Having completed six months at the Middle East office of Latitude, I’ve found that our remit here goes much beyond providing digital marketing services to a growing market. Whilst we’re fortunate to be working with great clients and suppliers, our work there is sometimes as much about educating the market as providing a service. The Middle East is a technologically advanced area and has some of the world’s leading architecture and medical and educational institutions. With this in mind, it’s something easy to forget that the region has only really developed in the last 20 years, mainly due to the energy and tourism industries. Even now retail makes up only a small percentage of the region’s economy. It comes as no surprise then that digital marketing has only really begun to gain momentum in the area in the last five years or so.

Marketing budget spend in the region is shifting from offline to online at a much faster pace than anywhere else in the world. In a region where none of the top bricks and mortar retailers yet have an online presence, there is a great deal of room for online spend growth. Interestingly, the question is not about lack of budget, but about how that budget is spent. Many companies know that they should be doing something digital and so, through fear, end up wasting spend on projects with no clear strategies and investing in poor practices that will lead to long term structural problems. Spam link agencies selling ‘SEO’ services are rife in the MENA region and are probably making a lot of profit for an audience that would not know any different.

While many businesses spend their money at times ineffectively, this is not to say everyone is. Many companies have a good understanding of digital marketing. Generally speaking, companies in the MENA region are divided between those who have a real understanding of digital, those who have an awareness of what digital can do for them and those who associate marketing only to billboards and magazine advert inventory you can buy from publishers. This brings a whole new challenge to our work in the region, as we have to educate and provide services in tandem at a much more fundamental level than a UK, US or European agency would do.

I have no doubt that the level of knowledge and expertise will continue to grow in the MENA region. There is a high demand for digital marketing and I predict we will soon see a fundamental shift in how companies operate in the region in terms of their online presence. The beginning of 2014 has been interesting and the year ahead provides us with an opportunity to help a region establish its digital landscape.