Oman steps out of the shadows

Oman sits firmly in the shadow of its oil-rich neighbours. But development is helping to push the country’s advertising industry forward, writes Tim Addington

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By  Tim Addington Published  July 2, 2006

Oman steps out of the shadows|~|alfarei200.jpg|~|Mohammad Al Farei, general manager at ad agency Zeenah|~|The words heritage and tradition are frequently used when describing the Sultanate of Oman. Perched at the end of the Arabian Peninsula, the country is the oldest independent state in the Middle East. But despite its history, it remains one of the most under-developed countries in the Gulf region. Until 1970, the country was ruled by Sultan Said bin Taimur, but it was isolated from the rest of the world and dogged by political infighting. During that year his son Sultan Qaboos bin Said deposed him and began a programme of quiet economic and social reform diametrically opposed to that of its more brash northern neighbours. While not blessed with extensive oil reserves afforded to other Gulf states, Oman is slowly carving out its own identity in a region that is dominated by rapid economic development backed by petrodollars. On first glance, visitors to the capital Muscat could be forgiven for thinking that the city, nestled in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains, is stuck in time. There are few modern glass high-rise buildings, an absence of gargantuan shopping malls filled with designer boutiques, and the airport is badly in need of extensive redevelopment. But on closer inspection, life in Muscat, and indeed the whole of Oman, is gradually changing. The country is opening its doors for business and starting to actively engage with the rest of the world. With it comes tourism and the development of high-end luxury resorts such as The Wave and the US$15 billion Blue City development. Manufacturing is also on the move with one of the region’s largest aluminum plants in the region being developed in Sohar. The understated and unpretentious way in which Oman is evolving has won many admirers across the region. The country is also starting to get recognition from multinational corporations already operating in the region and keen to establish first mover advantage in anticipation of its future development. Just last week, Oracle, one of the world’s largest software firms, announced it had established an office in Muscat, closely following on the heels of IT giant HP, which set up shop in the country earlier this year. For the country’s marketing and media industry, these mega projects, the prospect of increased foreign investment and more development cannot come soon enough. For the country’s advertising agencies, tradition still rules much of their creative output. Campaigns are mainly limited to tactical promotion-led work, with very little emphasis placed on brand building. The dominance of print advertising, the lack of outdoor and a small broadcast media sector also hinders the industry’s development. Mohammad Al Farei, general manager at ad agency Zeenah, which is affiliated with Dubai’s TBWA\Raad, says that while the majority of creative work is characterised by promotions, there are signs this is starting to change. “The traditional marketing is still the same and it is still going on like it was in the past. Maybe 60 to 70% of advertising is promotional. But in the last two years we have seen quite a development in brand building,” he says. Ajay Menon, managing director at Fortune Promoseven in Oman, agrees that while promotional advertising is still the dominant force in Oman, there are changes afoot. “This market is purely tactical driven. One can’t compare the output that is generated from this market, mainly because it is a tactical market.” But he adds: “It is moving from very conservative to modern, but modern with a conservative approach. It is still not all out like Dubai. It is a still conservative. It lacks modernity at times, but is moving in that direction.” According to Radha Mukherji, executive director at DDB Oman, the move towards brand building is being spearheaded by the Omani owners, who are beginning to take a more active role in developing their businesses, as opposed to leaving them in the hands of expatriate workers. She says: “The advertising market in Oman has changed in the last couple of years. It was all about buying things. It was all promotion driven. There was no brand advertising at all. But there is a realisation now that you need to build brands. “There is a more long-term perspective happening because the Omani owners are getting more involved in their own products. Before a lot of it was left to expats.” As a result of a market that is monopolised by tactical executions, the standards of creativity are not regarded as high. The protective nature of Oman’s economy has meant that local brands have had little or no competition, enabling them to take a more relaxed and less aggressive approach in the way they market themselves. While this is now changing, brand owners have been slow in reacting to the developing market. Mukherji says: “One of the reasons why advertising and creativity in this part of the world hasn’t reached such a fever pitch is because there are protective markets. “Take detergent for example. Each country would have one local brand and they didn’t have to compete with other brands. It was a case of ‘I’m here this is what I do’. You don’t have to be creative and entertain people. Advertising is about talking to people and driven by market needs. If that works and sells your product, then so be it.” Al Farei says: “I wouldn’t say that creativity is that bad. But it is not up to the standard of work in the UAE and Saudi Arabian market.” And for Mukherji, being creative, while welcomed if given the freedom to do so by a client, should not dictate how an agency works. “I don’t believe in creativity for the sake of creativity and the sake of winning awards,” she says. “Agencies shouldn’t get so self important as to forget that ultimately a client knows his business and knows what works. “It is our job to project his products in a manner that ultimately persuades customers. You have got to understand your target audience. If you do something very creative and it goes over the heads of customers, you get nowhere.” Unlike its neighbouring Gulf states, Oman’s advertising and marketing industry, while owned by locals, is run in the most part by people from the sub-continent. All complain about the difficulty in attracting and retaining experienced staff when they are competing against their more developed neighbours in Dubai, Manama and Doha. Salaries offered are lower than elsewhere in the region and the chances to work on innovative and challenging briefs are limited.||**||Oman steps out of the shadows|~|radha200.jpg|~|Radha Mukherji, executive director, DDB Oman|~|The country’s drive for Omanisation, in which companies over a certain size are required by law to employ nationals, is also having an impact on the development of the advertising industry. And a recent change in the law that allows people to change jobs more easily has only added to the difficulties of agencies. Nitya Padmanabhan, operations manager at Asha Advertising and Marketing, claims that one of the reasons why advertising is so tactically driven and creativity stifled is because many of those involved in client marketing are not experienced marketers but sales people. “There is talent, but talent is latent,” she says. “It has not been explored and no one wants to challenge the talent, because the clients come from different parts of the sub-continent. They are sales and finance guys. “Most of them are not exposed to real-time marketing. The problem stems from there. They come here with a particular purpose, primarily to up the sales, and they are not interested in brand building. They want to get the job done and get out. They have to make a mark; they don’t have time to do brand building. Experienced marketers don’t exist. Those companies that do have them do good work.” Mukherji blames Dubai. “The fact that Dubai is next door is our biggest problem,” she says. “Anyone that wants to come into the region will likely aspire to live in Dubai. Muscat is very rarely the first choice. We can’t compete with the salaries or the availability of interesting and challenging work. To most expats Muscat is a sleepy town. Unless the money is very good, and the money is not as good as in Dubai, then it is difficult to get people here.” However, the soaring cost of living in Dubai and moves towards developing Oman may start to attract the people the industry so desperately needs. “The pace of life is slow, it is perceived as boring compared to places like Dubai, people would rather be in Dubai. I think that is changing though because Dubai is becoming more expensive,” says Padmanabhan. Sandeep Sehgal, general manager at United Media Services, which publishes magazines such as the Oman Economic Review, and women’s lifestyle titles Al Mara as well as having its own advertising and distribution company, says that sustained investment in the industry and Omanisation will eventually prove fruitful for the market. “Talent is related to investment. Dubai is going through certain challenges, it is becoming more expensive which may mean that Oman will become more attractive.” He adds: “Meaningful Omanisation. Building local home grown talent is where the industry should be going. It also gets expats excited, because they are helping to develop that talent.” Al Farei, one of the very few Omani nationals to head up an advertising agency, says that the development of local talent in the advertising industry is crucial to its future success. “People who best understand the market are those that are from the market. There is a huge potential for Omanis to be trained in this business. We have already taken that task onboard and have recruited Omanis in different areas of the business.” While the lack of available consumer research is a problem for all countries across the Middle East, in Oman it is a particular problem. Agencies say that clients are dismissive of research being carried out into the market, claiming they know who their target audience is and what they want. However, according to Padmanabhan, the increase in foreign investment and the changing nature of society means that clients can no longer presume to know what its customers are thinking. “Every other market in the world relies on research,” she says. “We don’t have any syndicated research done by any agency in Oman. It is not right. Who are you speaking to? Clients don’t believe in research because they say ‘I know this guy. Make the logo big and the offer big, that is what they want’. But the market has changed immensely. When I came six years ago, that might have been true, but we have still raised the bar. People are not stupid. If you are going to give them stupid advertising, that is not their problem that is your problem.” Al Farei agues that research should be at the heart of any good advertising campaign. “Research in the local market is not up-to-date in comparison to our neighbouring markets. Research can form the basis for any plans that are made. There is still a gap there that needs to be filled.” Despite the lack of available research, the problem of recruiting and retaining talented staff, and the over reliance on tactical advertising, those working in Oman’s ad industry remain up beat about its future growth. They point to the tourism drive, the development of manufacturing and the increase in foreign investment as positives for the future. Al Farei says: “If you look at Oman it is very different to any other country in the region. It is so rich in terms of culture, in terms of heritage. There is potential to use that as a base.” And what will the industry look like in five years time? Al Farei adds: “We will be playing a role in getting things changed. Oman’s market is opening up to the world. The quality of work and the way people advertise in the local market is going to be very different.” Overtly conscious about the progress of its more developed counterparts in places such as Dubai, it is clear that ad agencies in Oman are readying themselves to take the next step in their development. But as with most things in the country it will be a slow, considered and dignified evolution.||**||

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