Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part two)

As it’s International Women’s Day, I couldn’t wait any longer and, I’ll be brutally honest, I wanted to see lots of cake porn! Here’s the second of a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this second post, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, argues that brands need to rethink how they both develop and execute content creation strategies with online female content creators in the Gulf. Enjoy the read, and let Paul know what you think!

During the last post, we discussed a survey of MENA based women, and their attitudes to content, particularly food content online. This week we will focus on the content creators who these surveyed women follow and imitate. We will look at how they are creating engaging content and why that matters for brands and publishing houses alike.

How are they doing it?

People are attracted to people. If I can find someone online, who understands what happens in my day, speaks my dialect and knows what I need better than say a publisher in Dubai, then I will follow their content, and my friends will too.

Women across the GCC are doing this in their millions, Khaleeji women want to see themselves reflected in their entertainment, and they want advice and recommendations tailored to them. Gone are the days when they must consume content created by an American in New York, and served to them on TV or in print. Women from the UAE to Saudi and beyond and seeking out other women who look like them, speak like them and understand their lives.

This I believe is one of the reasons why old fashioned publishing houses, should be quaking in their boots. As much as we try, Western or Levantine men in Dubai will never truly understand what Khaleeji women want in entertainment content, and now that they have a choice, these women will choose to consume content made by their peers and when that happens at scale, these content creators become publishers in their own right.

A content creator who builds an audience and keeps them engaged is no different to a publisher, and creators with a female Khaleeji audience, have an audience underserved by content, and exponential growth rates equal revenue.

The train-wreck.

So how has it come to influencers being ridiculed for their work? Worse still, how has it come to people calling themselves influencers, buying audiences and getting a free meal ticket?

Aside from the typical Dubai-syndrome of echo chamber marketing; it’s a mix of naïve marketing managers chasing trends, agencies ill-equipped for creative relationships (trying to replace banner ad revenue) and people who see social media as a shortcut to making a quick dirham.

Instead of actively investing the time needed in these powerful communities, brands, in place of real strategies, throw wads of cash at so-called influencers and hope for big results, often leading to disappointment.

At Digital Ape, we’ve got this down to an art. Just like money is a hygiene factor when it comes to employment, so too is it when it comes to dealing with real people creating content. It’s about giving content creators what they need; Props, filming equipment, sessions with filmmakers, assistance in real-time sessions with editing, contract help, this way everyone gets the best of the relationship. Creators develop better content with help from the brand thereby growing audiences, which in turn helps the brand. Women develop a revenue stream from content that fits and that the audience understands. This isn’t horse trading it’s about developing a win-win situation for creators, brands and audiences.

Find the fit for your brand by having an empathetic network of people to draw on, then seek out their audiences. Work WITH them. Don’t use influencers, work with your content creators. It’s an investment that pays handsomely.

 The future.

It’s no surprise that local publishing houses are scrambling to get on board with the creator craze – they after all, were the content creators and influencers of an older generation. Less able to respond to a new reality of screens and pixels, and even less able to understand how to convert revenue from the eyeballs they’ve been left behind as content becomes borderless and habits are quickly changing.

After all, is what someone like PewDiePie doing any different to what VICE was doing in 2010? Arguably with 54mn subscribers (at time of writing) on YouTube he has as much impact as a medium sized cable network. Is Kim Kardashian any different to Hello! Circa 1998? Her ability to shift units of anything she sells is phenomenal.

Some will argue until that until we have proper regulation in the GCC we’ll never achieve a level of sophistication that will mean any content creator is taken seriously.

Forget that.

What I am, and us at Digital Ape say, is that the content creators are the new publishers. Instead of being locked up in an edit suite at MBC, they are at home in their own bedrooms with their phones, doing the exact same thing, for an audience which increases with every post.

What we are seeing is a new model of content democracy where the 1% who make the content for the 99% are now starting to take back their revenue. Where once it was the Newscorps or CNN’s or ITP’s relying on their talent to sell time, space or inches, it’s now the Felix’s, Rayyan’s and countless mothers, wives and daughters who have a passion to create that will shape our entertainment for the next 20 years.

Digital Ape’s research with MENA women underlines the role digital plays in offline purchase intent

The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part one)

In the run up to International Women’s Day, I’m delighted to share with you a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this two-part special, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, will share his insights on the rise of the Khaleeji women as online content creators. Thank you Paul for two great articles; I hope you enjoy this read as much as I have done.

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With over 1.2 million followers, the Kuwait-based Instagram account omaziz_kitchen is just one example of many cooking-focused social media accounts in the MENA region.

In the echo chamber that is our social newsfeeds, I’ve seen an increasing amount of antipathy towards social media creators that are commonly being called influencers. Case in point is Felix Kjellberg’s (aka PewDiePie) recent poor decision-making transgressions and resultant glee of the cable news media in his corporate downfall (not that his followers seem to care in the slightest). This backlash against PewDiePie is reflective of a larger trend of hostility towards the world of so-called social media influencers.

It’s not without reason, either.

To begin with, the word influencer is horrible.

It feels like an archaic relic of when brand marketers relied on word-of-mouth via focus groups to influence purchasing decisions and has no place in the modern marketing dialect.

Next, there’s social media accounts that reference the word influencer in their bio to – a tip; if you see that run a million miles.

There is a better a way, which begins with recognizing true influence for what it is.

At Digital Ape we have been working with so-called influencers since 2009, first as web publishers and now as branded content specialists. However, influencer is not a term we use. We call them content creators, and we refer to their followers as their communities. In 2017, the creators’ influence on their own communities is very real, and has a lot of parallels with the Publishing Houses of the decades before it.

There is also something deeper to this influence.

It’s creating a movement amongst some of the most underemployed people of the Gulf – women – and setting them on the road to being financially independent, through employment on their own terms, at times that suit their family schedules. How?

Let’s talk about true influence.

Digital Ape commissioned a survey of 1500 MENA-based women late last year; we were interested in their content habits online, particularly in relation to food content. Even we were surprised with the results.

  • Content creators are trusted 3X more women than brands.
  • Online content creators are as important as friends and family recommendations when it comes to purchasing decisions offline – Interestingly brands are half as likely to influence a decision themselves;
  • In Saudi, non-branded (e.g. content creators) channels on social media are more popular than family and friends, and double that of brands, in trust weighting;
  • Digital content drives 65% of purchasing decisions compared to 35% offline;
  • WhatsApp is the most popular recipe sharing tool in the MENA region, with Snapchat becoming increasingly popular amongst 35-44 segment;
  • 84% of respondents don’t see any problem with a content creator featuring a brand in their content;
  • Facebook is for old people! At a factor of 50%, Facebook is more popular among 35-44 year olds compared to 18-24 and 35-34, with Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat far exceeding Facebook’s popularity;
  • YouTube is the most popular place for GCC women to find inspirational ideas for cooking;
  • TV and Radio are diminishing down the scale of importance in purchasing decisions by a factor of 3 compared to digital content channels, across all age groups.

If you think that influencers are a flash in the pan, you’re wrong. But likely if you’re thinking that, you’re not in the right frame of mind to begin with.

sharingplatforms

Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp are the most popular apps for younger audiences when it comes to sharing among women in the MENA region. Facebook is most popular for women aged between 35 and 44.

What are content creators achieving?

There are hundreds of female content creators in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with communities of over one million people. Even I was skeptical at first, and thought, like you might be now, that the communities were fake, somehow generated from a click farm in a faraway country. However, a deeper dive and a more intelligent way to look at influence is to look at engagement rates from communities. Comments on each piece of content are a great place to start, apply cultural context to the creators and you begin to see that this influence is real.

purchasing-decision

The most powerful online driver of purchasing decisions offline is a recommendation by family and friends, followed by cooking channels.

Our survey told us that the audience know the creators are working with brands, these “sponsored posts” get incredible engagement results. We have seen engagement rates of 5-15% on millions of followers, encouraging hundreds of actions from a single piece of creative content.

The best part? They are mothers, daughters and wives – making content for their peers, and earning their own money to ensure that if society makes it hard to get a job, they have an income from their passion anyway.

Now that we have seen what content creators, and women are doing, next week we look at how they are doing it and why this matters for audiences, brands and traditional content publishers.

Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

osamanatto

I wanted to change the conversation on this blog, with the launch of a series of Q&As with people I know who are in the region and who are from the region and who are pushing for positive change. First up is Osama Natto, a Saudi gentleman who has worked in a range of roles. Today Osama’s focus is very much on encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Kingdom. He’s touched thousands with his can-do attitude, his belief in local talent, and his love of technology.

I hope Osama will inspire you as much as he does me. If there’s someone you know who deserves a blog post, then please do drop me a note. In the meantime, enjoy the read.

Osama, tell us about your career and the choices that impacted your career?

I started working at a very young age in my father’s hardware shop in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. I used to clean the shelves and place price tags on products. I started with 10 Saudi Riyals a day, which around two and a half dollars. Working at the shop instilled in me workmanship, discipline, and how to be practical. It also built in me the sense of financial independency. I opened my first bank account as soon as I was legally old enough, and I started my first investment. When I joined the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals I continued to work part time in odd jobs such as lab attendant, teacher assistant, and applications programmer at a shipping company. I also worked freelance as a tutor and research assistant to students. When I was a freshman I noticed a recruiting brochure at the dorm room of one of the senior students. The brochure was for Procter & Gamble. On that day I said to myself, “I will work for one company, I will work for five years only and that company will be Procter & Gamble.” And I did stick to my promise.

So, what made you become an entrepreneur?

My decision to become an entrepreneur was made when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by success stories of Saudi businessmen such as Alwaleed Bin Talal and Abdulrahman Alzamil. I had my own ventures that made money when I was still in school including selling fireworks during celebration seasons, video production for family and school events, and selling custom made jewelry.

What made me become an entrepreneur is freedom. There is no price on personal freedom. Freedom in decisions, freedom in time, freedom in lifestyle, and financial freedom. This does not necessary mean being wealthy, but instead not being dependent on someone or an organization to make a living.

What entrepreneurial lessons would you share with others?

Dream big, look at what is holding you back. Most of what is holding us back are internal factors that can and will be overcome once we understand them. Focus on products that have an impact on people regardless of their age, geographic location or ethnic background. Stay away from service-based businesses as they tend to consume you.

How do you foster innovation, and why does it matter in this region?

Fostering innovation in the region is a bit challenging for many reasons. Understating of innovation, the innovation process, the availability of facilities and resources to foster innovation. Our region needs innovation the most due to the dependence on natural resources and the growing number of population compared to the availability of jobs. Only through innovation can we create new products, new markets and hence new jobs. There is an entrepreneurship movement in the region; what I would like to see is an innovation movement. My current venture is more about innovation and less about entrepreneurship. I want to build the innovative products that the world needs. I want to bring the Arabs back to innovation. Our Arab ancestors innovated many concepts and products which still serve as the basis of many innovations today.

What inspires you?

Nature and beauty inspire me.

How is technology changing how we work in the region?

Technology helped to a big extent to get rid of the borders. Anyone in the region with a computing device and a connection to the internet can create something and sell it to the world. Technology not just gave us access to the consumers around the world, it provided us with research and data available at our figure tips. With technology, you have access to unlimited talent and resources at affordable prices.

On my previous venture, I had millions of dollars and a team over 60 people working with me. In my current venture, I wanted to try something new so I started with $400, built a product by using resources from around the world and sold it to people from around the world by using my laptop and any internet connection that is now widely available and, in some cases, free.

Will Saudi’s telcos, government charge Saudi consumers to use social media?

Saudi is a country that isn’t well understood by many, especially by communicators. However, for all of the stereotypes the Kingdom has the capacity to surprise. Take for example a piece published by Saudi Arabic-language newspaper Al-Watan on the 15th of December. If true, the short story was a good piece of investigative journalism. To summarize for non-Arabic speakers out there, a number of telecommunications companies have met with the Communications and Information Technology Commission, the national regulator which oversees the telecommunications industry, to discuss levying on consumers a charge for social media services (the full story in Arabic is below).

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

The Kingdom has the most active social media base in the region; Saudis are avid users of services such as Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Saudis have taken to social media to call for boycotts against the telcos for what they describe as poor service and high costs. Quite understandably, this report didn’t go down too well with Saudi consumers. A new hashtag was conceived, named fees/charges on social media (#رسوم_علي_مواقع_التواصل).

The regulator has moved to deny the initial story – Al-Watan carried a denial piece the day after. However, partly due to a lack of trust in both the telcos and the regular, many Saudis online have expressed their belief that the news is true. The report prompted many Saudi influencers to share their own views online on the quality of service offered by Saudi telecommunications firm; below is a vblog by Saudi Gamer.

Globally telcos have been seeking solutions to redress the challenge of revenues lost to social media channels or applications which offer lower or free services such as messaging and calling. The issue is going to get worse, according to London-based research and analytics firm Ovum. The telecommunications industry will lose a combined $386 billion between 2012 and 2018, the firm predicts, from customers using over-the-top (OTT) voice applications such as Skype, or Whatsapp.

Some operators such as Verizon are looking to become content producers as well as deliver the content through the pipes. However, charging consumers for accessing social media would be a short-term but unpopular option for telcos to use as they seek to fill the revenue gap. How much it may impact online consumer behavior and advertising is anyone’s guess. We may find out next year.

The need for clear communications – Saudi’s drive to balance the books

lazy-saudis

Saudi’s social media scene has been on fire over the past week due to a number of controversial issues regarding government officials. This is a news story from the Times on a comment made by a minister regarding Saudi inefficiency.

This week has been an interesting one for Social Media watchers in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudi nationals have taken part in online campaigns/used popular hashtags relating to three high-level government officials who have either made controversial statements or who have been accused of using their influence on behalf of family members (you can see media coverage on two of the issues from Saudi Gazette here and Arab News here). The campaigns follow a decision a month ago to cut benefits for Saudi government employees. The decree, which was made in light of low oil prices and a rising Saudi budget deficit, is biting hard; this week Reuters reported that the Saudi central bank had asked retail banks to reschedule property loans for those affected by the cuts.

One of the campaigns began after a government document was leaked online, with personal details including name, position and salary. It’s only logical to assume that many government officials in the Kingdom are angry at seeing their pay cheques shrink; they’ll become even more angry when they see what they feel to be others not doing the same. In this environment, it wouldn’t be hard to also imagine officials being able to take a picture via their smartphone of a document which may reveal an embarrassing situation and then sharing it via social media (or, more likely, dark social).

I had the pleasure of listening to a senior Saudi journalist this week. He made a pertinent point when he said, “We can spend billions on consultants. We could have spent millions on a PR agency to convey the message behind the cuts and why they were necessary.”

In times of hardship, good communications becomes even more important. Saudi’s citizens need to understand the logic behind government decisions. They need to feel that they are engaged and are part of the debate. And they need to see government’s leadership doing just that, namely leading by example (as I’ve said before, actions are much more powerful than words in shaping perception).

We may see more issues coming to light in the Kingdom over the coming months, and more skeletons being revealed in government closets. When it comes to the government’s engagement and communication with its people, the transparency, clarity and consistency (or lack of) will either help get many Saudi citizens on board, or it may alienate them further. I for one hope it’s the former, rather than the latter.

 

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

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Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Pokemon Go and the Middle East – Advertiser, Brand and Consumer Reactions to the Global Craze

I wanted to write on something fairly light and fun today in light of recent events in the Middle East and in Europe. So, today I wanted to shine a light on Pokemon Go, the augmented reality mobile app that has become a global sensation (and if you’re asking what is Pokemon Go, where have you been for the past two weeks?). While Pokemon Go hasn’t been introduced into the Middle East officially, people are already playing the game here. And advertisers and brands are also reacting to and using the sensation to market their products.

Probably first out of the blocks were, unsurprisingly to me, the Saudis. Two of the Kingdom’s telcos put out adverts promoting the craze, which isn’t surprising considering that you need a mobile and a data connection to play the game.

Saudi telco Zain became the first household brand to use Pokemon Go when it ran this advert across its social media channels early this week.

Saudi telco Zain became the first household brand to use Pokemon Go when it ran this advert across its social media channels early this week.

Saudi Telecom ran this artwork the same day as Zain's ad. The ad says, "with our network we guarantee you'll be able to catch'em all, but we can't guarantee where!"

Saudi Telecom ran this artwork the same day as Zain’s ad. The ad says, “with our network we guarantee you’ll be able to catch’em all, but we can’t guarantee where!”

Other brands have also looked to leverage off the lovable Japanese characters. Cab booking service Careem ran out an ad, as did Jordan Tourism. The game uses geotargeting to get people walking around a physical environment such as a city, and brand whose services include travel and tourism (or any location-based product) are fast realizing the potential of getting players to visit their premises (or even country) to hunt the digital creatures.

The UAE-headquartered cab hailing service Careem has leveraged Pokemon Go to promote its service and give gamers a discount

The UAE-headquartered cab hailing service Careem has leveraged Pokemon Go to promote its service and give gamers a discount

Even Jordan's Ministry of Tourism has jumped on the Pokemon Go craze, to get visitors to go and take a look at Amman's Citadel

Even Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism has jumped on the Pokemon Go craze, to get visitors to go and take a look at Amman’s Citadel

Users have also been having fun and sharing their own experiences online. Some have been sharing their experiences, including one apparently from the front lines in Iraq and others in more mundane locations, including finding a Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe.

It's enough to put you off your dessert! A Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe (image thanks to Samer Batter).

It’s enough to put you off your dessert! A Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe (image thanks to Samer Batter).

This image is apparently from the front lines in Iraq, which probably isn't the safest place to hunt Pokemon

This image is apparently from the front lines in Iraq, which probably isn’t the safest place to hunt Pokemon

The craze and people’s reaction to it in the region has been picked up by local media. Reports have circulated that people have ventured into all sorts of places as part of the game. Two cartoons below best sum up that sentiment.

With his phone in his hand and an image of a Pokemon monster on the screen, the caption reads, "finally we see you at the Mosque." (image thanks to Yaser Al Amoudi)

With his phone in his hand and an image of a Pokemon monster on the screen, the caption reads, “finally we see you at the Mosque.” (image thanks to Yaser Al Amoudi)

Saudi cartoonist Abdullah Jaber came up with this image of how game players are so engrossed in the game that they don't notice their surroundings

Saudi cartoonist Abdullah Jaber came up with this image of how game players are so engrossed in the game that they don’t notice their surroundings

The craze hasn’t been without controversy. According to Gulf News, Al Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic institution, has condemned the craze about Pokemon Go as “harmful mania”. “If such a game can deceive youngsters, I do not know where the minds of adults have gone. They can be hit by a car while being busy searching for Pokemon,” said Al-Azhar’s Deputy Abbas Shuman, according to Gulf News. Al Arabiya reported that Egyptian cabinet spokesman Hossam al-Qawish said that an investigation into the game’s dangers was taking place. The spokesman added that the government was also considering new regulations to be imposed on online games to limit possible threats to national security.

In addition, Gulf News reported that the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has warned that criminals could exploit the popular Pokemon Go mobile game. Kuwaiti authorities have also warned against those who take photos of sensitive locations in the country. Brands promoting Pokemon have also been targeted, with the likes of Dominos Pizza and others called into question by those who consider Pokemon to be a work of the devil (if you don’t believe me, see below).

Dominos Pizza's efforts to use Pokemon as part of marketing were called into question by one user, who claimed Pokemon were tools of the devil against Islam. The user told Dominos to change its marketing or risk angering the public.

Dominos Pizza’s efforts to use Pokemon as part of marketing were called into question by one user, who claimed Pokemon were tools of the devil against Islam. The user told Dominos to change its marketing or risk angering the public.

There’s no doubt that the Pokemon craze will continue for some time to come, and will only become more intense/insane when the app is officially launched in the Middle East. Pokemon advertising has been used smartly to get a younger audience to engage with traditional organizations such as museums and promote small businesses. Let’s hope that marketers here are just as savvy, whilst being aware of local sensitivities. If you’re not already doing it, get ready to go catch some Pokemon adverts in your vicinity soon!

And as an extra treat, here’s one television news clip on Pokemon from Kuwait, with a particular focus on how its turning youth into addicts.

What does Instagram’s UAE communications remit say about how outsiders understand the region?

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom's youth. How will Instagram's comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom’s youth. How will Instagram’s comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Client wins can often make interesting reading, especially when the brand is a household name. Last week was no exception, with the Dubai-based House of Comms winning a brief to represent Instagram in the UAE.

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, House of Comms is enjoying remarkable success; the agency which was founded in 2012 has expanded rapidly, picked up a host of big name clients and won numerous awards for its work. The agency’s growth reminds me of the rapid rise enjoyed by Dabo & Co (which was eventually bought by Edelman). House of Comms does have an affiliate network across the region, including in the Gulf.

What struck me was Instagram’s choice of market to enter into. While the UAE is the regional public relations hub of the wider Middle East region, I would have thought that the company would have taken a more regional approach to public outreach (Editor’s Note: the agreement with House of Comms is for the UAE, but also includes advisory work for other markets). For instance, the first market to embrace paid influencer marketing, particularly on Instagram, was Kuwait. In terms of numbers on the platform, Saudi is the largest country in the region by far, with a greater number of users than the UAE. Egypt is another key market for the picture and video service. If you’re looking for details on Instagram usage, have a look at the stats below from the second quarter of 2015 from an earlier blog.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

In addition, there’s the parent brand to think of. Instagram is owned by Facebook, which has its own PR agency in the region (which is regional). Up until recently, that agency was supporting Instagram. So, why the change? Would having two agencies for the two brands help or hinder media outreach, especially when Instagram is known as a Facebook product?

While the agreement is only for the UAE, I hope that Instagram, one of the most popular social platforms in the Middle East, expands its regional approach to engagement. The Instagram team should have oodles of data to look at when it comes to usage in each and every different country, and they’d be smart to look at Twitter’s model of engaging with influencers to get them onto the platform. Let’s hope that as a digital business, Instagram takes a data-based approach to engagement in an emerging market and work in key markets, rather than follow the much traveled path of using a hub to work remotely instead of actually doing the hard work and going in-country.

‘Bigger, Better and Smarter’ – how the Middle East’s PR industry rates its performance & development in 2015/2016

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

Yesterday was a busy day for the PR industry in the UAE, with two events on the same day. The first, which was organized by bespoke agency Secret PR and named PR Pressure, was held in Dubai and tackled the everyday issues faced by both PR professionals and their friends in the media sector (more on this later). The second event of the day was held by the Middle East Public Relations Association in Abu Dhabi and focused on innovation.

As part of the build-up to the event, MEPRA launched the Benchmark survey. Through a self-assessment approach, the research seeks to understand where the industry is headed, what is being done well and where improvements need to be made. And with 138 responses, including from 100 in-house departments, 34 agencies and 4 senior independent consultants representing over 1,611 PR professionals across 14 Middle East countries, there’s a lot to ponder.

Firstly, let’s look at the issues thrown up by the Benchmark research. According to respondents, the nature of the public relations is changing. While media relations is still seen as the backbone of the sector, the survey’s respondents expect this to change over the course of 2016 as social media becomes more important to clients and different stakeholder groups alike. There’ll be a similar growth in areas such as influencer engagement, employee engagement, and integrated communications.

There are also major challenges to tackle in the region’s communications sector, including the need to demonstrate results and show a return on investment. And then there’s the money issue; it’s clear that falling oil prices and subsequent slowing in the region’s economy is beginning to bite. In 2016, two out of three respondents see investment in PR staying the same or growing, down from 87.0 per cent in 2015. Similarly, the proportion of people who see budgets falling has more than doubled (13.0 per cent in 2015, up to 34.0 per cent in 2016). There does seem to be a silver lining however when it comes to budgets; one in six respondents expect budget growth of more than 20 per cent in 2016.

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

When it comes to performance some in the region’s PR sector clearly don’t lack for confidence – a fifth of in-house departments and agencies regard themselves as ‘world class’ (those scoring themselves an average of more than 7.0/10 for both practice and performance, across 12 elements of communications, were rated as ‘world class’). Despite this, there’s clearly a need to improve in terms of doing things differently; scores on the area of innovation were the lowest recorded by the survey. Responses were low (a rating of 2.31 out of 5) for the statement: ‘The PR industry in the Middle East is more innovative than the industry in other regions’ in 2015. Similarly, the statement: ‘Middle East campaigns are not afraid to ‘disrupt’ – to ignore established convention – to stand out and achieve results’ in 2015 was rated as low with a score of 2.49/5.0. This may change in 2016, as 12.6% more respondents expect the industry to become innovative.

Based on the survey results, another area which the industry has to get right is its hiring and retention practices, especially when it comes to attracting graduates, particularly locals. Talent acquisition scored 5.26 out of ten, and staff retention 5.16 out of 10. Graduate recruitment and attracting local talent were even lower, at 4.58 and 4.32 respectively.

Research is one thing, experiences are another. During the PR Pressure event there were strong emotions expressed on the issues of media relations, ethics and talent (check out the hashtag #PRPressure for all of the posts on the event). It was clear from those media who were present and talking about their own interactions with the PR industry that we still have a long way to go if we’re going to become ‘world class’. Similarly, unless we get talent issues right, including a focus on training, development and certification (which is a major failing as far as I’m concerned), then whatever progress we make will be unsustainable. If the industry keeps on bringing expats in to do a job at every level, it’s going to fail in engaging with local audiences (there’s also the issue of forced localization, which I’ll blog about at a later date).

While the industry may feel that it’s moving in the right direction (and in many areas it is), maybe it’s time for a more honest glimpse into the looking glass, to start addressing key areas of what we do and how we do it. I desperately want to believe that we’re ‘bigger, better and smarter’, but while my heart feels one emotion my head thinks something else. I for one am looking forward to next year’s MEPRA Benchmark. And if you want to play your part and fill in the survey, get in touch with MEPRA.