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The World: Middle East salutes advertising achievements

There were strong entries in the Campaign Middle East Awards, but there is still a need for improvement.

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If advertising creativity was driven by financial success, then Middle-Eastern agencies would be the best in the world.

Take Dubai. The oil-rich emirate wants to be number one at everything.

The Burj Dubai will be the world's tallest tower. Dubai's newly opened indoor ski-slope is also, naturally, the world's largest.

And the cars crawling along the city's main artery, the Sheikh Zayed Road, make their own contribution, too, recreating the world's largest traffic-jam daily.

Shame, then, that you won't find an inhabitant of the exploding advertising scene who describes the average level of creativity as anything other than mediocre.

Inexperienced, risk-averse local marketers; a lack of effectiveness yardsticks, and the ability to make easy money without being very good, all provide few incentives to strive for advertising excellence.

But change has begun. Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is now the hub for most Middle-Eastern advertising operations. Offering a political and economic stability lacking in the rest of the region, and supported by the creation of Dubai Media City, which allows companies to be 100 per cent internationally owned, there are strong signs.

Last year saw the region's first gold Cannes Lion for advertising, won by the Dubai agency Tonic for work for Sony. "Paperclip" demonstrated the thinness of the new flat-screen TV with the simple device of a sign reading "new", paper-clipped to the equipment.

Lebanon - the homeland of the majority of those working in advertising and media across the Middle East - is a little more stable. Saudi Arabia - the region's biggest market with an incredibly young population of 24 million - is under a new king, whose agenda appears to be one of cautious liberalisation. And Egypt is emerging from recession.

And with adspend estimated in 2005 to have risen in the kingdom by 27 per cent, by 43 per cent in the UAE, and 17 per cent across the whole Middle East, EMEA bosses are taking the region seriously.

The market is also judged large enough to support its first weekly advertising title. Campaign Middle East - licensed from Haymarket by the Dubai-based publishing company ITP - launched last May.

And the first Campaign Middle East Awards followed soon after with more than 650 entries covering advertising, media and PR.

The role of jury chairman fell to Jan Zijderveld, the chairman of Unilever Middle East, the company which has led calls for greater transparency in the region's advertising and media industry.

International jurors included Bruce Crouch, the London-based executive creative of Nitro, and David Pattison, the chief executive of PHD Worldwide.

According to the juror Ed Jones, the regional creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, the awards rooted out some work that would stand out on a world stage.

Tonic, the winner of the Cannes gold, scored again with more work for Sony - this time its Microvault storage device. It beat more than 200 entries to gold in the print category. And it also won the Grand Prix for the single best piece of work in any category.

The other award winner that Jones believes deserves to be recognised more widely comes from his own agency. "Lighthouse", the TV work of Avinash Sampath, who was also named young creative of the year, featured a rotating beam that proved to be the dazzling smile of a Crest toothpaste user.

The integrated category saw a gold for Lowe Dubai's work for Axe, which trod a delicate line between staying true to the brand, while also remaining within local cultural sensitivities. Like most agencies in the region, the Lowe name is franchised, and the agency is set to lose the affiliation at the end of April, probably renaming itself Brand Com.

But one category - online- saw no winners. Jones describes the shortlist as: "Dreadful. My dog could do better than that."

Fellow juror Yousef Touqan, an account director at the Dubai-based online operation Flip Media, says: "So much work lacks any creative thread running through it. While there is a lot of good work, there is not a lot of great work."

Dimitri Metaxas, the media director at the online specialist Impact Proximity, adds: "We have some big network agencies that have no idea about online."

It was a similar story in radio, with a shortlist of just three and only one winner, a silver for Dubai's Team Y&R for a campaign featuring a dreadful karaoke-ing DJ to promote a competition to win a slot on a local radio station.

One surprise for the big Dubai media agencies was that they missed out on the top media prizes. Zenithmedia Egypt took the gold in the media planning category for its work on the launch of Virgin Megastore in Cairo.

The agency, only two years old, also beat OMD to media agency of the year.

Meanwhile, ad agency of the year went to the independent operation Face to Face, which has a loose alliance with Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London on brands including Unilever's Vaseline account.

Jones concludes: "The stuff that won is much better than what was being produced five years ago. The quality is definitely getting better, but it's happening slowly."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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