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What Does Vision 2030 Mean for the Saudi Advertising Industry?

Trends and Insight 629 Add to collection

LBB’s Laura Swinton finds out what the headline-grabbing changes might mean for agencies and brands

What Does Vision 2030 Mean for the Saudi Advertising Industry?

“We know that change is happening and we are all rooting for it, but we’re all a little bit shocked. No one’s complaining, certainly I’m not, but things are happening so fast,” says Omar Alabdali, CEO of TBWA\Fullstop. “Certainly we didn’t expect things like women driving and cinemas. But people adapt fast. I have to say, this is the way to do it. If you want change, make it happen so fast that people don’t realise that it’s happening.” 

Things are changing in Saudi Arabia – and they’re changing fast. Between the repeal of the ban on women driving to the opening of the first cinema in the Kingdom in 35 years, there’s a raft of unprecedented social, cultural and – yes – economic shifts rippling through the country. They’ve been set in motion by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the government who, in 2016 announced ‘Vision 2030’, a programme to restructure and diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil. Over the past six months or so, change has accelerated. September 2017 saw the announcement that women would be permitted to drive, January 2018 the introduction of VAT (previously an alien concept) and March 2018 the revelation that the government had granted a cinema license for Riyadh.

Naturally such huge changes in the market reverberate throughout the advertising industry – though the speed of the new rules mean that the on-the-ground reality is still to catch up.

“Over all it’s an interesting time in the Kingdom. I think the perception outside is very different from on the ground if you’re actually working and living here,” muses Moutaz Jad, strategic planning director at Horizon FCB. He says that during a recent visit to the USA, the people he met were ‘swept up in the whole PR machine’, but the really big shifts in culture and mindset will take time to bed in and unfold. “When you’re in the middle of it you don’t see the progress. You hear about it and, yeah, there are things that are happening, but things that affect people on an individual level? Maybe not so profoundly. I think there’s still some time until we start benefiting from all the progression that’s happening in the kingdom as we move towards 2019."

In the very short term, the introduction of VAT in January has proven something of a shock to the system – locals have seen their grocery bill rise by 5%. To coax their wallets and credit cards out of hiding, businesses are resorting to deals, offers and discounts rather than big brand thinking. In the longer term, though, it looks like things are set to get a bit more interesting.


Women Driving Change

For women, though, change is afoot. As the ban on women driving eases up, women are also allowed to attend sports stadiums and hang out in mixed gender audiences at concerts and cinemas. 

From an ad industry perspective, the driving ban repeal represents an opportunity for brands in the short term but also a longer term change for all categories as Dana Alkutoubi, Head of Strategic Planning at J. Walter Thompson KSA points out.

“The decision certainly unlocks opportunities for the automotive sector and beyond, as women will also need other products and services affiliated with car sales such as car loans and insurance,” she says. “More significant, is the increased mobility women will now have access to, meaning they will have a greater opportunity to get themselves to work and contribute to the economy creating prospects for all categories.”

One of Omar’s biggest clients at TBWA\Fullstop is Nissan and they have been working hard to change their whole approach to car advertising to a more gender neutral strategy. They recently released a campaign around women learning to drive too. But, again, Omar sees the potential implications of the new rules as spreading further than the auto industry.

“Other brands and industries are trying to capitalise on the opportunities about women driving. Women driving is reflective of more freedom = she can go wherever she wants whenever she wants. That’s important for other industries as well,” says Omar.

Moutaz is ambivalent about the initial raft of work that came out almost immediately after the repeal was announced. He’s another person who believes the true long term ramifications will take time to emerge, and points out that in rural, isolated areas women have long been driving. “It was great news and a lot of people were surprised by it, but I think the way advertisers and clients approached it was very condescending. Some of the stuff that came up the same week as the Royal decree was too knee jerk and wasn’t built around female empowerment,” he says. “I don’t think they really thought about how big of a deal this was, not that women were driving but that there was progress in female empowerment. If they waited a little bit instead of going for the first idea that popped into their mind it would have been better.”

Dana too sees a broader, deeper – and more interesting – space to explore.

“From a creative point of view, the opportunity for brands lies in the bigger story – this has been an unprecedented year for women in Saudi, and driving is just one more milestone and brands can build relevance by helping Saudi women navigate through these changes with authentic content,” she says.

Of course, there are still many freedoms and rights out of grasp for women in Saudi and it is yet to be seen if more relaxation will follow the driving ban repeal.


Working Women

While women – and Saudi women specifically – are not completely absent from the workforce, the government is keen to increase their numbers as part of Vision 2030. The goal is to grow female participation from 22% of the labour force to 30%

On a purely opportunistic level, that’s a new demographic with their own disposable income to target. But internally at agencies, it also signifies real potential for talent. Currently female graduates outnumber male graduates, particularly in the fields of advertising, communications and marketing.

Compared with other industries, Omar doesn’t think that advertising is as gender specific, particularly since Saudi colleges have started offering courses in advertising and design. At TBWA\Fullstop he estimates that the staff is currently 40% female, including their main copywriter. He doesn’t think that the Saudi Arabian industry is likely to shift to a female dominated one (“I wish it would!” he says) but says that from a practical point of view, women working in client services will no longer have to keep a driver on standby. 

The influx of female Saudi graduates is, though, a cause for celebration. Moutaz recounts that FCB Horizon has been working with ten female student interns recently, which made him reflect just how far the industry has come since he joined.

“When I started working here there weren’t a lot of females in the office, period. You’d maybe have a female who was from Lebanon or Egypt. You would get, every now and then, a Saudi female maybe in the creative side or client servicing but they were few and far between… now you’re getting a whole load. Almost 90% of the time you’re advertising to females but we had almost no female representation in the office, but now you’re getting more Saudis,” says Moutaz. “It’s going to shape the way we look at advertising - who knows where they are going to be able to take it that they weren’t able to take it. I think I had seen more Saudi females on the client side before but now it’s in the creative side – graphic designers, copywriters, motion graphics. Opening up their own agencies too, that’s cool.”

One such entrepreneurial woman is Abeer Alessa, the General Manager and co-founder of Bold. The former JWT copywriter set up Bold in 2010 with a group of friends and by 2016 it was named Independent Agency of the Year for the MENA region at Dubai Lynx. 


Local Shops for Local People

Bold is far from the only local indie springing up, but curiously the phenomenon of Saudis working in Saudi advertising is relatively recent. Thanks to a lack of local colleges and universities, there wasn’t anywhere to train, and because the earliest agencies in the country were the large international offices, it was seen as an expat-driven industry.

“I came here and I realised Saudis weren’t into advertising,” recalls Moutaz, a Saudi who grew up in the USA and moved back to start his career in the early 2000s. “I was one of the first Saudis in the FCB office and I didn’t realise. I was shocked because I didn’t know how the industry worked; it was predominantly expat driven and more and more Saudis started popping up.”

The increase in Saudis in the industry is driven by three main forces. A growing number of graduates in related fields, including a cohort who have studied in the UK and US and are bringing with them a different outlook on advertising. Vision 2030 is now penalising companies with foreign workers in order to encourage businesses to employ more Saudis, as part of the economic restructuring. And thirdly, clients want more genuine local insights.

“The push for working with local agencies happened from Nissan itself,” says Omar, as TBWA\Fullstop is a collaboration between TBWA and local agency Fullstop, which was formed in order to bring more local talent and insight onto the Nissan account.

Local brands have been quicker to take advantage of local insights, says Dana. “As Saudi society and consumers evolve, the opportunity to disrupt is wide open and some brands are taking full advantage, engaging their audiences in a more meaningful exchange. Not surprisingly, local brands, being closer to consumers, have had the confidence to make the first move to meaningfully engage with audiences – brands such as Saudi Telecom with their first branded content hub La Yawagif, or their platform Unveil, which reveals the beauty of Saudi Arabia while showcasing the strength of STC’s coverage, have provided personalised content that speaks to the lives and experiences of consumers in Saudi. STC is now BrandZ’s most valuable brand in Saudi Arabia.”


The Hipsterisation of Blue Collar Work and Small Business

The aforementioned drive to increase Saudi employees in more diverse roles beyond high level management marks a demographic shift that planners like Moutaz are watching with interest.

Traditionally, Saudis have stayed away from ‘blue collar’ work and retail – it was looked down upon a little sniffily and foreign workers were brought in to fill the roles. However, in a non-oil dependent future the populace will have to become a bit more open minded. Growing up in the US, Moutaz was used to the idea of getting a weekend job as a teenager, or working through university, but coming to Saudi, he realised that people generally didn’t start their careers until their late 20s, as their families supported their education

There’s a new generation coming up that’s embracing the changes, though. You guessed it, the tail end Saudi millennials and generation Z. “It’s cool definitely from a planning perspective - how does this affect consumer behaviour? We’re not immune to the millennial mindset. They’re very do it yourself, they’re not into materialistic things. I have a cousin who’s a barista and he’s very low key. You’d think he was living in Santa Cruz. He has flip flops and grows his hair in a pony tail – he’s just focused on making coffee and he’s very good at it and he’s planning on opening up a coffee shop, doing that sort of thing,” says Moutaz.

“Before it was like you graduate and you work for a bank or for the government or you become a doctor or a pilot or an engineer. That sort of mentality is a breath of fresh air and we need to learn how to advertise to that demographic. How do you sell them a car when they Uber everywhere?”

This new generation are embracing entrepreneurialism, keen to set up their own businesses beyond the family firm. This slots in rather conveniently with the Vision 2030 strategy, which sees small and medium sized enterprises as key to the new economy. SMEs don’t currently make up a significant proportion of the KSA economy when compared to other developed markets, so the government has pledged to support young entrepreneurs with small business-friendly policies

“I think that entrepreneurial spirit was always there but now it’s at the forefront, more people are doing it,” says Moutaz. They want to make their mark on society. It’s not about the family business any more it’s about what can I do on my own.”

In turn, this may mean that we see Saudi brands proliferate and expand in coming years. “I honestly think brands are opening everywhere, from within Saudi to outside. At this time, a lot of development is going to happen between this year and next and after that we’re definitely going to see Saudi brands go outside and exposed on the international stage,” says Omar. “I think it will take a bit of planning and time – a lot of brands haven’t even expanded within Saudi yet. There are many opportunities and they we are all waiting to see what happens.”

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LBB Editorial, Fri, 27 Apr 2018 16:43:14 GMT