Middle East: Shifting sands - an ad industry in flux

Dubai's skyscrapers and palm islands may grab the headlines, but the Middle East's ad industry is emerging on to the international stage, Richard Abbott says.

Tax-free wages and year-round sunshine used to be the main reasons that Western practitioners decamped to the Middle East's advertising industry.

But times have changed. Today, destinations such as Beirut, Dubai and Riyadh give creatives and media professionals the opportunity to shape and influence a fast-emerging market, arguably second only to China in terms of growth.

Led by the ambition and financial muscle of Dubai - which is fast becoming one the commercial hubs of the modern world - the Middle East is making its presence felt on international balance sheets, and is even finding its way on to the winners' podium at the likes of Cannes and D&AD.

It is a diverse region, from the oil-rich Gulf in the south to the stricken, but beautiful Lebanon in the north and bustling Egypt in the west.

And it is a conservative region: the call to prayer from mosques provides a constant reminder of the importance of Islam; and local women wear the traditional abaya dress and niqab veil over their faces.

But, at the same time, the Middle East is opening up to Western culture. The restricted sale of alcohol is now allowed in many countries, while burger bars and giant shopping malls are springing up from the desert sands.

Matt Blackborn, who left Starcom in London to head Publicis Groupe Media in the Middle East and North Africa in 2005, says the region is more complex than most outsiders realise. "Everybody assumes that the Middle East is an amorphous mass, but it's not. It's made up of a lot of different markets. You have got a lot of local media and a lot of pan-Arab media, and that's lost on people," he says. "People think you are in one place, and they don't appreciate how many stamps you get in your passport."

The regional hub for media and advertising used to be Beirut. But while some networks, including Grey, are still headquartered there, most business is now conducted in Dubai, which has spent millions on mega-facilities such as Dubai Media City and the soon-to-open Dubai Media Production Zone and Dubai Studio City.

Dani Richa, the Beirut-based chief creative officer of Impact BBDO, says: "For many years it was Beirut that was leading, then we started saying Beirut-Dubai, and I'd say that last year it was clearly Dubai.

"Because of the war, creativity really suffered last year in Lebanon. On the other hand, we don't know if there was a leap in Dubai creatively. I think it's a bit of both, to be honest.

"Most of the good people that were in Beirut are now in Dubai, and so the challenge for Lebanon is for it to develop new talent. We have to prepare the next generation, and make sure we retain it."

Misconceptions about the Middle East are common, with views skewed by the region's association with terrorism and political unrest. Phil Lynagh, the managing director of the McCann Erickson-affiliated ad agency Fortune Promoseven, says unhelpful stereotypes can hinder progress.

"We all go to work on a camel, and we produce loads of ads, some for big-name clients, but everything we do is shite. Not true," he says. "This year's Dubai Lynx Awards showed an international jury what the area is capable of, and we really haven't started yet. The work is good and getting better."

Blackborn adds: "Because of the political and social backdrop, the assumption is that it is a difficult place to do business. People say that it's a difficult market to manage, but it's not. It's about managing growth and expectation."

According to the Pan-Arab Research Center, estimated advertising spend in the region increased by 22 per cent in 2006 to $4.6 billion. That means that the Middle East is still only a blip on the global radar, but it's a blip that is set to get much bigger.

The media mogul Antoine Choueiri, the chairman of the powerful Choueiri Group, which sells advertising on behalf of the pan-Arab TV giants MBC and LBC, told last year's Campaign Middle East Conference that he expects adspend to hit $10 billion by 2010.

Whether the region can more than double its spend in just three years is questionable, but with a per capita adspend of around $10 - well below Western markets - there is plenty of room for growth.

The demographics certainly justify greater investment: Arab consumers are young, affluent and media-savvy. Two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's population is under the age of 25.

Gone are the days of desert nomads. Today's young Arab is more likely to be surfing the net on his laptop at the local shisha cafe and downloading the latest MP3 ringtones to his mobile.

Advertisers have to work harder than ever before, focusing on creativity and strategic media planning, yet there remains a dearth of local talent, and poaching is rife. Spend lunch with a creative director and he or she will ask if you know anyone worth approaching.

Blair Currie, a director at the Dubai-based TBWA\Raad, says challenges like this are characteristic of a region growing quickly. "The pace of change is incredibly fast because the technology is available to speed up the transfer of knowledge, and there is money to fuel this growth," he explains.

"As a result, the battle for talent in the Middle East is becoming more intense than in other markets. Good people are difficult to find and retain everywhere, but particularly in high-growth markets."

There are many tensions that communications professionals in the Middle East must consider every day. For example, Muslim countries have strict rules regarding the portrayal of women, and there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is offensive. It is not unusual to find magazine editors or creative directors retouching pictures to cover up a midriff or cleavage. Then there is the thorny issue of censorship. Movies are routinely cut, inappropriate images in imported titles are blacked out with permanent markers, and journalists are discouraged from portraying the government or ruling family in an unflattering light.

Kamal Dimachkie, the managing director of Leo Burnett Dubai, says a fast-growing market will inevitably have such tensions. "The challenge of modernisation has made people hang on more dearly to their values, but in many other respects, people have found that they can move forward," he argues.

He likens it to stretching muscles: "You just have to warm up before you can stretch a bit. I am convinced that we can always find a happy medium."

One of the most obvious differences between the Middle East and the West is a lack of transparency and accountability. Newspapers and magazines routinely exaggerate their circulation figures; and audience research is of questionable value, making it difficult for advertisers to measure their return on investment.

To make matters worse, some "contracts" are based on little more than a handshake.

Sharon Wheeler, the managing director of the branding agency Turquoise, which has offices in London and Dubai, says dodgy dealings will soon become a thing of the past: "Some people in Europe tend to think that the region is somehow less sophisticated than leading markets; that it's dogged by rumours of tricky client relationships and not getting paid.

"We have experienced the complete opposite to this misconception. The market is demanding and competitive; the client relationships are strong and engender great loyalty. Plus, contrary to popular myth, most of our clients are fantastic payers."

The very best people in the Middle East advertising industry can challenge the best in the world. Agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi, JWT and the independent Tonic Communications, to name just three, are making their presence felt in international awards and books.

However, a quick flick through the Gulf News or Khaleej Times will reveal the darker side - page after page of dross that is lacking any inspiration or ideas.

Tune into UAE local radio at your peril - the ads will have you reaching for the "off" button in a flash.

"It's a mixed bag," Blackborn says. "We have probably got 5 per cent great work, 50 per cent OK and too much that is not good enough.

"The biggest problem is lack of consistency. The very best work is very good, but there is too much mediocre work that needs to be moved up a level."

He adds that media fragmentation is partly to blame: "The creative resource and talent aren't there yet for the amount of media for which they have to deliver outstanding work."

Lynagh argues that many clients are not yet aware of the link between great advertising and their bottom line.

"We have a large line separating creative work and real work," he says. "As soon as this line starts to blur because clients want great (ads) that work, then we will have a creative culture to be proud of.

"As the industry starts to convince its clients that they should pay for creative thought first and administration second, we must also concentrate on building teams that can deliver that work to those lucky clients who join the revolution early.

"We desperately harp on about how we wish our clients were more professional, more creatively daring, and more international. Thank God they are not, because their agencies are far from ready for that. But they will be."

The ex-pat population within the Middle East advertising industry is large and growing. The high demand for talented individuals means that many more will follow.

"Definitely do it," Blackborn says. "You don't get the opportunity to work in an environment as dynamic as this very often. But you have to immerse yourself in the culture and understand the people."

Currie says there are positive aspects - "young populations, high growth rates, interesting work, and the chance to leave your mark" - but warns of the "temperature, traffic and the legal system".

The rapid growth of the Middle East is manifesting itself in a "can do" mentality. Blackborn sums it up: "Now is the boom time, but nobody is sure how long the boom will last, so there is an appetite to do stuff quickly, to make hay while the sun shines."

In May and June, temperatures in the Gulf will soar into the mid-40s as the demand for communications expertise continues apace. For the media and advertising industries, there is no time for cooling off. The heat is on.