“The madman way of doing advertising is dying in the region.” Natalie Shardan, general manager of Serviceplan Group Middle East, has a grim view of the future of advertising in the region. Serviceplan is set to host its first Creative Summit, bringing together creative leads of the group from around the world on October 23-24, hoping to show them how the Middle East is adapting to the changes roiling the industry around the world.
On this occasion, Communicate talked to Shardan, along with executive creative director Akhilesh Bagri and global executive creative director Jason Romekyo.
What led you to host the summit in Dubai this year?
( Jason Romekyo, worldwide executive creative director of Serviceplan Group )
Jason – Dubai is a city of the future. On a very superficial level, we can see it in the architecture. But if you really think about it, it’s a city of the future because of how much has been created from nothing. That in itself is innovation in many different ways. I always see it in the hustle and bustle of this city and that helps me see it as a hub for innovation.
The Middle East is also a consistent early adopter of new digital behavior for consumers. I’m seeing a lot of things that people in Western Europe and the US are only talking about, whereas consumers in the Middle East are actually experiencing [them]. I like to give this example a lot: in the old days, when the world wasn’t really excited about the idea of mobile payments, Afghanistan and Pakistan had already implemented it.
(Natalie Shardan, general manager at Serviceplan Group )
Natalie – A lot of people have weird perceptions about the region. They believe it’s not that developed, especially in terms of tech and digital. The perception is that, somehow, we’re backward – although this is one of the youngest nations in the world. The penetration of the Internet in the GCC countries is high. The way we consume social media and digital is far advanced compared to the West. But that’s not known, for some reason
How do you rate creativity in the region?
Natalie – I’ve been in the region’s advertising industry for the past 14 years and have gone through its ups and downs. The way I see it now is that the madman way of doing advertising is dying in the region. The clients are now looking for real consultants on a business level and not just an agency that does only campaigning. Obviously, you need to produce something that will touch hearts and make a difference, but there should be a context of, business-wise,“Why are we doing this and how are we going to bring it to life properly?”
Overall, I feel the ship is heading towards setups that are much more flexible. Technology will definitely be in the lead. We’re sure the direction is definitely in the area of social, digital and tech; and both agencies and clients are aware of its importance and are making efforts to invest in these new avenues.
You say the Arab world is tech-savvy but, still, the West is ahead in terms of digital behavior and consumption. For example, western consumers are already leaning more towards voice assistant technologies such as Amazon Alexa. How do you explain that?
Jason – I look at it differently. I believe that we live in a screen age. We have anywhere between two to eight active screens inside the living room. The screens are the mediums. Even outdoors, we can see an increase in digital billboards which allow for a different kind of connectivity and real-time reaction to things. I believe the Middle East has caught up a lot faster in the last couple of years and I can see the momentum in the action. I feel it’s actually overtaking a little bit. I don’t know about Alexa and Siri, but the screen is definitely dominant in the Middle East.
(Akhilesh Bagri, executive creative director at Serviceplan Group )
Akhilesh – Also, recent acquisitions that happened, such as Uber and Careem. A globally big player like Uber bought out Careem, a young startup tech company, and Uber’s homegrown rival. For Uber to come in and buy stakes in it, especially for a company that started very recently, is extremely surprising. It’s obviously because the homegrown companies have tapped into the market with a lot more precision than the global companies that we’re used to; [they] spoke to them better and worked around consumer behavior.
In terms of adapting to what works in the region, the dependency on conventional industries has been reduced because of the wide reach of tech and social media. As a result, huge investments are being made by global players in the region. The Apple showrooms in the region and the investment they’ve made is a testament to that.
Does this tech-savviness apply to all socio-economic segments of the population in the region?
Akhilesh – The biggest mistake is that we bundle the Middle East as one region, which we shouldn’t do creatively nor when we’re trying to create a landscape. You have Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, etc. These are all markets that consume very differently. But we do know that the majority of the population is extremely young. The penetration and usage rates of smartphones will reach 69% by 2020. Companies like Huawei invest so heavily in the region so they can gain a large market share which helps to open up a portal to new apps, services, products, etc.
If you look at the growth curve, it’s definitely steeper compared to other countries. There’s a huge consumption here and the potential gain for companies shifting into this region is high. The growing population and the younger population are extremely switched on.
Natalie– Excluding numerous factors such as income group, ethnicity and so on, the mindset of the population, their approach, their desire for a quality of life are very similar in nature. Tech plays a vital role in making their life easier, looking after simple tasks, etc.
Jason – The tech industry is well aware of the fact that they need to take the people forward with technology and not really leave anyone behind – which is why companies like Huawei are producing lower-end smartphones to bridge the gap.
If the mindset of the general population is similar despite ethnic backgrounds, does culture still play a role in the advertising strategy?
Akhilesh – Absolutely. There are insights and stories that are universally accepted. There are niche stories that are particular to certain cultures. There’s room for everything right now. We need to constantly look at what’s happening. One thing about the UAE’s creative community is that most of them are expats. They either grew up here or moved here, and brought with them the sensibilities of what they learned from their home countries into the region. But they also started to understand what this region is about. There are universal ideas, but it still does depend on what and who we want to talk to and try to get as close to the emotion we want the end consumer to experience.
What are your top 5 predictions for the advertising industry in the region?
Jason – One would definitely be 5G and how it’s going to transform the landscape unlike anything else. Second would be security and protection against cyber-crime and hacking.
Coming back to your original question, artificial intelligence (AI) is definitely inevitable. I foresee we’ll be able to take research documents from companies and work with them on an algorithm to start spitting out creativity. But that’s not going to serve in place of the agency. The biggest AI will not be able to make great creativity. We’ll still need a human touch on the creative aspect.
Akhilesh– Mobility would be another one. I read an interesting article by the ex-head of BMW, Chris Bangle. He has his own design firm now and is making a car for China. Cars only move for 10% of their life. They’re designing a car made for the remaining 90% of the time. These cars become your café, workspace for entrepreneurs. The point being, mobility is going to transform how we live. It’s going to be one of the key conversation points in the coming years along with other concepts like space travel, etc.
Jason – I guess the last topic which would be really interesting in the coming years would be personalization. And it’s going to be on a programmatic level. Every single person is going to receive messages tailored to them personally. It’s going to advance further with 5G.