Middle East: Searching for gems

The Middle East is just starting to produce award-grabbing creative, Steve Wrelton writes.

If you were asked where cutting-edge work is being created, it is fairly unlikely - unless you happen to be a globetrotting worldwide creative director - that you would mention the Middle East.

However, if recent developments are anything to go by, you can expect that scenario to change - and quickly.

Three years ago, it was rare to see work from a regional agency appear on creative sites such as bestadsontv.com or adforum.com, and the region was notable by its absence at Cannes. Then came the success in 2005 of the Dubai-based independent Tonic Communications, and of direct marketing specialist Wunderman in 2006.

Tonic's win, in particular, was a key moment in the history of Middle East advertising. It was a "first" for the region, and it served as a wake-up call for everyone else.

"To be the first agency in the Middle East to win a Cannes gold has had a huge impact not only for Tonic, but for the entire region," Vincent Raffray, Tonic's creative director, says.

"In two short years, we've seen a new creative energy flowing through agencies that are now starting to see the value in producing solid, creative work," he adds.

Since then, other triumphs have focused big-name networks' attention on their Middle East operations.

"Just as multinational agencies expect to build profits from every market in which they operate, they're also expecting those markets to help to improve their creative reputations," Dani Richa, the chief creative officer of Impact BBDO in the Middle East and North Africa, says.

"If you get a couple of awards from the Middle East, it could be the difference between an agency being second, third or fourth in the Gunn Report."

In March, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival staged its first Middle East awards show - the Dubai Lynx. The ceremony crowned Saatchi & Saatchi's Dubai office Agency of the Year.

While much of the agency's work was clever, it was also simple in execution. Ed Jones, the regional creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, notes: "The stuff that wins awards obeys the rules of international style, which means simple and accessible to all.

"I'm sure there are some very funny Egyptian TV ads that depend on you getting the equivalent of Geordie jokes or something, but they're not going to communicate to everybody, possibly not even to other Arabs - certainly not to international judges or to the region's multicultural audience."

The Pan-Arab nature of much of the region's advertising, especially TV, is important. Big brands have to make sure they look and feel the same across a huge geographical area.

"You have to do things that everybody will get," Richa says. "It's true that you lose on the local relevance and insights, but you gain in magnitude and scale in terms of getting clients to use better directors and to have better production values."

When it comes to what is acceptable in advertising, the Middle East varies significantly from country to country.

Saudi Arabia - where the depiction of female flesh, and even certain animals, are forbidden - is by far the strictest country. In the United Arab Emirates, the rules of engagement are more flexible, but the market is still conservative compared with the US or the UK. Cultural and religious sensitivities are, however, viewed as a motivator for better work.

Raffray says the environment lends itself to the production of visually uncomplicated work that makes instant connections with consumers: "This is what makes our work unique in this region."

One thing the region lacks in terms of creative inspiration is a proper film industry. In Saudi Arabia, cinema is banned, and, with the exception of Egypt and Lebanon, there is very little in the way of locally produced film.

Before the stellar rise of Dubai, much of the region's talent base consisted of creatives from Lebanon, which has a far richer tradition of advertising than the Gulf states.

But with advertising being a key growth industry, it is not surprising that an increasing number of creatives are relocating from more developed markets to seek their (tax-free) fortunes. This process of internationalisation has been a major factor in improving Middle East creativity.

Richa says: "Not only do they bring added value, but they also push the locals to raise their standards ... so it's not as if the Middle East broke through and made it to the international scene; the international scene broke through and made it to the Middle East."

Yet there is no denying that the Middle East's network agencies still have work to do in raising their game to an international level.

Raffray, previously a senior creative at Impact BBDO and Team Y&R in Dubai, argues that many of the larger agencies have yet to find their "true identity" and that some of the smaller ones are "so bad, they don't even deserve to exist".

"There are a few great ideas but, in general, it's hard to listen to the radio, watch TV or read a newspaper without gagging," he says. "Even the good work feels like it has been done elsewhere, and great integrated campaigns are just nowhere to be found."

Advertising-savvy clients are also thin on the ground. "The industry still yearns for the client who understands and appreciates cutting-edge advertising," Nirmal Diwadkar, the regional creative director of TBWA\Raad, Middle East and Africa, says.

Last year, Falconcity of Wonders (a multimillion-dollar development in Dubai) provided an example of just how unsophisticated advertising can be. "The city will have lots of shops, shopping malls, and a majority of worldwide known classy hotels ... and nice green parks," read the copy, which ended with the utterly bizarre tagline: "Seeing believes lakes."

Jones says: "It's like any other business - cars, hotels, construction - there's a lot of shit, but there's some really good stuff, too. Of course, you could ask what the style is here and say that it's shit typography, lousy ideas, ghastly art direction and dreadfully incompetent copywriting. That would be equally true."

Radio and outdoor can also be painful to listen to or look at. But there are some gems to be found. You just have to look quite hard.


At this year's inaugural Dubai Lynx advertising awards, the winners' podium was graced with work that would have stood its ground against the best in the world. Tonic Communications' Wonderbra ad played on the censorship rules in the UAE, which call for revealing images to be crossed out with a permanent marker before distribution.

Meanwhile, Saatchi & Saatchi earned plaudits for its work on behalf of La Vache Qui Rit, which used damaged toys to show how the vitamin-enriched cheese gives children added strength.

And Memac Ogilvy earned acclaim for its Motorola campaign that showed a woman in traditional dress. However, the ad was later banned from outdoor sites by local authorities, because the dark eye make-up and long fingernails were considered to make the woman look alluring, which could cause offence.