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The fight for authenticity will keep ad-land busy

Mena advertising agencies must master the tricky topic of green credibility

Etihad Airways cabin crew. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority banned ads by the UAE carrier and other airlines for misleading consumers over 'sustainable aviation' Etihad Airways
Etihad Airways cabin crew. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority banned ads by the UAE carrier and other airlines for misleading consumers over 'sustainable aviation'

What does 2024 hold for the Middle East’s hard-pressed ad agencies? What new year’s resolutions may they want to put in their planners for 2024?

In 2023, the world’s biggest holding group, WPP, continued to consolidate. It announced the merger of creative agencies Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R, and a shift within its Group M media-buying arm from a per-agency budget and resource model to a country-level one.

Those working for one of the merged brands in the region, or for any of the media agencies involved, may resolve to polish their CVs or prove to their bosses they are better than their colleagues with overlapping skills.

Publicis Groupe, WPP’s rival, has been going from strength to strength in the Mena region. Since Bassel Kakish took over as CEO in April 2021, Publicis has attracted top talent – often creating bespoke roles to entice well-known names from rivals – and won big accounts.

In 2023, it welcomed Jennifer Fischer as chief innovation and growth officer, Maclean Brodie at the helm of PR agency MSL, and Ramez Zeineddine as CEO of media agency Starcom.

Among the accounts won by Publicis shops in 2023 were Pizza Hut and Emirates NBD. Good people and big wins attract each other, and 2024 is likely to see Publicis flourish.

At some point most of us have made resolutions to consume less, recycle more and turn off the tap when we brush our teeth. Brands and agencies too are looking for ways to be green.

With climate summits Cop27 hosted in Egypt and Cop28 in the UAE over the past two years, commercial and corporate environmentalism has been both more focused and more scrutinised in this region than elsewhere.

Post-Cop, the green momentum appears to be carrying on. The UAE has introduced a ban on single-use plastics, and I would hope to see brands continuing to flaunt their green credentials and encouraging environmentalism through campaigns such as Ogilvy’s 2023 work for Ikea’s sustainable toy collection, TBWA/Raad’s Save Our Deserts Too campaign for Nissan and Digitas’s work with Greenpeace to preserve Lebanon’s cedar trees.

Meanwhile, brands that try to overstate their environmental credibility will be pulled up for it. This has happened to several airlines recently, including Etihad. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority asked the UAE carrier to take down ads that used the phrase “total peace of mind” next to “environmental advocacy”. 

The ASA said there were “currently no initiatives or commercially viable technologies in operation within the aviation industry that would adequately substantiate absolute green claims”.

It has banned paid ads from other airlines making the same types of claims on Google on the same grounds.

If “Stop greenwashing” is a resolution to consider, it goes hand in hand with “Be more authentic”.

Authentic was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2023, and is ever on the lips of marketers. Too often it is used inauthentically, as a buzzword rather than a true credo. Nowhere will the conversation about authenticity be as important in 2024 as in debate about generative AI, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney.

Last year saw these technologies burst out of their boxes, and they are bound to spread further in 2024 and evolve more. I would encourage their proponents to use the technology to bring something new to the table, rather than use it just because they can. People are smart enough to get that “uncanny valley” feeling when a machine, rather than a person, is behind the content they consume.

“Get on-stream” might sound like a dated stab at sci-fi futurism, but it will pay in 2024 to keep a close eye on streaming services in the region. Anghami, a music streaming service, brought in investment from Saudi media conglomerate SRMG and then merged with OSN, a Dubai-based satellite TV company.

Now that the region’s homegrown music streaming success story has combined its power with the video-on-demand giant, the Middle East could become a global model for everything-streams. 

“Believe in Saudi creativity” is my final and most positive resolution. The kingdom won its first Cannes Lions Grand Prix in 2023. Saudi also launched its own creative festival, Athar, to celebrate and promote good advertising.

It is high time that brands targeting the region’s most exciting – and potentially lucrative – market started using homegrown talent and creativity to talk to Saudis rather than shipping in shops from abroad.

This is what I am predicting, and what I would advise the industry to resolve to do. But I am more often wrong than right. Markets are fragile, and advertising is full of fickle creative types who love to do things that are unexpected and, well, creative. That is what makes every year interesting.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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