As agencies battle to remain relevant and the region returns to growth, what should agencies be prioritising in the year ahead?
An agency’s priorities for 2020 will depend largely on where it resides. If it’s Lebanon, pure survival will be the name of the game. Every other country in the Middle East and North Africa is booming by comparison.
Yet the struggles that have plagued the region – war in Syria, the low price of oil, the continued conflict in Yemen, tensions with Iran – are only slowly beginning to recede.
Zenith estimates that adspend in the MENA region shrank by 47 per cent between 2014 and 2018 and declined by a further 4.8 per cent in 2019. However, it believes the market will stabilise in 2020, with growth of 0.4 per cent predicted, followed by growth of 1 per cent in 2021 and 2022. The latter would represent the region’s first substantial growth in adspend since 2014.
Although the increases may not be worth shouting from the rooftops, at least there’s a return to growth. Plus, as Seyoan Vela, Livingroom’s executive creative director, says on page ??, the Saudi economy is booming, Egypt is growing and Dubai is hosting Expo 2020. All point towards a positive 2020.
So what should be an agency’s priorities in 2020? How can they ensure they’re part of that growth?
“Focusing on the creative use of data in what is a data economy is going to be important,” says Tahaab Rais, FP7 McCann’s regional head of strategy and Truth Central. “Data by itself isn’t going to be enough. Creativity without data isn’t as effective. But the confluence of both does unlock exciting opportunities for brands and for agencies. We need more examples such as Spotify, Uber Legends and the work for Google’s Years in Review.
“Secondly, focusing on the customer journey versus clichéd channel plans or delivery lists is going to be important in how ideas are brought to life more meaningfully and more effectively. It helps create work that has relevance to people and engages them when they’re most receptive.
We need different mindsets, different cultural backgrounds, different perspectives and, yes, better female representation across agencies, across levels, especially when it comes to decision making…”—Tahaab Rais, FP7 McCann’s regional head of strategy and Truth Central.
“Thirdly, the training and upskilling of existing talent is important to achieve the first two priorities. There is talent around that still loves our industry and wants to be part of it. But looking across the industry, there isn’t enough done to develop that talent, to nurture it and to make it long for the endless immensity of the sea. This should be one of the most important areas of focus.”
Not everyone is convinced that growth will occur, least of all Hubert Boulos, DDB’s chief executive for the Middle East. Therefore maintaining a lean, mean operation will be essential.
“Recovery is clearly not around the corner,” says Boulos. “Dealing with decline is the new normal. In that context, the trend is survival of the fittest. The fittest is not necessarily the smartest.”
In order to keep costs down clients will make further cuts, believes Boulos. That means agencies will need to have the lowest possible overheads to protect their talent. They must also be uncompromising on creativity and the quality of their work, because clients can easily in-house most of the work done by agencies.
“Just drive down Sheikh Zayed Road any day and you will understand that you do not need an agency to do such appalling work,” says Boulos. “By extension, you may also not need marketing and comms departments to produce such a visual pollution either. Focus more than ever on your top talent. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to attract good talent from outside the region.”
“Recovery is clearly not around the corner. Dealing with decline is the new normal. In that context, the trend is survival of the fittest. The fittest is not necessarily the smartest.” --Hubert Boulos, CEO DDB Middle East
Diversity of talent will be crucial, adds Rais. “Diversity is a buzzword but it’s a very important topic,” he says. “We need different mindsets, different cultural backgrounds, different perspectives and, yes, better female representation across agencies, across levels, especially when it comes to decision making because it helps create a more grounded and a more relevant product for real people in the real world.
“I would also love to see more work that’s made to solve clients’ business problems get the investment, the time, the craft and the faith (from clients and from agencies) it deserves. And see that work awarded versus seeing campaigns that are short-term and made only for awards seasons in our region.”
“Only strong and clear ideas will cut through and make it across platforms,” adds Boulos. “This is the only way to build business. Have a point of view on data and creativity. We, for example, believe in bringing media agencies and communications agencies closer instead of merging digital and traditional agencies.”
That’s why DDB has relocated in the Omnicom Media Group building in Dubai Media City. “This is how we believe we can better answer clients’ needs in an increasingly complex environment,” says Boulos. “People are lost and you need to believe in something and guide them through your vision. There may not be a single right answer, but you have to do something and believe in it.”