One of the most interesting aspects of marketing in the Middle East region is learning how to make campaigns work locally. When setting up an agency in any new place as a foreigner you try to learn about the local culture and nuances as quickly as possible, primarily to avoid offending anyone. Books like Don’t They Know It’s Friday? are a great source of quick knowledge for our region.
Experience builds over time and it’s not until you encounter a newbie fresh off a flight dressed in a shorts and a vest top, holding a coffee with their left hand whilst hailing a cab with an arm offensively held in the air that you suddenly realise how much you’ve learnt!
You start in Dubai by slowing your walking pace. You discover the wealth of languages and dialects spoken in the region by locals and expats. You’re able to signal with your hand that you’d like the crazy driver behind to slow down or “have patience.” You understand the vision, the complex legal system and you can cope with the bewildering weather. Ultimately your sense of business etiquette develops and it’s a cliché but the region starts to get under your skin.
Trying to explain subtleties in relation to making a marketing campaign work locally can be a challenge. It’s hard for people that aren’t in the region to understand why direct mail doesn’t work (no-one has a mailbox), or why ideas need to be originated with local cultures in mind rather than localised. Seemingly innocuous content once transcreated can be seen locally as highly offensive or culturally inappropriate at worst, but in most cases just irrelevant. We’ve made a couple of mistakes along the way, like our big idea that involved branding sandal soles to leave footprints in the sand (Muslims consider the soles of the foot to be unclean), but luckily the people we have encountered are incredibly patient and have really helped us develop a deeper knowledge.
I understand the challenge from an external perspective too, I can see why a client based in New York or Stockholm wants to add a bit of “Arabian flavour” to the look and feel of their campaign. Maybe in their minds we’re pictured surrounded by sand dunes and souks, camels grazing outside and the smell of shisha and spices wafting through the air and they want to capture this atmosphere. However for us expats and locals in the region sitting at our Ikea desks in our glass offices, sipping our Starbucks lattes, watching the metro shooting past our windows and wondering whether to go to Nobu for dinner or late night shopping at Bloomingdale’s, adding a camel or lantern is just not always that relevant.
And believe me, I’ve been asked to add camels.
by Lucy Miller
Managing Director – Dubai
Cross-posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network