Advertising pundits in the Middle East are hoping that the month of Ramadan will give a boost to what has so far been a lackluster year for the industry. Overall GCC ad spends have plummeted with an estimated 25 percent regional drop from 2016 to 2017 alone, data from Ipsos Stat showed.
Ramadan has traditionally been peak season for broadcasters, but a volatile regional economy, the introduction of VAT levies and a rise in digital consumption have compounded uncertainty in the industry, experts said.
According to a report from Google Think, Ramadan viewership on YouTube over the past three years has increased threefold in comparison to TV, while TV viewership remained flat.
Some major GCC advertisers are not spending on TV at all this Ramadan, which represents a sea change for traditional advertisers. “All in all, TV — especially Arabic TV — will see some ads but this Ramadan marks a significant moment in budgets shifting to digital,” Zaira Lakhpatwala, managing editor, Communicate, told Arab News.
Austyn Allison, editor of Campaign Middle East, said the advertising market is “leveling out.”
“Brands are spreading their budgets more evenly throughout the year, and they are also moving them away from television,” he said.
According to Allison, TV stations are “sitting planning their Ramadan grids right now,” trying not to give too much away to the competition and hoping that their Ramadan shows will catch more audience than their competitors.
Allison said: “While they (TV stations) wait, they will have their fingers crossed that spend booms like it did five years ago as advertisers discover budgets down the back of the sofa. I suspect though that while there will be a bit of a rise, Ramadan has now ceased to be the month that saves the year.”
Wissam Najjar, regional managing director at media agency OMD, said he has witnessed a “delayed start” in advertising investments this year, with advertisers moving more budgets into the coming months, “particularly to focus on Ramadan and the FIFA World Cup, in which the highest number of Arab teams are competing at the same time.”
Najjar told Arab News: “Following the introduction of new taxes such as VAT, there has been a slow start to the year in Q1 and Q2. That said, Egypt has experienced a better beginning to 2018 than Gulf countries and there is better economic news on the horizon with rising oil prices. In Saudi Arabia specifically, the mood is lifting thanks to the reforms and the busy entertainment calendar. The expansionary budget will also boost both optimism and consumption.”
Najjar added: “This Ramadan will see the launch of a new TV channel, SBC. Together with other leading channels, such as MBC and some of the Egyptian stations, they will have an interesting line-up of programs to entertain audiences during Ramadan. We hope Ramadan will act as a turning point this year, marking the beginning of the upward trend in investments.”
Khulud Abu Homos, CEO of Dubai-based content and media agency Arab Format Lab, is also hoping this year’s Ramadan period will act as a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the industry.
“Call me an optimist, but I strongly believe that the market is going up from here. For the first time in three years of cuts in advertising budgets, I believe that this Ramadan will see a rise in spending. Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular, will be spending substantially on campaigns that explain the changes their governments are making in their interactions with citizens. Also, I believe that YouTube viewership and advertising will play a much bigger role this Ramadan,” Abu Homos told Arab News.
As the Holy Month approaches, competition between rival broadcasters is heating up.
The teaser campaign for a new Saudi culture channel to be launched for Ramadan has stirred up particular controversy.
The campaign centered on the Arabic word “ghasb,” meaning “force,” which began appearing in April on advertising boards, TV, radio and social media outlets with no further explanation.
It was revealed last month to be all about a new TV channel, SBC, owned by state-owned Saudi Broadcasting Corporation. The key hashtag associated with the channel, due to go live at the start of Ramadan next week, is “Ghasb Tehebaha” which translates as “you’re forced to love it” or “you have to love it.”
Reactions to the campaign on social media were mixed; while some were intrigued by the branding, others were less impressed.
“As for force, the time of coercion is over,” said another.
SBC’s campaign last week prompted a clever response from rival broadcaster Rotana, the Arab world’s largest entertainment company.
A counter advert, promoted earlier this month on Rotana Khaleejia’s official Twitter account, ran with the slogan “Alhob mu Ghasb”, meaning “Love is not Forced.”
“This is the beginning of the war of advertising between Saudi TV and Rotana,” tweeted Dr. Obaid Saad Alabdali, a former university professor and commentator on marketing culture in the Arab world.
“Could this be the beginning of allowing comparative advertising in the Saudi market?”
One of the main figures behind SBC is Dawood Al-Sharian, formerly anchor of the popular MBC show “Al-Thamina.” The show attracted a huge Saudi audience thanks to Al-Sharian’s hard-hitting presenting style, tackling hot-button issues such as unemployment and extremism. He was appointed as head of SBC in November.
SBC’s Ramadan line-up includes “Awalem Khafeya” (Invisible Worlds), starring legendary Egyptian actor Adel Imam, “Bedoon Filter” (Without Filter), starring Saudi actor Abdullah Al-Sadhan, and “Share Chat,” starring Hassan Usseiri, Fayes Al-Malky and Rashid Al-Shamrany.