Calling for change

The media agency landscape in the Middle East is developing fast but, with no audited research to aid buying decisions, it comes with its own unique challenges, writes Richard Abbott

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By  Richard Abbott Published  July 17, 2005

Calling for change|~|nambiar200.jpg|~|Facing challenges ... Mohan Nambiar, managing director, Mediaedge:cia |~|With no credible research to play with, the life of a media agency account planner in the Middle East is no stroll in the park. While their counterparts in other continents have trustworthy, independently audited data on which decisions can be made about which media to buy, the Middle East planner’s job is based solely on their own knowledge of TV, newspapers, radio, cinema and outdoor. But with the TV market fragmenting rapidly and new magazines being launched all the time, it’s a full-time job just to be up to speed. This is what Mohan Nambiar, managing director of Mediaedge:cia, describes as the “gut feeling”. It is a skill that is developed through years of media exposure and experience, but he says hard numbers would be preferable. Hassib Gebara, managing director, Middle East and North Africa, of Zenith Media, adds: “It makes the planning job for us much more difficult as it is based on pure media judgment rather than analysis of the effects of advertising.” To complement their own knowledge of local media, agencies survey the wider public for their views and index this knowledge to form a media planning database, but this is no substitute for hard numbers. Elie Khouri, regional managing director for OMD Middle East, says change must happen soon. “We can’t just carry on this way and must adopt international best practice here as we have done in other domains and industries,” he says. But there are few signs of media agencies getting together to hammer out the issue of research. Media agencies formed an action group, the Media Agency Council, to address the issue but precious little was achieved and the group is understood to have stopped meeting. “MAC was just a total farce,” says Mike Gillam, director of communications for Unilever, which has brands including Lipton, Axe and Knorr. He took his company’s US$75 million media business out of MindShare two years ago and started an in-house media department. “The main weakness is that they have no measurement to work off and hitherto they’ve not been strong enough in demanding measurement. How can they give a professional service with no measurement data? “This is not the fault of the guys working at their desks, it is the agency heads who’ve been slow to push for proper measurement.” But who should lead the process? Should agencies — as the intermediary between clients and media owners — dictate the process, or should clients themselves take the lead? “As a group, media agencies are working with clients, represented by the GCCAA [GCC Advertisers Association], on this dual issue of transparency and better research,” says Khouri. “Can we act unilaterally? Probably not. We need clients to be on board and media owners to realise that they have more to gain from being more accountable than they stand to lose. “As the guardians of our clients’ investments in media, it is our duty to provide not only a return on their investments but also a conclusive evidence of it. This is the only way the advertising investments will grow in the region, by becoming more transparent and accountable.” But Fadi Salameh, president of the powerful Middle East Communications Network, holding group for the Promoseven network, says it must be clients that drive change. “For this to work, it needs heavy involvement from clients,” he says. “They need to lead it because it is their money at the end of the day. Media should give an opinion but not push it forward as much as clients.” Meanwhile, the Middle East branch of the International Advertising Association has formed a steering group to make things happen, with representatives from media agencies, media owners and clients. But one disgruntled marketing director, who asked not to be named, said: “We are back at square one and there is no reason why this group will make any difference. We have been here before.” While the debate over research and auditing may be the first hurdle to true transparency, there could be an even bigger one still to overcome, with behind-the-scenes whispers of dirty deals — sweeteners on the side for media agencies who put a certain amount of business the way of media owners. One media agency employee, who asked not to be named, told Campaign Middle East that dirty dealing was losing his company business. “The politics can affect your job and we have lost pitches because of dirty dealing,” he says. Another media agency director adds: “It happens. This is the politics of our industry. Certain media owners don’t want too many agencies involved.” The fact that both people asked to remain anonymous says it all. This is media’s great unspoken truth. Under-the-counter payments for business are rumoured to happen. Naturally, everyone insists they are squeaky clean. The lack of media auditors scrutinising agency books on behalf of clients is one reason this can go on. In many ways it is a shame that so much time is spent in media circles bemoaning the lack of research and whispering about underhand dealing. Because the reality is that the bar is constantly being raised in terms of what is being achieved, especially when you remember that it is all based on that ‘gut feeling’. Media agencies are no longer afraid to ask media owners for something above and beyond the 30-second TV spot, the full page ad, the straightforward billboard. Creative, strategic planning is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. The key, it seems, is finding the right staff — and giving them the appropriate training. Khouri rates the level of planning skills in the region at ‘moderate’ but says it is getting better as the major networks see more opportunity in the Middle East. “Talent is an issue in the region. Because it is so scarce, we put a lot of emphasis on training and the development of local talent, working in partnership with local educational facilities,” he says. To this end, the Middle East Communications Network runs the MCN Academy, which takes GCC nationals and gives them training in conjunction with local universities. “This is the toughest thing our whole industry is facing. At the end of the day, you need local talent,” says Salameh. He says the academy is most crucial in Saudi Arabia where advertising is not a popular career choice. But the people most qualified to ||**||Calling for change|~|Gebara,-Hassib-200.jpg|~|Hassib Gebara, managing director, Middle East and North Africa, Zenith Media |~|make local media planning and buying decisions are the people who have grown up there and have been exposed to the media. Nambiar agrees, but sees benefits in having a multi-cultural staff. “Our media industry is dominated by ex-pats. Everyone has different experience and therefore comes up with different ideas,” he says. At Mediaedge:cia planners overcome the lack of data by taking media owners to task over their circulation and reach data. “We are not stupid,” says Nambiar. “We corner these guys when they tell us these things.” Questionnaires are sent to clients and contacts asking for their views on different titles. These views are indexed and used to inform planning decisions. Mediaedge:cia also uses new media opportunities when they become available, adopting a ‘don’t knock it until you’ve tried it’ attitude. Of course, you can have the best planner in the world, but if the media owner is stuck in prehistoric times and cannot accommodate great ideas, it is back to the drawing board. “Some are very responsive, others less so,” says Khouri. “Ultimately, it is an education process we have to go through, however painful it may be at times. Depending on what’s involved, we sometimes have to involve editorial teams too.” Nambiar says that some media owners are stuck in their ways and inflexible but the best are reaping the benefits of extra income and increased popularity within the agency community. Khouri says OMD is gradually seeing some of its better ideas brought to life, citing the examples of the first mechanical billboard, for Emirates, by the Garhoud bridge in Dubai. “We’ve also managed to negotiate unusual formats in print. In fact, we have so many examples that we’ve been compiling annual brochures on our media innovations in the region,” he says. “It’s by no means easy or common, but media owners are now starting to see the value of allowing us to use their media in more creative ways, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their editorial integrity.” While all is well on the media owner side, there are rumblings afoot on the client side, with prices bring driven down by procurement directors — the people employed to oversee all of a firm’s buying decisions, from paperclips to marketing. Naturally, a procurement director will look to get the best deal possible for advertising, which can lead to a low bidding battle when it comes to pitching for new business. “It burns,” says Nambiar. “It’s not pitches but pinches. It comes down to the cost factor. It is extremely competitive.” In some cases, the agency with the lowest charge is winning. So with cost so high on the client agenda, it is up to agencies to prove that their service is worth paying a premium for. “They should be looking at the total basket,” says Nambiar. “It is strategy that adds value to their business, not price. We put in the time and energy before a pitch to get to understand a potential client’s business and how we can add to that.” Meanwhile, Unilever has added negotiating clout to its in-house unit by signing a strategic agreement with MCN. While keeping its planning in-house, Unilever now has the increased clout of buying alongside MCN’s wide base of clients. The client retains the lead role in negotiations but has bought into MCN’s critical mass in the process. So what now for media agencies? Khouri says one of the key challenges is to keep on top of the constantly changing media environment — what he calls atomisation. “The number of brands advertised in the region has risen from about 5000 in 2000 to more than 30,000 in 2004. This explosion of the number of brands has also affected the media market, which is seeing more and more niche outlets on TV, in print and radio,” he says. “Technology is also increasing the number of possible contact points with audiences, making mass-media more and more a thing of the past.” He adds: “There are also challenges that are more operational in nature, such as the availability of talent or the scarcity of data in many areas.” If and when credible research arrives in the Middle East, the planning and buying art will once again take on a new dimension. And only then will the ‘gut feeling’ be consigned to the waste paper basket. ||**||

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