By Richard Abbott
The region’s most potentially rewarding challenge lies in cracking the Saudi market, says Universal McCann’s Chris Shaw
The region’s most potentially rewarding challenge lies in cracking the Saudi market, says Universal McCann’s Chris Shaw|~|ChrisShawProfile200.jpg|~|Shaw... “Dubai is already a major hub for the Arab speaking world and is just as sophisticated as the European markets”|~|In London, there are two main locations where you are likely to stumble across a media agency. One, as those who have worked there will know, is the rowdy metropolis of creativity that is Soho.
The other, slightly up and to the right on the tube map, is Clerkenwell, which has an altogether more leisurely pace about it.
The offices of Universal McCann, one of Interpublic’s flagship media brands, are located in the latter — a relatively peaceful corner of London’s medialand.
This is where you will find Chris Shaw, who runs Universal McCann’s operations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
In the Middle East, he works with affiliate partner UM7, part of the Promoseven network.
He is no stranger to the region, having lived in Bahrain as a child while his father was an engineer with the Royal Air Force.
He visits Dubai — the hub of UM7’s activity — about three times a year, usually to get his hands dirty on a big pitch or to brief the team on the latest planning tools. A recent visit formed part of the pitch for L’Oreal.
It might not seem like much time to spend in the region, but this is a man who has to divide his time between dozens of cities across three continents, from Paris to Johannesburg, visiting a different country every week.
“Typically, I’m not here,” he says. “I travel once a week. It’s boring. You get treated like cattle. The novelty wore off a long time ago. You go into a zone, this travel mindset where nothing interrupts your train of thought and you can almost sleepwalk through Heathrow’s terminal one.
“It just becomes a habit. It’s day trips that kill you. Getting up a 5am and not getting home until 10pm is a killer.”
Today, Shaw is in the office, catching up on hundreds of emails and maybe, if he is very lucky, getting out for lunch with a media owner — but that is quite unusual these days.
“I work with all of the markets. Working with affiliate markets is sometimes an awful lot easier than working with some of the directly-owned markets. They embrace new technology, training tools, soak things up like a sponge,” he says.
“What I’ve found with Dubai is a very strong talent base with what are actually very international people. They are not Dubai people or English ex-pats but they have been drawn from all four corners of the Arab world.”
One problem that is not exclusive to UM is the lack of people.
“It’s getting more difficult,” he says. “There is plenty of talent but it is becoming more expensive to get them in and the market is becoming slightly inflated in terms of pricing. There is still plenty of room for ex-pats to work out there. I mean, it’s tax-free, everything is remarkably cheap.”
Shaw is not alone in seeing the biggest challenge of the Middle East as cracking the Saudi market, but Promoseven is well placed with offices in the kingdom.
“It is still very difficult, a very closed economy. If you are trying to influence consumers of packaged goods out there it is quite tricky because, apart from advertising on TV, you have very few other opportunities to talk to them, particularly the female consumer who does the bulk of the shopping — she will not communicate with anyone or anything in between watching the TV and buying something in the shop.”
Another issue is reliable trading currencies. It will come in time, he says. “For years they had no TV measurement system at all. There were all sorts of problems with the data. It is slowly getting there.
“The people meter system is a way forward. It is not there yet but it is a step in the right direction. Everyone is acknowledging that the figures aren’t right but they are better than what went before.
“There isn’t anything else unless you want to work on rate card.”
Shaw is adamant that TV is the medium to achieve cut-through in the Middle East.
The magazine market he describes as too cluttered due to the low printing costs. Outdoor, he says, is iconic but little else.
When asked if his EMEA role makes the Middle East a small fish in a big pond, overshadowed by Europe, Shaw replies: “It is probably the other way around. The Middle East is a zone unto itself.
“All the big agency groups have some kind of affiliation or partnership in that region.
“Most of the ads have been adapted because they have to be. You could make a good business just adapting international advertising to run. But there is a huge amount of local advertising too.”
Shaw broke into advertising, he says, by ‘bad luck’.
He was working for a direct marketing firm after leaving university with no particular plan. His boss asked him if he had ever considered working in media.
Weeks later he was starting a new job at McCann, working on accounts including Martini and Coca-Cola.
His career took him to Optimedia as a founding director and Initiative, in a European role, before he found his way back to become a founding director of Universal McCann London, where he has been ever since.
He is looking forward to continued growth in the Middle East market. “A large part of it depends on what happens in Saudi,” he says.
“Everything is centred around the commercial freedom that exists in the Emirates. A large part of it depends on how lenient and forgiving the Saudis are going to be in the future.”
He sees no end to the expansion of the UAE market. “There is a staggering rate of growth. It is like going to the Costa del Sol in the 1970s,” he says.
“The money coming in is extraordinary. The expansion is extraordinary. I wish I had money in construction out there.
“It is already a major hub for the Arab speaking world and it is just as sophisticated as the European markets.”
So how does he keep abreast of such a diverse geographical territory? “It’s not that hard,” he says.
“It can be daunting because there are so many of them. But most of the suppliers are similar. If you find something interesting, it doesn’t matter where it is. And I still find the job fascinating.”||**||