Credibility, cautiousness and conservatism are the new pillars of Egypt’s communication industry. For now
Over the past 18 months the events that followed Egypt’s “digital revolution” and led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak have split the Egyptian people in two: the disappointed and the doomsayers. Hopes of a genuine transition to democracy, a liberal market, a free-flowing economy and a rise above the poverty line seem to have crumbled along with growth forecasts and economic indicators for the country. After the Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling in mid-June to annul Egypt’s parliamentary elections and dissolve the parliament, Fitch Ratings downgraded its outlook on the country’s long-term foreign and local currency ratings to negative. Worse, Egypt’s presidential elections, a struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi and Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, with the military grabbing power and then Mursi winning the elections, have caused nationwide disenchantment. “The majority of people – at least the thinking educated people – are very upset, because either way we’re doomed. Both choices are horrible,” said Ali Ali, creative director at creative agency Elephant Cairo, before the results were announced.
LIBERATION SQUARE LIMBO
Consumer mindset, media consumption, and purchasing power have changed, and as a result so has the environment for the communication industry at large, and creative one in particular.
“The country came to a virtual standstill for over two weeks [after the revolution started]. As our clients’ business was affected, so was ours,” says Mohammed Sabry, country client officer for JWT Cairo. It took far more than two weeks for both media and advertising multinational agencies to recoup their losses during the first few months that followed the revolution. “Every time something happens in Tahrir Square, our plans get immediately cancelled. We’re down 30 percent in the past year, 22 percent in the past 18 months. It’s not picking up,” says Shaheer Farag, deputy GM at UM Cairo. “The intention was to bring back business as quick as possible while ensuring that we’re understanding and empathetic to the current events,” explains Sabry.
Emile Tabanji, managing director at Impact BBDO Cairo, says that although the first quarter of 2011 was a waiting period for big and small clients alike, Ramadan  was the turning point of confidence for most brands, which, prior to the holy month, were cautiously coming out with campaigns that were only relevant to the revolution. “But after Ramadan, the question was: should we avoid entertainment? So everyone did entertainment, but added a meaningful part to it. For Pepsi, for example, we did a copy that was entertaining, it endorsed stars, but I think it gave people a CSR angle,” he says.
Walk the line
Ali wishes agencies and their clients had avoided post-revolution advertising altogether. He says that although the revolution fueled the creative industry for some time after the protests began in Cairo, advertising toned down – in both quality and content – as the country transitioned into a state of new normalcy. And he is disappointed by the outcome. “The message is kind of lost. So the ice cream brand that used to want to tell you how good and creamy it was or how great it tastes, now wants to say let’s clean the country and love each other. Brands are acting more like politicians and less like brands.” Ali’s two-man agency had received quite a few “put-a-flag-on-our-brand” briefs, and declined them all. But he acknowledges turning down work during tough times is a luxury only smaller agencies with low operating costs can afford. “We were practically doing no work for four months because we refused to do these fake patriotic ads. Big agencies have millions of pounds in running costs they need to cover. I can’t really blame them,” he says.
But it is not only a matter of sustainability; when the FP7 creative teams resumed operations after the 18-day involuntary sabbatical in January 2011, their clients needed to get right back to business, as unusual as it was. More importantly, they needed their creative strategies aligned with the new status quo. “So we conducted two studies, one to understand the consumers’ political views, their hopes and fears, and the other to determine what to advertise and how,” says Amr Kalaawy, deputy GM at FP7 Cairo, adding that one key objective behind both studies was to figure out whether clients should address or ignore the revolution in their campaigns. Because, after all, not all brands could claim patriotism. “Egyptian consumers were already savvy. But this time, they are outspoken. They really accepted public service campaigns, so long as it [CSR] was already in the DNA of the brands that were promoting them,” explains Kalaawy.
As the first quarter of 2011 came to a close, a slew of campaigns inspired by the revolution were released by the likes of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Mobinil. “We are used to doing patriotic ads, especially now that we have clients like Mobinil, which was very Egyptian as a brand. Mobinil continued to do what it used to do. But it started looking at initiatives more,” said Amr Darwish, managing director at Leo Burnett Cairo. “Persil adopted the cleanliness in Egypt mission, Vodafone the illiteracy elimination program. But, quite honestly, people talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” says UM’s Farag; and brands that did not, much like the figures of Egypt’s past regime, received their fair share of backlash.
In June 2011, Vodafone was embroiled in a nationwide controversy following an ad suggesting the telecom operator had inspired the Egyptian revolution. The video of the campaign read: “We didn’t send people to the streets, we didn’t start the revolution… We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.” Unfortunately, and although the operator tried to disassociate itself publicly from the ad, it also reminded activists about the first few days of the Tahrir Square protests, when telecom operators and phone companies were believed to have followed government orders for a complete communications blackout.
Still, Ahmed Emad, senior exchange manager at Mindshare Cairo, says brands that did jump on the CSR bandwagon were far outnumbered by those that didn’t. In times of accountability and economic downturn, not everyone should communicate; and those that do should be very careful with their messaging. “As things progressed and turned out not as we had hoped, especially in the context of economic slowdown, messages became more specific. For example, campaigns on a dollar fund for Egyptian expats abroad. It’s not just about the emotional mottos anymore. It’s more functional,” says Emad.
As some brand categories tiptoed around Tahrir at times in their campaigns, others had their reputations tarnished with corruption rumors and affiliations to Mubarak and his close circle of political figures and followers. “Unfortunately, certain sectors were totally damaged, like steel. We had a client that was launching a campaign. It was stopped. Because the whole industry was labeled [Egyptian steel tycoon Ahmed] Ezz, and with him going down and being corrupt, the perception on the street was that the entire steel industry is corrupt,” says BBDO’s Tabanji. “Aside from the ‘re-investment’ and ‘Egypt fund’ campaigns, some banks wanted to stay quiet because, in the press, they were affiliated with regime leaders, helping them get their money out of the country. Same thing with financial institutions and brokerage firms that people associated with the failing stock market and the sons of Mubarak,” Emad adds.
The real estate and automotive sector have practically disappeared from Egypt’s communication map, partly due to some corruption rumors, but mainly because the Egyptian population is in no mood and no position of purchasing power for status symbols. “We had three real estate clients. They’ve stopped operating to this date,” says Darwish. “Real estate, automotive, and the financial services sectors were all greatly affected right after the revolution. We are starting to see some signs of recovery in each sector, but it will take some time until these industries return to 2010 numbers,” says JWT’s Sabry.
On the upside, public awareness and service campaigns have added a new business line for some agencies; and so have the parliamentary and presidential elections. “We won the business for the voters’ education campaign. This is a totally different business for the industry. We’re not taking sides, it’s an awareness campaign to have people vote. There are agencies that are working on political parties, and others that are now handling the presidential candidates. But they are usually local agencies,” says Kalaawy, adding that multinationals’ – be it agencies or advertisers – campaigns in general focused on positive, rather than revolutionary undertones, a strategy that serves well when there is a public divide in opinions.
But Darwish says that although the advertising market dynamics are not as they were prior to the revolution, and are today more based on short-term planning than they are on long-term vision, it is Egypt’s media scene that has gone through the more radical changes. “The established clients are following their plans. But they have a different media strategy. The media scene has been directly affected by the revolution. Even sports channels switched to politics, which is very funny to see,” he adds.
Media consumption patterns in Egypt have drastically changed during the first few months that followed the revolution. Emad says that “in the hype of what was happening, it was all news. Even the ratings of other genres took a huge dip. After [Mubarak’s] step-down happened and the revolution supposedly succeeded, things went back to normal a bit. People got adjusted to the norm, and went back to their old habits;” as much as they could. By the second quarter of 2011, Turkish series had gained back their skyrocketing ratings and popularity among the female population in Egypt. “Right after the revolution, [TV ratings breakdown] was 80 percent talk shows, 20 percent drama [series]. Now it’s 70 percent drama [series], 30 percent talk shows. And that is a change in itself, because pre-revolution, talk shows stood at 15 percent,” says Farag. But the continued improvement in ratings for talk shows could also be attributed to the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League in February 2012 following the Port Said football stadium riots that caused the death of 74 people, which has left the country’s football enthusiasts, mainly men, with little to focus on other than politics.
“Because the Egyptians now feel they have a bigger say, and feel they have the power to either make a media successful or a total failure, this has affected our media planning, spot positioning and ad placement in media,” says Farag, adding that the demand for credibility and accountability were the main drivers of change in Egypt’s media landscape over the past year and a half. People want to know what is really going on.
Last year, three newspapers launched in Egypt, one of which is owned by the Muslim Brotherhood; three to four years ago, says Emad, those newspapers would have been labeled propagandist opposition titles against the government. “Today, readers know that certain newspapers are totally government-owned and have been the government arms of media since fifty-plus years;” and in the current context, government-owned media outlets are bleeding money. “They died. May they rest in peace,” says Farag. “For example, the public-owned newspaper Al-Ahram is 120 years old, it has a lot of equity. But because it was publishing information that was not close to reality, people stopped reading, and hence advertisers stopped paying.” Same goes for national TV stations, which now face competition from the expanding number of independent TV networks that have mushroomed in Egypt over the past 12 months.
Emad says that out of the 20-plus TV channels that have recently emerged in Egypt, only three to four proved to provide quality content for viewers. And now that advertisers have more choice at hand, they need to carefully and selectively revise their media plans, especially since they have to factor in the political affinity of the newborn media outlets. “We had spots changing on a daily basis on different channels; we would know a very senior military guy is going to be on a show and we’d have to cancel spots we booked on late-night movies, and book on that show instead. It’s about making a plan, never an approved one, but always in process,” says Farag, adding that brands have had to distance themselves from politics and religion in their choice of media just like they have in their campaigns.
The trial of Mubarak, he explains, brought in 100 percent viewership. But not a single advertiser had the guts to book a spot there. “Although you may read that the entire population hates Hosni Mubarak, that is not necessarily true. And even when talk shows get someone that everyone hates, clients do not want to associate themselves with that kind of exposure,” adds Farag.
Emad says the only winner to have come out of the Egyptian revolution remains digital media in general, and online and display advertising in particular. Simply put, if digital media was able to topple the president, it could definitely do a whole lot for a brand. “Digital, mobile media were used in the logistics of the revolution. So when there was a riot going on, or the police were running after the protesters, tweets would be shared to change plans and directions. That’s how important it was,” explains Emad. UM Cairo’s share of digital media now stands at 17 percent of its total portfolio, compared to 7 percent prior to the revolution. “It is no secret that the digital space will play a major role for brands connecting with consumers today and in the foreseeable future. We always ensure we deliver digital interactive components in every campaign we launch for our brands,” says JWT’s Sabry.
Of course, this poses a challenge for agencies that now have to upgrade their infrastructure to match the growth of Egypt’s digital market. “I think we are all setting up bigger structures of digital and social [media] locally, and not only relying on regional resources,” says Tabanji.
But although digital shows a lot of promise for the future of the industry, Ali Ali is less than enthusiastic about its current state. He had expected the revolution to bring in its wake an outpouring of out-of-the-box, edgy advertising, something he said did not happen. “I honestly thought Egyptian advertising would become gutsier, braver, and bolder. We would lose a bit of the censorship we had. For example, we can’t show a guy without a t-shirt here. We can’t show a donkey for some reason. We can’t show a stray dog. We thought all of this would go and we would sort of elevate to a better place. Maybe it’s the end of an era in terms of what we can do on television,” he says.
Ali’s concerns might be justified. Under the military caretaker government that followed Mubarak’s toppling, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, many censorship stories have come out in the media, and mostly revolved around freedom of independent press; but one in particular, the ban of the Melody Aflam “Wadee3” campaign – which featured a series of humorous TVCs adapting Hollywood blockbusters in Egyptian – has raised a red flag on the potential threat of Egypt’s new powers on the creative industry.
To date, agencies are yet to feel such a threat. “We’re a moderate conservative society by nature. Our societal values are playing the role of censorship in Egypt, more than censorship itself. I don’t think it will change. [But] it might with time,” explains Kalaawy. Although Darwish agrees, he says that both briefs from and pitches to clients are paying particular attention to tactfulness and subtlety in approaching certain topics. “This kind of thinking was not in our minds before,” he says. Farag says that the issue is not censorship as much as it is about religious fanaticism that has risen in the country in the past year and a half. “Because of the rise of Muslim brotherhood, they are checking their balances with all the people,” he says.
And although Darwish is boycotting the presidential elections, he says he can’t help but be optimistic about the future. Because, explains Emad, “whoever will come to power, if they do deviate from the path the people have paved, they will be toppled as well.” And even Ali concurs. “Even if they cut down on what we can do and show, it will be very slow. I think [people who will come to power] are adamant on what they want to do, but they’re very cautious on bringing it gradually so they don’t scare people off.”