Houda Tohme on her 22-years at Havas Media: A journey of growth and innovation

Abha Garyali Peer |

Houda Tohme has had a remarkable 22-year career in media and marketing, with her journey at Havas Media Middle East beginning in 2006. Over the years, she has demonstrated unwavering dedication and passion in her field of expertise. Notably, she has played a pivotal role in the impressive growth of Havas Media, leading the planning team with pride. Throughout her career, she has worked with prestigious brands such as Chanel, Puig, Coty, and Kia.

In 2019, Houda Tohme achieved the position of Managing Director and later assumed the role of CEO at Havas Media, marking more than 13 years of invaluable service with the group. As an integral member of the management team, she oversees the media operations across the region. Her leadership reinforces the agency's mission to bring people and brands together through meaningful connections.

In this exclusive interview with Adgully Middle East, Houda Tohme, CEO of Havas Media, reflects on her journey with the company and sheds light on the significant progress made by women in the Middle East. Her rise from leading the planning team to the highest executive positions is a testament to her commitment and substantial contributions to the company's growth. Excerpts:

Could you please describe your professional journey and share what or who inspired you to reach your current position?

In 2002, my media journey started in Dubai as a media planner. Over the years, I've worked with diverse clients, ranging from FMCG giants to luxury brands. I began as a Media Manager at Havas with a team of no more than 10 people. I was able to play an active role in growing the agency into a team of 250+ professionals across five GCC markets, making us one of the top five agencies in the region.

I am very fortunate to be part of an organization that doesn’t just recognize the dedication of its employees but actively nurtures their potential. This approach not only motivates the workforce but also demonstrates the agency's commitment to fostering individual growth and empowering each team member to achieve their utmost potential.

In your role as CEO of Havas Media, what are your main responsibilities, and what can you tell us about your experience with the organization over the years?

My priority has always been and will always be my team, the heart and soul of our organization. We take pride in our unique culture rooted in integrity, transparency, and collaboration. I lead a skilled team, many of whom have been with us for over a decade, seamlessly embodying our values. I focus on business development for growth and client retention, highlighted by the most recent successful partnerships like Nakheel, Aujan, and LG Electronics. And I also oversee refining our product, and ensuring it stays ahead of the curve across the region.

What are your thoughts on women's empowerment in the Middle East, and how have you observed changes in this regard over the past decade?

The region has made significant progress in promoting women's rights and opportunities for their advancement. The UAE serves as an exemplary model for women's empowerment for the entire Middle East. With a strong belief in the pivotal role of women in society, the UAE boasts a thriving community of women entrepreneurs who own thousands of businesses valued at AED60 billion1. Women in the UAE also occupy two-thirds of public sector positions, including 30% in senior leadership roles2, and an increasing number in ministerial roles.

Remarkably, since 2018, Saudi Arabia has implemented substantial changes to champion the empowerment of women in the kingdom as part of the overarching societal reforms undertaken for vision 2030. Moreover, the percentage of Saudi adults actively participating in the economy has risen to 51.5%, with more than two million men and women now engaged in the private sector3. The first Arab woman to go on a space mission is a Saudi national, further highlighting KSA’s commitment to breaking new frontiers and advancing gender equality. These developments underscore the broader recognition of women's contributions throughout the Middle East and I believe we should all be proud of that.

Being a media expert, what can you say about the new media marketing strategies adopted by Havas in the UAE?

Our distinguished ‘village model’ is fundamentally client centric with creativity, innovation, and agility serving as the core pillars of our offering. This unique model allows us to offer tailored, flexible solutions based on our clients' ever-changing needs. It fosters an environment of collaboration and versatility, enabling us to bring together diverse talents and disciplines to solve a wide range of challenges for our clients. We are constantly evolving to stay at the forefront of the industry, embracing new solutions and approaches while staying true to our creative roots.

Havas Media is recognized as one of the most successful communication companies. What distinguishes Havas Media from its competitors?

At Havas Media, our reputation as a leading communications agency is rooted in an organizational culture that not only places our talented team at the core, but also creates an environment where individuals can truly thrive. This culture fosters a sense of innovation and collaboration, providing our passionate team the foundation and tools to thrive. It's this exceptional team, many of whom have been with us for over a decade, that serves as the cornerstone of our achievements.

Furthermore, our forward-thinking approach ensures we stay ahead of the curve. We have a strong core product which is centered around building meaningful media experiences for consumers. In the recent years, we have expanded the breadth of our offer by bringing in new capabilities in commerce, content, and data. With our Havas market practice expanding into the Middle East, we're equipped to guide clients through the complexities and intricacies of the commerce ecosystem. We are actively enhancing our data offering and expanding our content pillar to anticipate and meet evolving client needs. This helps us create stickier and deeper relationships with our key partners.

Can you provide details about a campaign that posed significant challenges but ultimately achieved great success?

The Adidas Liquid Billboard campaign was an integral initiative that really stood out for us. This campaign is a testament to the power of collaboration, bringing together versatile talents across our village to solve a challenge facing the women of the region. We needed to go beyond conventional and create something truly ground-breaking. The outcome was the world’s first swimmable billboard, a bold and innovative concept that not only captured the attention of our target audience but also made a significant impact globally. It earned us, and the Middle East, one of only three Cannes Lion Grand Prix awards in the region's history while sparking discussions about body positivity and inclusivity in swimming.This campaign also demonstrated our passion about not just reaching audiences but also about creating meaningful and lasting difference to the people and the brands we work with.

As an accomplished media professional, what advice would you offer to newcomers in the field on how to achieve success in their careers?

In my journey as a media professional, I’ve learned that success in advertising and marketing goes beyond the perceived glamour and excitement of the industry. My foremost advice to those starting out is to ensure your career choice aligns with your interests and personal values. While it offers a dynamic and creative work environment, it is equally demanding and can be stressful.Pursuing a career merely for the sake of having a job can lead to demotivation and burnout. Therefore, it becomes important to carve a path that truly speaks to your passions and strengths, as motivation and a deep-seated commitment are crucial for navigating the demanding aspects of this industry and ultimately achieving success.

What are your views about the statement ‘women can be better media experts as communication is their forte’?

The notion that 'women can be better media experts because communication is their forte' is an interesting perspective, but it's important to approach such generalizations with caution. While it's true that many women excel in communication skills, attributing a specific skill set to an entire gender can be overly simplistic and overlooks the individual talents and capabilities of each person, regardless of gender. In my view, expertise in media and communication is not gender-specific but a result of individual talent, experience, and hard work. Both men and women can be equally skilled and effective in these roles. At Havas, we focus on harnessing the unique strengths and perspectives of each team member, fostering a diverse and inclusive environment where talent thrives, irrespective of gender.

Where do you envision Houda Tohme in 2033? What goals or aspirations still linger on your professional bucket list, even with the numerous achievements you've attained?

Looking ahead to 2033, I envision myself continuing to make a meaningful impact, not only in the media industry but in the broader advertising and marketing sector within our region. In an industry driven by human ingenuity and relationships, our actions hold the power to instigate subtle yet impactful changes. My aim is to cultivate environments that emphasize and prioritize collaboration, transparency, and ethics. I intend to actively participate in shaping a more positive and sustainable future, where human welfare is paramount.