Against a backdrop of mounting political, social and economic instability that followed the toppling of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-backed Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and the coming to power of previous Egyptian Armed Forces commander-in-chief and minister of defense Abdel-Fattah El Sisi – and his subsequent election as president – in May 2014, the country’s communication industry has had to lie next to many bedfellows, constantly adjusting its position to theirs. But for what it’s worth – and for what it cost, as Egypt’s GDP per person has plummeted to sub-zero levels in 2011 and 2012 – the 2011 uprising has changed the country for good. Things will never be the same again in Egypt; and if only in response to this realization, messages of hope and optimism are still prevalent in the country’s advertising scene. The latter has embraced a youth-oriented political climate, the emergence of social media as a powerful vehicle for expression and change, and, as a result, the interchangeability of entertainment and politics. “Consumers are rapidly changing their habits, trends, moods and expectations in response to the political and economic dynamics. The media scene is also changing; digital media’s massive takeover, the rising power of talk shows and the emergence of numerous satellite channels are all impacting media planning,” says Hany Mwafy, chief energy officer at iQual, an Arab market research and consultancy boutique.
With 50 percent of Egypt’s 90-million-strong population below the age of 25 years, according to the UN’s population division numbers, the youth are driving the industry and, naturally, steering the wheel towards digital. “This large segment, with its exposure, creativity and contribution to the society, has become so powerful that no advertiser can ignore it anymore,” says Mwafy. “Brands definitely have no choice, but to adapt to the major shift to online presence, especially for youth on social networks,” concurs Tamer Auf, director of strategy and business development at Mindshare Egypt.
According to a report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt’s official statistics agency, the number of Internet users in the country rose by 15.9 percent in June 2013 year on year, reaching 35.95 million users. Another study by regional research firm Ipsos puts the penetration of social networks among these users at 89 percent for the same year. Facebook subscriptions rose by 72.5 percent between 2011 and 2013, the CAPMAS report adds, ranking as the most visited website in Egypt.
Ahmed Naguib, CEO of El Masna3, an online content production house based in Cairo, has been harnessing the power of social media as an advertising tool. He says: “The revolution demonstrated the power of the Internet as an influential medium and virtually all industries are now capitalizing on it. The advertising industry is no exception. Online content creation allows your message to transcend local terrain and reach international audiences.” Indeed, in 2013, the penetration of online streaming among Internet users has increased by ten points, according to Ipsos, standing at 56 percent.
Amid the myriad of online opportunities, El Masna3 is capitalizing on those that lay in Arabic content. “The Arabic language is hugely under-represented on the Internet. We hope to [fill this gap] by creating high-quality content that enriches the usage of Arabic language online,” says Naguib. In December 2013, El Masna3 produced Arabic Web Days, a new initiative to support Arabic content creation online, in collaboration with global and regional digital players, including Google, Wamda and Yamli.
One of the most notable developments impacting media and digital dynamics in Egypt is the growing popularity of mobile, as data released by the Egyptian government indicates that mobile phones enjoyed a penetration of 116 percent in October 2013.
“The role of a mobile is much more significant in Egypt than in more developed countries,” says Adham Roushdy, vice-president of ad agency Advantage and Mediair Carat Egypt, explaining that, among lower socio-economic classes, more people are going to be introduced to the Internet for the first time in their lives on their mobiles, rather than on a computer, effectively creating a new market for mobile advertising. “The lower [social] classes, most of which cannot afford an EGP [Egyptian pound] 1,000 computer, can afford an EGP400 phone. Twinned with cheap online mobile packages and the increasing availability of free Wi-Fi in public areas, mobile advertising will become an exponential medium in the near future,” asserts Roushdy. Easier access to the Internet and recent launches of low-cost smartphones should boost the latter’s penetration in Egypt, which, for now, pales in comparison with that of mobile phones, standing at a modest six percent in 2013, when compared with five percent in 2012.
However, for all of the digital activism and its inevitable growth in Egypt, many local businesses are still clinging to tried-and-tested traditional methods the industry has adopted over the past 50 years. “Some play it safe and are unable to see the merits of doing things differently. This way of thinking is old school and no longer resonates with consumers,” says Auf.
With the exception of Egypt’s biggest advertisers, which include multinationals such as Pepsi and local telco giants such as Mobinil, Roushdy believes that the percentage of budgets being shifted to digital remains relatively small, as the biggest issue he faces when dealing with some less sophisticated and tech-savvy clients is their need to feel secure. “They are used to seeing their ads on newspapers and television. Some businesses were courageous and smart enough to fully understand the power of digital advertising and invested in it, while all of the others are still 50 years behind”, and as such, tend to direct only their leftovers to digital.
For completely different reasons, this wave of skepticism has equally reverberated in the traditional media market, leading to the dropout and shutdown of many agencies in the market after the 2011 uprising, “because of financial problems” and competition over little work, says Walid Shishini, regional creative director and co-founder of Cairo-based branding agency, MeMark. He adds that clients’ cautious stance on media spend and investments, as well as on the country’s happenings, has translated into heavy budget cuts. “Many events get cancelled at the last minute for security reasons. So, naturally, several clients are worried. Everyone asks: ‘What’s next?’”
During the short-lived MB rule under Morsi, the future of Egypt’s media scene itself looked uncertain, says Roushdy; “had they [the MB] continued [in power], the likelihood of them closing down channels and imposing regulations would have been high”.
However, in an ironic twist of events, Morsi’s removal from power by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, led by El Sisi, and the subsequent coup that overthrew the MB, were followed by a series of forceful shutdowns of many of the brotherhood’s owned and supporting media outlets in Egypt. “It [the shutdown of MB outlets] didn’t have any direct impact on the advertising industry as a whole. Advertisements on these channels targeted a certain segment of society that is, in fact, a minority. A majority of the people watch [more commercial] channels, such as Al Hayat and Al-Nahar. Also, people refrained from advertising on MB channels because they [saw] political risk [in associating with them],” says Shishini, adding that the National Democratic Party backs most of the TV channels that attract the biggest chunk of advertising money and viewer ratings, with “even many MB and Islamist businesses advertising [on them], rather than their own channels”.
But, while Roushdy agrees that the impact of the MB media shutdown on the industry has been minimal, he says that nobody knows the real numbers: “The reality is [that] those [MB] channels had viewership that encompassed certain factions of the population. It’s hard to determine the size of that [viewership] because no research has ever managed to include [it] properly.”
In fact, in January 2014, Ipsos became the target of a naming-and-shaming campaign led by a consortium of Egypt’s top broadcasters, including CBC, ONTV and Dream TV, accusing the firm of bias in reporting audience ratings in favor of foreign media outlets and even hinting at threats to national security. Rumors flew that the reproachful broadcasters were seeking damages on the grounds that low ratings had negatively impacted their advertising income. Shortly after, Ipsos released a slew of statements vehemently denying the allegations and warning that it would take legal action “against any baseless accusations that defame both its name and its clients’ reputations”.
Despite Ipsos’ somewhat successful efforts to sweep the blunder under the rug, the controversy sparked a heated debate around the transparency and credibility of key media players in Egypt, which, according to Tarek Atia, CEO and founder of EMDP (Egypt Media Development Program), are compromised by the absence of “proper and transparent independent auditing mechanisms for the media. There is a big margin of error in our research methods. The same thing goes for the newspaper industry. Nobody knows the true circulation numbers of publications, such as Al- Ahram and Al-Masry Al-Youm. So advertisers are just guessing”. Worse, Atia says that ineffective market monitoring and research are no more than by-products of the reluctance of some major media players to disclose figures and numbers, and their deal seals on the back of back-scratching, network- ing and personal relationships.
Nevertheless, there have been a number of attempts over the past few years at building awareness around the need for accurate and transparent measurement systems, such as independent circulation audits for newspapers. “The media business is one of the businesses that are improving in the country. We are getting closer to international standards than other industries in Egypt,” says Roushdy, predicting that still, the regulation of the TV advertising clutter would pose a challenge in the near future. “Media channels are trying to regulate viewership in a meaningful way,” he explains, adding that regulatory measures, such as capping the number of sponsors or advertisers per program and raising air time prices, will prove beneficial for the industry, as well as improve the quality of TV content in the long run – even though “more and more channels are popping up, providing more opportunities for advertisers”.
Although Egypt’s media industry is taking baby steps toward self-regulation and transparency, its stagnancy has been punctuated by several events over the past year that threatened national security, budgets, as well as the freedom of expression and press.
During Ramadan 2013, the events that led up to the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Massacre – where support- ers of ousted Morsi held a sit-in protest at Egypt’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, which escalated into, what NGO Human Rights Watch described as, “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”, with reports of more than 640 people killed and 4,000 injured – incurred disastrous opportunity costs for media owners’ ad revenues. “Ramadan was a disaster to so many companies. So many clients went off air, budgets were blown and people were worried the situation would get worse,” says Roushdy.
With the freedom of expression in Egypt under international scrutiny, fears of censorship in the creative industry ran rampant. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reporting six dead journalists over the past year in Egypt, ranked the country as the third deadliest for press in 2013 after Syria and Iraq, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned criminal charges against three Al Jazeera journalists that were sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly aiding the MB with false news reporting.
In spite of the media crackdown and censor- ship, the advertising industry was left relatively unscathed; and as Egyptian citizens tuned in to their televisions to watch increasingly popular political commentary, music shows and Turkish soap operas, they opened up more growth opportunities for the advertising industry. “We have a great number of free satellite TV channels. Suddenly, we have so many choices. Clients are now generally more interested in advertising in TV than before because of the quality of the programming available,” explains Roushdy.
That is not to say that TV advertising was spared from the general air of tension and paranoia that has shrouded the country’s media scene. In December 2013, telco operator Vodafone Egypt was embroiled in a rather odd PR scandal after airing an advert that featured Abla Fahita, a comedic puppet character that had been popular on social media in Egypt since 2011. The ad showed Abla Fahita searching for her deceased husband’s mo- bile SIM card and mentioning the use of a sniffer dog at a shopping mall; a scenario that Egyptian blogger and conspiracy theorist Ahmed Spider translated into a coded message for a planned bombing attack by the MB at a shopping mall, filing a lawsuit against the operator. As such, the state prosecution service was asked to carry out an investigation into the ad and the motives behind it. And it did.
While Vodafone insisted that the tactical ad only aimed at encouraging users to reactivate their old SIM cards, and that Abla Fahita was no more than a comedic character, a Twitter hashtag, #FreeFahita, was humorously created in favor of the puppet and was featured on primetime TV shows and programs, including that of highly popular satirical comedian, Bassem Youssef. This wasn’t the first time Vodafone and its agency were associated with national security threats over a simple ad. In 2011, Egyptian artist and music composer Amr Mostafa suggested that Vodafone’s slogan, “The Power Is in Your Hand”, subliminally called on Egyptians to protest against Mubarak. Simultaneously, activists and revolutionaries were outraged that Vodafone had allegedly tried to take credit for inspiring the revolution, while it was believed that telco companies operating in Egypt had followed a government order for a communications blackout during the 2011 uprising.
The Abla Fahita controversy may have brought to light the disturbing level of mistrust during Egypt’s turbulent times, but it also received amused response on social media, with the ad’s video on YouTube garnering more than 1.7 million views in just one week. “This particular case shows the power of content and entertainment. There’s no monopoly over what [content] goes where and there’s no telling how people could react,” says El Masna3’s Naguib. “Content and pop culture result in something much more powerful than a simple advertisement.” “The quality of the creative industry in Egypt has matured in a way we have never seen before. Much of the creative content we are witnessing is courageous and is breaking taboos. The reality is that we are all impacted by the politi- cal situation. Many of [those in the creative field] have their own views and they are reflecting those views in advertising,” adds Roushdy.
MeMark’s Shishini says the industry’s witnessed significant changes over the past 20 years, but that those changes are now faster than ever with the advent of digital media and the revolutionary power it has brought forth. “Egyptian people realized how creative they are through the field of advertising,” he says, adding that: “Politically, the past three years have created more freedom of expression. But businesses are still afraid of political agendas so they don’t alienate a segment of society. In business, we have to remain neutral. We avoid politics as much as we can.”
Today, the biggest trend in Egypt’s creative industry, much like elsewhere in the world, is content creation, asserts Khaled Zaki, content manager at JWT Cairo. “This specific trend has been growing over the past few years. But it’s only started to catch on as of recently.” Ice cream brand Maxibon’s launch campaign in Ramadan 2012 was indisputably one of the most memorable Egyptian series of ads over the past few years. “We weren’t trying to create something new, we were trying to tell a story,” says Zaki. The ads, one of which featured young men DJ-ing Shaabi music (popular working class music in Egypt) and ‘eating’ whoever interrupted their jamming time, were well received by audiences for their humor. The phrase “My father, my father. What on earth have you done to him?”, sung by one of the characters in the ad after his father was ‘eaten’ by his friend, became an online sensation; it was tweeted 4205-plus times and was turned into an online meme with a total of 123 different comics shared 6735 times on Twitter and Facebook.
The campaign proved highly successful and, since then, advertisers having been moving away from visually impressive, cinematic approaches and focusing more on humor: 30-second jokes, not TVCs. “The 30-second joke is embedded in the Egyptian culture and its people. Egyptians love humor and appreciate a short joke,” says Zaki, adding that the advertising industry in Egypt is becoming more of an entertainment vehicle. “If you look at the big- gest moneymakers, which are the biggest spenders in the market, the question they ask is: ‘How can my brand be a part of your daily life?’ There is a wavelength that is changing,” he explains.
EDMP’s Atia agrees that companies and advertisers are now starting to understand that people are no longer forced to watch their ads and that the latter has to be as entertaining as any other media content to be consumed. In that sense, “the advertising industry is ahead of the media,” he says.
But, while the Abla Fahita controversy was unintended, and rather on the entertaining side, and other ads simply aimed to please with apolitical content, several advertising campaigns capitalized and hinted on the country’s political climate over the past two years. Recently, commuters on Cairo’s October Bridge were met with a billboard ad calling on Egyptians to be patient, for the “big man” was coming. This was highly reminiscent of the 2012 campaign by former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq when he ran against Morsi; a similar teaser billboard ad on the same bridge promised to reveal Egypt’s “next president”, later informing people that it was Shafiq.
In fact, many MB figures speculated that the second such stunt on the October Bridge was a presidential campaign for Sisi, prompting military authorities to release an official statement deny- ing his involvement in the billboard ad. Media personality Tamer Amin claimed that his sources confirmed it was Shafiq’s campaign, while presenter Amany Al-Khayat maintained that the ad was part of an American conspiracy to divide Egyptian votes in the upcoming elections. After much speculation, the teaser campaign revealed that the “big man” was Hawanem, a new pasta brand. The reveal was surely anti-climactic, but it resonated with much of the Egyptian public.
Advertising agency Inhouse’s co-founder, Haytham Ezzo, the creative director behind the controversial campaign, says he purposely played on the political environment: “I wanted a strong message to create a word-of-mouth debate. [At the time], everyone was talking about the upcoming presidential elections,” he says.
In fact, Ezzo and team specifically chose the colors red and green for the ad because they had a “military feel” to them, playing on the public’s anticipation that Sisi would run for president. “After the reveal, consumers accepted it as a joke and the strong reactions to the campaign have made the product very successful in the market today,” he explains.
“Nobody can predict what is going to happen in Egypt in the next few years. But, there is a pulse and people are optimistic. However, our stability is highly dependent of the decisions and actions the political powers will take,” says MeMark’s Shishini. “We are living with instability every day, but, somehow, we are managing to accommodate [it] and trying to create a life,” Roushdy adds. Ultimately, he believes that the fate of the media and advertising industries lay in the hands of the creative agencies and businesses themselves. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you see it from time to time. Looking at the regional media gurus, the attention they are giving to Egypt tells you something about how big this market can be and how big the opportunities are in it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Atia says there is a lack of documentation on the state of Egypt’s advertising industry as a whole, which makes it hard to quantify trends that will shape it. “As a result, it’s hard to really understand shifts in Egypt’s advertising, because there are a very few indicators. There’s no dedicated media beat on the industry, it’s covered randomly and haphazardly. You have to be really specialized to know what’s going on.”