Ad Agencies in Egypt Reopen as Protests Continue in Bahrain

MCN's Tom Roychoudhury Reports on How Middle East Unrest Is Affecting the Industry

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Tom Roychoudhury
Tom Roychoudhury

DUBAI -- Akram Miknas, the Bahrain-based Middle East chairman of Interpublic's MCN group, has a view from his office in Manama down to the square where the protests in Bahrain are unfolding and gripping yet another Middle Eastern nation. He is mesmerized. One by one, in countries where people feel marginalized and have no voice, they're gathering together to say 'Enough!' But this is Bahrain and Miknas has a long history here. He and his family are honorary citizens -- a very rare honor. Fielding frantic calls from family and friends, Miknas watches the gathering masses, not knowing what will happen next, and wonders how the next few days will affect his advertising businesses, his clients and his country.

MCN, majority owned by Interpublic, runs several agencies in the region, including McCann FP7, UM, Lowe, Initiative, Weber Shandwick and MRM. In Egypt, the office has come back to life now, playing catch up after being shut down for more than a week, but it's been really bad for business.

In Tunis, things are normal again. But who knows what is about to unfold across the region. Clients aren't always very bold in times of uncertainty -- media plans and TV shoots get canceled in seconds. Business can move from great to good, then spiral into "wow, now what?" in hours.

As I post, on Thursday, Feb. 17, things aren't going well. Bahrain police have catapulted the situation into high alert, aggravating the protesters. Tomorrow is billed to be huge there. All social media is buzzing. Caught between the fight for rights, between sectarian (Shia vs. Sunni) stands, and not knowing what they're shouting for, it's a mess. It's no better in Libya. No worse in Yemen. No nothing in Iran, for fear of getting killed. And, steady, steady, wait and watch in Egypt. Oh, and our industry?

More than one client is asking the social-media question. If everyone's attention is on the social channels or on protest-centered news, how come media-planning agencies haven't scrambled and gotten into the social action more heavily? How come the creative agencies haven't quickly responded with viral videos and interesting creative that would thrive on this new focus?

The advertising industry is playing it cautious. Everyone is quick to recognize the mobilization tools for the protests -- the internet, mobile, social media -- but we're not seeing quick shifts away from traditional TV and print into social media and search built around the new momentum for brands. That's particularly so for global and regional brands who have no idea which way the tides of power will shift, and who have to remain loyal to the immediate. "How come your brand won't wave our flag now?' asked one protester, about why brands are shying away from taking the side of the young. "We will remember this," he warned me.

Starting in Tunisia, then rolling like thunder across Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran -- this whole concept of freedom across the internet is contagious -- the youth in this region are clicking on faster then you can say democracy. And, lest we forget, more than 55% of the population in this region is under 24. And a huge number of them have mobile phones and 24/7 access to the internet.

One client-side marketing manager, at a key regional pitch for a rather large account in the region, pointed out that all the econometric modeling and media absorption predictive tools had gone for a toss. They didn't see #Jan25 coming, nor the emergence of Al Jazeera as a channel with live coverage.

So, no, TV wasn't top dog in Cairo for the youth segment in the past couple of weeks. Nobody was watching our spots. Advertising as we knew it in the region, with TV as the hero, was suddenly in flux.

Tom Roychoudhury Tom Roychoudhury is a Dubai-based chief innovations officer at Interpublic-owned Middle East network MCN. Follow him on Twitter at @tomroydigital.
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