Global viewpoint from Saudi Arabia
A view from Ali Khalil

Global viewpoint from Saudi Arabia

Up until only a few years ago, outsiders would say that Saudi Arabia was the most boring and traditional advertising market in the world. A conservative nation whose societal, religious and political constraints hindered the industry’s ability to be both creative and progressive.

On the ground, however, there was an entirely different perception. In any walk of life, an effective conversation requires authentic communication between parties. Extend that basic skill to a brand’s "consumer", and the conversation must also resonate with specific cultural relevance. As the kingdom developed and grew, so did the industry, bringing challenging new concepts and perspectives to people, one digestible bite at a time.

Barriers to creativity therefore only existed in the minds of those who could not adjust to a uniquely different mindset and innovate in fresh ways. Conversely, being creative was about taking the consumer on a journey that found solutions around problems, as opposed to trying to smash a – highly insensitively – way through them.  

This hasn’t earned the market any groundbreaking case studies the rest of the world cares about – not yet, anyway. Hopefully, that will change. Before 2011, when mainland China won its first Grand Prix at Cannes, the Saudi market had just accepted that every country has its own set of obstacles to deal with. Egypt receiving its first-ever gold Lion in 2013 was another wake-up call for us. Those markets had discovered how to deliver outstanding world-class solutions despite religious and political restraints. If they could do it, why couldn’t we?

Creativity isn't about 'shocking' solutions but delivering content that couldn't have existed before

And so the Saudi market has become much bolder.

You only have to look at the intense success of Al Arabia’s "biggest gallery" campaign to see how a brand can work within societal limitations and yet deliver with scale on opportunities and experiences to the Saudi consumer.

True, creativity isn’t about finding "shocking" solutions; it’s about unlocking potential and delivering content that could not have existed before.

There is no denying the region still has a long way to go, but digital has been a huge accelerator of change. Saudi Arabian nationals have taken to social media just like any other country – even the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has a Twitter account. When he opened it in January 2013, he gathered 330,000 followers on the first day. To date, he has 2.2 million followers and his Tweets generate an astonishing number of retweets, which aptly demonstrates how the country is evolving.

So, a new generation of marketing movers is refusing to be tied to old benchmarks and is fully aware of the untapped potential of this massive market. With each passing day, the work coming out of agencies is more relevant and appealing, creatively circumnavigating taboos and delivering some outstanding results.

Ali Khalil is the strategic planner at J Walter Thompson Riyadh