Tumi Rabanye, AdFocus jury chair, chief creative officer of TBWA Hunt Lascaris Peter Khoury and Jeremy Maggs, Adfocus editor. Picture: Paul Elliot
Tumi Rabanye, AdFocus jury chair, chief creative officer of TBWA Hunt Lascaris Peter Khoury and Jeremy Maggs, Adfocus editor. Picture: Paul Elliot

This year’s AdFocus Industry Leader of the Year is chief creative officer of TBWA Hunt Lascaris, Peter Khoury, a man who has played a leading role in delivering growth to his clients’ bottom line while at the same time accumulating more than 350 awards at international and local award shows.

He sits on executive committee of the Creative Circle and the Facebook Creative Council for the EMEA region as well as the Loeries board.

Khoury was a unanimous decision as this year’s industry leader, standing out as a result of his consistency despite operating in a highly pressured and often egotistical environment. The judges agreed that – even observed from a distance – it is clear that Khoury is a chief creative officer who really cares about his team and nurtures them to their full potential. He is one of the few creative directors with the ability to grow and elevate others while still maintaining his own grounded and humble attitude – all the while being utterly brilliant at what he does. A man without airs and graces, he is universally admired in the industry and a worthy recipient of the title Industry Leader of the Year.

His journey into advertising was by no means always a foregone conclusion. When he was 15 years old, a young Khoury went to Video Lab to see what they do there because he loved animation and was keen to pursue it as a career. He was advised that he should study at the AAA when he left school. His mind was made up when representatives of the AAA came to his school to show the students what they did. It included demonstrating a stop-frame animation that an AAA student had created for Coca-Cola. He was sold, only realising when he eventually got to the AAA that the course was more about the curation and packaging of ideas than about animation. Fortunately, he loved it.

He quickly realised that if an  idea was lacking, no matter what you did the result would only be as good as the idea. He did not want to carry out other people’s nonsensical ideas as an animator,  “so I doubled down on advertising,” he recalls. “This is also the reason I’ve never moved into film directing – I’m not interested in executing somebody else’s mediocre ideas.”

As a leader he believes in practising what he preaches and leading by example. He says it’s important to create an environment where everyone has a voice and is equal before the idea, while at the same time to make an extra effort to ensure the introverts speak up,  because often their ideas bring balance.

Good leaders, he maintains, take the time to teach and share their knowledge and secrets, with the aim of helping those who work under them become better than they themselves are.

Khoury is renowned for rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck in. “As a leader I have found that the more you know the details of what it takes to pull something off, the more specific you can be when you are briefing, questioning, presenting and explaining. This knowledge comes from a consistent attitude, over many years, of wanting to learn all the rules so I could break them. I used to get frustrated when people gave me technical reasons for not being able to do something. I didn’t like not knowing the details of these reasons because I wanted to challenge them.”

He says: “I wanted to be able to give anyone I oversaw the best in-depth feedback and direction in their specific area of responsibility. To do that meant that I had to learn and master everything in the process so that I always had a practical and informed point of view.”

That also meant that in addition to learning to art direct, he learnt how to write radio ads and headlines, edit, animate, direct, illustrate, design and sell ideas. At the same time he learnt to overcome his introverted nature.

“I kept learning and trying things out so I could better explain myself, ask better questions and direct people in a specific way,” he says. This was what has allowed him to delve into the deep craft of something while also pushing the limits of what’s possible, to deliver iconic, distinctive and memorable work.

When it comes to creative leadership, you have got to know your stuff, he says. “Busking just isn’t going to cut it – at least not in a high-performance company. If you want to keep A players around you, they need to be fulfilled, which means you have to operate at their level and beyond, nurturing an environment that encourages debate and rewards commitment and excellence – where they can see you nipping, tucking, crafting, simplifying and taking the time to lay down the breadcrumbs so you can sell and defend their great work.”

As to where the industry is going, he maintains that while tech will lead the way, great storytelling will seal the deal. “Our clients pay us for what they need now, but our future revenue lies in what they are not yet asking us for, and we need to lead the way or we’ll be relegated down the food chain.”  

The advertising industry continues to face numerous dilemmas – tension points where success boils down to the industry’s attitude towards those tensions: procurement vs free engagement, a sea of sameness vs originality, growth vs money, fake vs true, addiction vs expression, people vs brands, privacy vs access, now vs next, and reset vs innovate. “Inside these tensions are a wealth of great answers – but only if we are asking great questions,” says Khoury.

Making diversity work – in terms of culture, tech and expression – is going to be a challenge, he believes, despite the fact that SA has been doing it for a lot longer than most countries. But the industry will overcome the challenges facing it by leveraging its greatest strength: lateral thinking.

What inspires him, Khoury says, is bravery; bravery which doesn’t just have a time and a place but is rather a way of being and a characteristic of people who see their own self-worth as their power.

“I love misfits – people who make it big and shouldn’t have, with all the chips stacked against them. They proved the world wrong.”

He admires people like US film director Stanley Kubrick – “Not only did he speak through his work, he simultaneously created a foundation for where film-making and artistic expression could go. He embodied what it means to be a creative; through his dark and witty depictions and sometimes complex subject matter he created the unseen by tapping into the untouched.”

He relates the example of two competitive fashion houses: Christian Dior was a creative director with a great eye, a sense of style and an intuitive feeling for what would resonate. At his disposal he had a studio of people geared towards producing beautiful things at scale. At the same time there was Cristóbal Balenciaga, a master craftsman with a reputation as a couturier of uncompromising standards who was even referred to as “the master of us all” by Dior.

“I admire them both, but I admire them as one entity –  Balenciaga or Dior, either works. Success in a creative company today is about finding a balance between both these approaches: the ability to scale, to create compelling, resonant work fast, but also the ability to offer deep craft and specialisation in certain areas that keep you ahead of the competition and trends. Both these areas of delivery need to be world class,” he says.

The big take-out:

“As a leader I have found that the more you know the details of what it takes to pull something off, the more specific you can be when briefing, questioning, presenting and explaining. This knowledge comes from a consistent attitude, over many years, of wanting to learn the rules so I could break them.”

While Khoury is motivated by creating work that gains respect and recognition around the world, what he is most proud of are those instances where his work has had an impact on society and its mindsets or beliefs. He refers here in particular to the Sasol campaign which introduced the world to the possibility of a milk bottle that turns green when the milk is off; Joe, the volunteer coach of the SA Olympic team who had more passion than ability; the MTN Clap ad; the Ayoba 2010 World Cup campaign; a Braille burger that allowed blind people to see their food for the first time and even breaking ballet stereotypes by creating a series of bite-sized ballets straight from trending stories and serving them back to culture.

He’s also proud of his role in helping start MetropolitanRepublic, an agency that for a time took on and outperformed the Goliaths of the industry, as well as what he has achieved at TBWA\Hunt Lascaris over the past five and a bit years. The latter was rated overall Regional Agency of the Year at Loeries in 2018 and 2019 and second EMEA Regional Agency of the Decade at Cannes Lion in 2020.

Like many great leaders he refuses take all the credit. “I am most proud of all the TBWA pirates that made this happen. Together we go into the wild seas every day. Sometimes we get beaten and tossed aside. But we get up and do it again. It didn’t come easy, nor will it get any easier. But we’re a great collective of people so I know we will keep bringing our best every day.”

He’s looking forward to watching the protégés that served under him rise into ever more influential positions within the next decade or two. “Who knows, I may even be working for one of them by then,” he chuckles.

As for life after advertising? Well, that will see him reigniting Zero One One, a lifestyle brand that he co-owns and started in 1999. You’ll be likely to find him in his workshop creating limited editions and one-off beautifully crafted bespoke pieces that people will pay him a lot of money to acquire. But that’s a long way in the future.

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