In conversation with Manoj Khimji and Luca Allam

October 27, 2023

The World Media Group’s Chief Executive Belinda Barker chats with Manoj Khimji, Managing Director, The MediaVantage and Luca Allam, CEO, PHD, both based in the UAE, about how to navigate the complexities of advertising in the Middle East. Below is an extract of their conversation. You can watch the full video below or listen to the podcast here.

You both began your career in London. What led you to the decision to focus on the Middle East?

Luca: I came here in 2010 so I’ve been in the region for 13 years. I worked in London for a few different companies, including one of the biggest media agencies, OMD, part of the Omnicom Media Group. I think the real driving force was the idea that digital back in 2010 was still in its relative infancy. I knew that I could excel relatively quickly in this part of the world. It was a career decision first and foremost, then it became a lifestyle decision thereafter.

Manoj: I started working with Haymarket Media in London straight out of university in ad sales. I moved out here in 2004. The UK media scene is a very mature market. The lure of this kind of exponential growth in the region is what brought me over. I had a stint here with Motivate Publishing launching Hello Magazine, and with The Times newspaper when they launched the Middle East edition.

The Times Middle East gave me an understanding of the entire business of international media representation, and how critical that is to aiding the growth of global communications for a lot of the Middle East entities. I came on board at The MediaVantage in 2010. The region is expanding; it used to be very much about Dubai and the UAE. Now, around 65 percent of global communications from this region is coming out of Saudi Arabia, which, pre-2020 was not the case at all. Luca is largely responsible for that, with Saudi tourism launching their brand in 2019. It’s exciting times and it’s been a fantastic 20 years.

With the current crisis in and around Israel, what does it feel like on the ground? Is it changing things in the region or not?

Luca: I’m not a political analyst, but what I can speak on is the general sentiment. It’s tense across the region, naturally. A lot of people who work in Dubai, are being directly or indirectly touched by this. They know people in the region, whether it’s in Palestine or in Lebanon, so they are being affected.

From an advertising perspective, there are strong signs that it’s going to have an impact. A lot of our clients are already talking to us about how they can adapt; asking whether they are being insensitive to continue advertising. It’s still evolving so it’s difficult to predict exactly where it’s going. But we are seeing that impact on advertising already, and it probably will continue over the coming weeks and months. The fear is that this extends into a larger conflict, and that could impact 2024 plans and marketing plans around that.

One of the things we should stress is that the Middle East is not one region. It’s a bunch of different countries built into a region with very different nuances, who all have their own different challenges – economic, political or social – regardless of what’s happening now in Palestine or in Israel. It’s a complex region and the sentiment in Dubai does not represent the entire region from an advertising perspective.

Can you expand on how different the individual countries are culturally, and has your own background helped with that?

Luca: I’m very proud that I came from the UK, but I’m equally proud that I have a parent who is Middle Eastern, who is Arab. In a business sense, typically the UAE and the Saudis love to have that combination – someone who speaks both languages, understands both cultures. Increasingly, they want to have a market strong for Saudis; they want to grow strong marketeers and advertisers at a grassroots level with lesser reliance on expats coming into the market.

I look after Middle East and North Africa and I do a lot of traveling to Egypt and to Riyadh because that’s where the focus is when it comes to Saudi. I’m based here in Dubai, but I also travel to the Levant region. We have offshore offices there as well, so I get a bit of a flavour of what’s going on across the region.

It’s not a one size fits all. The types of humour that the Egyptians have versus the Saudis are totally different, so you have to nuance your creative messages to the Egyptians. There are pockets of markets that are notoriously strong in certain things. For example, Jordan is well known for their technology development and their AI development. Egypt is known for their creativity and unorthodox thinking. Saudi and Dubai or UAE are very much focused on infrastructure, best practice work. I get access to local nuances, which gives me a much more enriched picture.

Prior to what’s been happening in the last couple of weeks, MENA has really been thriving. Small and medium sized businesses have been taking off across the markets. But again, it’s being driven by Saudi. Saudi is the key focus for advertisers because of the purchasing power, because of the scale of the population of the market.

It’s still a young country in terms of its demographic so the potential is only going to increase. And all of this has been backed by a very clear and powerful message from the crown prince about vision 2030 and how everything needs to be geared towards that.

For Middle East-based advertisers looking outwards, are there any kind of real cultural differences about the way they should be viewing the outside world?

Manoj: Yes, there are, and in light of things that have happened in the last few weeks, those have started changing as well. To give some context, Luca mentioned that Dubai is not the Middle East, it’s the melting pot. The UAE is about 10 million people in terms of population. Dubai is a little over half of that. The Middle East is 600 million. Based on that 600 million, it’s not more than maybe 15 percent of the global population. So, we’re talking about a really small sample size, but it’s important because it represents a lot of the different cultures and the people in the region.

Our organisation works with a lot of Palestinian people, who have a high residential population in the UAE and that’s where we felt the immediate effect of empathy with those people that are working in our organisations and in the industry, and across the market, how that has related to a more global level in terms of the advertising message.

The big Middle East entities – the sovereign wealth funds, the public investment fund, the big tourism boards, the airlines, the ones who really are dominating global communications from the region – they take very strong strategic advisement from consultancies and media agencies, such as PHD. But they also have a tendency to follow what a lot of the FMCG and the global brands are doing so we’ve had conversations in the last 10 days with clients and agencies talking about what Unilever are doing, what P&G are doing, what Mars are doing, and should we be potentially following suit?

I think that’s a challenge. And a lot of those decisions are driven by fears around brand safety, of course. When a Middle East entity goes global, there’s an automatic brand safety concern anyway, because there’s a lot of negative perception. There are reputational issues, which we find these brands have to combat almost every single time they go out on a global level. They’ve proven themselves to be very adaptable in the creative messaging of those communications.

But as Luca said, this is a really, fragmented region, much more than, for example, the counties infrastructure in the UK. We’re talking about different dialects, different languages, obviously different religions, and even within religions, different sects of those religions, different time zones, different working days of the week in some countries. It’s very much a region made by individual countries as opposed to a natural region based on geography.

What would your tips be for a European brand considering making its first step into the territory?

Luca: The first tip – prioritise your markets. Focus on the big markets – Saudi Arabia and UAE are the main two. The Qataris, the Kuwaits, the Omans of the world are secondary. As a third market, I would look at Egypt which has about 100 million in terms of population. It’s nearly three times the size of Saudi, but they have a much smaller purchasing power.

The second tip: Make sure your media makes sense for each of the different markets. You can’t have the same one size fits all. For example, penetration of smartphones in Egypt is not particularly high. They rely on more traditional forms of communications, such as television and out of home. But even out of home and TV are not regulated – it’s a very difficult measurement system and technology system infrastructure, so you have to have local people in Egypt selecting your media.  And you need a very clear, creative message that’s going to create impact.

Conversely, in Saudi, you have a much higher adoption of all technologies, mobiles, tablets, Smart TVs. You can be a little bit more creative with what you’re doing. But pan-Arab TV still remains a critical part of building reach and driving good coverage. It’s a TV-first plus video approach, and then they look at something like out of home as a second. Things like print and radio are much more neglected here.

The third tip: The creative messaging needs to be on point. If you want to launch a campaign in the UAE, you’ve got to think about your approach with South Asians. What’s your approach with Arab expats? What’s your approach with Western expats? Then you break down the Western expats even further. It can get quite complex. When it comes to UAE specifically, you’ve got to try and find that unilateral creative comms approach.

In Saudi, it has to speak to the Saudi pride tapping into 2030 vision and where they’re trying to go, harnessing the Saudi sentiments. If you’re going to launch in Egypt, make sure the creative message is very Egyptian in its humour. Creativity and humour go a long way in Egypt. The current economic climate is not good. There are no dollars in the market. There are a lot of problems with inflation, so advertisers are looking more and more to humour to build up some affinity towards brands. So, markets, media mix and then creative messages all need to be really thought about quite carefully.

Which industry sectors do you see at the biggest opportunity?

Luca: There’s a lot of growth in luxury. Chanel is one of our clients. They, and all the other big luxury clients, are benefiting from the exodus of people leaving coming to Dubai, High Net Worth Individuals. Luxury is booming.

Sectors that were historically strong are not so strong anymore. FMCG and CPG have struggled in the last few years. The budgets are no longer the same as they once were, and we’re seeing other sectors overtake them – e-commerce, pure digital clients, tech players, and of course, travel.

Travel tourism is becoming massive here in the region. The World Cup the Expo happened here. There’s so much investment that’s going into trying to raise the profile of nations, reposition countries in the eyes of the world’s audience. We’re seeing a bit of a tourism arms race where everyone is trying to compete to drive their own national brand to a global audience. That’s fascinating to be part of.

Where do you get your news from, and what media brands are your personal favourites

Manoj: I’m very much a podcast guy in the morning. Some of that is work related – daily catch-up podcasts with some of the major media brands; a lot of football podcasts, sport or golf related podcasts. I lean on a lot of business media: Reuters for factual reporting; Time; Insider; The Wall Street Journal. These are my main go-tos during the course of the day. Once I’m home and the kids are in bed It’s either Netflix or probably Tik Tok for the sheer entertainment value.

Luca: The confidence in media outlets has probably never been lower than it is now, especially in light of the conflict that’s happening at the moment in the Middle East. People are starting to ask the tough questions – then the truth becomes, where can we get the real scoop, the real news, the real insights?

We could see a world where in the future, things get even more fragmented. AI is becoming so important now with these stories being self-generated. Articles being written by AI, videos being created by AI – we’re coming into a very, very complex time for advertisers. Our job as agencies or as publishers, is to keep challenging, keep asking those tough questions because at the end of the day, you know, if we lose the end consumer, then advertising is not going to work.

Manoj: We were asked to deliver a lecture last week at a university here in Dubai on media to a group of undergraduate students. One of the examples we used was in light of the conflict at the moment, there have been a lot of clips doing the rounds on social media. Some are from reputable sources, some are just being shared and, you have to be really careful how you’re interpreting and acknowledging some of those clips.

One specific clip showed a group of young people at a concert, apparently running away because of attacks that were going on. It turns out, after it was factchecked by Reuters, one of your members, it was actually a group of people running towards a Bruno Mars concert to get into the door.

As Luca said, we’re not political commentators or experts, but you’ve got to be very wary. And I think our role as people who work within the media is to spread that message – look guys, be aware, be careful. I think we’re heading into some interesting times with AI, as Luca mentioned, and there are conversations about whether platforms should be declaring that an article has been written by AI or that an algorithm has been influenced by the AI, for example. It’s going to be interesting.

Luca: It goes back to trust. A lot of my information I rely on is from my own network. I trust my network and trust the people that I work with. I think if media partners, media publishers lose trust with the audience based on the information they’re sharing, we’re all going to be in trouble.