This post originally appeared as an opinion piece for dotmena in April 2013.
Our track record in the Middle East across any given sector points roughly in the same proverbial direction as the approaching iceberg. Instead of learning from the iceberg hammering at our counterparts in the developed world, we have a habit of re-enacting catastrophes a fiscal cycle or two later. Online advertising is no different.
It is easy to criticise the industry in the Middle East, but the time to pelt stones at the industry is long gone. Given that empires have been built on the foundation of the 15% commission, the greatest challenge for going beyond 'advertising-as-interruption' is inertia.
Breaking the cycle will take the might of Middle Eastern brands themselves, to demand real consumer engagement, and not settle for a game of screaming the loudest. Brands need to connect with attitudes today, not demographics.
Online banners et al, have a place in the digital mix, but only when informing of a genuine brand experience that awaits beyond them. Unless you're an online startup where customer delight is nestled a click away, in all likelihood a brand is touting content that is easier accessed elsewhere, maybe even at the point of sale. Jumping on the social media bandwagon isn't the magic pill either. Social media doesn't reinvent a brand. Many brands in the region only amplify their screaming by deploying banner-ad thinking to social media. Building a mobile app to replicate the offering of a website is another example of checking the right boxes but on the wrong sheet.
Every brand's promise is rooted in adding value to the consumer by selling their product, of course. But in the age of jaded online consumers bombarded with animated leaderboards, popups, page takeovers and skip video buttons, we need to start building delightful detours that add value first. The sale is the organic end-game, not the deliberate first stop.
Brands will go to any lengths to build mobile apps that digitally reproduce the fluffiness of a detergent, for example, in the hopes of convincing customers of its advanced formula. For the brand, this checks three boxes: latest technology, builds an experience, and creates awareness. Flip the equation for a second; from a consumer point-of-view, a key product attribute is highlighted, but nothing has benefited his/her life yet. Instead, let us consider that this brand built an app (if mobile was a prerequisite) aimed at home-makers in the Middle East, to help keep track of groceries and home errands. Using the brand's deep behavioural insight of the target segment, it would have discovered a key pain-point for its consumer, and gone out on a limb to help serve them. Besides adding obvious benefit on a daily basis (the detour), it would have succeeded in evoking personal delight -- all without selling a single product.
Using indirect, attitude-driven, and even experimental campaigns, brands have the opportunity to emerge with a deep emotional bond with consumers that permeates any billboard, online banner, social sweepstake or promotional kiosk from a competitor at point-of-sale.
Or, we could just watch another $4 billion drive little real value for brands in the Middle East, while advertising agencies post another record year of earnings. After all, it's a tiny market -- roughly half the spend per quarter in the UK. No harm done.