The switchover from traditional TV to online video consumption has been creeping up on the industry for some time now, with online advertising pundits referring to 2013 as “the year of video”. As a result, the demands of brands and agencies toward production houses across the Middle East are also evolving. On one hand, traditional TV advertising is what is known and understood best in the region.
But, on the other hand, an astounding 78 percent of young Arabs says they prefer the Internet to TV, according to the Arab Digital Generation survey, released in 2012 by Booz & Company and Google. In the Middle East region, more than 300 million videos are played online each day, while two hours of video content are uploaded on YouTube. With Saudi Arabia ranking as the biggest YouTube user per capita in the world – with YouTube web comedy shows, such as UTURN leading the way – the opportunities for online video are ample.
Although the 30-second TV ad is becoming outdated, traditional TV production does not seem to be faltering in the shadow of digital video production. Brands continue to spend on TV, with more than $8 billion on airtime in the past year, according to the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. However, while the CMO Council states that TV advertising only grew by eight percent last year, digital advertising increased by 29 percent. For agencies and brands, this is a big change. It equally is for production houses – particularly for older and traditional ones – which, in 2013, have had to readjust their operations and mindsets.
“Everything you find on TV, you find online,” says Aiham Ajib, CEO and creative director of Real Image Production. This might be true, especially for brands that haven’t taken the online plunge into dedicated digital video content and are still testing out their existing TVCs online. The past year, however, has seen more and more brands of all sizes jumping on the online content bandwagon, exploring two- to three-minute video formats, Instagram clips, quick turnaround timelines and web series. Besides, who wants to pay high TV airtime rates anymore? Some brands, albeit, are still holding onto their wallets with the traditional mentality that big production budgets belong to TV, while smaller enterprises are considering getting their feet wet online. One on-going question continues to revolve around how much should be spent on a production in order to have an impact.
Over the past year, production houses have reached a crossroad; they have to accommodate requests for the web that range from low budget, content-driven projects to high-budget, tactical projects. On top of that, they need to continue looking after traditional high-budget TV advertising.
As many would agree, production value is not something that can be faked, no matter how much magic takes place in the editing studio. Take “Baby and Me”, the international viral hit from Evian, which garnered 80 million views and 3.7 million social shares worldwide – a majority of which was from organic social sharing; the video of adults dancing in front of mirrors that reflected them as babies was highly choreographed and manipulated and was crowned the UK’s favorite ad of 2013, according to YouTube. “The overall perception people have when it comes to online video is that, ‘oh, it’s for social media, it’s for small screen, so why invest so much money in it?’,” says Adil Sher, multimedia producer at content marketing and contract publishing firm, Switch Media, “because, at the end of the day, it’s not for television. So it should not be expensive.”
Switch produced approximately 15 videos in the past year, with brands such as the Dubai World Trade Centre, Aramex and Dubai Airports to its name. “The ones that were more stylish and had more crisp production value definitely got more hits and more likes from the target audience. The ones that were content-driven and shot with a smaller crew and with a cheaper camera did convey the message, but did not deliver the kind of effect they were going for.”
When asked about the market being ready to spend on video production for online, from his talks with regional brands and agencies, Des Paul, director at London-based media production house, Want Some Media, can see a lot of potential ahead, as he prepares to bring his company to the UAE. Paul is keeping an open mind to projects of all budgets, provided it’s strategic. “It’s not just about making something that looks beautiful. We want it to have impact. And in order for it to have impact, that has to be something that is factored into every stage of the production, from storyboarding right down to audio design.”
Making reference to homemade viral videos of cats chasing plastic bags, he admits that viewers have the most unpredictable tastes, but says that it’s important to get familiar with the target audience of a video and embed that into the production process. Admitting that there is a different perspective on online video content in the Middle East region, he can also sense a lot of positivity, especially in light of Dubai’s Expo 2020 bid win.“I think there’s a difference between the way of thinking here and in the UK market,” he says, adding: “I understand why people have the mindset that they do. And it’s a mindset that we were experiencing a few years ago in our market. But I think that it will change.”
Last year, Want Some Media produced the Nissan “Nismo vs Wingsuit” video that involved professional wingsuit athletes, racing drivers, helicopters and breathtaking bird’s-eye shots of the Swiss Alps and that, definitely, was not on the low end of the budget spectrum. At more than two minutes in length and 1.4 million hits, the video thrives in an online sharing environment. “If somebody’s convinced to invest a little bit more in a piece of digital content and it works for them, it will change a lot quicker. And I think that will probably be a catalyst for it,” says Paul.
Ajib believes there isn’t much that should change when it comes to production value on an online video. “Media is still going to be produced with exactly the same process, including all of the elements of production or animation. The only thing that’s different is whether you take that film and show it online or show it on TV,” Ajib says. “You still have to use talent, you’re still shooting and using music, voiceovers and cameras. There are no cutting corners and nothing changes in the approach and the concept of doing production. The medium doesn’t dictate how we produce the work,” he adds.
Although TV ad production is still consuming its time, the Real Image Production team is also seeing a fair number of online video projects coming its way. “We find more clients are willing to do more work because the budget is not huge anymore. Before, to produce for $100,000, you needed to spend $1 million on airtime. Now you can spend only $25,000 and you put your content online and that’s it.”
Low budget production options have popped up for those who want to cut back on spend; which, in a way, democratizes video and makes it more affordable to small- to medium-sized enterprises. In 2012, the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark III and its use in several small- and big-screen productions opened many doors for high-quality digital video content, while creating competition for large-scale productions. Although the Middle East region is saturated with production houses based in the UAE and Lebanon, many are evolving to embrace these more cost-effective methods and are finding their own niche in the market gaps.
Joy Films ME, an established production house with offices in the UK, the US, Lebanon and the UAE, has expanded its otherwise high-budget offering to facilitate the demand for low-budget productions; which is why Streetwise Production was launched halfway through last year as an offshoot of Joy Films and is meant to be an alternative approach toward the production of online content, music videos and event content, with its target being independent companies with no advertising agency. A team of five in-house staff runs the show at Streetwise Production, where there’s little need for freelance reinforcement. “Pretty much all of them can do everything,” says Ali Azarmi, managing partner at Joy Films and founder of Streetwise, as he cites the team’s crossover skills in direction, camera and editing. “And when need be, they work together as one team. One of them takes the lead and the others become assistants. So it’s a very collaborative and spontaneous way of working. Mainstream production companies don’t offer it like that and they can’t, I’ve found, adapt [to the new way of doing things].”
Azarmi adds that projects can start at anywhere from AED15,000 for a one-day shoot to AED200,000 and show excellent results and quality, while a typical production from Joy Films or other more mainstream production houses would start at $180,000. “When we budget things, we budget very ballpark. It’s more to do with the ease of the process and the ease of the relationship, rather than the financial side of it,” he explains.
Although traditional production houses don’t take as much of a decision-making role on defining content, new regional players, such as Want Some Media, Culprit Creative and Streetwise, are offering creative services in developing content, while long-standing existing agencies, including Switch Media and Socialize, have added video production arms to their offerings in order to meet client demands and serve 360-degree digital integration needs.
Socialize, one of the region’s most established digital media agencies, has rapidly been developing its production unit and now offers full video production services that help integrate video into digital campaigns – which also include on-the-ground activities and events. With an in-house resource, clients are also expecting a quick turnaround and are consistently briefing Switch on video needs. “There are actually a lot of clients interested in online content with Expo 2020 coming up, as there’s a lot of information they need to circulate online,” Sher says.
Long-term planning and extensive set construction are not ideal in such cases, which means production teams need to be quick on their feet. Azarmi says process-led and systematic production houses are struggling with this approach and need to learn to adapt quickly to the fast pace of the new production. “People who can work in the guerilla style are people who learned their craft that way. And that is all they’ve learned. They’ve learned to become self-sufficient and they’ve learned to improvise and, as a result, they’re actually a lot more creative because they’ve learned to work and think on their feet, rather than having preset conditions,” he says.
Digital agencies with in-house support now work together on brainstorming before production takes place, while Want Some Media and other entering players, such as Creative Culprit, are presenting themselves more as specialists in digital video, with insights into digital audiences that should translate into impact and production value. “I think the behavior patterns of the audience differ from TV to digital content and I would be wary of saying that it’s just down to different platforms,” Paul says, referring to television’s additional screen factor.
“I think that response in the way people view it [online video] is significantly different and, therefore, good online content won’t necessarily work on TV. [Likewise], good TV content won’t necessarily work online.” Like Want Some Media, Culprit Creative’s co-founder, David Rinetz, and his team have been exploring the UAE as the next region to set foot with their young, boisterous energy. With a background in music videos, as well as viral videos, boasting high entertainment value, they see a lot of potential in the online video market, while they also bring online experience to the table. “TV stuff is more toned down, more traditional and less effective in terms of grabbing [people’s attention]. There’s less room for out-of-the box thinking and it’s significantly more expensive,” says Rinetz, adding that: “You can really get the message out further with the Internet.” It’s the understanding of digital audiences that helps drive its and Want Some Media’s message when swaying and influencing agencies as they choose production houses for their online video needs. “The freedom you have with internet marketing is that you can push concepts that are less traditional and I think that’s what today’s consumer is responding to: something that’s entertaining or funny and not just showing what a product is,” he explains.
The restructuring and evolution of agencies with production abilities and that of creative production houses with digital expertise are beginning to fill a mounting demand for digital video. But a lot of gaps still need to be filled; brands need traditional production houses for TVCs, but their hunger for online content has increased, with budgets that in another era might not have even been considered. TVC budgets don’t necessarily equate successful online productions and low-budget guerrilla-style filming isn’t guaranteed to go viral – or reach people at all. Production budgets and production value will always come into question, but keeping up with the changes is just as important, as tasks and expectations of established production houses are stretched by new approaches and new waves of thought.