Palestine: Advertising under fire

Amidst the checkpoints and the harsh reality of life in the Palestinian territories, a handful of professionals are attempting to build a sustainable advertising industry. Samar Saeed looks at the situation on the ground and asks whether the industry can ever develop without lasting peace.


In the midst of political and economic turmoil, is it possible for an advertising sector to exist and flourish? It’s a question that unfortunately applies to an increasing number of countries in the region, but perhaps none more so than Palestine.

In the occupied territories, where military occupation is the norm, checkpoints are scattered across the West Bank, Gaza is under siege, illegal settlements continue to mushroom, and the mobility of people and goods is restricted, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the presence of such a sector.

But advertising in the Palestinian territories exists, despite the challenges and restrictions imposed by the Israelis and the obstacles faced by the Palestinian people on a daily basis. “The advertising sector reflects the realities on the ground,” says Firas Awad, partner and general manager of Ramallah-based Publicis Zoom. “Just like everything else in Palestine, it is directly influenced by the political and economic situation. Every action has a reaction, so if the situation is stable we work, and if stability is lacking we still plan. But nothing is guaranteed.’’

A recent report on Palestine published by The World Bank in March warned that the current fiscal burden “could worsen in 2013” and “lasting damage” could affect the competitiveness of the Palestinian economy
if the situation remains stagnant. The report stated: “This so-called status quo belies a process whereby the continuation of restrictions and absence of real opportunities to open up the Palestinian economy are actually having a lasting negative impact not only on short term economic growth, but also the competitiveness of the Palestinian economy over the long term.”

“For many people, advertising is considered a luxury, not a need,” says Hana Karawi, operations manager at Sky, an agency based in Al Bireh. “It’s not something people cannot live without. Hence, any changes, whether economically or politically, directly affect the spending of companies, and as a result, affect us, the advertising agencies.” Moreover, the current Israeli siege on Gaza, which began in 2007 leading to further isolation for Gaza, has also affected the advertising sector. “The situation was much better when the West Bank and Gaza were open to each other. Now there are severe restrictions. It’s very difficult for anyone in Gaza to advertise products. Due to the political situation and the Israeli blockade, people are less interested in Gaza. For example, prices are extremely high for print in Gaza, since only a few people are providing this service,’’ adds Karawi.

However, despite the challenges and predictions, Palestinians seem to be optimistic about the advertising
industry and the creativity of local talent. “The advertising industry is actually booming in Palestine. In the past seven years the demand on advertising tremendously increased,’’ says Karawi. “Media in our country has developed significantly,” adds Awad. “I travel to Dubai and Amman and I believe we have the set of skills and the capabilities to compete with the biggest companies in those countries, and internationally.”

The shift is attributed to the new banks and multinational companies that have set up operation in Palestine, with budgets to spend on advertising and promotion. The biggest spenders are the banks, which promote various types of loans, and the telco giants Jawal and Wataniya Mobile. Jawal, part of the Paltel Group, has been operational since 1997 and was a market monopoly until Wataniya Mobile was established in 2009.

Optimism about the Palestinian market is not only shared by Palestinians but also by some of the big networks. In June last year Publicis Groupe became the first international communications group to enter the Palestinian market when it acquired a 20 per cent stake in Zoom, which is now known as Publicis Zoom.

Zoom was originally founded in 2004 and has 23 employees working in its office in Ramallah. “We hope that this cooperation in the near future will enhance the advertising sector in Palestine,” says Awad. “This step is not just about the development of Zoom as an agency, but also about the development of the advertising sector in Palestine as a whole.”

This partnership seems to confirm the aspirations of the advertising sector, the challenges notwithstanding. “The fact that Publicis and Zoom engaged in a partnership rather than an affiliation or a joint venture is extremely important. It shows that together we can lead this profession forward. Nevertheless, without prolonged stability in Palestine, I doubt that the sector will progress at pace.”

One drawback of most agencies in Palestine is that they promote themselves as a one-stop shop to clients. “It is called advertising, but in reality it encompasses everything; market research, marketing strategy, marketing planning and even the implementation,” explains Awad. “People in Palestine would rather buy services from one place rather than many. This is positive but can also be considered negative. We have to shift towards specialisations. Advertising should be separate from media and separate from marketing as this will enhance professionalism, products will be more focused, and it will limit mon-opoly in our small market.”

The various media used by agencies varies according to the customers targeted and the products advertised, although outdoor is amongst the most popular due to its wide geographical spread and its ability to reach a mass audience. Radio is another popular medium but, interestingly, TV is less favoured, despite being the favourite medium among consumers (more than 80 per cent of Palestinians consider TV as their main source of information). Prior to 1993 there was only print media in the Palestinian terr-itories, but with the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the government-owned Palestine TV was established and currently broadcasts on both terrestrial and satellite to the Arab world and Europe. In recent years, a large number of local terrestrial TV and radio stations were formed, some with political affiliations. Wattan TV, now also broadcasting on satellite, is the most widely watched, non-political commercial channel operating out of Ramallah. It is mainly funded by European and international donors.

“Satellite channels are very expensive; some agencies use Palestine TV – operated by the Palestinian Authority- if they want to reach the marginalised areas because it has high viewership and is affordable,’’ says Karawi. Print, meanwhile, seems less desirable as an advertising tool. The main newspapers are Al Quds, which is based in Jerusalem and has the largest circulation, and Ramallah-based Al-Ayyam, Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah and Filastin.

“The number of people reading printed newspapers is decreasing; Al Waseet newspaper, which started its distribution recently in Palestine, remains popular mainly because it is distributed for free, it lists employment opportunities, and advertises different goods and services. This appeals to people,’’ says Karawi.

As with elsewhere in the world, social media has transformed the situation on the ground for many players and new entrants into the market. Internet penetration stands at 57.7 per cent, with 1.5 million active users as of June last year, while Facebook is used by 966,960 people, with a penetration rate of 36.9 per cent according to Internet World Stats. Twitter has 15,500 active users according to the latest Arab Social Media Report, published by Dubai School of Government in December last year.

“Social media provided people with a platform to lobby for Palestine and to connect with the international world, not on an organisational or governmental level but on a personal one,” says Karawi.
Much of social media’s attractiveness comes down to cost and reach, says Karawi, but adds that it also allows agencies to engage with experts abroad, to build connections, and to obtain resources that are lacking in the West Bank and Gaza.
What’s more, social media’s accessibility has proved enticing for newly established businesses unable to afford traditional media.

“Billboards are expensive; they are afforded and dominated by big companies in the telecommunication, banking and real estate industries,” says Ahmad Shami, executive director of Farouk Systems Palestine. “Hence, we keep seeing the same vague messages, the same services, in the same location. I went to rent a billboard and was told that it was rented out to Jawal for a year and a half. “Hence, newcomers like me cannot use the effective medium of advertising because it is monopolised.”

Shami promotes his products almost entirely via social media, enabling him to connect with his clients directly and, in turn, to save money. Moreover, since his products require specific understanding, he has established an ‘education department’ where trained experts engage with clients personally and teach them about the products.

“Social media represents an opportunity for the advertising sector and what is important now is how to utilise social media as a marketing tool,” says Awad. “Social media carries enormous potential in Palestine, but it needs time to develop. In the last couple of years Facebook has become a phenomena and the number of people using it increased drastically. [But] we are still at the beginning. Counting the ‘likes’ on an advertisement on Facebook is not a reliable way to see how the product is doing.”

The situation was much better when the West Bank and Gaza were open to each other. It’s very difficult for anyone in Gaza to advertise products.
Hana Karawi, operations manager, Sky

Other forms of digital media are also slowly being introduced in Palestine. “Small start-ups are currently working on developing applications and games. However, digital media is still not considered an attractive tool for large companies; these use tools that can be understood and accessed by the majority. Digital media is now only attractive to a niche market,” explains Karawi.

Yet despite all the problems, agencies remain hopeful that the advertising industry will develop in the coming years. However, they are aware that such development is directly influenced by the political situation on the ground. “2013 will not differ from 2012 or 2011 if the political turmoil doesn’t change on the ground,” says Awad. “If we achieve long-term stability we will witness a boom. We have the knowledge, the know-how and the tools that will enable us to enhance our profession.”