The National, City 7 TV and the Quest to Make Media Profitable via Digital

Both The National and City 7 TV will be letting go of many editorial staff as they look to restructure (image source: Arabian Business)

The past couple of weeks has been tough for many colleagues in the UAE media industry. First, information was leaked about job losses at the Abu Dhabi-based, English language daily The National. The reported job cuts follows five months after the paper’s purchase by International Media Investments (IMI), a subsidiary of private investment firm Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC) from state-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM). At least a quarter of the editorial staff will be leaving The National by the end of June 2017, as the paper’s owners support a “digital transformation” at the paper.

“As part of this transition, over the past few months, IMI has finalised its new vision for The National, supported by a robust editorial strategy to ensure that The National fulfils its potential as a premier English language source of news about and for the Middle East,” a spokesperson told the AFP.

Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation also owns a majority stake in Sky News Arabia, and a project team has been set up to aid the “digital transformation” at The National.

The second news story over the past week were job cuts at Dubai-based English language television channel, City 7 TV. The channel has been sold by BinHendi Enterprises to WeTel-TV, a TV platform for global educational news and current affairs. A number of the editorial team have left as the channel focuses on education.

For many media outlets, the focus is increasingly on profit. In a region which is going through austerity, and where media ownership is primarily in the hands of government (for newspapers and television at the very least), there seems to be a rethink among many outlets as to how to reduce costs. As with every other region, digital is waved as the answer. However, even global titles such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Daily Mail have struggled to turn a profit online. Digital revenue streams simply aren’t going to replace lost print advertising any time soon.

The other question that The National’s media owners need to ask is how will the loss of so many journalists impact editorial quality? When it comes to media consumption, online is no different from offline; readers want good content. How that content is delivered is obviously different, but the demand for good media will remain. And will there be a logical approach to a “digital transformation”, that combines both The National’s quality copy with the multimedia abilities of Sky News Arabia? An Abu-Dhabi based rival to AJ+ would be an exciting proposition, and I hope that The National has a strong digital enabler at the helm.

Whatever happens with both publications, my thoughts are very much with those people who are leaving. I hope that you’ll find new employment soon.

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

Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law

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Yes, I also used to have nightmares about lawyers. But don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch, especially if you work agency-side.

The law! These are the two words that’ll send most PR practitioners running into the distance and over the horizon. Public relations practitioners aren’t always savvy about their legal rights, or what local legislation means for how they (or their clients) operate.

It was a refreshing change to see this issue tackled at this year’s PR Pressure conference. Organized by Secret PR and now held for a second year, the event included a panel of legal minds who were willing to tackle everything from intellectual property (including pitches), to social media and influencers and chasing debts.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points made by the speakers – Cedar White Bradley Group’s Fatema Fathnezad, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dino Wilkinson, Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, Lincoln Legal Consultants’ Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou from InDate.info – on a number of areas which are, or should be, of concern to communicators.

Getting Your Contract Right

As Fiona Robertson clearly pointed out, much of what goes wrong legally starts with the contract. Be as precise as possible in terms of deliverables, avoid jargon, and ensure that you understand what recourse you have to legal help in the jurisdiction under which the contract is applicable. You’ll end up spending much less on a good contract than on any legal dispute (up to a tenth according to Robertson), so ensure that the contract is watertight and clear to all parties.

Who owns the Intellectual Property (and pitches)

We work in a content industry, and yet so little of what we do with content is understood within a legal framework. For example, do you ask for consent from those people that your photographer is taking pictures of? Are you clear on when and where content which you have purchased usage rights for can be used? And what happens when your content is misused, such as after a pitch?

Fatema Fathnezad suggested that agencies trademark their logo and services, and include these trademarks on all materials. In addition, before and after a pitch agencies need to communicate in writing that the material being presented is under copyright and that as such the execution of these concepts cannot be undertaken without the agency’s permission and compensation being paid. Remember that you cannot legally own an idea, but you can copyright and protect the execution of that idea.

Social Media and Influencers

This one may be common sense, but the first thing that agencies and clients need to bear in mind is that they need to manage administration rights of social media accounts.

Secondly, when it comes to influencers any paid content must be considered as advertising. Dino Wilkinson pointed out that many influencers in our region are reluctant to clarify to the public when content is paid for, but as per the advertising laws there are rules which must be followed by both brands and influencers (you can see them here).

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, there’s not as much legislation around influencers as they should be (for example, do they need to have a business license to operate). Both Dino and Fiona spoke of the need for agencies to have contracts in place with influencers, and for there to be background checks on the influencer – remember that these people will be representing your brand or your client, and so the proper due diligence should be done.

Chasing Payments/Debts

Some of the most interesting comments were made by Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou on the issue of debts. Some of the inputs were logical – chase on payments before they’re due and reschedule payment terms if the client has issues paying. If non-payment occurs, look to resolve the situation directly but amicably. And get a lawyer involved – up to a quarter of cases are settled by a letter from a lawyer. There are dispute mechanisms available in the country, such as the DIFC Small Claims Tribunal, but these mechanisms will cost you time and money, so beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Yachou suggested two novel agency approaches to clients – firstly, do a background risk assessment, so that you understand the history of payments both for a particular industry and a specific client. Secondly, there are insurers who will underwrite agency billing; if a client doesn’t pay, the insurer will make up the shortfall. We’re talking about billing in the millions of Dirhams here, so it’s not going to help small agencies, but it is a thought for those medium and larger sized agencies who want to hedge their risks.

Thank you to Secret PR

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah Mohamed and her Secret PR team for arranging this event, which is free to attend and which does tackle the big issues that the industry faces (other topics included the Arabic language and digital). Sarah and the team put a great amount of effort in to make this work, and it’s good to see a group of people take the initiative to educate others. Thank you Sarah!

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Sarah Mohamed is the head of Secret PR and the dynamo behind the PR Pressure event (image source: Campaign Middle East)

Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

life-lessons-article-by-khalid-alameri-in-the-national

When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

7days

7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

Blurring the lines? Publishers who become Content Creators and what it means for the PR sector

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

Who’d be a publisher right now? Revenues are dropping, print is going out of fashion (for most of the world), and people are no longer reading long form. So, what does one do? The answer may be to produce content for others.

Earlier this month Dubai-based publisher ITP announced the launch of ITP Live, a new division that would focus on five areas – creating a social media influencers’ agency, video content creation, digital sales representation, e-commerce, live events and training.

Another Dubai-based publisher, Motivate, works with companies to offer products such as video creation. To quote from Motivate’s own website, the firm is able to “conceptualise, storyboard, film, produce, host and share with our audience a beautifully crafted engaging video.”

Creating good content is only half of the battle. For firms seeking out content creation, the appeal of pre-existing media channels to distribute that content may be too good to resist. But, there’s the ethical question of boundaries. For a publisher which is offering a content creation service, should they also offer clients the opportunity to use their media vehicles to distribute that content? Would the usual editorial rules apply?

The Middle East’s publishing sector has been more fortunate than most when it comes to growth; with the exception of the downturn in 2008, relatively few publications have gone belly-up. However, the strain on budgets is telling. Many publications which had a roster of staff now only have one or two editors. With marketing budgets either shrinking due to the economy or being shifted to digital, will more publishers go down the content creation route? How will this affect their editorial policies and how will this affect the public relations industry?

For years, communications and marketing agencies have been the preferred option for companies needing either written or multimedia content. This content would have then been shared, either online or through traditional media channels. Will publishers now begin to compete with PR agencies? There’s lots of lines which are now being blurred. Where do you think we’re heading? I’d love to hear your views.