GCC Comms Uncovered

Coming into Dubai for the first time as a Westerner with experience in Europe and the US, it’s fair to say that I was unsure about what to expect when visiting Active, our partner in the UAE. But now having spent four very productive and enjoyable days drinking in the culture, philosophy and approach of this vibrant agency, I can say I leave with a very real sense of excitement as to what can be achieved through great PR across this very diverse region.

Active handles a range of clients in several market categories and deals with both English language and Arabic media across countries that include the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain to name but a few. The team is truly multi-national with native Arabic speakers from Syria, the Lebanon and Jordan sitting alongside ex-pat specialists from Russia, Romania, France, India and Pakistan.

This team operates in a communications environment that has its own special characteristics. One big difference is the sense of being at arm’s length from the client. In many cases, Active’s direct client contact is based either in Europe or in the US. Interaction is limited at best to regular phone calls with in-person visits being something of a rarity. And in a business where relationships and client agency chemistry is so important, this presents its own challenge. What’s more, the local office of many Active clients operate purely as sales outposts. So PR for the local representative is often an after-thought, to be addressed with sales quotas and lead generation being the priority.

This dynamic encourages a sense of empowerment. Successful agencies like Active must be capable of using their initiative and being self-driven. They have to otherwise the work dries up. But it is also a limiting factor in the adoption of more creative communication techniques. From talking to the Active team, it’s evident that they have mastered the art of delivery and of managing clients in far flung time zones. But it’s also clear that more local involvement and direction would be welcomed.

When you add this to the media landscape, you begin to truly appreciate how resourceful communications practitioners in the region have to be. With certain sections of Gulf society and large swathes of industry still to embrace social media, the media hold great influence. Publications both on and offline operate an extremely commercial model which still sees the issue of editorial placements being influenced by advertising spend. As a consequence, editorial relationships are still important, particularly it seems in Dubai where the publishing houses are clustered in (not unsurprisingly) Media City.

None of this detracts from the fact that there is a very real appetite to push the boundaries (so far as is possible in a strictly controlled region) of communications. Having presented the Hotwire range of services and solutions, I can sense that the appetite to embrace new thinking and to try new techniques is very real. Communications in the region might still be very media oriented and dare I say it ‘conventional’, but with agencies like Active pushing boundaries and advocating new approaches, we’ll see change in the next few years.

Next week Dubai celebrates the 43rd anniversary of its formation. In that time it has built what could be argued is one of the world’s most dynamic and vibrant cities. My view is that in the next five years, communications in Dubai and to a certain extent the wider GCC region will undertake its own dramatic growth. Not only will global companies operating in the region expect it, but agencies like Active will have grown on providing high quality counsel and delivering award winning campaigns that deliver true business benefits in this exciting and still fast growing region.