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Sun 12 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Creative Crisis

Last week, we revealed how the Middle East went unrecognised in one of the world’s biggest awards. Tim Burrowes asks why.

|~|Raffray,-Vincent_m.jpg|~|Dubai-based Tonic Communications, led by executive creative director Vincent Raffray, picked up a gold at the New York-based One Show.|~|For the Middle East’s creative directors, a battered passport is a badge of honour. After all, you may be in Saudi Arabia one day and Lebanon the next, before returning to the UAE the day after that. But the flight timetables being checked out for next Sunday are for somewhere slightly cooler. The region’s top creatives are heading for the south of France, and the week-long orgy of excess known as the Cannes Lions.

As well as being the venue for a remarkable amount of drinking, eating, bitching and fighting, this 52nd gathering of the world’s top creatives will culminate in awards for the talented few. But pessimists fear there is little danger that representatives from the Middle East will be suffering from excess baggage bills on their return trip. For, if last month’s showing at the UK-based D&AD Awards is anything to go by, the boys will not be bringing home the cup.

Of the 131 winners of the worldwide prizes for excellence in design, art direction and advertising, not a single one was from a Middle East-based agency. And the odds are against any greater success in the Cannes Lions – of the 22,101 entries, just 149 are from the Middle East — a measly 0.7%. And the vast majority of these entries – 96 — come from the UAE, with just eight from Saudi Arabia.

In fairness, this tiny percentage is not quite as embarrassing as it sounds — the Middle East only accounts for one or two per cent of worldwide advertising spend, after all. And there is one reason for hope — last month Dubai-based Tonic Communications, led by executive creative director Vincent Raffray, picked up a gold at the New York-based One Show, the first Middle East agency to do so in the long-established competition.

But nobody has yet picked up the most prized accolade of them all — a Cannes Lion for advertising. In fact, the only showings so far have been a silver medal in the print category for the UAE young creative team in the Young Creatives Competition back in 2001 and a Media Lion for Impact BBDO Kuwait.

So why no advertising Lions? Is modesty preventing local agencies from entering, or is the quality of the work simply not as good as the rest of the world?

Marc Chalhoub, regional executive creative director for Leo Burnett, believes the answer is, sadly, probably the latter: “I think the main problem is that we as an industry are looking at our neighbours and competing against ourselves, rather than competing internationally. The world is moving ahead outside and we are still looking at what the world was doing ten years ago. That’s why the industry is still very much behind.”

Alain Khouri, one of the Middle East’s most influential admen, also believes there is some way to go. Asked about the biggest challenges the industry faces, he immediately highlights the issue of creativity. The Impact BBDO chairman, with 40 years in the industry, says: “It’s developing quite fast and it’s far and away from ten years back, but still we are not able to quite crack it.”

“Part of the reason is that we are a region, not a country. We have to talk to too many different types of people, and still make sense, so the focus is lost because of all the differences,” Khouri adds.

However, Phil Lynagh regional vice president of Fortune Promoseven refuses to accept that can be the whole explanation. “Every single agency you speak to will say they have offices all over these territories, so that should not be a factor,” he says.

In the industry’s defence, another major factor is that the Middle East is a market where many of the riskiest ideas would never see the light of day. One expat adman believes the simplest way to understand Middle East consumers is to think of them as 19th century Victorians. Everything from their values, to the way they dress, to their manners when taking part in focus groups is comparable, he argues.

In that circumstance, can you really imagine something like the TBWA UK’s “Hello Boys” Wonderbra poster appearing in Riyadh anytime this century? Or, the same agency’s infamous rebranding of French Connection UK as FCUK adorning megaposters on Sheikh Zayed Road, even in swinging, downtown Dubai?

Ed Jones, regional creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi, says this is the type of thing that can prevent agencies from winning the big international awards. In a masterful understatement, he says: “You’re in a culture [in the Middle East] not famed for welcoming a disorderly approach to authority. Yet a lot of advertising in the west is best when it uses a provocative approach.”

However, there is good material being noticed on a worldwide stage. Alastair Ray, the editor of the quarterly magazine Cream, which aims to showcase the best of media creativity from throughout the world, says the work needs to be understood in the context in which it is created, and in any awards, judges need to take that into account.

“The stuff I’ve seen for Cream has been of an excellent standard,” he says. “The challenge for judging any global awards is to understand that what might be run-of-the-mill in one market is ground-breaking in another.”

Khouri makes a similar point: “We are very creative within the limitations in front of us,” he says.

And there is another problem too — in an industry where many marketing directors are passing through, and want to do little more than avoid rocking the boat, how do you get them to take a risk?

“A lot of clients are not hugely experienced, and they reflect their audience to that extent. You can present good ideas that might have a chance of winning awards but you cannot always get them sold to clients. A lot of people making decisions about advertising cannot be members of all the social and ethnic groups in the market, so a lot of second-guessing goes on. The pressure is to make it very simple and obvious,” says Jones. “Sadly you do have clients say ‘my consumers are stupid’, which is deeply insulting but you do hear it,” he adds.

Fortune Promoseven’s Lynagh argues the same point: “There’s this transient marketing personnel issue, where nobody wants to rock the boat before they move on.”
Leo Burnett’s Chalhoub refuses to blame marketing directors though. “The culture of the client is universal, be it in the Middle East or Sao Paulo. It depends on how brave the agency is in persuading the client,” he says.||**|||~|Jones,-Ed_m.jpg|~|“You’re in a culture [in the Middle East] not famed for welcoming a disorderly approach to authority. Yet a lot of advertising in the west is best when it uses a provocative approach,” Ed Jones, regional creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi.|~|Of course, many clients won’t care less how many awards their agency wins — they care about the return on their investment and simply want their advertising to pay for itself in increased sales.

But there is plenty of evidence across the world that great creative ideas drive improved sales performance for clients. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in the UK runs the respected Effectiveness Awards, in which agencies must provide the facts and figures to prove that their work has helped their client to directly benefit. And, invariably, the winning work includes a great creative idea at the heart of it.

Lynagh argues that the problem is not just one of circumstance — agencies are missing opportunities to do great work. Even when Middle East shops are given a juicy global brief, he says they miss the opportunity to be creative with their local element. For example, McDonald’s in the US and UK, has very different local advertising strategies, but in the Middle East it is often a straightforward adaptation of material from head office.

“Over here we tend to be adaptors of advertising creative from elsewhere, rather than creative geniuses. Often it’s about taking international work and Arabising it. People have even won local awards for just doing that,” Lynagh says. “But as an industry we don’t seem able to win clients’ confidence to trust us to do more than that. What we should be doing is taking a brand’s global position and making it work in the Middle East,” he adds.

“And when we do get a local brief that would let us push the envelope, we step away and decide that intellectual creativity is unacceptable. We end up doing another buy-one-get-one-free. We end up doing direct response, BOGOF, call to action stuff, rather than building of the brand in the region, which is I think a mistake.”

Tonic’s Raffray refuses to accept that the work cannot be as good here as in the rest of the world. “Every market has got its different groups or target audiences you’ve got to communicate to. And there are restrictions everywhere — India, Singapore, Thailand, they are constantly winning international awards — I don’t see any difference,” he says.
“It’s a challenge for us to produce work that clients accept and that people across boundaries will get.”

Another issue is cultural, says Lynagh — going head-to-head with rivals to snatch their business or market share can still be viewed as a little unseemly. “Yet look at a brand like Guinness in the UK — it drives the market. In the Middle East there’s a trend of protectionism, looking after your own market share, rather than taking the battle to the opposition. It’s an Arabic mentality to not upset one another.”

And a worldwide problem for all those working in marketing services — whether advertising, media or PR is the relatively short shelf life of the average marketing director. It’s seen as the norm for them to move after 18 months in the job, and less than a year is not unusual. It means that each time a marketing director begins to get comfortable with the brand and is prepared to take a few risks, they’ve gone on to the next thing. And if they’re ambitious, then the last thing they want to do is mess up their meteoric rise in what they don’t plan on being their job for very long.

One agency creative offers yet another possibility. He says that the brightest locals are not attracted to enter the industry. “There’s not enough money in it,” he says.

Others might ask why the Middle East’s creatives are beating themselves up over the lack of prizes anyway. After all, the UK has had a printed tradition going back to the Caxton printing press five centuries ago. It gives them something of an edge when it comes print advertising. And as well as literature, the region lags similarly behind when it comes to international acclaim for the likes of film or theatre. These cultural cues, which have no long history over here, provide the inspiration that drives many of the advertising breakthroughs in the rest of the world.

Cream magazine’s Ray points out that without this kind of cultural hinterland, advertisers would be leaving the punters behind if they get too sophisticated. He says: “If you are too challenging then the consumers simply won’t understand it.”

Instead, he feels that the Middle East’s creatives need to have the playing field levelled for them if they are to win something. “The challenge is to ensure that there is proper representation on the judging panel to explain to the other judges the restrictions that people work under,” he says.

So how long before the region does win a Cannes Lion? According to Lynagh: “There’s enough creativity here in the Middle East to achieve that, but it’s still a case that until clients stop looking at this region as a poor relation, they won’t find out what their agency can achieve for them.”

And he agrees with Ray’s point that a win may come through judges making allowances for the difficulties of advertising in this region. “I can see the day coming, but it being related to a bit of sympathy and gimmickry for the market when it does,” Lynagh says.
Certainly Khouri is optimistic that standards are on the up. “Within two or three years, it will be much better. There will be three or four agencies that will get there.”

Few believe the time is now, although Tonic’s gold at the One Show is a very optimistic sign. They won it for a simple ad execution for Sony, showing a sign paper-clipped to a television to demonstrate just how thin the flat screen TV really is. But Tonic’s Raffray is virtually a lone voice in his belief that the region’s time has come.

“When I first came here from South Africa we were told it was creative suicide and I refused to believe that,” he says. “You can either take the prevailing attitude and come here and do average work, or you can take it up as a challenge. We didn’t want our books to suffer so we did our best to show our best work. When I went up on stage in New York, we got the biggest applause from anyone because it was the first time in 30 years. People were proud we had managed to break the glass ceiling. The world is willing us on to do well and we want to represent Dubai on a global scale.”||**||

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