Cancel the Dubai Obit

I had emails from all over the world. Some were of genuine concern, some were of the told-you-so kind, and some were just keeping me in the loop. But most of the reports they quoted, most of the news sites I went to, and most of the Word of Mouth (or Mouse) I heard was all very schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. The ultimate payback for all things hubris that Dubai is all about.

Here we are in Dubai. Bust boom bust time again. Dubai owes a hundred billion. Dubai has sold this, traded that, and left the building. Click on google maps and you'll find no Dubai. Just a big hole – a drain down which we saw a lot of money just go down, right? One hundred thousand people left on the Airbus 380. On Thursday night. One helluva plane huh?

Anyway, it all boils down to work. To bread on the table. To accounts in the bank and clients in the boardroom. 'How are you guys doing?' I've been asked a dozen times in the last few days. Well, truth is, we're OK so far. Touch wood. We've still got the world's top three brands – Google, Coke, McDonald's (top by brand recognition survey, I didn't make that up guys). We've still got digital work coming our way which we are slowing down, because we don't have enough bench strength. We haven't quite heard yet about the death of Dubai. And, I'm no betting man, but I'm guessing we won't. There'll be a lot of chinese whispering, a lot if rumor mongering, gossip, tales, but the truth will be that the fundamentals in Dubai are pretty strong, and no, Dubai may be has a virus, but isn't dead.

On one of our agencies, we had a couple of clients say, they might need to be cautious for 1Q 2010. Hell, yes, of course. No problem with that. We're going to be cautious too. We're going to be watching every penny. But not because Dubai has a cold or had sneezed, but because we haven't quite come out of the R word yet – globally. Let's face it. We are a regional agency network. We're across 16 countries. Yes, Dubai is HQ, but we clock a lot of food miles as far as our bread basket goes. And it's the same with most of our larger regional clients. Their regional steam ahead plan may blip a bit because HQ has a speed bump installed in the parking lot, but frankly, it won't be a big negative hit.

Already, the negative waves across the world have eased. Markets have bounced back. Sentiment is a funny thing. It forgets the bad, the pain, the tough times, because optimism is a healer, a balm. So, no folks, Dubai is OK. Business is fine. People are great. Work is wonderful. This is just a note to say, cancel the obit on Dubai you media folks around the world. The news of the demise was an exaggeration.

Upsize. Downsize. Tweetsize.

I've been driving around lately in Dubai with one eye on the road and the other on OOH. I can be bipolar and split like that at the same time without really losing focus on the road ahead. Well, usually. And, the reason behind this is my ongoing research project into how creative is being resized from print for outdoor without any concern for readability.

Back when I was a CD, we always did a wink-and-blink 3-second test when developing artwork for billboards – the ones you whizz past on the highway, or even crawl past on the streets. Because, the window of exposure is short. When adapting from a print ad, we would normally strip most of the copy and details, keep the main call to action and that was it. The headline, the logo, the product – say it all in like 3 seconds. Either art directors have gotten lazy, or media planners aren't even looking at what they're putting out there – but I am seeing a lot of outdoor ads with a lot of totally unreadable copy in there. Essentially, I am seeing a lot of outdoor where the artwork as simply been stretched or upsized. Like fries at McDonald's.

Some attempts are made for large billboards, but a lot of mupis out there, specially the ones on middle-of-road dividers are replicas of the 1/4 page ad, re-done in a different resolution output. Unreadable. Undecipherable. Waste. Come on folks, all it takes is a little bit of attention, and it's totally possible to have one campaign executed in slightly different artwork templates because the mediums are different. Trust me, and it will stretch your client's ad dollar. He deserves it. As does the Joe on the street squinting to decipher your message.

And my final rant, while I am at it. I came across a series of tweets last week where the ad was tweeted – not as a link (perhaps they didn't quite know how to do that?) but as a series of 140c tweets. The headline first. Which was pretty much ok, and should have ended with the brand name and would have been a pretty much acceptable (although lame) brand driven tweet. But then they started to unravel the paragraph of body copy in tweet after tweet. Until they were a complete abuse of the very existence of twitter. And stupid, meaningless waste of time and space. Yes, it's fine to drop in a link to your ad and have your tweeple share it with you, but you cannot tweetsize an ad verbatim. That's lazy.

The Ramadan drop

The decision makers haven’t come back from holiday. Summer’s still around. That recession thing hasn’t really gone away here. We’re consolidating. And, the worse one yet – it’s going to be put up for a pitch.
Having come back from a brief break, I arrived with renewed mind and refreshed body hoping to see some sort of an uplift. Ramadan usually comes with bags of media spend. And the creative and content to go along with it. Traditional media planners find this time of the year – in our region – a bit of a bonanza. But apparently things look different this year (AdNation headlines a story on Saudi spending going AWOL).

I touched base with a few seniors in the business (not just at our agencies, but across the board) and it’s pretty much the same story. They haven’t come back. They as in the clients who went off to cooler climes, shopping trips and family hols. They as in the ones with direct access to the purse strings. So, no major spend decisions are going through, unless of course someone planned way, way ahead and had the foresight to get approvals, budgets and plans locked in before the cruel summer set in.

This year, Ramadan has sneaked into summer, and most every one who can, have either extended their summer holidays deep into the month of Ramadan or have taken a few extra days off and are planning to come back after. One client I know is holed up in London until Eid. One other will only come back in early September. So, Ramadan ad spend plans are on hold. Meanwhile, I watched on the Beeb how London High Street stores are extending hours and hiring Arabic speaking staff to meet the faithful summer rush from the region. Lucky them.

All this because summer’s still around. It’s still hot and humid, and avoiding coming back here when work is often at a slower pace isn’t top priority it seems. But the industry cannot grind to a halt because the mercury hasn’t ebbed and the fast is on. Consumers have for the most part returned from their summer sojourns – although rumors abound about a summer exodus (in Dubai) and a near permanent drop in the expat population.

And the recession/correction thingie is still around – always available as the first or last resort when it comes to pointing to a reason why ad spends are down. Business news is also rife with talks on major consolidations (read as corrections of earlier business gluttony). What we knew as X is going to be absorbed under Y and then branded as Z. And there’s no word on what’s going to happen to staff in those companies. Bit of a go figure situation.

Finally, friends of mine in the industry are telling me that the latest new ‘staller’ is the pitch. Clients are not signing off on plans, approving campaigns and holding out on all things good for the agency balance sheet because ‘the account may be up for pitch’. That’s the one that causes jitters, doesn’t it? You could recover from a recession, you know where’s there’s summer there’s a Fall (that came out badly, sorry), you know the decision makers will eventually have to end their short term lease in Portobello Square. But a pitch? That’s a whole different bridge.

The Turkish Airline Digital Pitch

McCann Turkey in part of innovative digital pitch

We blogged about interesting pitches by agencies earlier. Here's one about an interesting pitch process opened up by Turkish Airlines. Our colleagues in McCann Istanbul are working on this pitch, and we our digital guys – Innovations – working closely with them.

There's a lot of buzz on twitter on the pitch already, and McCann are working on making this a digital winner. Here is a report on that pitch from a blog...

We’re working on the Turkish Airlines pitch, a company that completely understands what thinking digital is. The brief was designed like a digital treasure hunt, spanning across social media.

It’s obvious that the e-commerce team of Turkish Airlines wants to emphasize their digital know-how, as well as they want to create a viral effect months before the intended digital project goes live.

The first thing we got in our hands was nothing but a 2 page “treasure map,” which looked like a simple mind map with the keyword “thybrief” at the center and the most important social media sites linked around.

It’s been easy to collect planted hints on Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot, FriendFeed and Slideshare. With so many geeks around us, we discovered the password for the thybrief Gmail account hidden in the HTML source code of the thybrief blog. Then we seized Gmail, Google Docs and Mindmeister accounts for the user thybrief. So the puzzle is solved.

Now what’s left is only finding the idea to impress a client with such a broad understanding of digital media, along with the perfect implementation. If you guessed we already found the idea, then you know us too well. Please join us wishing good luck to our competitors; that’s what they are going to need badly.

The Film Before the Drama

I was reading on BBC Sport how triumphant Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola showed a specially made film 10 minutes before the final in Rome. The film featured highlights of his players' finest moments – featuring every member of the squad – and was set to the soundtrack of Gladiator. We all know what happened afterwards. Great Men made Rome Great (awesome ad before the Champions League final by Nike, and now they’ve changed it to reflect Barca as winners, and it’s even better!).

This reminded me of agency pitches. Major pitches are big games to use the metaphor. But how often do we prepare properly? How well are we rehearsed? Do we as a pitch team get shown the movie (metaphorically) – to inspire, to charge us up, thin the blood, make the adrenalin rush to our heads to we can go flat out and conquer?

Having been to more pitches over the last few weeks than I would like to remember, I see this as an area our whole industry can build on. Some of the pitches are spot on, the content is great, it addresses the brand, answers the brief, but sometimes the team is so lifeless, so listless, so yawn boring, that you wouldn’t buy peanuts from them, let alone give them your brand to handle. And on other occasions, the prep work is so poor that the clients are astounded at how off-brief the presentation is. Either way, it isn’t a winning scenario.

I believe winning pitches is about chemistry. If you have your ingredients right, it all boils down to who’s in the room and how well they can sell the stuff. Wizards pulling rabbits out of hats. That’s what we need.

I believe only the best presenters should present. The rocket scientists who engineer the space shuttle stay behind in Houston, and NASA finds their best of breed astronauts to do the moon landings. That to me is the winning formula. In the pitch room – the moon landing phase – we need to find the astronauts who will go that one small step that becomes a giant leap for all.

Finally, there always needs to be a Guardiola for every magic trick that Barca did this year. The pitch team needs a leader, a coach, a go-to guy who mentors the team, checks the moves, drives and makes the content coherent and finally, who can stand there and make it all look credible. He’s the guy, or she’s the gal, who strategically is sound, is credible in front of the client, and who is passionate about the art of winning. He can change his team, change tactics half way through the pitch, and who coordinates the players.
He’s the one who plays the movie for the team. And he’s the one who helps unfold the drama.

Medal of Dishonor: The new Playstation Customer Service Game at Jumbo Electronics

There’s a new game out there from Sony and Jumbo, and it’s about the fine art of post-sales customer rip off. I’m calling it the Medal of Dishonor. If you have mastered the art of using fine print, know how to really, really have dodgy customer service, have inventive ways of ignoring every rule in the Customer Relationship guidebook, and play Big Bad Bully because the poor customer has no choice – this game is for you.

The Sony/Jumbo Game is easy – and potentially, it comes free with every PS3 you buy here. This is what is apparently written in the Terms and Conditions of the Warranty. Buy a Playstion 3 here in the Middle East region, well, actually, here in Dubai from Jumbo and keep your fingers crossed. If perchance you have a Power Supply failure (my unit just went bust with a pop noise, similar to a silencer-fit handgun – gamers are familiar with this sfx), all you need to do is take it in to Jumbo for a fix-it. As luck would have it, my PS3 unit went bust literally a week after the 1-year warranty expired – so I am one of the lucky few who are playing this game!!.

I took it in to Jumbo at the Mall of the Emirates, and sure enough a couple of days later, I got an SMS message saying that the estimate amount for the repair was AED 1010. Imagine! The power supply unit cannot be costing any more than $20! And a whole new unit costs Dhs 1600!

I have asked the Jumbo guy (Ahmed on +9714 285 1485 xt 103) why it was so expensive. Surely a power supply unit couldn’t cost that much. He said, “no as per the Sony policy no PS3 units are repaired, but a new unit is given instead”. Now, why on earth should I have to pay for a new unit because I think a power supply unit went out and Sony won’t or can’t fix it?

I asked what the problem was but was given no answer. Apparently, no matter how small the problem was, the only thing Sony would do for me would be to replace my unit with a refurbished one. For Dhs 1010. That’s the cleverest, dirtiest, dodgiest way of after-sales revenue generation that I have ever come across in my 20+ years as a marketing professional.

Endgame: I did get resolution – not from Jumbo, but from Sony. I called and emailed Sony, and I am glad to say, they immediately actioned a follow up, and apparently have now arranged for a replacement piece (a refurbished set). I am astounded that I heard nothing from Jumbo. NOT A WORD! That's the WORST customer service experience I have ever had.

You can't step aside when you have no legs to stand on

From Campaign magazine's blog and my response...

My response to Campaign blog below:

This is both funny and sad at the same time. Funny because, it’s laughable that such bullies exist, and that they till this date believe that they can threaten to take their ball away when you won’t play by their rules. And it’s sad because as an industry in this region, we have built a legion of such characters. Bullies, who believe they own the ball and the ball game. Sadder still is the fact that no one checks them, no one sticks a hand in their face and points out that the goal posts may have moved, and that they may own the ball, but the playground is for every one.

What I question is the assumption that ‘individual power (or perceived influence)’ still exist. If it does, we need to counter it, and rather than trying to cure the disease, euthanize the corrupt, the diseased and stamp out the plague. Yes, I do know it exists. But I think it’s more perception, than power. More sabre rattle when the shields are down and one is weak and exposed, than true bravado. Creating, building advertising institutions are a solution, but these bodies need to be led by people who are about the good of the industry, the round table, rather than knights themselves.

No one is above the law, no corner of clout is bigger than the ring, no tight group of influencers can hold sway today, because the way we communicate, share, speak and listen is changing. Voice is no longer a one way rant, a sermon, a beatitude from a hilltop. It is many-to-many, it is peer-to-peer, and it is in many ways making ‘power’ open source.

To me, the danger is not in the threat. Bullies always have used threat. Power (or perception) empowers corruption. The danger is in the threatened consequence. If by some odd chance, our industry allows that consequence to unfold and the bully has the last laugh, than we are in trouble. In need of policing such abuse and ending it.

Let’s go to the round table. An IPA like body for our region? Yes. But before that let’s unite, use our voices, our new open sources, to stand up and say No to Hunger for Power. Let’s disarm them.

Time for the power hungry to step aside

A nostalgic smile swept across my face the other day. It wasn’t triggered by thoughts of childhood innocence, of musical moments, or of women I once knew. No, it was triggered by a threat. The kind we used to get all the time. Do this, do as I say, or face the consequences. That’s basically what it amounted to.

It was my second such threat from an adman in as many months. What made me smile was not the threat itself, but the fact that people like this still exist. The arrogance of it beggars belief. They are, unfortunately, stragglers from an older world – a world where individual power (or perceived influence) was what mattered, not the industry as a whole. These people still believe that intimidation, jobs for the boys and the pursuit of personal gain are acceptable business practices.

But as Louis Hakim, chairman of the Advertisers’ Business Group, and Philipp Vogeler of Al Jisr Company, say, it’s time for individual power to be well and truly replaced by the power of institutions. As Hakim remarks: “The time has come to leave legacies behind by institutionalising the advertising and media industry.” If this happens, the theory goes that people leading these institutions will work for the good of the industry, rather than for the good of themselves.

However, what advertising institutions do exist are either weak, little respected, or cater only to a small close-knit community of people. In the absence of strong institutions, individuals have filled the gap. Therefore, just as a creative directors’ forum or an art directors’ club is needed in the UAE to help raise creative standards and encourage community interaction, so a regional equivalent of the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) is a prerequisite for industry advancement. The IPA’s goal is to promote the value of agencies and it is a hugely respected and influential professional body. It offers globally recognised training, constantly carries out research, organises industry-wide events, and has its own effectiveness awards.

If the Middle East’s adland is to distance itself from a scenario where “the region is governed by a few people in whose hands the fate of the industry lies”, as Vogeler points out, then a strong, respected, influential and world-class institution such as the IPA must be established as soon as possible. Recent events have only reinforced this view.

Sheikh Mohammed online interview

Having struggled through reading column after column from the western media about the immediate demise of Dubai, one was looking for a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. That light came in strong and bright, riding on the e-interview conducted by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and amongst other things, visionary extraordinaire.

Setting a benchmark for global transparency, laying the foundations for open communications and driving home the point that Dubai isn't quite done for yet (as reported in the Guardian and the Independent), Sheikh Mohammed mixed notes of optimism and clarity of vision with a healthy dose of rebuke for the rumor and negative speculation.

The questions from the media were wide ranging, and the answers were well rounded, pretty much transparent and had that touch of Sheikh Mohammed all over them. I didn't see a question on personal bankruptcy and how there is absolutely no protection for workers who lose their jobs, are unable to repay their loans (mortgage, personal or credit card debt) and are supposed to end up in jail. Although I am sure, if put in the right context in front of the Prime Minister we would have gotten some answers. Hopefully someone somewhere will address this issue.

The Hurdles in Digital Work

Those of us who have been running around on this playing field (not level, increasingly unchartered, and mostly unseen) know that the goal posts move every day. The truth is out there, but myths abound. The knowledge we have today is old hat tomorrow. And, because it’s mostly the world wide web – geography is history.

What both marketers on brand side and agency financial pundits often don’t get is how a really cool, totally creatively outstanding digital exercise can have zero or near zero media spend attached to it. Microsoft and Ms Dewey? Viral word. Burger King’s Subservient Chicken? Same. BMW films? What media spend?

That’s a big financial hurdle right there. Massively successful programs that do not yield immediate dollar returns for the agency. It builds brand, probably also creates demand, but doesn’t add to agency bottom line. So, what happens is, when it is seen as something that doesn’t generate immediate revenue it gets to be a bit on the wrong side of the ‘must do’ line.

Another big hurdle is experience. In an industry where experience – the black bag of goodies, the reel – is what makes or breaks you, this is a road less travelled. New insights, new sets of software, multiple options and fresh skills developed on a continuum are all necessary skills sets for the digital creative. And these skills need to be updated continuously.

Even beyond skills, research and studies relevant in January are outdated by February. And in March, the whole demographic is testing new waters, new channels, new platforms.

Those of us involved in managing digital agencies or the digital sides of a mainstream agency are also faced with the hurdle of uniformity Рor rather the complete absence of a uniform model. There cannot be a standardised pricing model, cannot be a routine creative process model, and there should not be just one campaign with a follow up that is more of the same. Change is the only real constant, to use a clich̩.

onsumer expectation changes, updates itself and demands different and asks for more every day, every hour. For agency-client relationships, understanding this is crucial. “But we paid only $X last year for a banner (static) on 120 different sites, and this year you’re asking for $3X for banners on only 30 sites and a connected microsite?” the brand manager will ask. Go figure an answer to that one.

Try and explain rich media. Try explain interstitial or page takeover. The rate card is dead, unless of course your creative also is six feet under.

The biggest hurdle of course is talent. Good digital talent is near impossible to find. Skill sets in Flash, Java, .Net, SEO & SEM, Silverlight, pure digital design are all becoming hard to source. Competition is tough. Agencies are not just competing against themselves, but much larger, much more powerful digital players like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and AOL.

And the ones that are ambidextrous – the ones who can write Flash, HTML, a bit of smart copy and do killer retouch work on Photoshop all in a day’s work – they are gold. But finding them, holding on to them? Not easy.

The problems aren’t any different in our part of the world , in this geography of the global adnation. They’re just more compounded because we’re still adapting to what we learnt yesterday, while the search guru who left and joined Yahoo is adopting tomorrow. Quickly at that.


Judgment Day is almost up on us for the Lynx Awards, and the question on everyone’s minds is what makes for an award-winning digital creative piece? I’m tempted to say ‘engagement’ should be the key criteria – whether the particular communication traps the mouse and engages the eyeball and moves on to some sort of desired action and ongoing interaction after that.

But, simply, crudely put, I ask: “Does it interrupt in a creative way?” At the end of the day, it’s about pulling me away from what I am doing and then holding my attention long enough to make me want to know more – even though I had no intention of heading in that direction.

As digital creatives, we preach the gospel of “non-interruptive, fluid engagement” – one that resonates with the target audience enough to draw them in. But, I feel compelled to say, against my grain, that it does start with ‘interruption’. Once the path that I am headed down is suddenly ‘forked’ and I am given a choice – an interesting one – that I click on to the ‘alternative’ – then, I am responding, interacting, participating, moving closer to the real intent of that fork.

This choice, this ‘hey-wait-a-sec-and-look-at-this’ moment, isn’t just limited to, say, online banners or messages. They can be entire web pages, sites, portals, games, social media, networks, experiences. But each one relies completely on participation. If they’re googling a query and find you, do they click through and participate in your exchange of information? No matter how boring the content may be, is it compelling enough in its presentation, in its format, in its creative appeal to ask for and facilitate interaction?

And, then there’s interruption-of-interaction, meaning, once you’ve hooked your target and trapped the mouse, what happens if that process gets interrupted? Do they come back, because, they were pretty much into what you were saying in the first place? We live in a continuum of participation, engagement and interruption. What makes a web page ‘sticky’ is when, no matter what the ‘further interruption’ (phone call, sms, instant message, email checks, other work, kids) the target comes back to your message, your exchange with him or her.

Creatively speaking, it does not have to be about the execution only. If the overall idea (just as in ATL) is big enough, the consumer will resonate and stay, and interact, and click through, and give you more. We have to realize that if we talk about participation and engagement, we are, by default, talking about a two way street. Give and take. The old one-to-many, preaching from a platform, thumping a pulpit or a soap box is long gone. So, if the target is compelled – through the idea, through the creative approach and the offer of the reward – that to me is overall a winning proposition. Up for the award.

Is the idea worth googling? Are they going to click through to your dialog? Is it quick and if not, is it worth waiting for? Will they look across the entire site? Will they give you their email address? Tell a friend? Will they talk about you on their Facebook wall? On Twitter? Blog you? Will they participate in your journey? Take part? Be your ambassador in the long term?

If and when all these happen, you’ve got a winning idea.