A senior branding expert has criticised the UAE's advertising sector, saying the techniques used in the Emirates are too traditional and unimaginative. Speaking to Emirates Business, Aubrey Ghose, Founder and Chief Executive of AIS Brandlab, said advertising and marketing in the region had a long way to go. "I mean it's really weak," he said. "I think it copies from the West a lot. People have been traditional because it's easy and they know how to do it. But I think that some people simply have no imagination."
But he said Arabic brands had come of age. AIS, known for building top brands for global firms, has found a new haven in the Middle East. Ghose commended Dubai for its successful branding of itself, adding: "It's extraordinary. I haven't met anybody who doesn't want to be associated with Dubai."
AIS has been associated with international brands such as Coca-Cola, Zara, Nike, Tesco and Apple. And now regional brands such as Emirates NBD, Dubai Islamic Bank, Kuwait's BKME, Noor Islamic Bank and Qatar's Al Khaliji are using your expertise. What does this signify?
What it means is Arabic brands have come of age. They're growing up and they don't want to be second best. They are going to international agencies because they don't want to catch up, they want to leap forward and be the best in the world. On the other hand, agencies like ourselves are attracted to the idea of coming to a place where we can use our skills, which have been developed over the years, and really get creative out here.
Your ideas are a bit radical. Since you have been branding Arabic brands have you become more traditional or conservative in your approach?
What's important is that this is one of the oldest cultures in the world. We cannot ignore that because branding is finding truth and honesty through the brands. If Arabic brands are being developed they have to carry with them their heritage and their past. That's why I love to do Islamic brands because the challenge is how to bring out their heritage.
Has Dubai been successful in branding itself?
Massively. I have not met anybody – from the poorest guy, a labourer or a taxi driver to the wealthiest guy in the world – who doesn't want to be associated with Dubai, whether to invest or to drive a taxi here, or like myself to come and start a business. It's extraordinary. And there isn't anywhere else in the world right now that is like that. Dubai has established a superb brand worldwide to attract talent.
What did Dubai do that was right?
I think it was when it decided to be the gateway to the Middle East, when it said, 'We're going to be open and inclusive – everybody's welcome'. My driver is from India and he's got a great life here, he's really enjoying it. My clients, mostly expats, are having a great life in Dubai as well. Also it's very easy to start a business here. As you know I've got big businesses in London and Spain but setting up here has been the easiest.
How does the West perceive the UAE?
The West sees Dubai as a very special place. And I also think the world order is changing. Arabia was once the centre of trade in the world as was Asia, then Europe and America took over as the centre of power and trade. Now I think it's shifting back to the Arab world as well as to India and China.
How are you going to approach the Middle East market?
We do great work and that's what I'm focused on continuously. One of the things in Dubai is that it can transform good people into bad very quickly. From consultants to manufacturers to suppliers, they tend to become very greedy. They take on too much work and fail to deliver. That is why I'm never going to be a multinational business. We will take on something only if we can do it. We're also going to work only with select clients and that will get us motivated.
So who are these privileged clients?
Emirates NBD is one, and we are very privileged to have them. But we also want to work with not just big brands – I want to work with small brands, new brands, young brands, that's what's important to me. We don't want to always work with the number one or two in the market. We want to build new brands and make them world class and we want to do that because it makes us young and fresh.
You have taken on the task of changing the culture of Emirates NBD. What are your plans?
I am not at liberty to talk a lot about the relaunch but what we would like to do is to put the customers in the middle of the everything. So it will be customer-centric and that will help them to lead in the market, in fact in the world. The solutions will come from within them so we encourage them to work in partnership and bring out the best creative ideas and innovation.
Would you be open to the idea of your company being taken over?
Not really, but maybe in the future. I love this job. We've been approached, as you may know. AIS is divided into four parts: trend lab for trend analysis, brand lab for designing, skill lab for training and ad lab, where we develop an advertising voice that is totally different. So these are the four pillars and people have asked us if we want to sell one of those pillars. But we want to keep them together.
How do you find the marketing and advertising people here in the region?
I think advertising here has a long way to go. I mean it's really weak. I think it copies from the West a lot. I think architecture is the same. When I drive along Sheikh Zayed Road and see some of those older buildings, they're just copies of buildings from Europe. Advertising is the same but I think that's changing. Dubai should be leading the world. Dubai needs to work on it.
What are the qualities that they lack?
Well, they are lacking in innovation and creativity. That's what I don't see, I'm not seeing people stepping out of the box. I'm seeing a lot of the same type of campaigns and everything is very technical. Communication is just wallpaper and customers are beginning to not look at it because everything is the same. We have to differentiate. You have to find a way of breaking out and my advice is to find ways of being creative and innovative, otherwise it will just be a waste of money.
But why do people settle for the traditional approach?
Because it's easy and they know how to do it. And they are making some money and it's fine. But I obviously think that some people simply have no imagination. They don't want to explore it or they don't want to go to an international consultancy.
What percentage of a company's revenues should be invested in branding?
Branding is the business, in other words CEOs are leaders of the brand. If somebody is selling his business he is not selling the individual asset, he is selling the brand. So investing in branding is really important and the key thing here is that branding isn't just one thing that you can spend money on. Branding is how your human resources department behaves, how well your communications and marketing divisions perform, your IT strategy – branding is all of that. Branding is about changing the culture of a business and driving it forward so that it makes a difference to people's lives.
Some designers, advertising and marketing executives say one of the major problems they encounter is that they cannot convince the head of a company to agree with their creative or branding strategy. Do you see this as a problem for AIS?
We don't work for our clients, we work for our clients' customers. Nobody says 'I want it this way because you're working for me'. From our perspective, especially in this region, you can't have a chairman coming up to you and and saying, 'Look, my wife doesn't like this colour'. We don't work that way and people wouldn't pay us the amount they do if we did. If they wanted to choose the colour they could choose it themselves.
So the number one rule is that you set the rules of the game?
No, it's not the way we see it – as I said, we work for the customer.
PROFILE: Aubrey Ghose Founder and Chief Executive, AIS Brandlab
Aubrey Ghose is recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on retail branding. He has degrees in architecture and in design and art and his professional career has been devoted exclusively to the design industry. He spent 20 years with international consultancies such as Fit and HLS and was co-founder of Allen International. Aubrey founded AIS Brandlab in 2003 from its headquarters in Barcelona. Now, with support from offices in London and Dubai, it has become a leading agency in Europe and the Middle East.