Creativity of Mideast ad sector needs exposure

Visitors at the Dubai Lynx. The festival saw a drop of 35 per cent in participation this year. (EB FILE)

The gap between the advertising work presented at festivals and that seen on the streets or in magazines and on TV has been one of the major concerns of the industry and the observers of creativity. Following the events of last week's Dubai Lynx ceremony, many have criticised the fact that most of the work viewed was not familiar to the audience.

Lance De Masi, President of the International Advertising Association (IAA), UAE Chapter, responded to cynicism by posing valid questions on the roles of client bureaucracy and lack of agency incentives on a daily basis in killing creativity in average daily executions.

Speaking to Emirates Business, De Masi, however, expected creativity in the region to achieve international standards in three to five years.

This year, Dubai Lynx has seen a drop of 35 per cent in participation. What do you attribute this drop to – the awards or the current situation in the advertising industry? How will this affect the status of the industry?

The drop in the participation is perfectly understandable in the economic times that we are living for various reasons. First of all, advertising agencies very definitely exercised much more scrutiny internally before making a submission. In other words, they were more rigorous in terms of the level of creativity – it makes no sense to enter something that they are not convinced has a reasonable probability of winning. That makes sense. Second thing is that there was, of course, less advertising produced during last year because of cost cutting on the part of clients.

Dubai Lynx has decreased its entry fees to encourage participation, though.

I am not aware of whether the fees were reduced for participation. Regardless of whether the fees were reduced the fact that I have cited explains why there was less participation. Let me make a very clear statement. The reduced participation has nothing to do with dissatisfaction. The interest in Dubai Lynx is at an all-time high because of industry perception that it is a serious awards ceremony that stands on its feet. There is nothing in that dimension or calibre in the region.

The Dubai Lynx was placed in comparison with the Mena Cristals. How do you see this competition?

I think that the comparisons are odious to start with, and my very firm feeling having been a judge at the Mena Cristal is that they are two very different competitions and very different events and intended to be different.

There is, first of all, a whole social retreat kind of aspect in the Mena Cristal event that is totally absent from the Dubai Lynx – I mean to the extent that it is present at the Cristals.

This year, the Dubai Lynx had more social events, but in my view, the Mena Cristal is a retreat that takes place in Faraya in Lebanon, which is a very different atmosphere. Secondly, and this is very important. The amount of peer judgment that goes on with Mena Cristal, with people from the region judging work from the region, very clearly distinguishes it from the Lynx which has international judges and judging, however enlightened by local Arabic speaking experts. However, the judges remain an international group and people who are establishing world-class standards in other markets outside the Middle East.

Many industry leaders have actually complained about the scarcity of regional judges in the Dubai Lynx. Do you think that this is what has been leading to all this comparison?

In my estimation, there is no reason to duplicate what Mena Cristal does, and I am personally in favour of a team of international judges who if and when they are in need of a clarification regarding a linguistic or a cultural issue have on hand those people who could provide those clarifications.

I believe by sticking to that formula the Lynx will make its biggest contribution to the region. To adapt other formulae is to enter into parody with other festivals in the region, and I very strongly believe this is not for the good of this industry in the region.

There are a lot of opportunities to bring the Cannes formula to the Middle East, and when you do it you keep working to perfect it within the essence of what it is. In Cannes it is international and so the Lynx makes that contribution by remaining international.

John Hunt, Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA, commented on the situation saying that the problem with creativity is that it is appreciated differently in different parts of the world, simply because what seem funny in one language might not make sense in another? Do you agree?

Not having his exact words in front of me, I wouldn't try to comment on what he said… not ever try to suggest what he meant. Creativity is a universal phenomenon. We must not fall into the trap of believing that creativity is in a determinant way fixed by culture. The relevance of something which is created, how relevant it is, is determined by culture, and it is for that reason that we have at the Dubai Lynx the Arabic-speaking experts who are a resource for the jury. And then together with the input of those Arabic experts, jury members are able to make judgement regarding the relevance of what they see before them. But the judgment to whether it is creative, that is something that a creative expert can make, whether we are in China or New York and international awards ceremonies have for years proven that this is the case.

Why does nobody call into question the judgment Prix? Why do people not say, how possibly could that judge from Singapore have understood that work from America? Let us get over it in the Middle East!

Regarding the IAA panel which focused on creativity, do you think the challenges facing creativity in the region are still the same?

I think the discussion was about why the region is not doing as well creatively as it would like to do, and I think that is a valid point to be discussed. But the region is doing quite well creatively, and the Dubai Lynx is a testimony to that. The panel was about why in the day-to-day work in this region, we don't see as much creative work as we would like to see. In other words, why is it that the work we see in festivals is so much better than the average piece of work that is produced on a daily basis? There are obvious reasons for that.

Some of the work that is presented in festivals, while within the rules established by the festivals, is what we refer to as proactive work or non-traditional work. It is work for real clients, approved by clients for entry in the festivals, but not necessarily work that has been selected by clients as an ongoing piece of communication in the building of the commercial welfare of their brands. As long as that work in within the rules of the festivals, those submissions are incentivising and rewarding creativity as it exists in this region.

If there is a contrast between the work done on a daily basis and so much of the work that is entered into festivals, that should make both client and agencies think. I would question whether the approval process of the clients is killing creativity, and whether agencies are incentivising creativity during the period that precedes festivals or whether they are incentivising on a daily basis.

In believe those are unanswered questions. My opinion is that the industry needs to work on both sides. But we must not be negative about creativity because we are getting proof via the festivals that the creative capability and talent is there in the region. This is why I will not accept the verdict that the region is not creative.

We want creativity to be where we are going, that is, having more and more work in international festivals.

The displays of the winners in Eurofest and Asiafest are there also to obviously enlighten people and remind them as to what has won in those festivals and to illustrate that what wins at Lynx in Dubai is not terribly different in terms of quality. The gap is narrowing.

There will be a follow-up on the topic of the panel in later occasions.

How long do we need to fill that gap?

With the way things have proceeded in the last five years, give it three to five years and there will be a sameness in terms of what wins in the local ceremonies and what wins internationally, and we would see more wins from the region in international festivals.

Raja Trad (CEO of Leo Burnett in the Mediterranean region) told Emirates Business that despite the events that happened last year at the Dubai Lynx, a few ads were able to secure participation this year, through requesting the consent of their clients to publish certain ads in very limited spaces to fit the specifications for entry. What is your comment?

They need to run at least once, that is the rule. Some have run many more times than once.

Does this mean that an ad can run on one billboard and would qualify for entry?

I would have to read the specifics of the rules regarding billboards. The general rule is that the ad appear once. Many of the works don't seem familiar because a certain work might have run a number of times closer to one than to 1,000 or to 500. There is no doubt that there is proactive work done for the festivals. That is festivals all over the world. The clients are absolutely co-operative with the agency for entry into festivals. The reason why clients don't use those works for their campaigns is that the ongoing commercial benefit is subject to a series of approval processes that the other approval process is not subjected to.

The way I expect the industry to evolve is through growing realisation that creativity sells and that it is a tool in commercial success. I expect that there would be a growing understanding that there is a client in the advertising development process as well as an agency role.

One of the main criticisms of the winning works is that many of them are ambiguous. On what criteria are those works selected and awarded?

Some of the works seem ambiguous because of an age divide. There are many older people who do not understand communication targeted at 20-year-olds.

That is a generational divide. That is what digital and interactive is doing to the world. I think that the generational divide is a very important element in this, and I have spoken to many people, both young and old, and that is a key element.

The other element, of course, is the presentation in a ceremony that is an hour and a half, it is not as though people are able to dwell on what they see or able to see it more than once.

The fact that communication is changing, and the comprehensibility of various forms of communication is varying by age and to age correlates the technological awareness, expertise, familiarity and comfort is explaining a lot of what we see in terms of lack of comprehension.

Very often people who do not understand an ad are not members of the target audience, and that is a sign of great communication, not a negative sign, because communication that appeals to the target audience and appeals to this audience, while not necessarily favoured by members outside the target audience, is probably a very strong targeted communication. The jury, on the other hand, is very highly conditioned by what the target audience is.

I think it was a very good ceremony this year, the work was within the rules, and the industry rose to the occasion in terms of self-regulation and restraint. Yes, there was a lot of work awarded and I am happy about it.


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