Jingle all the way

In Advertising, Communicate, Marketing, Published journalism on November 24, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Commercials for Cairo, ads for Alexandria; Egypt has become a major marketing playground. Communicate speaks to the agencies behind the ubiquitous jingles

Originally published in Communicate, April 2010

In 1968 Egyptian television viewers found themselves humming a new tune. It was the jingle from an animated ad for Al Misr Dairy, composed by Ahmed Kamal Awad. Egyptians liked the jingle, and the notion of tying a brand to a catchy melody had arrived in North Africa; the fate of Egyptian advertising for the next forty years was sealed.
Awad may have brought the jingle to Egypt, but another man made it the foundation of Egyptian advertising: Tarek Nour. His first jingle, produced in 1973 for a Zamalek clothes store called Playboy, cost the advertiser 20 Egyptian pounds (at today’s exchange rate, that’s a bargain $3.65). It was a line of business that would move him from being a musician, radio DJ and computer programmer at Cairo’s Al Ahram newspaper, and start him on his journey to become synonymous with Egyptian advertising.
“Tarek is now less of a man, but more of a school,” says his son – and heir apparent – Karim, who in his role as Tarek Nour Holding’s corporate officer oversees the group.
Tarek Nour Communications is now a conglomerate of companies encompassing buying, creative, and – with the recent introduction of a Ramadan-only television channel, Cairocentric – media. Think of Egyptian advertising, and you think of Tarek Nour and his jingles. He is also the voice of Egyptian advertising – literally, as he has spoken and sung many of the commercials his company has produced over the years, and still does today.
This, needless to say, is a point that infuriates other agencies. Even though many of their founders have, at some point, worked for Tarek Nour Communications (TNC).

CAIRO CALL. International agencies have been drawn to Cairo’s advertising scene lately, and numerous independent agencies have sprung up, all of them attracted by a burgeoning market. Between 2007 and 2008, according to Dubai Press Club’s Arab Media Outlook report, the value of the Egyptian advertising market grew by 43 percent. In 2009 the advertising market was worth an estimated $719 million.
Karine Barakat reckons there was still 10 to 15 percent growth between 2008 and 2009. Optimistic media houses raised their rate cards by 40 percent.
The recession has hit Cairo’s advertising, though, and agencies have suffered. Grey and Look merged last year, and Lowe was swallowed by fellow Middle East Communications Network agency Fortune Promoseven.
Other names maintain their sister agencies, keeping two shared-ownership shops running side-by-side to allow competing clients to send their spend to the same place. BBDO, for example, saw its sister agency Strategies break away somewhere around 1983, under the leadership of managing director Ahmed Badie.
However, Saatchi & Saatchi’s client service director in Cairo, Wael Nazeem, says not all agencies observe non-competition clauses. “You go to Tarek Nour, and instead of one bank, you have three or four, and instead of one real estate project you have them all.” Brands often prefer to go with the biggest or best-known agency, he says. “Some of the clients look at size; others want the most popular agency in town. They come and ask who’s the biggest. It’s Tarek Nour.”

TAXING WORK. Being a big character in the Egyptian ad scene, Nour has his detractors, and many are jealous of his agency’s relationship with the Egyptian government. In 2005, Nour took on the task of persuading Egyptians to pay taxes (see “The maestro of Cairo,” Communicate, Jun. 2007). That might sound like a tough brief, but luckily for TNC, there followed a 1,000 percent increase in people filing returns. “If you can get Egyptians to pay taxes, you can do anything,” says Karim Nour.
In 2008, TNC signed an official partnership with global holding group Omnicom. The firm had been affiliated for 12 years with creative shop DDB, but Omnicom now owns a 49 percent share (leaving the Nour family with the controlling stake).
While a cult of personality – a powerful factor in a country that wears its emotions on its sleeve – has helped Tarek Nour maintain TNC’s status as the poster boy of the business, so has the group’s desire to strongly protect itself from competition and criticism. TNC has come under fire for what many see as a heavy-handed approach to seeing off competition.
At 6am on October 25, 2009, Tamer Azab, a 20-something computer programmer and student, was woken by his father. Six men from the Mokafhet Gara’em El Ma’alomat, the Egyptian government’s cyber crimes unit, wanted to talk to him about a Facebook group he had started a few months before, called “Cairocentric stolen ads.” The premise of the site was that the trailers TNC had been using to hype its new television station, Cairocentric, were copies of old ads and comedy sketches that had been translated and “Egyptianized” shot-for-shot.
Nour himself went on Egyptian television shortly after the group formed, and explained he had merely been “quoting” international ads he liked. TNC announced a spot-the-difference competition where viewers were encouraged to see what had changed between the original ads and the Cairocentric promos.
The day after his arrest, Azab was released without charges; he met with Tarek Nour, and later sent Nour an open letter, apologizing for any defamation. Karim Nour says, “In terms of legalities, there is a huge legal team here. We wouldn’t broadcast something like that if there was anything illegal about it.”
“Some people took it in a bad way,” he adds, “and this guy on Facebook started a group called ‘Stolen Promos.’ And this group blossomed into a hate group filled with death threats and full of things like that. We took legal action because of slander and libel and because they took our logo and altered it, which is copyright infringement.”
For his part, Tamer Azab says, “I met Karim and Tarek. For an hour and a half Tarek was explaining to me why he did what he did. He said he wanted to make people laugh. These ads make people laugh, and simply all he did was take a joke and translate it.”
“The main reason for that meeting was to end things,” he adds. “I have a life ahead of me. I am too young for this, and I do not have the power that he has.”

JINGLE SOCIETY. The power TNC has is reflected in the ubiquity of jingles – something all local agencies have to cope with. Impact BBDO’s Karim Khouri says that the jingle is “a double-edged sword.” “We don’t like to use it,” he says, “but the truth of the matter is that it works. It is a jingle society. People like the catchy tune, they have a sense of humor, they like anything that touches the emotions. “
In a developing and maturing creative community, progressive creatives are loath to churn out what they see as a hackneyed and anachronistic form of advertising. Randa Abdou, CEO of indie shop Creative Lab, is quick to emphasize that popularity does not necessarily equate to effectiveness. “Egyptians love jingles,” she says, “but if it’s not strategic, if there’s no strategy behind the whole thing, the whole country will be singing the jingle but not buying the brand.” The same goes for comedy, she says. “Humor is definitely something that makes consumers tick, but not necessarily buy.”
Saatchi’s Nazeem says that many jingles aren’t even original; they are “stolen” popular tunes. Nazeem says Saatchi rarely produces jingles. When pushed, he says that when the agency does them, it does so “with taste.” And it never steals songs. However, the agency will sometimes “recompose” songs (he gives the example of “Help,” by the Beatles) to sound similar to the original, but different enough to make them distinguishable.

TALENT. Talent is a hot topic among agencies the world over, and Egypt is no exception. Although it’s easier to find client-servicing staff than creatives, according to Mohamed Khalifa at Creative Lab, all talent is hard to find. Karim Khouri agrees, saying, “In the A-B class, the well-to-do families, there is an expectation that you are going to be a doctor, that you are going to be in banking, you are going to be in business, you are going to be an engineer, you are going to be in marketing. But there isn’t an expectation that you will be working in anything remotely creative.”
Creative Lab hires two fresh graduates for every ten new employees say its management. The other eight will be brought in from other agencies. Because Egyptian advertising is largely run by Egyptians (whereas in the Gulf, and much of North Africa, it is run on imported, expatriate talent) there is more poaching between local agencies.
While Communicate was in Egypt, we kept hearing comparisons between Egypt and Dubai. But Dubai sells itself as a technologically advanced creative hub, in contrast to more conservative, less developed markets like Egypt. Khouri, though, suggests the whole region is underexposed to creativity.
“I think what differentiates people in New York from the people in Dubai and the people in Egypt is the environment, and ultimately we are all products of our environment,” he says. “When you are working five blocks away from Times Square, which is perhaps the outdoor capital of the world, the bar is quite high, and the level of your exposure is quite high.”
Poaching is rife among Egypt’s creative and media agencies, but it’s often done on an emotional level as much as – sometimes more than – a financial one. Employees are often fiercely loyal, but when a rival company succeeds in tempting them, they seldom hang around to negotiate. And if one person goes, you are likely to lose a lot.
It keeps Dina Hashem, managing director of media agency UM Cairo, awake at night. Since the end of 2007, she says, “I am currently by numbers and by reputation the No. 1 media agency in Egypt, and what worries me is how I’ll stay the No. 1. … It involves a lot to stay No. 1. It involves retaining the people, in short.” The agency has increased wages to be, she says, the highest-paid agency in the market. “For a long time it had nothing to do with the salaries,” she says. “It was the culture, it was the people, it was the company, the name. But after a while, when you get headhunted two or three times, doubling or tripling your salary, you have to say, ‘OK, enough for the company; I love the people and the culture but I want to get paid.’” She says UM now tends to hire people without experience, but with promise, and teach them the mysterious ways of the buying agency.
This can be a challenge, as advertising education in Egypt is sorely lacking. Private universities are developing, and this might help in five or 10 years, says Creative Lab’s Aboud. But at the moment, finding fresh talent is a lottery.
Nazeem says the American University of Cairo and the October University for Modern Science and Arts (MSA) are the best of a bad bunch in terms of local education. When recruiting, he says, “A key factor is to look at the school, not just the university. It makes a lot of sense to hire someone from the likes of the German School. They are quite structured, they have very open minds and their backgrounds are often good. The French school is OK, but they are a bit complicated. They turn out to be seriously complex individuals.”

IAA IN ACTION. When Communicate visited Cairo in October last year, we attended the International Advertising Association Al Rameh Awards. Compared to regional events such as the Dubai Lynx and the MENA Cristal Advertising Awards, the event was low-key, with perhaps 400 people attending a dinner at the Cairo Opera House. The event had already been postponed, and chairman of the Egyptian Advertising Association Hassan Hamdy (who is also general manager of the advertising department of Al Ahram newspaper) apologized for some last minute changes. Again, unlike the Lynx and the Cristals, the Rameh Awards only reward work from Egyptian agencies. But, along with the American University in Cairo’s own Annual Advertising Awards, the trophy cabinets of many agencies seem proud to display Egyptian Award ads.
The Egyptian Adverising Association (which is closely allied with the International Advertising Association, the IAA) was started in 1984 and currently has around 3,000 members, says Hamdy. As well as organizing the awards, it puts out a magazine, runs courses for its members, takes delegations of its members abroad, and organizes a pension scheme, he adds.

REGIONAL RELATIONS. Local branches of international agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi that deal largely with international clients spend a lot of time adapting work from international branches and other regional offices such as Dubai. Localization is key, says Wael Nazeem. For example, when Saatchi worked on Arial’s “behind every success” campaign, the concept was that behind every successful family, there is a woman using that washing powder. The ads featured men in a variety of jobs. Some, like a doctor, were universally used. Others were country specific: Egypt got a maker of fateer (a local, pizza-like pie), and Morocco got a clothes merchant.
Because Egypt has a deeper-rooted, less diluted culture than most in the advertising hubs of the Arabian Gulf, there has been more opportunity for stereotypes to crop up. Everyone in Cairo can relate to the doorman who calls all his tenants “bashmahandis,” the symphony of cabs that honk at you whenever you set foot on the street, cops sleeping in their cars, and lorry drivers who keep their lights off at night to save fuel.
For some, Egypt is a hub for North Africa. But many in the industry say it is a world apart from the Maghreb countries bordering it to the West. “When you talk about ‘North Africa,’ that’s a myth,” says Dina Hashem. We don’t belong to each other. They speak French, and we don’t. We don’t have anything in common; not in the culture, not in the traditions. They are more European by far than us. … The closest country we could be close to is Lebanon. We are close geography-wise, and we have a lot of similarities to the people themselves, the culture, the traditions.”
But Egypt’s advertising scene has developed its own way, and has got its own distinct voice over the years. Egypt hums its own tune. And that tune is the ubiquitous jingle.
It is now part of the heritage and personality of a country that puts a lot of sway in heritage and personality. And while there are many, many personalities around, the man who still dominates is the man who made the jingle Egyptian.


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