September 18, 2005
Dr. S. Irfan Ahmad
Director Yahoo! Middle East
With over 25 years of marketing and advertising sales experience
spanning publications such as TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The
Economist and Nihon Keizai Shimbun. He has organized
participation of groups in international trade fairs such as CeBIT, COMDEX, GITEX, etc. He was also the organizer of the
Pakistan Naval Defence Show in 1999.
Dr. Irfan Ahmad ventured
into the online world in 1998 by launching the advertising sales
representative office of Yahoo! for the Middle East, Central
Asia and South Asia region.
Q. As one of the
early movers on the Internet, how would you rate the progress of Yahoo!
in the Middle East so far?
A. In terms of traffic, Yahoo! has more users than all other
regional websites combined – Yahoo! has 13 million unique users. In
terms of page views, more pages of Yahoo! are seen in a month than the
combined pages of ALL Middle East websites seen in a year – more than
2.2 billion pages of Yahoo! are seen every month from the MENA region.
How would I rate that growth – nothing short of fantastic!
Q. Why doesn’t
Yahoo! have a Middle East edition, considering it has more than 10
million users in the region? Especially since arch-rival MSN has MSN
A. Short answer: $$. The current online ad spend in the region
does not justify setting up a separate Middle East section. We already
have more page views and more users than everyone else. If the
advertising industry in the region begins to allocate even 1% of its
budget to online advertising we will be looking seriously at a local
Q. Yahoo’s primary
source of revenue in this region is online advertising. Can you tell us
how big the online advertising market is in the Middle East? What is
Yahoo’s market share?
A. My estimate of the 2004 online ad spend is about $5 million.
Yahoo!’s share is about 25% of this.
Q. Do you think the
revenue you generate in this region is good enough considering you have
more than 10 million users?
A. “Good enough” is a relative term and after six years of
selling online advertising in the region I feel that it is definitely
not good enough! But I would be contented with a smaller share of a
larger pie. It is the pie that isn’t good enough.
Q. Why is online
advertising still small compared to conventional advertising such as
print and outdoor?
A. Globally, online advertising remains small compared to print
and outdoors but the trend is changing and online is displacing outdoors
and magazines in the United States and Europe. It will take a few years
and we will see the change here too.
Q. How do
you see it shaping up over the next 2 to 5 years? Will it stagnate at
these percentages for some years to come? Or will advertisers recognize
the potential of this medium giving it a boost?
A. You pick up any newspaper in Dubai and see the double page
spreads that appear every day – if only one of these advertisers started
allocating the equivalent of one day’s newspaper advertising budget
every month to online we would see a phenomenal growth in online
advertising in the region. The change could happen tomorrow. But one has
to be realistic, advertisers and agencies will take time to understand
the medium. Currently we have more than 1.2 million Yahoo! users in the
UAE. Take the combined audience of Gulf News and Khaleej Times – it is a
fraction of Yahoo!’s UAE audience, but newspaper advertising in the UAE
accounts for 40% of the total ad budget and online advertising is less
Agencies and advertisers will recognize the potential of the internet
and will allocate a bigger share to online – when? I hope next year or
maybe in 2007!
Q. There seems to be
a general reluctance among brand owners in this region to advertise
online? Why is that?
A. Every new medium poses a challenge to advertisers and
agencies. Pixels and kilobytes are a new language. A new newspaper can
come up and brand managers and agencies will support it because of
familiarity with the medium – 27cm X 4 cols for a quarter page ad is
easier to understand than a 30KB SWF file. But having said this, both
brand managers and agencies are now seriously looking at the internet
and the younger generation of media managers and marketing managers are
beginning to explore the online medium.
Q. Some observers
say conventional media keeps getting a lion’s share not because the
brand owner is not interested but because the ad agency does not push
the media well. Your comments...
A. Commissions and negotiated rates exist in every medium. It is
the hassle of managing a new set of creatives for the online medium
which is more of a deterrent than anything else. And of course, since
the volume of online advertising is so small, it is not worth the
trouble so it is left out of the media mix.
Some agencies are now pushing their online job to “web design” houses
which have very little media planning experience. Not knowing the
strategy or depth of a client’s budget, they settle for scraps and try
to maximize their own commissions rather than the client’s reach. While
the agency is busy spending $100,000 on a one day newspaper campaign,
the web design company allocates a hefty $3,000 for a one month online
campaign – and haggles about discounts!
But the trend is changing and most of the larger agencies are beginning
to hire in-house online media planners and web designers.
Q. Yet, there still
seems to be a general reluctance among brand owners themselves in this
region to advertise online? Why is that?
A. A brand manager trusts his agency to come up with a media
plan. If he suggests online advertising, the agency can easily shrug off
the matter by saying that the internet is still a fringe medium and they
should look at it after a year.
Q. Is Yahoo! doing
anything to help media professionals at ad agencies understand the
A. I spend more of my time educating than selling. Since 1998 I
have been doing the rounds of agencies and advertisers in the Middle
East. I have even given presentations at various universities and
colleges –to catch them young. I have made some converts but the there’s
a lot more proselytizing that needs to be done.
You can write to Dr. S. Irfan Ahmad at