique that needed a platform.
LBB> When it comes to your own career development, you always have an ambition to become a leader?
Mazen> As a personality I have always been passionate and ambitious. The leadership position came up a few years ago. It came as a result of a combination of performance, ambition and a lot of guidance from our founder, chairman and my uncle Rafic. Also working in an amazing network like FCB facilitated stepping into this role, whether through the support of my friends at FCB or my colleagues in our group of companies. They truly helped me a lot throughout my career.
LBB> Within the group, you have a lot of different agencies and specialisms to oversee – how do you keep on top of everything?
Mazen> With the right people and leaders of course, they do magic every day. For me it was a natural evolution because when I started, I was doing a bit of everything. Most of our agencies in the region are Horizon FCB brands, so they are about the creative product and using data to inform our decision. That’s the core of my life, of my business, of my career.
LBB> How common is it for agencies to set up in-house production capabilities in Dubai?
Mazen> We were the first multinational agency in Dubai to launch a production company within the group, but others are doing it now. Listen, I’m a person who remains young – I want to change the world every day. I saw how important content was becoming, and even though it wasn’t custom to have the full video content production within the agency, I decided to kick-it off it then.
The whole thing started when we had a couple of incidents with two different clients at that time where the production quotations were coming too high. I wanted to find an immediate solution for those clients entrusting us with their investments. Overnight we hired people and started to do it inhouse. The work that came out was fantastic and two weeks later we decided to launch our own content production company, FuelContent.
LBB> In terms of the advertising and marketing industry in Dubai, what is the most exciting thing about it that we should know about ?
Mazen> What I find different about Dubai today is the ‘brand’ Dubai. It is all about connections. Connecting people, businesses and cultures.
Dubai is so surprising, so innovative, so beautiful. I call this city home and it keeps surprising you. It makes you want to excel every day; it makes you want to be inventive all of the time. It makes you not accept defeat and it makes you believe that you can be anything, you just dream it and make it happen. These are things that we have learned from our one of a kind leader HH Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai. He is another idol for me and a person whom I served for many of his brands. Over the past ten years I am proud to have worked on many, many Dubai brands.
LBB> And what’s the creative energy like in Dubai?
Mazen> We’ve got people coming to Dubai from Brazil, Australia, South Africa, the UK, India, the Arab world and from all over the world. Dubai attracts talent for many reasons. One, because the creativity is of a high standard and because Dubai keeps progressing and transforming. Dubai is also a fun city – it’s sunny all year round and it’s one of the safest places in the world. If you have a family, you know that your family is well and safe and happy.
I have to say, for myself, if you see the sun every day you smile every day.
But wanting to be the best is what Dubai is all about. It is the reason we keep importing talent and amazing people to Dubai all the time, to have the right and relevant mix and constantly improve what we have.
LBB> What recent pieces of work are you particularly proud of?
Mazen> Some of the best work we’ve ever done we’ve done in the past few months. In the midst of the crisis we did the Tiktok ‘workout’ challenge for Clorox that brought attention to 1.4 billion viewers. It’s got great, insane engagement. It’s about people exercising while cleaning their homes during Covid-19.
The second piece of work we did was for FINE masks. Everywhere in the world we’re being asked to wear masks so we launched a campaign to create awareness about wasting disposable masks and the harm it has on our environment… why not wear reusable washable masks? We saw our work picked up by international media and creative platforms. It appeared in Peru 48 hours later and was covered by newspapers in Spain, in Brazil amongst many others. We shed light on an overlooked issue back then and media responded and asked the question, “what sort of damage are we doing to our planet?”
The third piece was launched last month in October for Pink Caravan and Friends of Cancer Patients for breast cancer. We reinvented an existing emoji and created a new story for it, to remind women about self-examination. Honest, simple and spot on.
LBB> I know it’s really hard to look too far into the future, but what are your plans for the agency in the coming year?
Mazen> My plan is always to improve our product and keep recreating ourselves. Horizon FCB is our creative product, BPN is the media product, Golin is our PR product, Blue Barracuda for digital solutions and FuelContent for video content productions. To succeed today, you need to have a solid creative product fuelled by data and technology. You need to stand out and be different. And most importantly be agile, fast and cost efficient. Our work is NEVER FINISHED, that’s the motto of our global network.
Having said that, at the moment, my priority would be our people and our clients. I want to create a safe environment for our people especially in such times of uncertainty, where they feel protected and free to express themselves and their individuality. And for our clients, to continue being the true partners we are to them, for better or for worse. And most important, do it while having fun!