Review of the Year 2015: The calm before the storm

This annual review should probably come with a warning notice: in short things are not looking good and the worst is yet to come. Oil prices are staying down, ad spend has slumped and the Middle East and North Africa region is on the brink of another recession. And unless you’ve spent the year living in a cave, none of this should come as any surprise.

ZenithOptimedia’s final forecast report for 2015, which stated regional ad spend has fallen by 11 per cent this year, merely confirmed a year’s worth of mutterings and speculations. Still Zenith’s colourful infographic showing global ad spend presented a bleak illustration of the MENA region’s cur- rent position. While the rest of the world flourishes, this region sinks. Adding salt to the wound are the forecasts for the coming year: another ad spend decline of 6.8 per cent and an overall 10 per cent fall in investment have been predicted for 2016. Hardly promising news to raise a glass to during fireworks and Auld Lang Syne this New Year’s Eve.

Zenith’s explanations likewise offered no major jaw-droppers: the 2014 plummet in oil prices continues to knock advertisers’ confidence, prompting more budget cuts ahead of a lower consumer demand. Looking ahead, prices are unlikely to see any significant growth until at least 2018. Meanwhile, political instability in Syria, Iraq and Yemen continues to cast a dark shadow. Though peace talks on the former could soon be on the horizon, these are unlikely to bring a sound and speedy resolu- tion to the five-year conflict. A recent spate of devastating attacks across Beirut, Egypt and Tunis has meanwhile left the already-shaken region reeling. Although it may seem simplistic to pin the industry’s current turmoil on conflict way beyond its control, these events cannot fail but to further disturb an already fragile economic climate and investor confidence.

Omnicom Media Group’s Elie Khouri was among a handful of industry leaders to open up about the challenges faced by the industry this past year. Speaking to Campaign in November, he said: “Perhaps only the Gulf War and the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis match the current economic situation. If the current financial state extends to three years, the collective results will be as worse than the aforementioned periods. No-one with their feet on the ground really anticipates a dramatic change for the better in the near future.” Even hot off a Cannes winning streak Raja Trad, chief executive officer of the Leo Burnett Group of Companies MENA, said 2015 was the hardest year yet. “Everyone wants more from the agency and wants to pay less,” he told Campaign. “And this is a challenge because we are also under pressure. This is, I would say, a Catch 22 situation.”

Yet elsewhere within the industry, it seemed other agencies were keen to brush these concerns aside with vague platitudes about how their innovation, engaging content and client-focus was somehow going to stop the economic downturn in its tracks. The grim realities of procurement, consolida- tion and ultimately redundancies were largely sidestepped.

Beat around the block

As usual, 2015’s vocabulary was peppered with buzzwords and fashionable themes that kept commentators and PowerPoint presenters united in clichés. ‘Content’, ‘programmatic’ and ‘level of engagement’ were churned out regularly at conferences and industry soapboxes. Anybody aged between the mortifyingly wide age range of 15 and 35 being referred to as ‘millennials’ or ‘generation Y’ – somehow suggesting people born across three decades may share common ground by the simple virtue of growing up with the internet.

While The Economist’s Nicholas Sennegon’s reiterated to Campaign the importance of elevating this ‘content consuming’ generation to the top of the marketing agenda, unless the industry can ditch these redundant, and frankly, lazy, collectives it is unlikely anyone will be listening. Marketers may enthuse the power of data in targeting these groups but they should bear in mind that with every new privacy intrusion comes increasing disillusion. And with disil- lusion comes cynicism and ultimately an increasingly reluctance to hand over personal details willy-nilly – that is unless companies and marketers can demonstrate some tangible benefits rather than just plaguing users with what is essentially junk.

Meanwhile‘ad-blocking’ became the rising star of industry debate. Some particularly deafening alarm bells rang when Apple launched its ‘content blocking’ option in September’s iOS release. Ad-blocking apps Peace and Purify quickly flew straight to the top of the charts in the United States and the United Kingdom. And with mobile set to be the main driver of global ad spend growth – 87 per cent between 2015 and 2018, according to Zenith – combined with television’s decline, the need to improve mobile advertising became more pressing than ever.

As Ali Nehme, managing director of digital at Starcom Mediavest Group MENA, pointed out: “If I am a user and I have not been spammed that much, I would not even think about an ad-blocker but the whole industry has been spamming every- body. If I am seeing things I like… then I am interested.” Pop-ups and banners should have been ditched long ago and more targeted and context-based material will become easier as long as the data remains. But whether advertisers can re- ignite consumers’ interest enough to switch off their ad-blocker remains to be seen. If anything, it is more likely to be online platforms’ refusal to host viewers using them that will lead to an effective turnaround.

Perfection in the purpose

While the word ‘purpose’ was the most-used on 2014’s seminar stage, another mot du jour was doing the rounds at this year’s Cannes – and is more than likely to raise its head over the next few years. This word was ‘empowerment’, or more specifically the phrases female empowerment and gender equality. And this theme couldn’t have been more apparent among the MENA region’s big winners.

Both Impact BBDO Dubai and Leo Burnett Beirut won golds in the inaugural glass category for the campaigns ‘Give mom back her name’ and ‘Vote for us. We’ll vote for you’ for UN Women and NGO Kafa respectively. Launched by Facebook chief operations officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, the glass Lion recognises work aimed at challenging gender bias. And although the award proved a hallmark in tackling some of advertising’s most worn-down clichés, it was glass Lions’ jury president Cindy Gallop’s comments which most resonated. “I would like to see the glass Lion not need to exist in a few years’ time,” she said. “I would like, in a few years’ time, for every Cannes- winning award to be doing what the glass Lion is designed to celebrate.” Yet as reported in Campaign in June, female representation among advertising creative directors still stands at a pitiful 11 per cent. And while global efforts of initiatives such as the 3% Conference are striving to change that, Gallop may need more than a ‘few years’ before considering abolishing that glass Lion.

Meanwhile at Cannes, Leo Burnett Beirut and Impact BBDO emerged as the biggest regional winners, scooping the majority of top prizes in the MENA’s total haul of 26. This was an honour they shared with Geometry Global Dubai. Unfortunately Geometry made adland headlines for the worst of reasons; the agency was effectively stripped of what was the region’s first ever grand prix at Cannes. And though Egypt’s first titanium and Kuwait’s gold gave the region something positive to take home, Geometry’s not-so-lucky Iron Fish fiasco, coupled with disappoint- ments for the majority of MENA agencies, made it an uneasy Cannes overall for the region. No doubt a Cannes many will want to look beyond in the build-up to the 2016 awards.

At least on home turf, there was (unsurprisingly) more to celebrate. At Dubai Lynx, Leo Burnett Beirut took home Agency of the Year, while Starcom MediaVest Group Dubai was adjudged the Media Agency of the Year. Continuing Cannes 2014’s purpose-driven theme, Leo Burnett Beirut’s anti-corruption campaign ‘Sakker El Dekkene’ and Y&R Dubai’s Hello Happiness Phone Booth’ for Coca-Cola scooped some of the night’s top trophies. At the MENA Effies, FP7 continued its dominance for the third year running.

Where do we go now?

Budget squeezes will inevitably be what takes the industry into 2016. And with this naturally will come an increased pressure for return on investment. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise to see Dubai Lynx announce its first ‘creative effectiveness’ category for the upcoming awards. Yet when the pres- sure is on, the necessity to innovate – and seriously innovate – becomes even more pressing. Those who already have digital expertise well integrated into their teams, putting cross-channel marketing at the fore- front, will be one step ahead. Others may suddenly find themselves play- ing catch-up.

Nevertheless, there is much to be excited about from this perspective. PHD’s BrainScape conference pre- sented a wealth of potential at hand through Artificial Intelligence. Though still in their infancy, the rise of virtual personal assistants could hail an era of brands speaking directly to us in a voice both recognisable and relatable. On the social front, 2016 looks set to be the year of Snapchat. Having launched its news service, Discover, in July the social messaging platform suddenly unleashed a vast wave of advertising potential to nail teenagers and 20-somethings glued to their smartphones. And while Instagram and Twitter opened offices in Dubai this year, it was a sad end for Yahoo! as it announced the closure of its Dubai office – its last base in the Middle East. The dominance of mobile is here to stay, and those who can’t keep up, like Yahoo!, will be sadly on their way.