As the region gained new respect on the world stage, it had to face economic and existential challenges at home. 2019 saw a re-evaluation of the ways brands connect with a new generation of consumers, writes Austyn Allison

It’s the end of another year, and also the end of a decade. Some of the themes that have come to the
fore in the region’s media, marketing and advertising in the last 12 months are peculiar to 2019, but other ongoing trends are indicative of the 2010s as a whole.

The news the creative community had waited many years for came out of the Cannes Lions in June. For the first time a regional agency – Impact BBDO – won a Grand Prix at the world’s most prestigious advertising awards show. As well as being a point of pride for the team behind AnNahar’s The Blank Edition, this also proves definitively that the MENA region can compete against the best talent in the world and win.

It also means that international agencies are likely to look more to the Middle East as a source of talent. Which is good for creatives here with aspirations to international roles, but perhaps less good for agencies whose secret weapons are no longer such a secret. TBWA/Raad executive creative director Manuel Bordé announced at the start of this month that he had been poached by Geometry Global to head up the WPP experiential agency’s North American creative teams. TBWA/Raad CCO Walid Kanaan said: “This is a big testament that our MENA region is attracting recruiters from North America, which is a big statement.”

Regional advertising professionals are also being asked to sit on more and more juries at international
awards shows. Seven Cannes Lions jury members were from UAE agencies, and the region was also
represented at the D&AD Awards and New York Festivals.

If the world is now seeing MENA as a fully grown and mature player in the advertising community, the
transition to adulthood is bringing further responsibilities at home. The ominous phrases “cost-cutting”, “layoffs” and “more with less” have been echoing around the walls of emptying offices as sluggish economic growth in the region and internationally has seen advertisers cut their budgets.
The conversations about measurement have been getting more serious as well, and advertisers have been re-evaluating their media mix.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) GCC has announced the start of a survey that aims to “comprehensively size” the region’s digital advertising market. That’s no easy task while the walled gardens of Facebook and Google take about 80 per cent of online ad spend and offer limited visibility of their data. But at least the project will allow everyone in the market to disagree with the same number, rather than bandying about different estimates tied to different definitions of what constitutes digital advertising.

Dubai-based media representative Choueiri Group, which handles advertising sales for MBC, the biggest television broadcaster in the region, and has a strong interest in promoting spend on television, launched a service it calls Brand4mance. The tool allows planners and advertisers to correlate television ads with spikes in online traffic to better gauge what result TV spend has on digital activity including site visits and online purchases.

As the industry has been refining its gathering and analysis of data, there has also been a swing back towards a more human side of marketing. There has been more and more talk about the nuance of ‘personal’ content rather than ‘personalised’. While technology can offer unprecedented targeting and personalised brand messaging, it takes a human touch to make a customer truly feel a brand is talking directly to them. 2019 has seen more brands referring to their customers as ‘fans’, particularly with reference to social media. Brand purpose is coming to the fore as research shows younger consumers give more value to companies that ‘stand for something’. Some brands are proving more adept at showing their caring side than others.

The conversation around personal vs personalised and human vs data-led is refining the way marketers and agencies use influencer marketing as well. Interest in micro- and even nano-influencers is rising, and as social media platforms have experimented with hiding measurements such as likes and followers, so marketers have started picking influencers for their content more than their numbers, and have begun making remuneration more dependent on tangible results, such as sales, than on reach alone.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that traditional media is making a comeback, there has been more talk about how to go beyond the mobile to complement digital strategies and to get the attention of a screen-weary Generation Z, who are digital natives but hide from online marketing behind ad blockers.

Choueiri’s cross-media measurement tool is one sign of this fresh look at traditional channels, and so is an increased interest in digital out-of-home. Influencers have begun appearing on billboards and in TVCs, moving beyond the social platforms that are their natural habitats. And digital out-of-home suppliers are keen to point out that their locations can grab attention from a Generation Z that is developing screen fatigue on their phones. When Bayut, a propertylisting tech start-up, decided to use Marvel actor Chris Hemsworth to introduce itself to the world, it opted for a film and a large billboard rather than social posts.

Media owners are diversifying their revenue streams. Campaign’s parent company, Motivate Media Group, announced partnerships this year that will give it a foothold in cinema production, experiential design, video gaming and more. And radio broadcaster ARN launched its Multi-Platform Network, which encompasses events, social media and out-of-home hoardings among other channels.

There has been more talk about audio this year. Amazon, the world’s biggest e-commerce player, entered the GCC market officially last year when it rebranded Souq.com – which it had bought in 2017 – as Amazon.ae. It then rolled out its Amazon Prime services, and is launching its advertising arm next year. So it seems likely that another key Amazon product, the voice assistant Alexa, will follow. Google, Apple and Microsoft all have voice assistants, and agencies are gearing up for a new search battle beyond the screen. If that’s the tech that will listen to you, the tech that you will be listening to includes streaming services such as Anghami, Spotify and Deezer, and the podcasts that they host. Marco Bertozzi, vice-president of EMEA sales and multi-market global sales at Spotify, told Campaign: “The evidence shows people are moving to an audio-based world to take a break from the screen.”

If marketing trends are changing as the region matures, that is probably a good thing. However, the changes look more ominous if they are made out of desperation. And there is plenty of desperation out there. Not only are marketing budgets being cut, but there are also more places to spend them, such as on social monitoring and influencer campaigns.

Worldwide, Publicis media agency Zenith expects online video and social media to grow at an average rate of 18 per cent and 17 per cent a year respectively between 2018 and 2021. In its latest ad spend report, published in October, Zenith said: “Online video is benefiting from the increasing availability of high-quality content, and improvements to the mobile viewing experience, such as better displays and faster connections. And for many consumers, checking their mobile devices for social media has become a regular, ingrained habit, while social media ads blend seamlessly into their mobile app newsfeeds. Note that these are not mutually exclusive categories: online video ads are now an important part of social media platforms’ revenues.”

However, those online video ads have a much shorter lifespan than the TVCs of yesteryear. Social  videos might be circulated by the advertiser for weeks or even days, rather than the months that films used to be on air. This means production houses have much lower budgets to work with per campaign, while being asked for content that is ever-more engaging, and able to compete in a sea of attention-grabbing rival video from brands, media owners and consumers themselves.

This may be mitigated a little by the rise of channels such as TikTok that make high-quality content look out-of place. The Chinese videosharing app launched in the region last year with a team that includes Gita Ghaemmaghami (who previously headed comms for Sony Mobile Communications in the region) as regional communications director. The platform features clips of only a few seconds each, and has “its own set of trends and behaviours”, according to Karl Mapstone, business director of influencer agency Vamp Middle East (part of Motivate Media Group). Mapstone adds: “Gen Z has flocked to the platform because it offers something different from polished Instagram posts. TikTok videos are often fun and silly in their nature, are edited roughly and show candid moments.” Marketers must embrace that to fit in on the platform. Not that the blockbuster TVC is dead yet. Expo 2020 Dubai launched three major video campaigns this year, featuring stars such as the footballer Lionel Messi and the musician Will.i.am. And last month Dubai Tourism released A Story Takes Flight, an eight-minute film produced by Vice’s creative agency Virtue and featuring Hollywood stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Zoe Saldana.

While those big-budget advertisers are able to focus on brand-building, many marketers got more tactical last year. Amazon’s entry into the market comes at a time when e-commerce and performance marketing are on the rise. Every dollar must be accounted for, and if there is a way to translate ad spend into sales without changing gear, then so much the better. Social platforms have been experimenting with ways for consumers to shop within them, from brands’ own profiles or even through influencers’ streams. They have also been developing building out new formats for sharing content, and last year saw experimentation with features such as Instagram TV and Facebook Stories.

If the market has been maturing, that does not mean it has been stable. There have been a lot of big management moves this year, some of which were less expected than others. It seems like there isn’t a media agency left with the same leadership structure as a year ago. Alex Saber has left Publicis; Ravi Rao has replaced Filip Jabbour at Group M; Dany Naaman has stepped up to run all of Havas in the region, and at OMG Elie Khouri has become chairman, while OMD CEO Nadim Khouri and PHD CEO Elda Choucair have become OMG’s new CEO and COO respectively.

Creatives have been in motion too. Fouad Abdel Malek has moved from TBWA/Raad to FP7 McCann; Manuel Bordé too left TBWA to go to Geometry Global in New York, replaced by Horizon FCB’s Bruno
Bomediano, who in turn has been replaced by Rodrigo Leal Rodrigues. Paul Banham, who left FP7 to become ECD at J. Walter Thompson last year, is now back with the Middle East Communications Network (MCN) as ECD of MullenLowe Dubai.

There’s little reason to think that next year will be either easier or less turbulent than this year. At Campaign’s Predictions 2020 event in November, Initiative’s regional managing director Lee Boden didn’t mince his forecast. He said that next year will be tough. He said everyone will need to do more with less. And he said that the key to getting through was to make work count by using all that data and measurement we have been talking about for so long to show clients what difference their marketing spend is making on their bottom lines.

So what changes will we see in 2020? That’s a conversation for another time (our next issue, out in January, is dedicated to predictions for the year ahead). But as the region’s media, marketing and communications industry matures, that doesn’t mean its rate of change is slowing down or that it’s getting any less interesting to observe and be part of.