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Thu 4 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Creative criticism

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts has been an outspoken critic of advertising in the Middle East.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts has been an outspoken critic of the standard of creative advertising in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the region features strongly in the advertising and marketing giant's future plans - and Roberts expects local talent to rise to the challenge.

Most worldwide networks' ceos, whether American or not, come here once a year or every three years," says Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts as he settles into a chair. "I lived in the Middle East, I know all the players, the clients, the people, the mentality, and I've decided that this is going to be a priority for us."

Appointed CEO of Pepsi-Cola Middle East back in 1982, Roberts has an "affinity" for the region that extends beyond the usual platitudes. Now at advertising giant Saatchi, he may be based in London, but he does know the region intimately, and is therefore perhaps better qualified to comment on its strengths and weaknesses than the average global CEO.

The creativity in the region is huge; the creativity in advertising has been a little bit self-satisfied and safety-first.

He's not afraid to have his say, either - in April this year, Roberts sparked a storm when he derided the region's creativity in advertising as "cr*p". Industry figures from within the region defended their output, but Roberts is unrepentant and argues that his comments have at least spurred debate.

"Je ne regrette rien - nothing is more painful than regret," he says. "I said it on purpose to stimulate the creative community because they were making money here under false pretences.

"Everybody was walking around thinking they were smarter than they were, and I felt that this was not a good thing for the industry," he continues. "I said it deliberately. Did I do it to offend people? Of course: to provoke and stimulate."

Comparing the Middle East's creative advertising output to that of the rest of the world, and against the current hotspots of Argentina and Brazil, Roberts says it ranks "very poorly".

"Where are the great Arabic copywriters, the great Arabic campaigns in the rest of the world?" He asks rhetorically. "The fact is that truth hurts. What I really wanted to do was to galvanise people so that they say ‘right, we're going to show that guy', because it's good for us at Saatchi if the whole level of creativity rises. It did pi*s people off and these people now will have to deliver."

Roberts insists that it is not creativity per se that is lacking in the region, but that the advertising industry is coming up short at the moment.

"The industry itself is new and young. Budgets have been small and there's been incredible growth anyway," says Roberts. "People are lazy, and clients and creatives are lazy. They come here, they can do OK work, no big hassle, no big fight, business grows 20 percent. Why risk it?

"They're building Atlantis here, not in Florida," he adds. "The creativity in the region is huge; the creativity in advertising has been a little bit self-satisfied and safety-first.

Nevertheless, Roberts is looking to the region to drive revenues for Saatchi and its parent company Publicis SA. Paris-based Publicis is the world's fourth-largest ad firm, and saw its third-quarter revenue hold firm even as the globe's financial markets tumbled. Revenue did fall to $1.4bn from $1.45bn a year earlier but Saatchi, according to Roberts, has so far enjoyed a record year.

"We have grown revenue for 11 consecutive years, including this year," he says, adding: "Next year will be tougher, but we will not be reducing or eliminating any jobs at this stage."

Roberts runs a network of 150 offices, owned or affiliated, across more than 90 countries. His agency works for some of the world's biggest brands such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Sony, Kodak, Gillette, and Hewlett Packard, among others.

Like its mother company, Saatchi is focusing on operations in emerging markets and digital advertising to compensate for slowdown or weaker growth in developed markets and more traditional revenue sources. Roberts is not worried about the global economic recession - rather, he argues that it creates opportunities.

"I feel completely fearless about this. The market will decline, and advertising budgets will decline within that, [but] Saatchi & Saatchi will grow market share," he says enthusiastically.

"Make no mistake, the recession in the US will get worse," he continues. "Europe will get slower, and growth in China will decelerate, but still we are looking at double digit growth rates in China, India, Russia and the Middle East. The developing markets will still generate growth."

Roberts had lived through four recessions in his lifetime, and while he fears that this one will be longer, deeper and tougher than expected, he insists that Saatchi is not at risk.

"The only thing that will win in this economy is an idea," he explains. "We live in the age of the idea because budgets will shrink, people will get more fearful, and people will become more risk-averse."

Everyone, whether consumer or a client, is looking for a "transformational" idea, he says - and the exodus of talent from shrinking Western markets could benefit the Middle East as it looks to develop a strong advertising sector of its own.

"A lot of young people in our business, very talented people, are going to be laid off [in the West] and are not going to be able to find jobs," says Roberts. "We think we can attract them to a bigger Saatchi & Saatchi presence in the Middle East. In this time of crisis most people will be retrenching or going backwards, so we've decided that with that kind of environment, this is the right time to grow."

I feel completely fearless about this. The market will decline, and advertising budgets will decline within that, [but] Saatchi will grow market share.

That Saatchi can outline such bold ambitions is in large part down to its prestigious client list. In a climate where companies are tightening their ad spend, Saatchi can call on clients that are relatively cushioned from the financial turmoil. Key contracts include those with Japanese carmaker Toyota, consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble, and General Mills, a Fortune 500 firm which makes food products including the ubiquitous Cheerios.

"As a company we are in with the only automaker that's certain to survive," he points out. "Plus you have to clean your teeth and wash your clothes even if times are tough, and you have to eat even if times are tough."

There is no danger of Saatchi resting on its laurels, however. Just last week, Roberts was locked in a Publicis Group board meeting in New York, where the Middle East was highlighted as a vital emerging market for the company. Roberts sees it as a time for change - and not just in the White House.

"Our view at the board meeting was that in the next three years crisis begets opportunity - and this is an opportunity now for Dubai in particular to lead the way," he says.

"Obama got elected on one promise only, which was change and hope, and I think that's what we want to see now in the Middle East," he continues.

"We've been finding our way in the Middle East, we've been performing very strongly, and we've done some very strong work. Now it's time for us to take the next step forward."

Roberts insists that the region can do "brilliant work on the internet" due to its large youthful population, which he says is "hungry to connect to the outside world".

"You have a wonderful diverse background - you have people from India, Lebanon, indigenous, and the West," says Roberts. "These people need to stay connected and the best thing that happened to you guys is the mobile phone and internet. It's also an area where you don't really need a big budget."

As advertising budgets shrink around the world in the wake of the economic uncertainty, some companies will look at new options, while others will stick to conventional advertising mediums. Roberts predicts that many companies will turn to TV, and so defer to the ‘safety first' option.

"They will go back to print, magazine, newspapers, TV, where they will try to save money on production costs. As a result, the creativity on TV will probably suffer."

Globally, Roberts anticipates a revival for television, while print and outdoor advertising will be hit. The growth in internet advertising is also likely to slow significantly.

"Outdoor advertising here is extremely abundant although not terribly creative," he continues. "The big opportunity here is for creatives and clients to use this crisis to learn more about mobiles and the internet - it's certainly where we will be looking to make the impact."

Kariman 10 years ago

I love Mr. Roberts' optimism, but I dont think he is as half close to the market as he says or thinks. More people from the west will be losing jobs and hence we will bring them to Dubai???? I understand the network structure and that he would rather not lose good people in the network but what about developing local knowledge and abilities and actually HIRING Middle East Nationals to lead the way. Is what is going on cause a flow of more expats so Nationals find it even MORE difficut to get a job in an industry that is already considered dominated unfairly at times by the Lebanese, British and other European cultures with hardly a strong grasp on the Arabic language. Also Digital will lead the way whether it is admitted or not. He should have focussed on that as well instead of constantly worrying about Creativity etc. Effectiveness, measurability and other means will also be as important for Clients. As a Middle Eastern myself, Saudi in specific I worry about comments like these and the further infiltration of expats into our countries and our companies when we are more capable than working in careers and positions Mr. Roberts wants to fly out his staff from the west to fill. I think the Middle east and Arabs should be very very careful a this time. Middle East is considered a gold mine and an economy that not will be affected as much by what is going on in the rest of the world and a lot of similar high executives will seek whatever means possible to capitailze on that, without our countries' best interest necessarily at heart. Shame. I urge the authorities to also keep a close eye on this phenomenal that might affect Emiritisation and Nationalisation and be careful that they are not in a position where highly competent nationals are in positions beneath their abilities or any at all.