Talking outdoor

Dubai is held up as an example of outdoor advertising at its best. So we asked five of the city’s key players to come together to discus clutter, costs and accountability. Richard Abbott sat in

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By  Richard Abbott Published  December 4, 2005

Talking outdoor|~|Camapign-Roudn-Table200.jpg|~|Left to right... Al Mufleh, Billington and Rajagopal |~|As marketers jostle for a slice of the Dubai dollar, outdoor has emerged as the medium of choice for maximum impact. Size and location have become the buzz words as the city’s buildings and streets provide the canvas for an explosion of advertising. With this is mind, Campaign held a round table last month to discuss outdoor advertising and the inevitable issues that it generates. Around the table were: Nader Salem, commercial manager, Mediahub; Richard Billington, managing director, Wafi Communications; Sami al Mufleh, CEO, Hills Advertising; and Rajagopal, general manager, sales, Gulf Outdoor Media. Shadi Kandil, consumer insight director at media agency OMD, represented the advertising buyer’s perspective. Despite competing interests, the assembled media owners found much in common, and they even talked about forming an association. But more on that later. One of the first subjects to come under the spotlight was the role of real estate advertisers in pushing outdoor forward. Real estate has been one of the main drivers of outdoor advertising in Dubai, as property developers compete not just on the scale of their architecture, but the size of their advertising. “This is a boom city,” said Billington. “And real estate is where the money is at the moment.” As the Palm islands, Burj Dubai and Festival City developments take shape, their owners are not taking any risks in getting the message across to the city’s public. As each new development comes on track, so does a new mega-format poster proclaiming ‘history rising’ or ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. Al Mufleh, for one, is more than happy to help them get their brand noticed. He is seeing more brands coming on stream to join the established giants such as Emaar and Nakheel. “Real estate companies have really started to believe in the power of outdoor,” he said. “When you walk down Sheikh Zayed Road everyone can see it. They want to show muscle. Outdoor is something that clients like to see. It makes them feel the impact.” But he warned that the real estate boom will not last forever. “After we finish real estate, all multi-national companies will go back to normal budgets. This big balloon of advertising budgets will go back to normal.” But for now, while the sun is shining, outdoor media owners are making hay. And as demand increases, so have the outdoor opportunities. The Dubai Municipality has approved advertising on scaffolding, which has given advertisers the opportunity to target drivers while they are on the move (or not, as is often the case in Dubai). “Local orders make the type of signing we can use unlimited,” said al Mufleh. This has been music to the ears of outdoor operators, but it has come at the expense of clutter. Rival media accuse outdoor of overwhelming the consumer with advertising. They claim that the impact is lost because of the quantity. Our panelists agreed that this was a problem. “It is a real issue,” said OMD’s Kandil. “Clutter, to us, is very important, especially when it comes to outdoor in the UAE. We need to find new ways to utilise outdoor.” Gulf Outdoor Media’s Rajagopal specialises in advertising in shopping malls. He said more advertisers, especially within the FMCG sector, will move indoors as the great outdoors becomes more cluttered. “Sheikh Zayed Road is fully cluttered so people are moving into other areas. Our medium offers them the chance to target consumers at the point of sale,” he said. But what is the solution to clutter? “There are specific ways to beat it — through creativity, creative use of the site and different ways of using the panels,” said Kandil. However, Al Mufleh was not convinced that Dubai had reached the ‘clutter’ stage yet. “I believe this is a supply and demand issue,” he said. “Sheikh Zayed Road is becoming a Middle East landmark. No-one says that Times Square in New York is cluttered — it is just in high demand because it is a landmark.” He points the finger at smaller media owners who chase the fast dollar and behave in an unprofessional way. “Because of the money involved, our industry has suffered from newcomers that are not professional enough. People either understand it or they don’t. Because of this there is some hesitation from agencies.” Kandil disagreed. “It is not just about the number of advertisers. Supply and ||**||Talking outdoor|~|hands200.jpg|~|‘One of our biggest frustrations was with monitoring services’ Shadi Kandil, consumer insight director, OMD Middle East|~|demand controls that. But too many formats in one area forces us to invest even more in advertising to get the same return that we got two years ago.” Billington says the popularity of outdoor in Dubai is because its return on investment is good for media owners but says this has encouraged everyone to climb aboard the bandwagon. “Everyone is asking landlords for permission. They have got greedy and pushed the price up. Because of this, people are taking advertising on the spare land around Sheikh Zayed Road.” He feels that some of the scaffolding sites are “short-term” and “tacky”. “I question the whole municipality approach to this, as an aesthetic thing,” he said. Mediahub’s Salem believes his company can cut-through the clutter. It has the advertising contract for a fleet of 400 Dubai Transport buses and has seen a 100% increase in revenues year-on-year . The panel were asked what Dubai Municipality could do to help the outdoor industry. Rajagopal said there was “too much” red tape to get through, but at the same time admitted that the municipality needed to come up with some new rules to stop the amount of outdoor advertising getting out of control. “You need to control the total number of ads on a particular route,” he said. “Such as the distance between one ad and another.” Inevitably, the discussion turned to research. Outdoor is as guilty as any other medium in the Middle East when it comes to the shortage of dependable data to prove its effectiveness. But while newspapers and magazines are making their first tentative steps towards auditing — with a handful of publishers opening themselves up for third party inspection — and people meters for TV showing signs of becoming a reality in Saudi Arabia, as yet there is very little to demonstrate the effectiveness of outdoor. Individual media owners have their own research to show traffic flow and potential opportunities to see each site, but in many cases this was conducted or commissioned by themselves. There is clearly a need for further research. OMD is looking to plug this hole by conducting a major research project, starting with Saudi Arabia, then the UAE. Kandil said: “One of our biggest frustrations was with monitoring services. Due to the lack of resources they don’t physically monitor the outdoor industry or give us details of campaigns based on the different media companies panels.” He said a starting point would be a simple reporting system, whereby agencies can see how many panels clients have booked with which media owner, even though the figures would be based on rate card and would not take into account discounts and special deals. At the moment, Kandil said, there is still an element of ‘guesstimates’ involved when planning outdoor campaigns. “We can’t make a conclusive comment because we are not measuring it,” he said. Al Mufleh was quick to point out that outdoor companies such as his own, Hills Advertising, would be willing to share information. “Of course we can help agencies,” he said. “But it is more about location and size. The agency knows the value of the location.” He said data, such as that provided by Ipsos-Stat on the TV and press markets, would not work in outdoor because of the many deals between landlords, media owners and advertisers. Wafi’s Billington said that anecdotal evidence was not enough, especially when consumer recall is falling due to the amount of clutter on the streets. “There needs to be some sort of statistics for the agencies. A lot of sites are questionable when it comes to value for money.” But he added: “We talk about research but, at the end of the day, there is always someone out there ready to buy a site at whatever price. Until all the construction is finished, it is going to carry on this way.” Mediahub’s Salem has high hopes for Dubai’s population census, Tedad, which is currently at the data collection stage. He believes it will give media owners and advertisers alike an important source of planning data. “You can start segmenting the population by nationality and by area. This is information that agencies will love, especially if you are aiming a product at a certain market. This will be a step in the right direction. I would like to see what comes out of it.” Rajagopal said Gulf Outdoor Media was already providing data to agencies that helped them to understand how many people were seeing their ads. “We know how many shoppers are coming into our malls,” he said. But who should be responsible for driving accountability? Media owners are on the frontline and can charge premium rates if they can prove that their sites are more effective than their rivals. But it would require unified action to come up with a measurement system — and this may be a step too far in such a competitive market. Meanwhile, media agencies need the data to service their clients better and can steal a march on their rivals by providing this new insight. And what about research companies like Ipsos-Stat and the Pan Arab Research Center, who have established themselves as monitors of TV and print advertising? Al Mufleh said it should be research companies that grasp the nettle, but Kandil disagreed, arguing that it was up to media owners to join forces. “Research agencies are not capable because it necessitates a lot of investment,” he said. “We have looked at the US, France, the UK, Italy and the Netherlands –||**||Talking outdoor|~|mufleh200.jpg|~|Speaking out... Al Mufleh|~|everybody comes back to us with one comment — media suppliers have formed a body that overlooks and protects their interests. “We are willing to share the price of research that properly measures panels in the UAE, but we need suppliers to be in too.” Kandil acknowledged that this was a bold move but said it was vital that the groundwork was put in. “There is a fact finding mission that needs to be done that will be a pain in the neck,” he said. There are devices being tested elsewhere in the world that register when an individual is passing by a poster, but Billington was pessimistic about their introduction in the UAE. “The Middle East has always been slow when it comes to media statistics. It is only recently that the agencies have started to look into TV statistics. “Eventually it will evolve and there will be some proper outdoor market statistics that the agencies will be able to grasp.” Al Mufleh echoed Kandil’s call for a trade association to represent the outdoor industry. “We need to have an association,” he said. “I have requested this many times.” Kandil responded: “It should be your responsibility more than anyone else’s because you are the custodians. You should be safeguarding the long-term interests of your industry.” Whether the UAE sees the formation of a trade association such as the UK’s Outdoor Advertising Association remains to be seen. Someone will need to lead the process, but it seems unlikely that anyone will want to take on that “pain in the neck” in the near future. The discussion moved on to the subject of creativity in outdoor. With so much time spent talking up size and location, is enough invested in the quality of the execution? Wafi’s Billington, who was a creative director himself for 20 years, was the first to address this subject. “If a brand is trying to advertise, to get good noticeability, the creative needs to improve a little bit,” he said. “I am sometimes astounded by Mupi ads that are designed like newspaper adverts. You can’t even read them at the traffic lights, let alone at 100 kilometres per hour.” Billington believes the time has now come where advertisers have to start pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved through an outdoor advertisement. “Agencies have to stop looking at 2D posters and start thinking about 3D. This is something that will give the client added value and make their advert stand out from the clutter. “Creative agencies need to think of something unique. You have to make yourself look different. They need to kick up a gear and come up with something more creative rather than knocking something up on the Apple Mac.” Salem agreed that sometimes the creative can leave a lot to be desired. “Sometimes we receive work that doesn’t do justice to the client. So we will try to work with them,” he said. Rajagopal agreed with Billington’s earlier point about copy clarity. “There are mupis that I cannot read. The creative department has to be very careful about looking into these things.” With the subjects of accountability and creativity covered, the conversation turned to how outdoor can increase its market share. With no solid data to go on, there is debate over the medium’s exact share of advertising budgets — and it varies according to region, but most observers put the figure somewhere between five and 15%. Salem started the ball rolling. “It comes down to professionalism, accountability and creativity,” he said. “These are the three things that will push it forward. The demand is already there.” Billington said outdoor could capitalise on the weaknesses of rival media. “You have to look at the other media options. Look at the creativity, transparency and research. They are questionable. TV — who has got the reach because of fragmentation? Radio does not have the same impact it had a few years ago. There are more newspapers in the market too.” Kandil acknowledged that TV and print audiences are fragmenting but, from an agency perspective, he said there is a degree of measurement with these media. “That is the missing link with outdoor,” he said. “My personal opinion is that an advertising campaign would be boosted by a component of outdoor but you can’t go to clients and say that ‘we are giving you that amount of reach on TV and press but we have added in outdoor.’” Just before we let our round tablers go, they were asked for their predictions for the coming 12 months. With increasing numbers of visitors to Dubai, for both business and leisure, Gulf Outdoor Media’s Rajagopal said the demand for space will only increase. “I don’t agree that bookings will go down after the real estate boom is over. More and more people are coming to Dubai and that will benefit outdoor,” he said. Mediahub’s Nader Salem agreed that outdoor is likely to continue its upturn, but on the subject of research he admitted: “Unless we are forced into it, we are not going to do it.” OMD’s Shadi Kandil said it was a “suppliers’ market” and this trend was likely to continue into 2006. Hills Advertising’s Sami al Mufleh believes the natural order will assert itself in the next 12 months. “The small players will go out of the market because of the costs involved,” he said. “But 2006 will be full of outdoor business.” A newcomer to the industry would probably leave with the impression that there is much that is wrong with outdoor, but as each media owner revealed his hopes for next year, it is worth remembering the important role the medium plays in Dubai. “Advertising provides a backdrop to this city,” said Billington. “Dubai would look like a drab place if it didn’t have the advertising.”||**||

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