Opportunity in the Middle East

There’s no crystal ball in advertising. But there are undeniable facts: Change is constant. Technology continues to evolve. Consumers are smarter.

Buyers in the Middle East are among the world’s most digitally savvy. But with such a myriad of cultures, languages, religions, and beliefs, the question is: How do marketers make meaningful connections? Pierre Soued, CEO of Havas Middle East, breaks down the opportunities and challenges for advertisers across Southwestern Asia and North Africa.

Tell us a bit about your professional journey.

I have been managing Havas in the Middle East, covering all the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and Egypt, and the Levant since 2003. I obtained my BS and MS in Management from Purdue University, Indiana.

Pierre Soued

Here at Havas, my objectives are to create an entrepreneurial spirit among the team and frequently revisit the services offered to our clients to ensure they meet their needs and expectations. We have to keep a close relationship with our clients—at all levels. We have to adapt rapidly, and we need to show agility in our approach. With this new norm of constant pliability, teams can feel overworked. It’s vital to find ways to keep the morale high in our agencies while working.

What do marketers need to know about consumers in the Middle East?

Diversity. The term “Middle East,” as a geographic location, does not do justice to the range of cultures and consumers who live in the region. The Middle East spans from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. As such, it covers a vast range of cultures, religions, languages, and beliefs. Understanding and being respectful of diversity and difference in the region is a critical first step.

Also dynamism. Consumers in the region skew younger. In our largest market, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, more than half of the population is below the age of 25. Many Middle Eastern consumers are living in a society that has experienced rapid change and growth. Twenty years ago, today’s Dubai existed only in imaginations (in 2006, one in every four construction cranes on earth was located in Dubai). There are energy and dynamism that are not top-of-mind when others think of the Middle East. For us, given our client base, it’s also important to recognize the importance of luxury and beauty in the region: What a Saudi woman will spend on cosmetics and perfumes in three years is the same as their British counterparts would spend over the course of a lifetime.

And then there’s digital. Middle Eastern consumers are among the world’s most connected and digitally savvy. Saudi Arabia is the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, with female-related content growing 75% in 2016. Social influencers and bloggers are hugely popular—and are shaping the way brands need to communicate.

Saudi Arabia
Mecca, Saudi Arabia

What does it take for global brands to succeed in the region?

For global brands to succeed, they need to understand the area’s consumer dynamics. This is the first step. They should avoid “the colonial route” and build on regionally sensitive patterns of leadership, marketing, and consumer connection. They should be respectful of the region’s reverence for Islam, tradition, culture, and family. And they should embrace the excitement of operating in a dynamic, fast-paced environment. Dubai is the hub of our Middle East operation, and a very exciting Village client of ours—the live-entertainment property “La Perle”—describes Dubai as “the laboratory of the future.”

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

What does an ideal relationship between agency and brand look like?

While there’s rapid change happening around us in terms of how we connect with consumers, the definition of an ideal relationship between agency and brand holds fast. The basics still apply. The relationship should be built on early involvement in the marketing process. This helps the agency truly understand the business challenges we need to help solve. We don’t want to be reactive vendors; we value true business partnership. This partnership needs to extend through the creative development process into campaign implementation across the right channels. Our Village structure has proven to foster those relationships and partnerships.

What needs to change?

Anything that stifles the formation and flourishment of those partnerships, as well as a need to drive proactivity and anticipate the continued changes in client requirements and expectations.

How do we best demonstrate our value to clients?

Our value to clients is demonstrated through a deeper and more expansive partnership. A strategic partnership that starts early in the process, and results in a communications solution that spans creative, media and PR. In short, our Village model.

It’s also important to note that our industry is being disrupted in the Middle East just as much as it is anywhere else in the world. Tech companies, publishers, and consultancies are earning a greater share of our clients’ time and attention. As consumers and touch points evolve, new opportunities are arising and everyone wants a piece.

What’s your outlook on the future of advertising in the Middle East?

We will continue to be disrupted. We will continue to need to adapt. We will continue to need to be at the forefront of consumer understanding. And we’ll need to continue to develop and use creativity and technology to enable our brands to be embraced by consumers. No one has a crystal ball. The only certainty is that change will continue. It’s exciting.