Looking ahead: The future of digital in the Middle East

An interview with Rabih El Khoury, director of agency partnerships, DMS (member of Choueiri Group)

It’s hard to believe we are nearing the end of the first part of the year. The digital predictions we made at the end of 2017 and into Q1 are now starting to take shape, either as reality or as something to reassess. It’s timely, therefore that we had the opportunity to talk to Choueiri Group’s Rabih El Khoury at ArabNet’s Dubai Digital Forum this month, to discuss the current digital landscape of the region. As a Director of Agency Partnerships at DMS, he works on the publisher side, maintaining daily contact with both agency and brands. Here, he outlines his top trends, challenges and vision for the future of digital in the Middle East.

Top 3 digital trends in the region

  1. There is a second data awakening on the client side with a clear focus on data activation

Clients are now more open to talk about their data. Brand marketing teams have turned their attention to leveraging the data they have been collecting. They deploy media partners who have solid data plays and particularly those with open data policies.

This shift is being driven by the need to maximize efficiencies in a tight market—total ad spend has been flat for the past year. Clients are realizing there is an opportunity to drive ROI if they capitalize on their data. They are starting to be more open about the (data) gaps they have and insights they need realizing that, outside of Google and Facebook, there are players who can help answer questions and drive results through data driven activations.

  1. Proliferation of the e-commerce back-end supply chain and agencies are leading the segment forward

If you attended any of the recent digital or e-commerce expos or conferences, it would be hard to miss the number of MENA-based suppliers ranging from payment solutions to CRM to performance marketing tech. The infrastructure is growing rapidly. With so many suppliers in every part of the supply chain, it will be interesting to see what will happen from a pricing point-of-view and what regulation will fall into place to sift through these different service providers.

On the brand side, the maturity of the e-commerce conversation is still at a nascent level with the focus almost exclusively on low-end conversions. In the U.S. by contrast, where search for certain product categories on Amazon exceeds that on Google or Yahoo, the conversation is equally around content optimization, curation, creative assets etc. Interestingly though, MENA talent is playing a global role in developing the e-commerce programs of global agencies. For now, I see agencies spearheading the e-commerce play in MENA and I expect further growth once local and regional brand marketing teams develop a deeper understanding of e-commerce and build ground-up strategies.

  1. A stagnation in the conversation between creative and media

It is alarming to see a lack of convergence at a time when they should be coming together. To put it naively, previously it was brushed under the rug because the client was OK with running thirty-second TV commercials on digital channels. Currently, with access to many measurement insights this must change, especially as we ironically are trying to squeeze efficiencies. The challenge is creative agencies are moving towards being more data driven but it’s taking time, while media agencies are taking content aboard but are still building knowhow and infrastructure.

I believe clients have a responsibility here. The demand for optimally designed content and creative is an understanding and a directive that needs to come from them. They can tap into all the tools they have access to when aiming for efficiency, but there will continue to be an elephant in the room called ‘content’. Think about e-commerce for a moment: today almost all products are showcased in 2D images. If we were to start exploring video or AR, who and how will this content be produced?

Top 3 digital challenges in the region

  1. e-commerce data

Operationally, cash-on-delivery and product delivery in the last mile are two infrastructure challenges the e-commerce sector in MENA is overcoming. To take off, more products need to be made available for purchase online and this will bring a new challenge: the relation between brands and distributors needs to be sorted, especially when you think of distribution rights across markets.  More so, from a marketing/advertising perspective, we know headquarters and dealerships operate as separate entities with different budgets and somehow similar activation calendars. What impact will this have within the e-commerce context? Then there’s the question of data. E-commerce is data-driven, how will headquarters, distributor, and platform data come together? And who owns this data?  I’m very keen to see how this plays out.

  1. The measurement dilemma

There definitely is interest to be inquisitive and look at different metrics, all in the effort to drive impact to the bottom line. This is great. Is CPV, for example, the new CTR, a defunct metric? Often brands get excited about these initiatives but it’s more talk than action. Procurement is still very strong—given market conditions—and all too often I’m seeing those solid measurement conversations side-lined or kept on low fire. This is short-term thinking, unfortunately, and ultimately impacts how we mature digitally in MENA.

  1. Regulation of influencer marketing

This motion is already progressing. I think this is great for all parties: brands, publishers, and the influencers themselves. This is in-line with the normal evolution of the market and this “product’s” life cycle. I think audit and regulation should be welcomed and encouraged.

How the industry will evolve in the next five years

We’re in a period of transition once again. Five years ago, it was all about doubling down on digital.  Now we’re in the ‘data, measurement, analytics and optimization’ phase. This is what will drive the next few years and it is exciting. Once the markets adjust to the big changes that have happened in the GCC with sugar taxes, VAT, salt tax coming up, Saudization etc. I believe this next chapter will progress much faster and will be quite interesting.

I’m also interested to see how AR will develop. We’re seeing governments being more active than brands so far. Again, figuring out how and who will own content development will be key, but this definitely is a very interesting space to watch.

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OMD MENA

The OMD team works on delivering insights that unlock demand potential, ideas that ignite consumer desire and results that accelerate business growth for our clients.

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