Step outside

If you own a skyscraper, watch out — Sami Al Mufleh wants to brand it. The CEO of Hills Advertising has already installed huge displays on several of Dubai’s famous landmarks, and reckons more are to follow. Richard Agnew reports.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  May 1, 2005

Step outside|~|TOP-BILLIING-200.jpg|~|TOP BILLING: Global brands are willing to pay millions for the rights to install ads on the towers of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road.|~|LESS THAN 10 years ago, adverts on much of the stretch of freeway between Defence Roundabout and Garhoud Bridge in Dubai were banned. But now, you’ll see around 300 in the five to 10 minutes it takes to make the eight-kilometre trip — about one every one to two seconds on average, if you’re sticking to the speed limit. This explosion has predictably irked those with a fondness for architectural purity — even the man behind a large number of the ads is calling for some restraint. But it’s money that talks at the end of the day. “There is a lot of clutter,” admits Sami Al Mufleh, the CEO of Hills Advertising, one of Dubai’s major outdoor media groups. “There should be some sort of restrictions and limitations. I’m always asking for an association to be created for outdoor specialists who can sit together and organise things. The quick profits you can make from outdoor advertising make everyone greedy,” he adds. Al Mufleh’s solution to the problem has been pretty simple: sell adverts so big that no can miss them. Helped by his sales skills and background in engineering, he has been able to persuade owners of several skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed Road to plaster their towers with giant hoardings, some of which bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These ‘landmark advertisements’ include the world’s tallest, a 5700 square metre effort put up last summer for Emirates Airline on the street’s 21st Century Tower, which has now been replaced with a huge ad to promote Dubai Holding’s yet-to-be-built Business Bay. And Al Mufleh says that more are to follow, for two reasons. One is relentless demand from large companies seeking to assert their status in the city; and the other is that greed word again. Tower owners, he says, will eventually succumb to the temptation to make millions by selling the right to mount displays on their buildings, rather than earn nothing by keeping them ad-free. “Most landlords, when you first talk to them, are very sceptical about the idea,” he says. “They say ‘no we don’t want to talk advertising, this [is] *******’. The next year, [they see] another tower with an ad, but say, ‘no, he is hurting his building’. After one month they will ask, ‘how much do you want to pay?’ Then we [the outdoor agencies] start competing and the price goes up five times. They start to know they can make money out of it and start to be even more greedy than us,” he adds. Out of the towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, ones with giant hoardings are currently in the minority. But because of a lack of restrictions and the large amount of cash currently being ploughed into the outdoor media sector, particularly from real estate companies, it seems unlikely that more landlords will not jump on the gravy train. As well as Dubai Holding’s Business Bay ad, Hills has completed installations for make-up group, Lancôme and Standard Chartered bank — the latter of which is on the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The API World Tower is likely to be next, he says, as the owners of the building recently sold their lucrative advertising rights to Hills after a two and a half month-long bidding process with other media groups. Even the iconic Emirates Towers, one of which is the region’s current tallest building, and the Burj Dubai, which Emaar Properties says will be the world’s tallest, face the same fate, the Jordanian says. “We will always keep trying,” he says. “We’ll never stop. One day there will be a new manager who will say ‘let’s do it’ … We don’t know whether it will be accepted to put something on the Burj Dubai or not, but we will definitely try [to] offer something… One day, you will definitely find Emirates Towers with an ad on it,” he adds. Although Al Mufleh says that he has not yet approached owners Jumeirah International about placing an ad on Emirates Towers, he says that a banner on either of the buildings would obviously be a major money-spinner because of their prestige and location. But despite the money likely to be on offer, Jumeirah International seems less keen on the idea. “We cannot envisage a scenario whereby Emirates Towers (hotel or office tower) would ever be used for advertising,” the company told Arabian Business in a written statement. But while the views of private landlords’ about the benefits of outdoor advertising vary, there are clear advantages for the public sector. Dubai Municipality sells space on public property — whether large hoardings on buildings or mere signs on lampposts — to agencies in often highly competitive tenders, and sees that as a legitimate way to raise cash in the absence of tax revenues. For ads on private land, the government also reaps licensing fees and has the final word on whether they can be installed. For brands, meanwhile, roadside ads also have obvious benefits, considering the increasing fragmentation of radio, TV and print audiences and much of the UAE population’s love for cars. According to research group, IPSOS-Stat, outdoor agencies attracted 24% of advertising spend in Dubai during 2004, while their take would have been in single figures only a few years ago. Strange, then, that one of the emirate’s biggest spenders on outdoor adverts says it is becoming more sceptical about their overall impact. “In the UAE, it’s too noisy, there are too many outdoor ads,” complains Zsolt Ménesi, marketing manager for Nokia Middle East & North Africa. “The prices have also gone up heavily because there is big demand.” He adds that even larger ads on landmark locations are losing their impact, and should be curbed. “They’re very effective because there are lots of people moving around on the roads — and unfortunately in Dubai people are spending hours and hours on the road now,” Ménesi quips. “But there’s no longer a ‘wow effect’. My personal opinion is that if I were Dubai Municipality or who is responsible for approving them, I would stop somewhere. It would be lovely to have Nokia on the Burj Al Arab but it’s the Burj Al Arab. It’s the same with Emirates Towers — you shouldn’t touch these landmarks,” he adds. Others within the ad industry also have concerns about the banners’ effect on Dubai’s image. “The growth in the sector is great, but as an industry we should have some social responsibility,” says the head of one advertising agency in Dubai. “The quid pro quo for the government is that we don’t pay tax and it has to raise revenues some way. But some of these ads are unsightly and when people come to visit they tend to notice that there are so many of them,” he adds. The current system has undoubtedly been good for Al Mufleh’s business, however. His giant ads, he says, can bring in between US$270,000 and US$540,000 per year. Although productions costs are high and it can take a sizeable offer to bring landlords round, he says he can usually get his investment back in the first year. The up front costs also mean that contracts tend to last longer than those for ‘tactical advertising’ on street-level billboards and lampposts. Hills’ turnover, he says, amounted to US$5.4 million in 2004. But Al Mufleh hastens to add that he’s not in the city just to make a quick buck. “Dubai is not a place where you can take your shovel, get your money and go back. In our business, you need power. You have to have someone behind you to get you the rights for advertising, a Sheikh … or someone with influence. You have to suffer in the beginning to build their confidence in you, and you have to show them you are willing to invest and fight hard,” he adds. But Al Mufleh’s battle is getting all the more difficult as more and more outdoor media companies come onto the scene. Typically, he competes intensely with companies such as Emirates Outdoor and Arabian Outdoor for the large contracts, and says he once saw the price of a space on a building on Sheikh Zayed Road rise from US$54,000 to US$380,000 per year in the process of bidding. “Millions of dirhams are available so the work behind this is really tough,” he says. “But what I am really annoyed about is the amount of companies that have opened in Dubai Media City doing outdoor media services. They are not experienced and don’t know how to sell to multinational companies, but they have some small power to get them some locations. These companies have started to hurt us — you try and get a location and you discuss it with the landlord, but you see that around 20 of them are also trying to compete with you,” he adds. That is one of the reasons why Al Mufleh is casting his net wider, both regionally and internationally. Through affiliates, he is selling ads for Arab companies on sites in London, including a billboard facing the A4 motorway on the way to Heathrow Airport for the BurJuman retail group. But it’s really other Middle Eastern countries on which he is focusing for future opportunities. “To expand in London is really a waste of time, it’s too tough to get a good location and prices are high,” he says. “But there is a big move to the Levant — Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. We have to be in Iraq, although we have yet to start operating the business there for security reasons,” he adds. Back in Dubai, though, Al Mufleh argues the market is far from saturated. He says that there are currently “five to six” prestigious sites that haven’t been used yet, “and there’s a big fight for them right now.” Further opportunities, Al Mufleh points out, will come up as the various development projects in Jumeirah are completed. He adds that he is also now battling to land a potentially massive, 10-year contract to kit the emirate out with 1400 state-of-the-art bus shelters, which will house TV screens for advertising as well as other electronic paraphernalia. And as long as corporate egos need boosting, it also seems likely that there will be plenty of growth left for Dubai’s outdoor media industry for some time to come. “Every multinational company likes to have one site where it can show that it is a big shot in that country,” Al Mufleh says. “These big names envy each other. [They like to have ads that] show how big they are in the country, and once one starts the others want it as well. “When the big bosses come over they also like to see how big they are there, and the regional managers like to show them that,” he adds. ||**||

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