By Tim Burrowes
The outdoor industry is booming in the Middle East, with seriously big sites offering advertisers seriously big impact. But can issues of clutter be overcome, asks Richard Abbott
Taking it outside|~|rehan-merchant200.jpg|~|Outdoor man... Rehan Merchant, executive director at Emirates Neon|~|Taking a drive down Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road is a bit like entering a who’s who of international brands. Lancome adorns the side of a tower, British Airways is emblazoned across a bridge and you are never far away from a billboard advertising the planned world’s tallest building — Burj Dubai. This is outdoor at its hard-hitting, in-your-face best.
“It is an extremely effective medium,” says Fadi Salameh, president of the Promoseven network, who has seen the medium evolve in the region from crude metal hoardings over the past two decades.
“We know from our own experience with McDonald’s, where outdoor is a core pillar in the media strategy. You can feel the immediate impact on sales when you have an outdoor campaign.”
Much of that impact is down to the unmissable factor. Skyscraper sides, scaffolding towers and eye-catching light displays are now commonplace in many Middle East cities.
Some of the biggest sites are operated by Hills Advertising, which runs a regional network across the Middle East and North Africa. In Dubai, drivers will be familiar with the Lancome ad on the Al Attar Tower, which measures 120m from top to bottom.
“Dubai is booming and that creates good news that promotes outdoor advertising,” says Sami al Mufleh, chief executive of Hills Advertising.
With so many people coming into the region for business and tourism, opportunities are at an all-time high.
“Outdoor can work well for most clients, as long as it features a clear and simple statement,” says Christine von Hoerde, planning director at OMD. “Experience has shown that outdoor provides a quicker reaction to promotions and allows precise geographic targeting.”
Keith Thomson, general manager of Backlite Media, who sells space on a series of back-lit sites in Dubai, adds: “Outdoor has been an established medium in the Middle East for a number of years because of the regulation of TV ads. The proliferation of airtime and print opportunities means that it can target more people at once.”
The stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road between the World Trade Centre and Defence roundabout is known within the Backlite office as ‘Golden Boulevard’ due to the demographic profile of the drivers who use it every morning and evening on their journey to and from the office.
Another operator with a presence in this area is Emirates Neon, which boasts a scaffolding site next to the Dusit Tower among its prime sites. Rehan Merchant, executive director at Emirates Neon, is another full subscriber to the power of outdoor over other media.
“In a city like Dubai you can either get to your target market through outdoor or press. TV is a redundant medium,” he argues.
“What you get is a campaign that is exposed to a high volume of people while they are traveling and that impression is repeated each time they make the same journey.”
But while no-one is in any doubt about the impact of outdoor, question marks are being raised about the quantity of sites. Clutter, in other words.
Clutter means something that is in a confused or disordered state – basically, a jumble.
But that very word has been used to describe some of the outdoor advertising in the Middle East.
When the Dubai Municipality recently unveiled plans to regulate the medium following complaints about the number and positioning of posters, media owners and agencies alike were forced to sit up and take notice.
“Here in Dubai it has become very cluttered. Wherever you go is full of adverts. There has to be regulation,” says Rajagopal, general manager of sales at Go Outdoor Media.
His views are echoed in the media buying community.
“Try to ask drivers on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road about how many sites they are able to remember after their journey,” says OMD’s von Horde. “Less is more. Agencies must focus on sites that work best for each client.”
So, if media owners and agencies are in agreement that there is too much outdoor advertising in city centres, why do they continue to create more?
One answer is the sheer speed of growth in the Middle East, where developers are constantly trying to outdo each other to create the most impressive hotels, skyscrapers and malls.
Outdoor offers them immediate impact at a time when they need to hammer the message home quickly before someone else comes along to steal their thunder. The claim is that clutter has forced advertisers to seek standout in size, rather than clever creative.
“There is too much of a focus on ‘bigger, wider, taller’ instead of focusing on the relevance of the sites for the media strategy and effectiveness,” says von Hoerde.
But Thomson is unworried by claims of clutter. “There have been a lot of signs put up in poor locations, which has not been good for the industry,” he says.
“As better locations come along, those locations will not find customers. It’s natural selection. There is not enough good stuff and too much bad stuff.”
Al Mufleh agrees: “Some people see it as clutter. I do not. There is high demand, which means we have to ask for more locations.”
Rehan Merchant says the key to building a successful outdoor portfolio is having a wide portfolio of sites that attract different types of clients — large and small.
He argues that the biggest challenge he has faced while working in the Middle East is trying to innovate in a restricted market where constant education is needed and operators must be continually aware of cultural sensitivities.
Saudi Arabia is one territory where advertisers have to tiptoe around very strict rules regarding what can — and can’t — be shown. And, according to some, prices in the kingdom are simply too high.
“As soon as Saudi Arabia opens up further there should be massive growth. Iraq and Iran have potential in coverage and quality respectively,” says OMD’s von Hoerde “Syria is huge in outdoor but unlikely to show much growth,” she adds.
Outdoor operators in Saudi include GMI, United Outdoor Advertising and MOA Outdoor.
Bahrain is a fast growing market too according to Kamel||**||Taking it outside|~|Sami-Al-mufleh200.jpg|~|Outdoor man... Sami Al Mufleh, chief executive of Hills Advertising|~|Issa, whose company GMI runs about 70% of the advertising on the island.
Meanwhile, Hills Advertsing has just signed a US$1 million deal for Al Arabia in Egypt’s Cairo Airport and is in talks with a local partner in Iraq.
Emirates Neon recently set up an office in Oman and, while Merchant describes the market over there as currently being “non-existent”, he sees a lot of potential.
“When you look at the reach of other media, you can see the opportunity,” he says. “Newspapers are only read in Muscat, but 75% of the population live outside the capital.”
GMI also sells advertising at Dubai International Airport, one of the fastest growing airports in the world, with ad sites ranging from hotels to connecting tunnels and escalators.
Indeed, airports are becoming one of the essential elements for any campaign seeking to target business people on the move.
Nisha Varman is business manager of Internal Media Services, which runs the advertising operation at Doha international airport in Qatar.
“The rate card is premium because this is a premium medium,” she says. “The advertising opportunities are limited and we would like to keep it this way as our aim is to provide advertisers with a clutter free quality environment to showcase their brands,” she says. “We are flexible in the way we market our inventory and we give plenty of opportunities for new advertisers to sample our medium.”
Shopping malls are also big business for advertisers. Go Outdoor Media, based in Dubai Media City, is a specialist in this area, with contracts for Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall and Dubai’s Lamcy Plaza among others. It also sells inside three branches of Carrefour in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Rajagopal says this type of advertising can give a timely push at the point of purchase. “Arab people spend a lot of time inside malls,” he says. “So we can give the supplier an added benefit at the point of purchase.”
This kind of out-of-home advertising, bordering on the ambient, is a real growth area for the Middle East market. Washroom specialist Edge Marketing is in a growth period, attracting advertisers to use toilets in bars and hotels where there is a dwell time.
The market is moving on apace, but how do outsiders view the Middle East’s outdoor sector?
Mike Segrue, global chief client officer of Kinetic — which was recently formed from the merger of out-of-home media specialists Poster Publicity and Portland Outdoor — says that outdoor operators in this region may have to be wary of complacency.
He points to the recent decision by Nakheel to ditch outdoor advertising in Dubai due to its expense. “I think the advertisers believe that out-of-home is more expensive than it should be and, despite its generally high quality across the region, some of them have voted with their feet,” he says.
Von Hoerde agrees: “Deals are possible. However, the trend for megasites, mostly in Dubai, is pushing prices up beyond reason.
“This inflation also occurs elsewhere in the region, not because of a stronger performance, but more as a result of aggressive bids from contractors seeking concessions.”
And there is evidence that smaller advertisers are turning their back on the medium and investing their marketing budget on more targeted print campaigns.
Segrue says an additional problem is the general lack of accountability in Middle East media.
“The out-of-home media owners have relied on the fact that effective TV research is scarce and they have worked to that tried and tested model — charging whatever the market will tolerate — as a result of this,” he says.
“But the research will improve and advertisers such as Unilever Arabia — who buy in-house in conjunction with Magna — will address this lack of TV research and the out-of-home media owners will suffer.”
In the UK, Postar is the currency for outdoor advertising, providing traffic estimation at individual billboard sites and an estimation of eye contact with the posters. But Segrue feels the Middle East is a long way off such a system.
“Getting any accurate travel data is difficult for the out-of-home media owners so they can’t do much to address this weakness,” he says.
While the emphasis may be on size in outdoor, there are some signs of creativity in site planning too.
Recent new developments have seen adverts appear on inflatable panels and even on the side of blimps, as outdoor becomes an ever more ambient medium.
Washroom advertising is already widespread throughout the city’s bars and hotels. But is this genuine creativity and innovation or just stunts?
Segrue is not overly impressed by claims of creativity and innovation in the Middle East market.
“The launch of inflatable advertising by Concept Media recently will hardly stimulate the market. This type of advertising has been available for 30 years in the UK and other markets,” he says.
“Ironically, most of the desirable target audience are early adopters and so mobile messages delivered by Bluetooth would be more appropriate and accountable.”
And Emirates Neon’s Merchant agrees that creativity could be better.
“I don’t think this region is creative enough as brands don’t want to experiment. But the Burjuman Centre new launch campaign, which we had the honour of implementing outdoor, is one to remember,” he says.
But with so many advertisers seeking instant impact and the kind of coverage that consumers simply cannot switch off, the future looks secure for the medium — accountable or not.
Qatar Airways’ Varman sums it up: “Whenever other media like print or television make use of outdoor, it makes a very interesting billboard and just proves that outdoor works and it’s here to stay.”||**||