Trust Web Times Interview Series: Hossein Houssaini; Ho/Pe Advisory

Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times
Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times

Marc Goldberg is a contributor for the Trust Web Times. Marc is also the Chief Revenue Officer of Method Media Intelligence an MRC accredited ad verification and measurement company

Hossein Houssaini is the Founder of Ho/Pe Advisory

We exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg: Tell me about your journey.

Hossein Houssaini : I never planned to be in this industry. I was making music when I was a kid. Heavy Metal, Punk Rock etc…Yes, it’s true. I had no long hair but was wearing leather pants and biker boots.

Tried to follow that dream in the US and in Germany by studying audio engineering. Great times! In the end, that did not work out due to an injury.

So my professor kindly convinced me to study media technology. For somebody who never had touchpoints with coding except playing games on consoles or a computer, that was a pretty crazy step, but the right one.

It was hard, but I survived and did not allow myself to fail. I am glad that I did it since this gave me the fundamentals of our industry, and I learned to interact with diverse mindsets and highly skilled people.

I was always a practical person eager to apply the theories we study in the real world to confirm if they work.

Therefore I was blessed to work for Puma, L’ORÉAL & IBM before I started my career at DoubleClick.

I was always BD, a commercial person, but I lucky to start in a technical role, which was the best thing that could happen to me understanding clients and their day to day challenges. This fundamentally shaped my core understanding and passion for this industry before I had roles in sales, BD and product commercialization. Anybody in a sales role should spend some time with operational teams to better understand clients and their pain points and the internal teams’ challenges. As a result, you will communicate better and respect your peers more. Trust me!

After Google acquired DoubleClick, we were globally all together about 8K people. Unimaginable today! Just checked on LinkedIn: over 100K employees. Wow! Insane growth!

I had a great time there, and I rebuild the RichMedia business for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Nordics. Since the new mothership did not believe in marketing and services, to make it a bit more challenging, I formed my business skills on various levels starting from the elevator pitch to the actual demonstration. This was great!

And then RTB came. The shiny new exciting thing. We just acquired InviteMedia and Admeld, and I was curious. After 5 years of building a great team and growing the business from zero to hero, I was approached by IPG Mediabrands for a senior position to develop their Trading Desk Cadreon and I accepted. Today, I can confidently say that the transition for me was not easy coming from a company that creates tech solutions going to a universe that was selling dreams. But I accepted this challenge and changed, with the digital progression in my back, the mindset of some executives. It was great to shape the industry with RTB and Programmatic. Don’t get me wrong. There were tough times too, but overall I grew in my Leadership, cultural and empathy attitude. First, it was only I, then we, then them: your team, your responsibility to build a healthy, pleasant and trustworthy environment. But managing teams can be challenging.

Especially when you fall for the first time in your career and need to deal with the consequences. Losing Microsoft’s global business was a brutal hit for IPG Mediabrands, and managing that was frustrating. But for me, a necessary experience and milestone in my career.

After three years, I was invited to join the global team of Havas Group and lead the programmatic transformation with some exceptional talent. I helped to design the concept for the Global Music Data Alliance between Havas and Universal Music. In addition, I co-founded Havas University, where we trained and certified over 20K employees on various digital advertising topics.

I was travelling a lot, and I would lie if I admit that it has been straightforward on executive-level navigating, leading with empathy, empowering and motivating teams. It was not. I won’t complain; I had an intensive learning curve and met so many exceptional people in my time there.

The downside:

When I started this executive role, I became a father for the first time and a second time 2 years later. I have travelled very often, and after four years of commitment to my job, it was more than time to commit to my family.

And then….then I left, for the first time with no plan, but to be happy and do something new & meaningful with my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I was blessed working for such big brands and am thankful that I could impact, learn so much and work with so much magnificent talent. Well, and now I work with these companies. 🙂

My departure was a shock to many of my friends who believed that I can impact the corporate world with my approach, values and ideas.

I did not see my purpose in that cosmos anymore, at least for the moment, and that is how I started the Ho/Pe Advisory to educate and help and lead to solutions with stakeholders.

MG: So what is Ho/Pe?

HH: Let’s start with the name. So finding a name for your company is never easy, and there was already the Programmatic Advisory from my friend Wayne.

I knew I like the word advisory. So use my name? Hossein Houssaini Advisory…mhm no, my initials maybe? I could not name this new venture Ho/Ho Advisory; that would give the wrong impression. So I just the first 2 letters of my wife’s first name, and there we go Ho/Pe Advisory, or like most called it: Hope or HPA.

So what do we do: I work with a few partners in the US and Europe, focusing on product strategy, market-entry, growth and visibility. I also train in digital marketing and give keynotes to share my views and experiences on what advertising means, what it should do, and how we can stimulate creativity to message something meaningful, which the advertised person would call an experience to engage with a brand or buy a product.

How do we do that? Besides technology, methodology, measurement and other solutions, many relevant factors define success: attitude, work culture, integrity, authenticity, and values that feed into great ideas to create good advertising.

Does Leadership play a crucial role here? Yes, No? So what does good Leadership mean, and how can a company communicate its best interest in its employees to drive its vision and create a trustworthy environment that helps teams deliver exceptional results.

We work with technology companies, brands and agencies.

But although you learn a lot from different missions, working with various talents, this is still a tough gig. 🙂 I am not making a secret out of that, but it is fun!

In the end, you depend on recommendations, your reputation, and of course, you need to deliver.

I am also dedicating some time as a board member for some established companies, forums, and start-ups.

MG: So you told your wife pre-pandemic you were doing your own thing, not very good timing?

HH: When is good timing? How can we know that before? Yes, I started on my own before the pandemic in 2019.

As with every new business, it takes time to find mandates and make companies and people aware that you exist, are available and provide a specific skill set. And as the Adtech/ Martech landscape advising is a crowded space as well. 🙂 No secret!

Tough start, but thankfully I grew in business. There are so many things you learn when you do everything by yourself.

Yes, and then pandemic came my family, and I were skiing in Austria….so we were stuck.

Thankfully we were equipped to do our jobs. The hotel gave us a house since they had to close. We met so many friendly and helpful people. We basically met the whole village in the first pandemic. So overall, we were outside the UK for almost 4 months. Crazy, but what an adventure for my family!

As thanks, I helped to build a food delivery service with the executive chef of the hotel. Yes, you read correctly, a food delivery service: concept & campaign. And it worked. The food service sold out every week since the day they opened last year in March. Here a summary: https://youtu.be/_WKimrx1eKo.

And since the hotels are open again in Austria, this project is now on hold but can be reactivated. This helped the people and their mental health, the community and the mood overall. I am glad I was able to help.

But as mentioned before, my and my partners work flexibility allowed us to travel around without the need to rush back home.

MG: I am going to replay something you said to me when we spoke. You walked into a role thinking it was going to be 80% innovation and 20% politics. You learned it was 20% innovation and 80% politics. As it becomes harder for agencies to make money, do you see that get even worse?

HH: Did I say that….haha. Any job has politics and any company that I know striving to be successful; every group of friends, associations, politics itself has politics. So we have to accept that, live with it or compete against it. Just be smart and don’t let that affect your ego. :-).

One thought: With the consistent evolution of technology, our world changes in continuous mode, and it should be evident by now that people change as well. We talk about Generation X, Y, and Z and discuss how we can address them better with advertising messages. Do we really understand them if we cannot lead this crowd in our own organization or understand them?

Now we talk about leading; what values are that based on? If we have empathy and strive to understand our employees’ concerns, we don’t express enough authority. But, on the other hand, if we focus on profit only and build that attitude as a culture, we might be famous for something else. You know what I mean.

And the business model from the 80s and 90s, meaning to maximize shareholder value, is something we should consider rethinking.

Since that impacts how we develop our business models, how we invest in talent, how we drive and motivate them, how we win and treat our customers, how we keep them, and how we build a culture where every representative stands for the vision of the enterprise.

I think politics belong to our day to day life, but with a healthy and robust culture including values like empathy, authenticity and integrity, you can control this.

Any company’ Leadership that cannot create a friendly environment where people with different skillsets collaborate and share ideas has a problem. And if an organization, teams, team members don’t deliver, it might get tricky.

Last year was especially critical to see which companies adapt quickly, which ones made sure employees are safe, and which ones did not so well. We are still in learning mode. Digital Leadership is not straightforward! And it basically was demanded overnight! So although we are going step by step back to normality, remote work will be part of our lives.

Yes, many companies in our industry were in crisis, but those who adapted and innovated their technology or service business model did well.

This pandemic has taught us many things: changing consumer behavior and attitude and expectation towards brands, and how we want to be messaged through advertising.

With the deprecation of the 3rd Party cookie, new approaches must come. But, of course, they won’t come overnight. But, unfortunately, the industry is cracking its heads and is only talking about replacing it with a new one. Is that the right approach, or do we need to question it?

Especially agencies need to have an opinion for their clients who are probably directionless and don’t comprehend the significant change yet, how we plan and activate campaigns in the future.

The opportunity lies in innovating every building block in our industry, how we run an organization, how we create a digital strategy, the business model, measurement & metrics, success, and how we invest in people. We need new thinking and innovation.

Otherwise, everything continues as we only work on novelties, not genuine innovations that solve challenges but not the enigma to better advertise and care about it. Instead, we should work with solutions that matter and not keep on betting on replacing techniques to retain outdated business models. Sounds harsh, but it is what it is.

Advertising is a vibrant medium, and we need to operate with it like that: Strategize, but stay flexible, agile and unpredictable! Otherwise, there will be considerable barriers to overcome soon.

MG: So what do agencies need to stop doing now?

HH: We should instead address what we should do, consider or at least think of. The death of the 3rd Party cookie is going to change everything. Or is it?

Everybody should be aware that with 3rd Party Cookie deprecation, we need to plan alternatives and collaborate to ease the transition for when the doomsday finally arrives. Addressability and measurability will change! We cannot expect to put all the pressure on tech companies to find a solution or replacement for the industry.

There are so many things along the marketing chain that need to be fixed as well.

We must not underestimate that under any circumstances. Statista states that the share of marketers reliant of 3rd Party data is around 80%. We are talking about Third-Party Audience Data spend reaching almost $20 billion. (https://www.statista.com/topics/7693/third-party-cookie-deprecation/)

We can’t just fill the enormous gap with cement and move on. We did that for so many years. And 1st Party data, yes, of course, 1st Party data is the new gold, but we always knew how valuable it is but did not focus on it since it was not as scalable.

Agencies need to take obligation here as well. As the walled gardens have now contrived their solutions, the rest of the Adtech universe works on their own workarounds. Agencies need to evolve, collaborate and invest in an ongoing transformation of the advertising business through automation, enhancing old processes and investing in talent. But that means a complete mindset change from short let business thinking to mid and long term strategic enterprise goals supported by top-level executives and boards. I believe the pandemic has given us an incentive to consider new possibilities and to rethink traditional practices.

People are an integral part of the advertising ecosystem. I will not put all agencies in one drawer, as many have previously grown through creative ideas, business models, even in the pandemic. Still, in general, there is a need to value employees by providing them with tools and a balanced culture for mental health by facilitating their work environment and automating outdated manual processes to promote creativity and excellent outcomes. Crucial point if we consider that we probably will have to plan media fragmented in the future. Who knows?!

MG: Don’t get me wrong, I came from the agency side, love the agency. You are identifying some of the issues around margins, and that concerns Wall Street. Is that some of them are public hurting more than helping them?

HH: Any business that wants to be successful takes a margin. When you eat out and order a bottle of wine, you know you pay at least double—anything has one, to be honest. Always depends on how transparent you are about it.

Margins are a concern, but that is no secret next to brand safety and fraud.

Unfortunately, we have exhausted the topic with Programmatic. But you shouldn’t just point the finger at one part of the advertising chain; we must consider the technology layers. In 2020 PWC published a study stating that 15% of programmatic supply chain costs can not be allocated and disappear into a black hole, while only half of the investments make it to publishers. (https://mediatel.co.uk/news/2020/05/06/isba-pwc-third-of-programmatic-supply-chain-costs-unattributable/)

That is why SPO solutions will be more and more fashionable and in use.

Agencies need to invest now in systems and need to redesign their business models, but at the same time, brands need to agree that advertising cannot be a price exercise.

We have seen how the pandemic has influenced our behavior in engaging with consumer goods, and this will be a consistent situation with GenZ’s. Therefore, we should redirect the debate about the price and focus on purpose, goals and results.

Overall the global pandemic and all topics around privacy and data will force us to deliver quality work and improve our approaches, work ethics and business models.

MG: Where are you located?

In London, Great Britain, with global access 🙂

MG: Any plans on coming to America to buy me a beer?

HH: Sure, when travel is possible, why not. Although I believe that face-to-face meetings are relevant and support business decisions, the pandemic showed that we can operate much more efficient with digital tools and conferencing. We all just need to find the right balance now, once the lockdown is eased. I don’t believe that time and location impacts the quality of your work if you are disciplined.

But when I come over, I probably take you out for a big night due to delaying this article for quite some time now :-). Apologies again!

MG: Are you planning on going to a conference in 2021?

HH: So I assume my presence this year will be still digital. Cannes Lions is digital, as is DMEXCO. Some events in the US are face-to-face now.

I look forward to that :-).

MG: In general, where are you planning to go first when you can?

HH: Let me tell you this: I will make priorities seeing family and friends. But once the conferences are back and not digital, I will visit the relevant events for networking and see old and new industry friends.

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