Cannes 2015: View from the Middle East

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In a region destabilized by political turmoil, but where friction and tension can be inspirational, the advertising community is continuing to make people take notice

It’s a strange and endearing place, the Middle East. Inspiring, diverse, artistically rich and frequently beautiful, it is, however, as everybody knows, plagued by political instability, war and the failures of revolution. At times, its kaleidoscope of contradictions and cultural intricacies has resulted in work of the highest order, while the advertising industry’s aping of the West has often led to nothing but meaningless mimicry. At present, the industry appears to be bobbing around somewhere between the two. 

This year’s Dubai Lynx, which is run and organized by Cannes Lions, was not particularly notable in terms of the overall quality of work. No Grands Prix were awarded in any of the categories presided over by David Lubars, the chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide. He was right when he said that the region deserved the respect of being judged by international standards, with the result being that "while the gold work was great, no one piece had that extra magic and brilliance that set it apart from the other golds."

There are reasons for this. Egypt — for the past few years an example of what was possible in terms of insightful, humorous and culturally nuanced advertising — has entered a creative slump, while Lebanon is feeling the effects of a political vacuum, shrinking budgets, limited market opportunity and a continuous brain drain.

Only Dubai, the third and now most important of the region’s creative hubs, is holding its own. Even then, spending to support Dubai agencies’ creative development is shrinking, with reduced budgets and increased workloads hampering progress. 

But before I slip into a world of negativity, let me put things into perspective. Where we are now is a lifetime away from where the industry was five or six years ago. The standard of work has improved significantly, with regional agencies regulars on the global stage and capable of winning its highest honors. Only the likes of a Grand Prix at Cannes has remained tantalizingly out of reach. 

Genuinely brilliant work is being produced by a coterie of highly talented individuals and teams, who are utilizing authenticity, cultural idiosyncrasies and the Arab experience to craft intelligent and beautiful campaigns. Among them, some of those mentioned below. 

So what if the Middle East is creatively erratic? It is a region I love, particularly the Levant. It has taught me that beauty can emerge from the most trying of situations; that friction and tension can be inspirational; and that where there is a will, there is always a way, as clichéd and corny as that may sound. I hope those campaigns that have the ability to make a genuine difference are awarded at Cannes because they show how far the region has come and point towards what it can achieve.

Cannes contenders

"Du Tuesday" Du
Leo Burnett

Cinematic, immersive, beautifully crafted and filled with the kind of intricate detailing and cinematography that makes careers, Leo Burnett’s "Du Tuesday" TV and online campaign for the United Arab Emirates telecoms company Du highlighted the fact that some films are best not watched alone. 

"The biggest art gallery in the world" Al Arabia
J. Walter Thompson Riyadh

The Media Grand Prix winner at this year’s Dubai Lynx awards, J. Walter Thompson Riyadh’s campaign for the out-of-home company Al Arabia found undiscovered artists in Saudi Arabia and brought their work to the people via outdoor. The campaign featured work from 900 artists displayed on 3,000 sites across the country. It was the first Lynx Grand Prix to be won by a Saudi agency.

"Little Books Of Big Consequences" American Garden
Y&R Dubai

Another Grand Prix winner at the 2015 Dubai Lynx, this time in Design, Y&R Dubai’s campaign to promote American Garden’s new Habanero sauce saw the creation of a series of 10 miniature books illustrating stories of minor events, blunders and mistakes that ended up having huge consequences for the world. 

"Give mom back her name" UN Women
Impact BBDO Dubai

UN Women’s "give mom back her name" was the first campaign to effectively break the social taboo of not disclosing one’s mother’s name in public lest it become a subject of shame and ridicule in public forums. Launched to coincide with Mother’s Day and created by Impact BBDO, the film simply asked a number of Egyptian men what their mother’s name was. Their reactions were fascinating. 

‘Wish booth" Coca-Cola
Y&R Labstore Dubai; Y&R Dubai

As part of Coca-Cola’s "wish upon a Coke" campaign, special "wish booths" activated by the drink’s bottle caps were installed around Dubai. The campaign invited United Arab Emirates residents to make a wish for their families back home, with wishes in India, Pakistan and the Philippines coming true.

"Project Akshar" SmartLife Foundation

A purposeful, emotional and creatively fulfilling campaign, FP7/DXB’s "Project Akshar" encouraged Dubai’s laborers to learn English. It did so by writing English phonetic pronunciations in the Hindi script and combining them with their visual representation to create words that taught them English through their own language.

Iain Akerman is a contributing editor for Campaign Middle East.

Cannes Lions 2015 Coverage


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