Martin Sabbagh, CEO, Middle East, JCDecaux, demonstrates the newly-installed digital displays at Dubai Media City. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News


UAE’s outdoor advertising industry needs to look beyond building facades and start adopting digital. The risk is, if they don’t chances are those two — Google and Facebook — could end up eating their share of the advertising spend.

“I’m not saying Google and Facebook will get into outdoor media — but the ad spend is one pie and all of us are targeting the same channels and the same clientele but with a different angle,” said Martin Sabbagh, CEO of the Middle East operations of JCDecaux, the global behemoth in the outdoor advertising space. “At some point, when the ad dollars get allocated, it will be at the expense of one or the other.

“The outdoor ad guys should not be caught in a situation where Google and Facebook starts saying they can deliver more for clients than what they get from outdoor. And if we don’t invest in digital out-of-home (OOH) displays, it will only make their job easier. Already the two tech companies are getting 20 per cent of all advertising spend worldwide ... and just five years ago it was half that.

“The Net guys are fishing in our lake ... but we can do the same in theirs if we start taking digital OOH seriously. To be at the top of the game, out-of-home advertising needs to get innovative and think beyond static displays. With little innovation, this business will lose out little by little to the likes of Google and Facebook.”

A ride through the major commercial hotspots of Dubai will see some early adoption of digital displays, ranging from the small to the gigantic screen. The Citywalk area offers a selection of such screens, all of them beaming ad messages on a 24X7 basis. These screens are also starting to show up on Shaikh Zayed Road, with the automotive dealers being among the early adopters. And there are the many displays at Dubai International Airport, for which JCDecaux has had the rights for some time now.

“Despite these installations, there aren’t that many locations compared to some of the other global cities,” said Sabbagh. “Much more can be done provided the framework is in place. Maybe, even regulations.

“At Citywalk, [its developer] Meraas came up with the idea to put up the screens. It wasn’t an operator that went to Meraas to do so. The land owners are the ones calling the shots ... but others should get involved for digital OOH to spread.

“Our audience is growing and we have to find ways to monetise and deliver them to the brands.”

According to industry sources, the issue of cost in putting up such screens is an issue that keeps getting raised whenever digital and outdoor are mentioned. Sabbagh agrees, but up to a point.

“It requires more expertise, it’s more complex to build, install and operate a digital display network than static ones,” he added. “So far, there have been very few tenders asking for them, I would say less than 5 per cent (of the overall outdoor ad category).”

But city authorities and government-affiliated developers are starting to make their presence felt. Tecom recently commissioned JCDecaux for six screens of 11 square metres to be put up at key points within its streets. They feature a mix of ad messages and community themed information. Just recently, the Road and Transport Authority confirmed it will be installing up to 50 “smart” kiosks across Dubai as part of its Smart Village initiative.

“Digital advertising can get quite interesting for brands when they can reach the right audience and the right dwell time,” said Sabbagh. “It’s much more flexible. Outside of the region, digital displays are what’s providing for the bulk of the outdoor advertising’s growth. It’s bringing in brand new experiences and that’s what is helping generate those additional revenues.

“But a digital screen on its own is not going to sell. That will depend on how well you use it to sell products.

“That’s why the outdoor ad industry in this region needs to start thinking digital. Or it will end up jeopardising their current marketshare.”

Creating content that changes with the flights

Land at Dubai International Airport and chances are you will not have missed the “JCDecaux” signature on the many displays from the point of arrival all the way through the luggage belts. And these days they are even there at passport control.

“Recently we have been running a campaign for Mall of the Emirates when you collect the luggage, where the artworks on the screens change depending on where the flight has come from,” said Martin Sabbagh of JCDecaux M.E. “If it’s from Moscow, they will display products more appealing to Russian shoppers. And the content changes happen in real-time, so much so none of the 10 plus luggage belts will be carrying the same ad messages at the same time.”