Great tensions create great ideas

 Nissan’s ‘#SheDrives

Nissan’s ‘#SheDrives

 

The Middle East is changing, as its major markets embrace reform and look to technology to drive growth. And it’s making life interesting for the region’s creative professionals, writes Sana Mahmud, Arabian Marketer’s group editor for MENA

Creativity in the Middle East is shifting gears, from western influences and the singular tones in the wake of the Arab Spring to a new-found optimism and call for change. Much of this change has taken place in the last year, led by two clear drivers: reforms in markets such as Saudi Arabia and technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI) and its subsets, such as machine learning (ML). Countries in the Middle East are more conscious today of how they are perceived across the world. People respond to national brand images in the same way as they do to consumer brands and, within the region, the changes have had a positive impact.

Late last year, Ogilvy took a decision that sent shock waves across the region. It announced that Edmond Moutran, who had been Middle East CEO since Ogilvy’s launch in the region, would be succeeded by its head of digital for EMEA, Patou Nuytemans. Achieving such a position is rare for any woman in ad land — and MENA is no exception — but the move also sent out a clear message regarding the skill set that will define the industry in the road ahead. 

One of most notable takeaways from Nuytemans’ experience so far has been the bravery of MENA’s marketers. “Marketers here have a real appetite and drive, which in Europe would be beaten to death by conservatism and rationalism. The contrasts in the Middle East come with great tensions, and from these tensions come great insights and ideas,” she says.

Patou Nuytemans: “Marketers here have a real appetite and drive, which in Europe would be beaten to death by conservatism and rationalism”

There has been a marked change in the nature of the global headlines that the MENA markets have been making in the last year. Reforms, the drive for a new order and collaboration have replaced terrorism and recession. Especially in markets such as Saudi Arabia — the largest and most influential ad market in MENA — this has been translated into a host of new conversation points for marketers and agencies. 

The royal decree allowing women in drive, in many ways has become the emblem of the new Saudi Arabia. The opening of cinemas for the first time in the region also reflects the cultural changes that the country is gearing up to embrace.

 
 Ford’s ‘Welcome to the Driver’s Seat’

Ford’s ‘Welcome to the Driver’s Seat’

 

The opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is also an economic boost. A Kantar TNS study conducted among Saudi residents revealed fresh opportunities for marketers to make inroads into the Kingdom. The new platform of cinema advertising offers brands further exposure on a mass scale.

In the last year, the Middle East has reaped the benefits of a combination of new moves and the efforts of the past. For young Arabs, according to ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018, this has resulted in a rise in hope for leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and a continuation of the UAE’s status as the top country in which Arab youth want to live. 

Young Emiratis agree with the positive perceptions of the UAE across the region, with 99% of the UAE’s youth saying that their state is heading in the right direction. And Arab youth overwhelmingly support the reforms spearheaded by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, who they view as a strong leader who will shape the region over the next decade. 

“[This year’s Youth Survey] has produced some striking findings, including more evidence that the majority of young people now envision a future in which Daesh and its ideology have no place whatsoever,” says Sunil John, founder and CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller.

Saudi Arabia has been taking a number of initiatives to diversify its economy and to empower its female workforce, including measures to bridge the gender pay gap. This message of national pride, including the role that women are set to play, has become important for brands. A good example is PepsiCo’s campaign ‘The Greatness Is Within’. The ad struck a chord on several levels by recognising the icons that the Kingdom has created over the years — including Muna AbuSulayman, the first Saudi UN Goodwill Ambassador.

“The criterion was very simple. We wanted iconic ambassadors from the Kingdom who represent different generations. The aim was to send an inspirational message to everybody, with different interests from people they look up to,” says Ibrahim Zeinelabdin, senior marketing manager of colas development at PepsiCo International, MENA.

The decree enabling women to drive has dominated ad campaigns in the last year, as car manufacturers and others in the ecosystem gear up to woo female drivers. While some campaigns encouraged women to drive, some reminded them that they continue to have the choice not to drive.

One of the first campaigns was Nissan’s ‘#SheDrives’, which won agency TBWA\RAAD several accolades and contributed to it winning Agency and Network Of The Year at the Dubai Lynx International Festival Of Creativity. ‘#SheDrives’ sought to empower women and effect change in attitude and behaviour from men in Saudi Arabia. 

Ford responded immediately to the news with a tweet that included the image of a woman’s eyes in a rearview mirror, surrounded black material evocative of a veil –  and the words: “Welcome to the driver’s seat.”

On the other hand, the message in Chevrolet’s ‘#UpToMe’ is that women can now decide to either get behind the wheel or not. “Engrained in the Saudi community for over 90 years now, Chevrolet has been a constant companion, providing dependable means of transport to both men and women in the Kingdom. We are extremely proud of that heritage and greeted His Majesty’s announcement last year with optimism,” says Molly Peck, chief marketing officer of General Motors, Middle East.

 
 Chevrolet's 'UptoMe'

Chevrolet's 'UptoMe'

 

Brands in the Middle East are not shying away from tackling the issues affecting the region. Female equality and the challenging of conventions and social taboos are making their way into mainstream conversations. “TBWA\RAAD has created fresh, culturally relevant work and is pioneering the way for some of our biggest brands to join impactful, cultural conversations. Nissan work is making strides in gender equality that has placed it in a ‘category of one’,” says Chris Garbutt, global chief creative officer of TBWA\Worldwide.

Chris Garbutt: “TBWA\RAAD is pioneering the way for some of our biggest brands to join impactful, cultural conversations”

At the same time, brands are also looking to play a larger role in consumers’ lives. Unilever’s global purpose-driven approach was seen more aggressively in MENA this year, led by brands such as Omo in campaigns like ‘#KidToday’. Omo and FP7 set out to create a message that would provoke mothers to change their perception of dirt by showing them the benefits of active play and the importance of dirt in their children’s healthy development. Another example from the region itself is du’s ‘#PostWisely’ campaign. In its second phase, du has studied research to understand the message it should communicate. 

“Social media affects us all, both positively and negatively, and we believe it is our responsibility to help protect residents from the threats posed by misusing it. The survey revealed some troubling habits of social media users in the UAE and we hope that, by creating a campaign from our findings, we can provide a platform for purposeful conversations around ethical online behaviour,” says Abdulwahed Juma, du’s executive vice-president of brand and corporate communications.

If change in culture has been one of the stimulants transforming the Middle East, another is the adoption of digital. Brands are actively — and finally — shifting spend from traditional to digital channels to deliver personalised communications. According to Zenith, for the first time digital is set to overtake legacy spending in MENA. For the region, this is a significant milestone.

With the rise of courageous marketing and digital work, marketer’s new normal in MENA is changing for the better. TBWA\RAAD, for example, has stood out in 2018, with its new business and award-winning spree. It credits much of its success to its dual approach to content and data.

“We’ve invested heavily in content and data. We’ve hired a data director from the US and are in the process of setting up a data team. It’s transformational for us, because we’re changing the way we go to market. We’re putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do. Clients don’t want to wait two or three months for a TVC and they don’t want to pay crazy money for content. It needs to be snackable and produced as quickly as possible. We’re geared up to be pioneers in both content and data,” says Reda Raad, CEO of TBWA\RAAD, ME. 

Reda Raad: “Clients don’t want to wait two or three months for a TVC and they don’t want to pay crazy money for content. It needs to be snackable and produced as quickly as possible”

Marketers may well be speaking the language of data, technology-led insights and even ML, but if there is one area to which they need to pay attention — and soon — it is AI. Especially in the Middle East, AI has taken a position of prominence. Saudi Arabia conferring citizenship on to humanoid Sophia and the UAE’s appointment of an AI minister are not just stunts, but reflective of the investment that the markets are making in leveraging AI.

In May, Smart Dubai donated a robot to the Dubai Autism Center to help it expand its efforts. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s telecom provider STC launched a $500m technology investment fund to back Middle East ventures in areas including AI.

While there are instances of marketers using ML to connect with the right consumers at the right time with the right message, AI is still proving a challenge to creative professionals in terms of how to make it work for marketers. But while they seek solutions for AI, there is much to keep them occupied with the new, positive spirit that is taking over the Arab world.

 
Harriet Palmer