Why big ideas don’t happen?

December 05, 2013

As a branding professional I have always aspired to lead and enable award-winning work, the kind of stuff that gets a Cannes Lions Grand Prix! A counter argument to this ambition from many marketers is “why bother?” Are we really in this for the awards? Isn’t it about getting business results? I tend to partially agree as there is clearly a certain movement within the agency world that is driven purely by creative recognition regardless of business impact. I personally feel that is not how things are in the larger scheme of things. The creative teams who do so do because the clients they work with don’t allow them the kind of creative freedom needed to execute bold and fresh work or maybe their creative talents have not matured enough to deliver creativity that can actually move the needle and be relevant to what the client needs. Regardless of the case, I am a big believer in the power of creativity to unleash powerful business results. Pure and simple. So why is it not happening?

Since my recent experiences have centered around the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, the perspective I am going to share now is probably only applicable to the Saudi Advertising scene and other places like it. Perhaps it could apply to other emerging markets. You be the judge! So what are the challenges facing the industry here? I have listed some which I believe are the key:

Nascent Popular Culture

In my time working in advertising if there is one thing I have seen at a larger level is correlation between popular culture and creativity. All the countries that register the most wins are those that have the most developed form of popular culture. From Turkey to India to the US. All have a thriving popular culture that feeds into the world of advertising. And in that is the biggest challenge for Saudi Arabia or for any other country with a not so mature popular culture scene. Although this aspect is rapidly changing now and therefore influencing marketing communications already, it wasn’t quite so until a few years ago. Why is that? Saudi Arabia had been a very restricted society when it comes to self-expression. Lot of what comprises popular culture like music, art, drama, theatre and other visual arts were limited to private showings or were simply non-existent. Since these pursuits were neither encouraged nor enabled pretty much everything that was consumed was foreign mainly from other Arab countries like Egypt and Lebanon. As a result most of the advertising feels greatly influenced by these Arabian countries (for reasons explained below).

No Local Advertising Talent

Since there was no talent available pursuing these popular art forms naturally nothing trickled down to commercial design and production. I mean no talent at all! The number of local creative talents pursuing advertising could be counted on one’s fingers. This has changed significantly over the past 5-10 years but it is still very limited. So how was the industry meeting this lack of human resources in advertising? Hiring expatriates from the region, mainly Lebanese plus other Arab nationalities. For this reason most advertising failed to get under the skin of Saudi culture. What is important to understand here is that Lebanon despite being an Arab nation is quite distinct from Saudi Arabia in innumerable ways. To expect an Arab speaking expatriate to understand the various nuances of local habits and lifestyle would be naive. Not only are the dialects and expressions different, so many cultural aspects that are essential to connect with an audience are simply not understood and therefore ignored. As a result what is actually produced is in a language that the market can understand but cannot really connect with, in most cases. Why most cases? For certain categories for which formal Arabic was OK to use like Real Estate or Banking perhaps, the expatriate creatives did fine, but for most of the other categories like FMCG which require a more colloquial and everyday language style, the creative failed to deliver.  So how can breakthrough creativity be delivered when it’s being too safe!

Restrictive Government Policies

Add to this the dynamics of the way government policies work, specifically with regards to immigration and advertising. They only makes matters worse. How exactly? The policies that guide what can and cannot be shown in an ad were a major hinderance. I am using a past tense here because they have eased somewhat over time. Not so long ago using human elements in an outdoor or music in an TV commercial were a no-go area. This change is perhaps related to the growth of popular culture whereby such expressions became more culturally accepted. But advertising policy restrictions are not the key issue. The larger issue are the immigration and visa policies which are largely driven by a nationalization agenda of the government and rightly so. The government has every right to promote and support it’s own citizens. However in my opinion the current approach is perhaps not the best way to go about it. Why so? The restrictions are frustrating to the point that the best talent is discouraged to move to Saudi Arabia. Generally the impression to the outside world is that you are not welcome. This is perhaps not an overt sentiment but comparing to the expat friendly neighbor UAE you see some subtleties that imply more friendliness and more of a welcoming attitude. Why is this important? If Saudi is to become a self-driven leading creative melting pot it has to learn and welcome the best. Only then can the local talents be nurtured and allowed to grow. If I want to ensure this happens as a government I would be more aggressive. I would demand 20% of their total time (i.e. one day of the week) from all seniors resources that come to Saudi Arabia and ask them to devote that time to training and nurturing local talent at government expense. Coming back to the topic, since the purpose of this post is not to resolve the nationalization issue for the Saudi government, regardless government policies in some indirect way are contributing to the lack of creativity in the market. Far fetched perhaps but I strongly believe so.

Dearth of Marketers in Marketing

So far all the aspects I covered are from an agency perspective. However there is another side to the story. The challenges brought about from the marketing teams at the client end. Unfortunately marketing too is not a profession widely learnt or practiced in the Saudi market. A lot of personnel making marketing decisions don’t come from a marketing background. They are either coming from sales or engineering or are entrepreneurs with non-marketing related formal education. As a result, their ability to evaluate advertising from a brand building perspective is limited. Their perspective tends to be very sales oriented and therefore they expect the advertising creative to do the same. Despite this advertising agencies are often criticized by those same clients for not producing award winning work when they come across something from a Cannes Lions showreel. To appreciate a creative piece of communication as a final product is one thing but to mastermind it’s execution is another. Not understanding the value of creativity and how it translates to business leads decision makers to enforce a hard sell approach to communications micro-managing every aspect of a creative piece to a level that it ends up becoming one big logo fest. Another side-effect of not believing in the power of branding and communications delegates the creative process to a level of very low importance which directly translates to little or no-time given for creativity to fuel, whereby each request is rushed, briefings adhoc and inaccurate, leading to multiple rounds of rework and wasted time. The end product therefore suffers, leading to unmotivated creative teams whose goal is just to get the job done with a mediocre level of creativity. As a result this vicious cycle perpetuates until the next agency pitch! And so on!

So there it is, I have tried to capture the key points from my experience in Saudi Arabia as to why big ideas don’t happen! If you feel otherwise and or think I have not covered something feel free to share your comments below.