Industry snapshot: Ghassan Kassabji, Extend

What is the biggest change you have seen to the way you do business in Saudi?

No one can truly grasp the level of change in Saudi unless you live in Saudi. The changes are simply unprecedented and driven by Vision 2030. From an industry perspective, the biggest change we are witnessing is a clear emphasis by brands on Saudi culture and authenticity. Global and regional brands are choosing Saudi agencies and want to connect with their customers through genuine Saudi stories and experiences. Adapting regional ideas to the Saudi market will no longer resonate with the Saudi consumer. On the other hand, the transformation of Saudi into a global travel and entertainment destination has propelled both private and public sector brands to build effective creative and communication strategies.

Extend is a Saudi agency and was established in Riyadh as a social/digital-first creative agency to work hand-in-hand with Saudi clients, and we have a wide range of clients in our portfolio across both government and private sectors. As Saudi is one of the largest social media markets in the world, we have to always lead with social/digital-first strategy and ideas. Overall, it’s an exciting time to be in Saudi, to be part of the creative renaissance, and to work with brands who want to truly understand the Saudi culture and customer and tell stories from their perspective.

How are societal changes affecting the industry? 

Over the past two years, Saudi women’s participation in the workforce has spiked from 20 per cent to 33 per cent, and at Extend we are always working towards empowering Saudi women. We have also seen a shift in Saudis choosing a career in creative sectors (a bonus for us). Saudis need to be in control of their own narratives. At Extend, our leadership team is diverse, but it is only through our Saudi talent that we can tell Saudi stories. It is also exciting to be part of the rise of the local creative community of actors, singers, influencers, and so much more.

What are clients asking for that’s new?

Authenticity is probably the keyword for marketing and advertising in 2021, and clients are looking to build long-term partnerships and not just one-off campaigns. Clients want us to be part of their brand journey and are asking us to embed some of our team members as part of the creative process. We are also seeing a shift towards region-specific narratives and communication. A couple of years ago ads for Saudi would have been generic and probably in formal Arabic. Now, it’s all about local – and if you get it wrong the Saudi customer will make it very clear they are unhappy with the brand. Localisation in Saudi is nuanced and there is a big difference between the Najd (Riyadh), and Hijaz (Jeddah) regions: from the dialect to the influencers who are popular. And the only way to know? To have a local agency with local know-how.

What are the biggest challenges to growth in KSA, and how are you tackling them?

The challenge of talent acquisition and retention is not unique to Saudi. However, what is different in Saudi is the high demand for experienced local talent by both local and global agencies as well as both the private and government sectors. At Extend, we are creating an environment for talent to grow and prosper, and we want to be part of the process to foster the next generation of Saudi creative leaders. There are many lessons that have come out of the coronavirus pandemic, and that we at Extend have embraced. We have to be nimble and open to change; work fast, but smart; accommodate for different clients’ needs; lead with story and authenticity; and, most importantly, our team and talent are at the heart of our agency. We are a Saudi agency with big ambitions, and our story has just begun.