In mid-January, Group Plus, Plus Holding’s outdoor media subsidiary, signed a ten-year contract for a network of 12 LED signs around the entrance of the Dubai Mall. On the heels of this major deal, Georges Chehwane, Plus Holding’s chairman and founder, sits down with Communicate.
Could you give us a quick run over the growth of your operations in the past years?
We founded Group Plus in 1992, starting in Lebanon, and then expanding into Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria. Today, we are active in Lebanon, Bahrain and the UAE. Our operation is still up and running in Syria but, for the moment, it is restricted to campaigns in main cities – where life is still normal. Our UAE operation was launched in 2004, mainly in Abu Dhabi – where we had the biggest tender for 80 percent of the outdoor market. The Abu Dhabi contract expired in 2010 and, that’s when we started focusing on Dubai. Today, we have 450 lamp posts in prime locations all over Dubai.
What is the status of the Dubai Mall tender?
The installation of the 12 LED signs will be rolled out as of April this year. We believe that this media and location are very important – owing to Dubai Mall’s flagship position and sheer number of visitors, if nothing else. We are currently working on the design and the legalities for the installation of the screens. We have also just won a tender for an 80×15-meter 3D scaffolding [banner] – the biggest one – on Sheikh Zayed Road. Over the past four to five years, we were present on the media scene but we didn’t go too big. We have both real estate and media businesses and during the past few years, we were focusing on Lebanon mainly. Now, we are entering all tenders and we want to cement our position in Dubai.
Are you focusing away from Lebanon?
We have always followed a diversification strategy. Dubai, today, is the best market. We believe in it, not because of Lebanon’s situation – the Lebanese market is still the same; the prices are not increasing because total ad expenditures aren’t – but also because of Dubai’s cosmopolitan hodgepodge of nationalities; if you want to reach everybody living in or traveling to Dubai, outdoor speaks the international language. And, we also are growing very well in Bahrain.
How has Dubai’s outdoor industry changed over the last years?
During the real estate boom in 2008, when everybody was making a lot of money off property, prices were increasing by ten percent per day, and real estate projects were selling like hotcakes; developers needed to advertise to sell. The demand on outdoor signs in the UAE was growing and, naturally, prices [shot up]. When it went bust, rates went down; scaffolding [banners] on Sheikh Zayed Road would go for AED10 million, while now, [they go] for AED3m. The year 2014, however, witnessed the entry of FMCG brands as very active outdoor advertisers. Before that, the likes of P&G and Unilever used to go only on TV. In 2008, real estate represented a big percentage of the outdoor media business. In 2011 and 2012, it was absent and today, it’s back – alongside FMCGs and telco operators.
What are the trends that are shaping up the UAE’s outdoor industry?
LED sign advertising, especially since in Dubai, it will be highly organized and regulated. In Lebanon, we are facing a lot of regulatory problems with digital [out-of-home] advertising. You can have three, four digital signs within 100 meters. In Dubai, on the other hand, the distance between one LED [sign] and the other is regulated and, in many areas, you cannot install your own LED [sign]. And worldwide, digital signage is becoming more efficient and creative. Now, lamp post advertising primarily drives Dubai outdoor media, and it will continue to benefit advertisers in the city.
But many industry peers have been flagging regulatory issues in UAE outdoor. Are there indeed issues?
That is not true. In fact, we have two kinds of outdoor business in Dubai: either you get a location through a tender from the RTA [Roads and Transportation Authority] or through the Dubai Municipality, or, you go to private plot owners and negotiate with them to install outdoor media locations – in which case you’d still need approval from official authorities, of course. However, the RTA and the Dubai Municipality should take into consideration that the market cannot achieve double-digit growth every year. Therefore, they should not keep proposing more and more tenders for outdoor media locations. What we have today is more than enough. The outdoor market spend is not growing at the same pace as the tenders.
And what about Lebanon?
Outdoor legislation is being amended – the old laws were not effective. The amendments are all about the numbers, such as the distance between an outdoor sign location and the next or the size of outdoor panels you can install. In the last two years, due to the state of the Lebanese market, we did not see many new outdoor locations. But, a lot of market players shifted from static to LED outdoor signs in an unregulated manner; and this is a problem that the Syndicate of Outdoor Advertising Companies in Lebanon will be addressing. Regulation is very well enforced in Dubai. However, I encourage outdoor companies in the UAE to meet and form an industrial governing body in order to coordinate with the RTA and the Dubai Municipality on certain matters.
How have you fared in 2014?
2014 was a good year, but 2015 will be wonderful. All the media buying units have direction from the main advertisers toward more outdoor advertising.