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Region’s advertisers shoot for ‘Oscars’ in Cannes

The Dubai Lynx Awards points to a promising showing in the Côte d’Azur

Lynx Dubai ad awards Leo Burnett
Lynx Dubai award winners included Leo Burnett Dubai agency for the Hidden Room campaign for the Home Box brand


In mid-March the Dubai Lynx Awards winners were unveiled, recognising the best advertising work in the region. 

Agencies belonging to French holding company Publicis Groupe dominated the winners’ list, taking home 81 trophies, including half of the top 22 Grands Prix.

This success comes less than two years after Bassel Kakish took over as regional CEO of Publicis. The former CFO and chief integration officer has been on a hiring spree, bringing some of the region’s biggest multi-discipline and specialist names into the fold.

The marketing departments of regional brands may have to handle multiple creative and media agencies along with digital, social and influencer specialists, data analytics firms and more – and the benefits of keeping everything under one roof can still outweigh the best-agency-for-each-job model. Especially for clients with smaller teams. 

The stakes are high. The Mena advertising market was worth $9.39 billion in 2022, according to global media agency Zenith, which monitors media spend around the world. That is estimated to rise to $9.53 billion this year, and top $10 billion by 2025.

While media spend can be estimated with numbers, the strength of creative work relies on awards shows such as Lynx to assess their health and direction of travel.

Saudi agency wins first Grand Prix award

This year’s Lynx saw a Saudi-based agency win a Grand Prix. The first time one of the top prizes has gone to the kingdom, creative agency Wunderman Thompson Riyadh won in the Mobile category of the Lynx with The Subconscious Order for HungerStation.

The campaign uses eye-tracking technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to tell consumers scrolling the food-ordering app what their subconscious is craving. The concept and execution are clever, but it is the fact that industry-leading work is now being created in Saudi that is a breakthrough.

This should come as no surprise to those watching the continuing rise of the kingdom’s media, marketing and advertising industry. Saudi clients – led by government bodies – have a lot of money and are on a marketing drive.

This is evident not only in the kingdom but across the wider region – just look at all the billboards along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road promoting KSA megaprojects.

While Saudi clients are providing demand for good work, the country is also courting the industry. Initiatives such as Film AlUla’s recent launch of a platform to encourage female filmmakers are part of a drive to attract more talent into Saudi Arabia and away from traditional advertising hubs such as Cairo and Dubai.

Trophy, Cutlery, ForkDubai Lynx Awards
While media spend can be estimated with numbers, the strength of creative work relies on awards shows such as Lynx to assess their health and direction of travel
Pros and cons of AI in creative advertising

AI was key to other campaigns on display at the Lynx too. Generative AI in 2023 faces the same teething troubles as the metaverse in 2022 and blockchain before that.

Despite enthusiastic advocacy and experimentation, it’s still largely a technology without a problem to solve – for now, at least. It is also only as good as the data it has access to, making its output cliched by design.

A recent campaign by ad agency MullenLowe Mena highlighted this by emphasising – and trying to fix – AI’s stereotyped sexism when it comes to portraying occupations such as CEO, doctor and astronaut using images of men only.

AI has many in the commercial creative industries worried for their jobs, afraid that it will soon compete with copywriters and art directors to produce advertising, as well as crunching data faster than humans to provide the best return on media spend.

Despite glib reassurances that it will fee up creatives to be more creative, and it is only as good as its operator, some existential dread is probably justified.

The industry does not always look for the best, and often settles for good enough. If AI can save clients time and money at the expense of imagination and quality, some are bound to take the path of least resistance.

Communicating to Middle East youth

The Middle East has one of the youngest populations in the world, and brands and advertisers must work hard to communicate with younger generations. Much of the winning work at shows like Dubai Lynx speaks to late millennials, Generation Z and even younger consumers.

As well as being more concerned about brand purpose, regional youth see themselves through a different lens from previous generations.

A recent survey by Vice Media Group of more than 2,000 young Arabs in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt found that their definitions of success are a combination of internal fulfilment and career gains.

They’re optimistic about their countries, the world and their lives, and say their identities are now defined less by their education, demographics and the brands they buy than by their own personalities.

This shift is noteworthy because the Middle East has long been home to more conformity-based, collectivist societies than those based on individualism. Youth have tended towards mainstream culture in the middle of the adoption curve, meaning peer pressure and influencer marketing have both been strong.

This is the market Middle East advertising must address: unique in the world and evolving fast. Dubai Lynx is a good barometer for the Oscars of advertising, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which will take place in France in June.

The Lynx is co-owned by Cannes Lions, and the campaigns that do well at home tend to be the region’s best contenders on the world stage.

In the past two festivals (which fell on either side of the coronavirus pandemic), the Middle East took home its first three Grands Prix.

Two were awarded to Impact BBDO Dubai in the Print & Publishing category for a campaign created for Lebanese newspaper AnNahar. One was for Havas Middle East’s Liquid Billboard for Adidas in Outdoor. All three were credited to UAE-based agencies.

Could 2023 see Publicis Groupe Middle East agencies take home a Grand Prix or two from the Côte d’Azur? Perhaps one will go to Riyadh for the first time. The latest Lynx results suggest nothing is off the table.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007 and edited leading industry trade titles in the region

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