Discovering Yemen

One of the most enigmatic countries in the Middle East, Yemen is the complete opposite of the shiny, oil-rich Gulf. Its advertising market is crude and still in its infancy. Iain Akerman reports

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By  Iain Akerman Published  May 7, 2006

Discovering Yemen|~|yemen200.jpg|~|Sana'a, Yemen|~|One of the first things you notice as you fly into Sana’a is the burnt out wreckage of a plane by the side of the runway. With its nose pitched abruptly into the ground, it doesn’t make a very reassuring image. Nor do the lines of military helicopters that stare at you through the window as you taxi to a sad looking building proclaiming itself to be Sana’a International Airport. It is a sharp reminder — if it were needed — that the bright lights of Dubai or Beirut are far behind. As comparisons go, the UAE and Yemen couldn’t be further apart. One is at the top of the Arab world, the other at the bottom. One is depicted as a free market dream and economic miracle, the other as the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, blighted by kidnappings and tribal conflict. Yemen, with a population of just over 21 million, has a GDP of US$17.2 billion, while the UAE, with a population of just 2.6 million, has a GDP of US$75 billion. The figures aren’t kind to Yemen. It is one of the least developed countries in the world and is ranked 151st out of 175 countries according to the UN’s Human Development Index. With 42% of its population living in poverty, one in five malnourished, an unemployment rate of 35% and an adult literacy rate of just 49%, it is easy to dismiss Yemen. In these circumstances it is also easy to dismiss the country’s advertising industry. Flick through data supplied by Ipsos-Stat, the Arab Advisors Group or the Pan Arab Research Center and Yemen is conspicuous by its absence. There are no ad spend breakdowns, no market shares, no league tables. Dig deeper and the only figure you’ll find available from PARC for Yemen reveals that TV ad spend in 2005 amounted to US$16.5 million. Compare this to a TV ad spend of US$133 million for the UAE and you can see why no international advertising agencies include Yemen in their expansion plans. And yet, as always, figures only tell part of the story. What Yemen lacks in economic clout, it makes up for in cultural richness. It is one of the most fascinating countries in the Arab world and, despite being on virtually every travel warning list issued by Western governments, its people are hospitable and often keen to drag their country forward. Yet Yemen’s advertising industry faces huge problems, not least the economic situation, a general ignorance of what advertising is and a high level of illiteracy that renders much print and outdoor advertising impotent. “I’m sure you can compare the situation in Yemen to the Gulf 15 years ago,” says Aida Abdo, deputy managing director of Hams Advertising & Marketing, the country’s oldest advertising agency and an associate of the Fortune Promoseven network. “People are slowly starting to understand what advertising is. They have satellite channels and they see all these countries with beautiful signs and attractive advertising and when they see things similar or the same here, it feels good. They’ve started to notice things.” Mohammed Bin Humaid, general manager and founder of Sana’a-based Bin Humaid for Advertising & Marketing, says advertising in Yemen is still in its infancy. The company, which was founded 10 years ago, is possibly the country’s largest agency, with almost 100 staff. Its clients include Coca-Cola, Canada Dry and BP. “Advertising used to be very simple, very basic,” says Bin Humaid through a translator. “But we have tried to imitate what is outside of Yemen and have tried to bring it to the Yemeni market by using and bringing in new techniques — the printers, the materials for example — to Yemen. Before, people used to think that advertising was free. They couldn’t understand that it’s the main gate for any business improvement. So we have tried to eliminate this and give them an understanding of what advertising means. “Sometimes we did advertising free of charge just to let the customer understand that it is good for business.” However, Melanie Radike, marketing and media outreach manager for Arabia Felix, a quarterly English language magazine based in Sana’a that aims to promote Yemen’s cultural heritage, believes many companies are still unsure of the benefits of advertising. “There is a situation in Yemen where there are no advertisers who have long-term strategies,” she says. “Companies do have money but they are a little bit reluctant to invest it in advertising because they don’t understand it or don’t see the benefit of it. “But there are companies — the Western companies that operate here, international companies — which understand the concept of advertising and the benefits it can produce, and slowly the situation is changing.” Bin Humaid is typical of the larger and more professional agencies that operate in Yemen. It is a full-service agency in the traditional sense, offering not only the design and creation of TV, radio, print and outdoor advertising, but also media planning and buying. The same is true of Hams, which also offers PR, and whose clients include Yemeni telecommunications company Sabafon. The Design Group, another Sana’a-based agency, is heading in a similar direction as it diversifies from its origins as a new media agency into media planning and outdoor and print advertising. The move is essential as there are no media agencies in Yemen. However, these ad agencies are probably in the minority. Abdo believes there has been a proliferation of agencies in recent years, most of which harm the market more than they nurture it. “If we are talking about advertising agencies, then there are hundreds now,” she says. “But are they competitors? No. It’s a passion in Yemen that if anybody sees anybody else doing something, whether it makes money or not, immediately they do the same. They say, ‘oh, what’s all the fuss, you just need a desk, a chair and a used computer’. At the same time, they have no idea what advertising is all about. They believe that it’s booking something and that’s it. They see or think of advertising in a depressing way.” Bin Humaid agrees: “Unfortunately there are not many qualified companies in Yemen who can provide good work.” What’s more, with no independent media monitoring or auditing, it is hard to establish which mediums are proving the most effective in targeting Yemeni consumers. Bin Humaid, which undertakes its own monitoring of the market, estimates that in 2001 TV and radio took 18% of the advertising pie, while print took 40% and outdoor 42%. But is it easy to target the Yemeni consumer? “No,” says Aws Aleryani, development director and a co-founder of The Design Group, bluntly. “You have a lot of problems. Not all consumers are reading newspapers. In television, there is now satellite and nobody watches local TV. So it’s not easy. There are some new ideas, including SMS advertising, but the main way of advertising here is outdoor. It is going very, very well and is getting the message to the consumers. “You see it every day, sometimes you focus on this ad, sometimes on another one. It may or may not be the biggest form of advertising but it is the best in results.” However, a drive through Sana’a will reveal that clutter has become a big problem. Although Old Sana’a — a UNESCO world heritage site — has been spared the intrusion of unipoles, mupis and billboards, the rest of the city is comparable to the mess that has spread its way across Cairo. Abdo believes clients and a lack of regulation are to blame. “He [the client] chews qat in the afternoon and sits down and he writes all the ideas that come into his head and the next day he tells his manager this great idea and he replies ‘yes, this is great’. But I tell them it is not. But they believe that quantity is better than quality. I try to give them my point of view, but they say it’s a good idea. In our job, the client is always right.” Hassan Al-Haifi, a senior columnist and political and economic editor at the Yemen Times, an independent weekly English language newspaper, is also critical of outdoor advertising. “It is ugly. I have written against all this ugliness,” he says. “It is very weakly regulated. The power structure here in Yemen is a shared power structure. You have the military, you have the sheikhs and you have the merchant class. And the merchant class is made up of a limited number of, really, monopolies, and they control everything. So even when laws are made to regulate commerce etc, it’s in favour of the merchant classes more than it is the labour class. “I went to Edinburgh in 1980 and I was surprised that there were no advertisements at all in the streets. Even buildings, they only had an inch or so of advertising and I found it to be very nice. In Sana’a, because it’s so beautiful, it should have been kept like that and I tried so hard to make it so. I wrote in Arabic, in English, but nobody listened. This is what frustrates me. With money you can do anything here. Ideas like modern progressive thinking, like a decrease in commercialisation, are not sinking in.” But are Yemeni consumers paying attention to advertising anyway? For a population that is amongst the world’s poorest, a primary concern in any purchase is, understandably, price. Can luxury goods be marketed in such an atmosphere?”||**||Discovering Yemen|~|binhumaid200.jpg|~|Mohammed Bin Humaid|~|“If this question was 10 years ago then I would have said yes, we can market it to them,” says Abdo. “But now the level of income is very, very low. “If people go to a shop and they are looking for certain things, they don’t care whether this package, or this tin, or this advert looks good, it’s the price they look at. “We are becoming like the Egyptian market. They can’t afford to buy a tin, so they buy smaller quantities. This never used to be the case in the Yemeni market, but in the past five years this is what has happened.” And price isn’t just an issue for consumers; it’s also an issue for clients, says Aleryani, who founded The Design Group in Damascus in 1998 before moving back to his native Yemen. “The main problem is comparing the price with the quality,” he says. “When we make a proposal for any company, for example a website, the company is focused on the price. If another company or agency gives them a lower price, with lower quality, they will go for it. This is the main problem.” But given such a focus, what attention do clients pay to creativity? “They kill creativity,” says Aleryani. “And, of course, this is upsetting.” Creativity — as it would be recognised in more developed markets — appears to be non-existent in Yemen. It is a fact that is unavoidable and is depressing for those within the industry who wish to raise standards. However, most of the problems holding the advertising industry back appear to be out of the industry’s control, as Aleryani says. “It is related to the society itself,” he says with resignation. “As society gets better, then the advertising will get better. When more people read newspapers, when more people become educated, when more people stop chewing qat, then it will improve.” Qat is widely regarded as one of the main reasons why Yemen is struggling to raise itself from the floor. A huge percentage of the population becomes incapacitated every afternoon as they chew qat for up to six hours, bringing much of Yemen to a halt. A drive into the mountains surrounding Sana’a will reveal where many of those addicted to the plant go. Parked cars stretch along all the roads overlooking Sana’a, its occupants chewing qat, talking, relaxing and watching the world go by. “In my opinion qat it is the main reason why the industry is not progressing,” says Aleryani. Do you think it will stop? “No. Not in this decade,” he admits. Abdo echoes his opinions: “Qat is the main problem. If someone works three or four hours a day, he will stay chewing qat for seven hours a day.” However, attracting qualified staff is also a big problem — as it is in much of the Middle East — says Bin Humaid. “Usually, the good qualifications come from abroad. If you want a qualified professional, you have to bring them from abroad,” he says. “Some are from Lebanon, Egypt, the Philippines. Getting the right staff can be a real problem.” Abdo agrees, but also states that those who are qualified often move abroad to countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, contributing to a brain drain from Yemen. As a result, the wrong people often end up in the advertising industry. “I don’t like being pessimistic about things, but I believe in the whole Arab world, especially in Yemen, the wrong person is always in the wrong job,” says Abdo. “Really, I feel pity for Yemen. It will take a long time to change. If you go to any university you don’t see many youngsters thinking of advertising as a career. They will go into medicine, accounting, banking. A student will not go and study advertising.” It is during conversations like this that it’s hard not to become depressed. Yemen is such a unique and beautiful country, its people so welcoming, that surely there must be some light at the end of the tunnel? Bin Humaid says investment from international companies and larger domestic firms is key to the growth of the market. “There didn’t used to be any mobile phone companies in Yemen but, within the space of four or five years there are now four companies. This has helped promote more creative work and improve the standard of advertising,” he says. “As companies like this make more investment, it will improve things in the country.” The influx of mobile phone companies has helped rejuvenate the advertising market over recent years and Bin Humaid believes banks can help to do the same thing in the near future. Yet when it comes to talk of the future, there is a mixture of hopeful optimism and resignation. Is Aleryani optimistic for the future? “Yes. Because I know what the situation was like in 1998 and I have seen the changes, how things have improved since then. So it must be moving forward in the next 20 years.” Bin Humaid expresses similar optimism. “I see a good future for Yemen, with the industry improving year after year,” he says. “If we get past the problem of qualifications and staff then there will be much improvement.” However, Al-Haifi is not so optimistic. Echoing Aleryani’s assumption that advertising will only improve as society improves, he says: “The development process in Yemen is very slow. Even now, I can see we are very poor in many respects. Unless you start taking the standard of living for people up, unless you increase literacy, unless you start cracking down on corruption, start getting streamlined bureaucracy we can not have any improvement in the foreseeable future.” He paints quite a bleak picture. “It is. Because the situation is like that.” Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? “No. I don’t see it. I would like to. I have always been an optimistic person, but since 1994 that optimism died. Vested interests became more important than national interests. You cannot get improvement and you could not hope for improvement. It’s very hard to be optimistic. You have to be realistic.” Abdo is cautious about saying the situation will improve. “Insh’Allah,” she says. “But it will take some time, a long time.” But it will happen? “Insh’Allah||**||

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