by MarkLives (@marklives) The Middle East is fast emerging as a formidable creative hub. Will Middle Eastern agencies increasingly compete against South African agencies for business in the region (Africa and Middle East)? Will they usurp SA agencies’ role as an entry point into the continent and, if so, what steps will SA agencies need to take to ensure they stay on top in the EMEA region? We emailed a panel of key industry executives for their take.

Here are their responses, alphabetically by surname.

Johanna McDowell

Johanna McDowellJohanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) is managing director of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS; @agencyselection), which stands at the forefront of the complex world of agency selection in SA, and she is one of the few experts driving this mediation and advisory service in SA and globally.

I think it is great that we have some healthy competition from the Middle East; it can only improve quality of creative work and strategy all around and help SA keep its edge.

From a cost perspective, Middle East agencies will not be as cost-competitive as SA — our weak currency gives us an unheard of opportunity to supply creative work at a relatively low cost to sister agencies and clients within the EMEA region. SA agencies would be insane if they missed this opportunity.

So I suspect that South Africa will be able to learn a lot from their Middle East counterparts, while competing with them, too.


Brett Morris

Brett MorrisBrett Morris by Jeremy Glyn, January 2014 (@BrettWrote) is chief executive officer and chief creative officer of FCB Africa (@FCBAfrica), one of Africa’s oldest communications agencies.

I’m not sure it’s correct to say that the Middle East is only emerging as a creative hub; this region has been attracting talent and producing world-class work for many years. Perhaps there is now more focus, given that they are more of a viable competitor within the EMEA region.

Of course, it is possible that any client looking to expand into the region would consider the Middle East if they thought that they were accessing award-winning talent but that is only part of the consideration. Any agency that wants to compete across the continent or even the globe has to have the best talent — that is table stakes. We are, after all, in the talent business.

Beyond that, though, you need to have the strategic capability, the systems, the processes and, perhaps most importantly, the relationships that enable you to execute across a highly nuanced, vastly multicultural region. These networks and relationships are built over many years and we’ve seen many competitors try a ‘cut-and-paste’ approach, which has failed.
For any agency to stay competitive in this region, they need to ensure they have the best talent [and] the widest possible network, as well as strong relationships.


Jerry Mpufane

Jerry MpufaneJerry Mpufane (@JerryMpufane) is group managing director of M&C Saatchi Abel Johannesburg (@mcsaatchiabel), where he is responsible for the overall strategic direction of its Gauteng business, including high-level client relationships and building results-driven campaigns for its clients.

The growth in prominence of the Middle Eastern creative hub is a fantastic development. Their success adds further momentum to the global creative family.

Many Middle Eastern nations have embarked on an aggressive drive, offering world-class incentives, to recruit some of the big brands to house their HQs there. Some home-grown SA brands already have their HQs in the Middle East, notably their procurement departments. Also, many global brands manage their Europe/Middle East/Africa operations out of Europe.
We expect that the Middle Eastern creative hub will become a serious competitor to SA agencies for reasons of (i) an increased creative profile, (ii) proximity to procurement departments and (iii) proximity to Europe-based brand managers.

The SA creative industry is mature and operates on world-class standards. Our industry remains a very compelling proposition for global brand managers. Many of our agencies have a strong knowledge of the pan-African customer, and a strong ability to develop meaningful insight and ideas, as well as strong operational skills to implement pan-African campaigns.

The Middle Eastern creative hub is far from replacing the SA hub as the entry-point into Africa. That said, we certainly cannot rest on our laurels, considering the aggressive nature of the Middle Eastern economies. South Africans must do three things to retain our competitive edge: (i) [transformation] of our industry to bring in a more diverse skill sets, (ii) a deliberate mentoring of the future leaders from the current talent base and (iii) retention of the experienced skills sets (it is problematic that our top creatives leave the industry in their 40s).


Ravi Naidoo

Ravi Naidoo, founder and managing director, Interactive Africa/Design IndabaRavi Naidoo (@ravinaidoo) is the founder and managing director of Design Indaba (), one of the world’s premier conferences,  and its founding company, Interactive Africa.

I know where this question came from. It probably came from some of the controversy around the number of Middle-Eastern agencies that won at the Loeries last year, and I’m not quite certain that I want to enter that skirmish, but what I do want to say is that we at Design Indaba always maintained that South Africa has huge potential to become a globally outsourced hub for creativity — pretty much the way India is for IT, South Africa should be for creativity, so if there’s any kind of silver lining in economic cloud around our currency, it’s that it makes us so much more viable as a spot — and we’re already seeing it in Cape Town, where all these commercials are being shot all over the place, and, when I speak to producers in that industry, they say that they’ve probably had their best summer ever.

So the question is how do we translate that to the ad agencies, and how can we translate it to the people who create websites? We know Triggerfish, for example, just created a beautiful animation for BBC that debuted over Christmas with the Stick Man. So there are green shoots, there are wonderful things that we can point to, but the question is — how can we do more? How can we make more of a concerted effort?

And one of the things that I’m talking to some of the industry leaders about is doing a roadshow to London later this year, and the possibility of talking as a united front with the SA creative industry, and making pitches so that we can get more of the work, to be able to produce the collateral of FTSE-100 companies in London. And where there is a printer in Cape Town, producing their brochure-ware, whether it’s an ad agency, creating their next campaign, or where there’s a web company, designing and creating their next website. I think there’s a lot of scope for this to happen, and you know — India started a small base 20 years ago and the [backends] of so many FTSE companies are managed there, and in SA we’ve got this emerging call-centre business which is talking to a global market.

But I think it’s time for our creative industries to become a little more adventurous, a trifle more aggressive, and to go out and there and try and sequester the market share not only in Cape Town and Sandton, but to do it in Shoreditch and Canary Wharf and the city of London, too.


Veli Ngubane

Veli NgubaneVeli Ngubane (@TheNduna) is the chief creative officer and founding partner of one of the fastest-growing agencies in the country, AVATAR — a full-service marketing agency with digital at the core.

Shoprite’s African adventure is illuminating. When the retailer began to expand northwards, it believed its standardised SA operation would be a perfect fit in other African countries. It was not. The important lesson learnt — an expensive one — was that different African regions do business differently.

Over the years, that lesson has filtered through SA industry and changed the way local businesses operated elsewhere in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an advantage that SA agencies have over MEAs. We have a foothold in a region we now understand. We understand the markets and the tools — digital, traditional — that work best for local conditions. We are the proverbial early bird. If we continue to play to our strengths, we are very unlikely to be knocked off our perch.

The Africa Rising narrative is real. Global businesses are looking for a way to reach Africa’s billion consumers, and their rising incomes. The arrow in the quiver of SA agencies is this: we both understand that Africa is not homogenous, and we know how to speak to all of Africa. We are making African hearts go pit-a-pat while Middle Eastern agencies are diluting the African palette because they don’t know any better.

Middle Eastern countries share a culture with much of North Africa. This may give them the upper hand there. But it’s a region so far away it may as well be on another continent. SA remains the route to Africa south of the Sahara.

Another factor is access. MEA agencies are set up in the same overseas cities as the very companies that want access to the African market. This is a generalisation, but multinational business leaders are often guilty of conflating all of Africa into one homogenous whole.

The concern that we are losing our preeminent position to MEAs is nothing but butterflies in the stomach: the anxiety of the new, dispersed with experience. As long as SA agencies push back against the idea that Africa is a country — and continue to create world-class campaigns — we will remain the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa.


Craig Page-Lee

Craig Page-LeeCraig Page-Lee (@cpl_ignite) is the group managing director of Posterscope South Africa, part of Dentsu Aegis Network SSA. He has over 21 years of working experience across the disciplines of architecture and retail design/brand communications and marketing management/advertising and media, across 11 pan-European and six pan-African regions.

I do believe that SA agencies are under threat from Middle Eastern agencies and that this will continue to be a reality as long as there are more global brands using Dubai or other similar Middle Eastern locations as a springboard onto the African continent.

Apart from the tax incentives that were set in place to lure these global brands to house their EMEA head offices in Dubai, for instance, proximity to Africa’s high-consumer demand and potential growth markets in East and West Africa is definitely a key consideration. In other words, more cost-effective travel into the East and West of the continent. To support this notion, we are beginning to see extensive airport developments and upgrades taking place on the continent and, in the not-too-distant future, ORTIA [OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg] will begin to lose relevance as a springboard onto the continent, as A380s filled with business[people] and investors will fly directly into Africa’s major business hub at the expense of bypassing SA.

Having a creative and media hub ‘on the client’s doorstep’ to service these very markets is obviously beneficial to any brand, so why service the creative out of SA when it can be done from ‘across the road in Dubai’s Media City or Dubai’s Design District — the well-thought-out and considered built environments that nurtures emerging talent and provides a home for the region’s creative minds?

SA agencies are also faced with the challenge that many global platform clients (Beiersdorf, GSK, Emirates etc) dictate creative direction with minimal ‘localisation’ adaptation to be executed by their SA-based agency representatives.

From the readings that I’ve done on this topic, a bigger threat is that some of the ‘best design institutes and academic spaces’ will emerge, bringing more fresh talent to the region.
In closing, my biggest concern for SA agencies, in the medium term, is that the committed efforts to develop Smart Cities in the likes of Nairobi and Lagos will obviously attract more creative agencies to establish offices in these interconnected and high-tech worlds — again, at the expense of SA agencies.


Sbu Sitole

Sbu SitoleSbu Sitole (@SbuSitole) is creative director and co-founder of ideas agency, The Odd Number. He has 12 years’ experience in the advertising industry, ending his corporate career as creative director at Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg. Sibusiso has judged, as well as won, numerous creative awards.

As a start, I think we should focus purely on the African continent. SA needs to reclaim its own African identity. The reason we find ourselves in competition with Middle Eastern agencies is because we’re still finding our creative voice. Simply put, we are Africa. We are in a beautiful position to be a part of and lead the African aesthetic, but our focus is often on emulating European work.

The only way to compete is to care. Not many creative people will choose to holiday in Lagos over London, and probably fewer know what Nyama Choma is. We need to immerse ourselves in all that the continent has to offer, in order to play a real role. We have a bit of an identity crisis. When we can fix that, the only competition we will have is ourselves.


MarkLives logo“The Big Q” is a new monthly column on MarkLives in which we ask key industry execs for their thoughts on relevant issues facing the ad industry. If you’d like to be part of our pool of potential panellists, please contact our editor-at-large, Simone Puterman, via email (simone at marklives dot com) or Twitter (@SimoneAtLarge). Suggestions for questions are also welcomed.

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