I n 2015, Coca-Cola Egypt did something unprecedented: It spent its entire Ramadan advertising budget on an all-digital campaign, foregoing television ads during Egypt’s heaviest advertising time. It was a risky move, but then so was the entire campaign. Rather than focusing on flashy ads and celebrity spots, Coca-Cola global was campaigning against prejudice, and their Ramadan campaign that year was hard-hitting.
Momen Al-Adl, then in charge of the Coca-Cola Egypt account and now data and analytics lead at advertising agency MO4 Network, was part of the team that proposed the idea. At the time, Coca-Cola was doing a global charter campaign targeting prejudice and the team handling Coke’s account at MO4 saw an opportunity for a unique and powerful campaign.
The first time they pitched the idea, it was rejected: Coke didn’t have the budget for an entire CSR campaign on top of its usual advertising budget. So a few days later Al-Adl and his team went back with another pitch: Why not ditch television ads entirely as they absorbed the bulk of the Ramadan advertising budget, go with an all-digital campaign “and put that money where you can actually see an impact?”
“This was a risky move,” Al-Adl says. “The brand team at Coke Egypt understood that. The campaign went forward with four real-life story ads and a heavy message against prejudice. The money Coke would have spent on television ads went instead to furthering a ‘cultural leadership campaign’ already in the works, known as 100 Villages.” Al-Adl explains that releasing the campaign later in Ramadan and after public backlash against Pepsi for the amount of money they spent on celebrity spots in their ads, Coke’s campaign was remarkably successful. “It [also] triggered a lightbulb,” he adds.
Coca-Cola is known as one of the “big five” of advertising in Egypt, alongside rival beverage company Pepsi Co. and Egypt’s three telecom companies, Vodafone, Etisalat and Orange (formerly Mobinil). The big five are known for their Ramadan ad campaigns, and each year viewers wait to see what they’ll do.
Ramadan is Egypt’s biggest advertising season, the time when brands “flex their muscles,” as Al-Adl says, often with cool and flashy campaigns. The Islamic holy month is also known for its soap operas, which sometimes gain almost fanatical followings among viewers emotionally invested in the characters’ lives. Iftar and the following hours often see a captive audience of no less than 40 million viewers. Ramadan soap operas and ads are similar to the Super Bowl in the United States—but the season lasts for 30 days, not just one football match.
Ramadan ads bring in some 30% of private satellite channels’ annual advertising revenues, and the ads are expensive: In 2016, ads on MBC were the most expensive, selling for LE 40,000 to LE 60,000 (at the time around $4,500 to $6,800) per 60 seconds, and CBC came next, with 60 seconds going for LE 20,000 to LE 40,000.
Last year’s Ramadan ads brought in 50% more than they had in 2015: LE 750 million, up from LE 500 million. As a result of the value of such a large captive audience, an hour-long soap opera episode often sees ads taking as much screen time as the actual drama. Now, however, some are questioning whether that captive audience is as large as it once was. With the rise of YouTube and video-on-demand services, it is now possible for viewers to watch their soap operas when and how they want—and without advertising. The next question, then, is where to turn if television audiences are decreasing.
A Digital Age
Some in the advertising field, such as MO4 Network, see much more of a turn to digital media than there was in the past, and believe this is a good thing.
“We’re at a time where TV is gradually and very clearly decreasing in terms of viewership, in terms of what the people care about. The thought used to be that the only way you could reach people was through TV . . . 100% of the time, the largest [advertising] budget goes to TV,” says Al-Adl. There are two reasons for this: First, TV has a large viewership, and second, tradition—“people are used to it.”
But we are living in a digital age, and “we have to go with the times,” he says. “In the industry, you get weird looks if you don’t do a TV campaign,” says Al-Adl, which affects decision-making in terms of advertising. So, to some extent, “it’s an ego thing,” he adds.
Not everyone thinks dropping TV back in 2015 was a good idea. “I think it was a mistake,” Tarek Nour, chairman of advertising behemoth Tarek Nour Advertising, says bluntly. “I think they didn’t have the money to put down on Egyptian TV . . . so [the campaign] wasn’t by design,” Nour believes.
Al-Adl, however, says the campaign was remarkably successful: “The message that came across was almost like a slap in the face to many for whom TV was the holy grail of advertising, and it was a reality check,” he says. “I think it started a shockwave through the industry, because, ‘Hey, I can create a successful campaign without relying on TV. I can create a successful campaign and get people talking about it without spending millions of pounds.’ The day the campaign went live, ‘Coca-Cola’ was trending on Twitter for something like 12 hours. We literally went viral.”
Yet old-school advertisers like Nour would argue that even so, Coke lost millions of viewers by going all-digital. “Definitely they suffered viewership,” he says.
Looking at the overall shift to digital, Nour’s son Karim, CEO of the company, says, “It’s interesting to see what’s happening. There are other options now—you’re not the only game in town, and it’s a different mix,” he says. “It’s not like a light switch is turned on and one thing is there and one thing leaves.”
Not everyone in the advertising field thinks the shift toward digital is certain. Along with Tarek Nour, Yahya Sameh, CEO of Promomedia, also questions how much digital is really changing the advertising scene. While Sameh agrees that the last few years have witnessed a shift toward digital, he says the advertising scene is “shifting again,” and leaving the “small frame” of mobile phones and computers to return to television screens.
“Producers will always go where the revenue is, and the revenue is on television,” say Karim Nour, adding that YouTube is “good as ancillary income” and better than making nothing off on-demand videos, but it can’t pay the bills; and mosalsalat are expensive.
There are also still barriers to digital advertising. While the barrier to entry may be lower for digital than television, as Al-Adl says, there is still an issue of payment. With the economic slump Egypt has faced over the past few years, not everyone can afford broadband—or get their hands on dollars.
The role of November’s devaluation, which saw the value of the Egyptian pound halved against the dollar, is debatable. Sameh says the devaluation hurt digital advertising in Egypt, going so far as to say that, “after the devaluation, not as many people can watch online, or afford to.” He also points out that internet, at least in Egypt, is often painfully slow, adding another barrier to both video-on-demand and digital advertising. Before November’s devaluation, the government was rationing its sale of dollars for necessary imports such as staples and pharmaceuticals. “The government isn’t going to [make dollars available] to spend on Facebook,” Sameh says.
Karim Nour disagrees with Sameh’s take on the effects of the devaluation. “I think [the devaluation] is going to help the migration to digital advertising,” he believes, acknowledging that advertising with companies such as Facebook and Google is more expensive now, but noting the devaluation’s creation of a unified price for dollars.
“You had a structural barrier before where you literally couldn’t pay for the ads because you had two rates—you had the black market rate, and you had whatever was at the bank,” he says; before November’s flotation, the Egyptian pound reached as much as LE 20 to the dollar while the official bank rate remained stagnant at LE 8.8 to the dollar.
Both Karim and his father argue that while digital may be growing, its growth has little effect on TV advertising. “If digital is gaining on something, it’s gaining on press,” says Karim Nour.
All four advertising experts agree on one fact: television’s place in the advertising market, particularly during Ramadan, is alive and well. While they may disagree on how quickly the presence of television would change, or whether it would decline at all, none question that TV ads are still important for many companies.
Karim Nour argues that there are “structural barriers to full-fledged digital adoption,” noting issues with broadband penetration, payment and illiteracy.
“To me, it’s just going to be a diversification of revenue streams,” he said of the future of advertising in Egypt. “And it will not happen at a breakneck speed.”
TV isn’t on its way out anytime soon as a major advertising tactic. While it’s true that viewers are increasingly turning to YouTube and video-on-demand services to watch their content ad-free, the numbers tuning in to the television after iftar are still exceedingly high. And, as Tarek Nour notes, while people may be watching drama on-demand, even young people still watch sports and programs such as X-Factor or The View in real time.
“Everybody spends at least 50% of their budgets in Ramadan,” Nour says. “Some people advertise during Ramadan only—you don’t even need market research to know that millions and millions of people are watching. . . . I cannot fathom that I have 40 or 50 million people in a room and I don’t go in and tell them something about my product,” he says.
Al-Adl does not disagree: “The biggest piece of the cake always went to TV, and that’s still the case,” he says, adding that even so he would like to see that change. While he doesn’t expect TV to become obsolete anytime soon, he says the time is coming when digital should be at the center of a campaign. “We believe in the power of digital, and we’ve been saying this since we started this company,” he says. “We’ve always been a digital or a social-first company, but it’s always been difficult to prove to a lot of people, even Coke themselves.”
He says the 2015 campaign brought more attention to the impact of digital advertising, and now sees much more integrated campaigns. Al-Adl and his company like the two-way channel of communication that digital and social media advertising allow. TV, on the other hand, is a traditional, and one-way, means to spread a message. That may not be a bad thing, however, particularly if Tarek Nour is right in that Ramadan advertising’s ultimate purpose is not actually to sell a product, which he says sales-oriented people sometimes forget.
“Ramadan was not designed to sell,” he said. “Ramadan was designed for branding. The most important value that your product holds is the brand value, and that is the core of the value of advertising.” That said, digital marketing still has a significantly lower barrier to entry: A small company can create an ad for just a few dollars, which would never been an option for a televised ad.
And there may be another barrier to expanding digital advertising: ad blockers. Ad blockers are often online plug-ins that block advertisements from showing and could add another major negative to what many advertising agencies and their clients already see as the downside of digital: The user can control what they see, which they can’t do on television.
It’s an “angle which most people don’t anticipate,” Al-Adl says, predicting the trend could grow very quickly. He does acknowledge that, “ad blockers are not that popular in Egypt right now,” but he does believe, “it’s a trend that’s bound to happen.”
“People are increasingly heading to ad blockers,” he says, raising the question of how digital advertising giants such as Facebook are going to deal with their increased popularity. At the end of the day, despite more and more viewers turning to video-on-demand and the rise of digital advertising, it’s all about what the client wants and the best way for them to get it.
“I think you’re either doing full-fledged 360 multimedia or you’re not,” says Karim Nour.
“Or you’re picking tactical mediums to do what you can with your budget. Everyone competes for eyes and ears, and it either makes financial sense to someone or it doesn’t.”