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Is Dubai’s Independent Spirit Ready to Take Flight?



The Emirate is known as a hub for big business but independent creative agencies are also part of Dubai’s post-oil future, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton

Is Dubai’s Independent Spirit Ready to Take Flight?

Think business in Dubai and chances are the image the springs to mind are well-heeled international executives working out of steel and glass towers for huge global corporations. In the advertising world, agencies like FP7 McCann, Impact BBDO, Horizon FCB, and Ogilvy MEMAC and more have certainly drawn attention to city with creative work that’s won big at international award shows. And it makes sense that big international advertising networks have sought to make Dubai their sunny, regional home.

But over the past few years, there’s been a change in the air as more independent creative agencies have popped up. It mirrors broader changes in Dubai’s economy – as the government ramps up its quest to build its post-oil future, the UAE is investing heavily in technology and science, but is also keen to make the Emirate a destination for design and creativity, gaming and music.

Arnaud Verchère is the founder and group CEO of Tonic International, one of the pioneering indies in Dubai. It was established nearly 17 years ago – and in that time the landscape has changed wildly. “In the past 10 to 15 years Dubai has developed so fast. Today it’s got a real art, gaming, comedy and music scene. You can pretty much find your own niche for whatever you are into. As a result, it’s much easier to attract and keep creative talents,” he says. In that time the agency has built up a roster of impressive clients, including Audi Middle East, with whom they’ve worked for ten years. Given Dubai’s location as a regional hub, they’ve also got clients across not just the Middle East but Africa too.

Back in 2015, one of the exciting creative challengers, Science & Sunshine launched, spotting an appetite for something new. Nadine Ghossoub is the CEO, she works closely with ECD Ash Chagla and CSO Nareen Mehra, leading a team of 23 and working with creatively-driven clients like Netflix and Harvey Nichols, with some big AOR accounts for Virgin mobile UAE and Peugeot/Opel. Unusually and excitingly, the leadership team is three very competitive women in a market that is still largely male dominated at the C-suite level.

“We started S&S in 2015,” says Nadine. “We felt it was the right time to move away from the corporate world and its rigidity in process that sort of cripples the creative process in general. We felt there was an opportunity in the market, to bring all our know how from the corporate world and create a new place that is more independent in spirit and culture and allows people to take risks and go places; creatively of course, and just enjoy that process without all the other stuff that comes with a network.”

No Sleeps Given | Netflix | Regional Launch from Science & Sunshine on Vimeo.

Another to the swashbuckling gang of creative indies is ‿ and us, launched by respected creative Fadi Yaish, erstwhile CCO of Impact BBDO. Though he’d never previously thought about launching his own place, a mixture of creative restlessness and frustration led him to build something new in the market. They’ve created bombastic work for fast food chain Hardee’s and, with a Covid-19 inspired soap collaboration between Deliveroo and Lush, they’ve also dipped a well-sanitised toe into the product innovation arena.

“I never had the ambition or dream of opening my own agency. In fact, I left the last agency I worked for with absolutely zero plans for first time of my life. I just did it,” says Fadi. “But one thing I knew for certain was that I would never work for any other agency in our region, ever again. Why? Simple - I did not believe in what we were doing and how we were working internally and with clients - that was not what advertising is. Despite my best efforts, certain habits could not be unlearned. And after decades of working to multiple network agencies I realised it’s a vicious cycle and that I would be stupid if I expected different results anymore.”

As it currently stands, there’s a cluster of exciting agencies, but there’s cluster that’s definitely worth checking out. Aside from the agencies highlighted here, there’s also House of Comms launched in 2012 and Rain, which has been around since 2011, and the punchy Do Epic Sh*t.

And what of clients? In a market where the cosy embrace of familiar networks is the comfortable norm is anything pulling them to try something different? There’s been a noticeable growing openness to working with independents. 

Although Fadi has doubts about how far the local market has evolved, beyond tech tricks and fads, he has certainly sensed a change from clients. “Very much so! Clients are looking for solutions. Clients today know what they need and what they want. And they can tell if someone is working with them or just out to get their money. And after decades of working with the big agency “networks” they are looking for the new experiences that independent agencies offer,” he says.

According to network agency insiders we’ve spoken to, there’s a feeling that the economic pressures exacerbated by Covid-19 have changed the landscape. As some global brands have scaled back on regional creative spending, there’s a greater focus on regional and local brands as new business prospects. But these local brands are less wedded to the network model – some for the very uncreative reason of perceived costs and overheads. 

That ‘cheap’ is a misleading mindset, though, both for marketers and for aspiring indie founders. One can simultaneously cut away extraneous layers while also appreciating the value of a strong creative product, well-crafted. That’s the shift Fadi is pushing for and hoping to see in the market and amongst his competition too.

“Currently no one talks about independent agencies except when they are thinking small and cheap,” he explains. “We might be smaller but we’re also better with more substance and no fluff.  We most certainly aren’t cheap. We are better and more effective, therefore expensive and sometimes even more expensive. The value is in the ideas we sell and nothing else.  We will rub shoulders with the big guys and get people to talk about independent agencies when they talk about agencies in general.”

But where local and regional clients are seeing value in independents is in the way the relationships work. LIGHTBLUE’s Joseph Aquilina thinks the ability to work more directly with leadership suits the way local and regional clients do business.

“Our advantage as independents is that we take more time to focus on the direct connections between senior leaders and client decision makers, we also embrace change and are comfortable with taking an individual approach to each and every client partnership,” says Joseph. “We have found that more than ever before clients are seeking partners that can act with authenticity, credibility and speed when connecting with customers and the cultures in which they live in.” 

That changes in client interest has come hand-in-glove with broader cultural shifts in Dubai and the UAE. 

For Nadine, the cosmopolitan, international population has fostered thriving culinary, artistic and fashion scenes. Around 85% of Dubai’s residents are expatriates, hailing largely from South Asia, the Levant and Europe. On the food front, speciality supper clubs and artisan bakers and cafes have proliferated, and fashion is also a source of creative inspiration.

“There are so many local and regional designers who are carving out their place here. Not just for luxury fashion as you might think, but also streetwear, vintage, and modest fashion,” says Nadine.” And there’s definitely no shortage of talent on the local art scene which has just gone from strength to strength over the last decade. The city’s art hubs have really cultivated a strong and vibrant community, made more interesting by the diverse nationalities and influences people are bringing into their work.”

A restaurant in Dubai's Design District

At LIGHTBLUE, with a strong record in experiential and pop culture events, from music gigs to gaming, that’s something Joseph is keenly aware of. “Over the years, UAE’s international migrant population has continued to grow, and we have experienced the general public take on an increased interest in the arts. A rise of galleries, cultural institutions and foundations combined with cultural events and educational activities has arrived on the scene and as a result opened the country to new viewpoints and experiences. Increased investment and development have generated excitement and caught the attention of the art world, the UAE is now seen as a place to discover art and museums in a new light and from a new perspective,” says Joseph. That increased interest in design and culture is intertwined with technology, and he and the team have been excited to see that manifest as a growth in esports, and they’ve seen that as an exciting revenue growth area.  

But while there’s a core of creative indies, increased client openness and a notable shift in the primacy of arts and entertainment, creating a ripe ground for a roaring swell of independent agencies, those in the thick of it caution that what we’re currently seeing are initial ripples. There’s a growing momentum but it’s not yet a full-on wave.
According to Fadi, he thinks that while there may be the potential for a spark to become a roaring fire, in the main he thinks that there are still not enough indies putting creativity at the front and centre. It’s a wasted opportunity as it’s their independence that should free them to act differently to the networks and prioritise creative.

“If the independent agencies are not led by creatives then there is no difference between network and independent agencies,” he says.  “And unfortunately, I can think of maybe one or two agencies that are creative led. Most independent agencies are mirrors of network agencies except they are smaller and cheaper. And I believe that’s fundamentally wrong and must change. We would like to drive that change. That is the story of independent agencies in North and South America and Europe - amazing creative minds who get tired of being dictated to and who left to start something new on their own. Those guys did it. It’s not the story here. But trust me, it will be.”

Nadine agrees that overall, the independent scene is still relatively new and that it’s waiting for that swell of creative confidence. Talent in the market has become accustomed to the reassurance of big network set ups, for example, though that’s changing too.

“The indie scene is still rather new in comparison to the rest of the world and given the current climate not just in Dubai but across the world, I think the talent is a bit wary to take that leap at the moment with the indies. I don’t know about other indie agencies but we have recruited some great talent over the years and are proud of the work they have produced,” says Nadia. “We hope to continue to grow in the future and maybe lead the indie scene by further building that community.”

Arnaud, who’s seen the economic swings and weathered the lows and highs, reveals that while the rewards for striking out can be high, it can be an unforgiving environment too. Both entrepreneurs striking out and the talent thinking about taking a leap have to be tough. “It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s no safety net here. It’s raw, brutal but also extremely rewarding,” he says.

The past year and the economic stresses of Covid-19 has, perhaps, dampened down the rowdy exuberance needed for a full-blown wave of independent rambunctiousness. On the other hand, the UAE has managed the pandemic efficiently, agency offices have been open since the summer of 2020 and the vaccination rate has topped 62%. Clients may be wary of spending and taking risks, as they are elsewhere in the world, but things are, if not back to normal, then more normal than in many other markets. This is a city where the motto is ‘Impossible is Possible’ – sooner or later, entrepreneurial creatives are going to find this a challenge that’s too enticing to resist.

Photo Credits
Main photo by Omar Yehia on Unsplash

Fashion mall photo by Fahad Mosalam on Unsplash

Restaurant photo by Waqas Saeed on Unsplash
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LBB Editorial, Wed, 31 Mar 2021 16:03:08 GMT