Creatives, PR and Media – Where are the Gulf’s Faces to Watch?

There’s many young faces to watch in the Gulf’s creative, public relations and media industries, but if you’re looking for Gulf nationals on the agency side you’ll be sorely disappointed. The industry must find ways to solve this issue of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve enjoyed reading about the future of the region’s marcomms sector over the past couple of weeks in Campaign Middle East. The publication has listed the ‘ones to watch’ in the creative, public relations and media sectors. The people featured are an impressive bunch, and just reading about their abilities, potential and experiences at such a young age (they’re all 30 or under) is inspiring.

I was struck, however, by one detail. I didn’t see anyone I recognized as a Gulf national. There was so much talent from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, but no one from Saudi or the UAE.

For anyone based over here, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s not enough diversity and inclusion in the marcomms industry/function, especially on the Agency side (this listing was Agency-focused). While there are Gulf nationals working agency-side, especially in Bahrain and Saudi, there’s certainly not enough.

How Can We Attract More Nationals?

The marcomms industry isn’t alone in struggling to attract enough young national talent – only one percent of the Emirati labor force is employed in the private sector, compared to 60 percent in government. But the landscape across the Gulf has shifted in a number of countries. Governments in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia are heavily promoting the idea of nationals applying to the private sector. More nationals are also eager to try new fields, particularly in the creative space. Here’s my suggestions on what each party must do to change perceptions and encourage diversity and inclusion.

The Industry and National Misconceptions

Let’s begin with the agencies and private sector firms who hire (the client side). We’ve got to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around nationals, focusing on two key points. First, there’s the issue of work ethic; for far too long, there’s been a view that Gulf nationals don’t want to and won’t work the longer hours that the private sector asks of them (governments traditionally worked from 7 or 8am to early afternoon). Second, there’s compensation; Gulf nationals have often earned more working for the public sector.

I’m not going to be naive and pretend that these issues don’t exist. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE there’s a high differential between private and public sector pay for nationals, as well as additional benefits such as longer vacations.

However, we’ve already seen a shift in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, where it’s common to find a national working in marketing or comms on the client side. To their credit, some agencies such as Gulf Hill and Knowlton have always looked to hire local in these markets (they had a large roster of Saudis some years back, and they’ve also hired a number of Bahrainis). In these markets governments are both telling their nationals to look towards the private sector and reducing the compensation differential.

For many in the private sector, they’ve not even put in the effort to test if the old stereotypes are true. There’s nowhere near enough engagement with universities across the region, not enough internships for nationals, and little in the way of mentoring. These are low-cost activities, which both agencies and clients should be undertaking. At the very least, they need to look for local talent, so they can benefit from insights that only nationals can bring to the table.

Governments and Talent Development

The private sector is only one half of the challenge. The other is governments.  Understandably, the region has long sought to develop its own talent. The number of nationals working in the marcomms function has risen rapidly, at least on the government side. It’s understandable that many nationals, particularly in Qatar and the UAE, would want to work in the public sector – pay in these two countries is, generally speaking, much higher. Plus, there’s a preference for locals, meaning there’s less competition for positions.This has become a double-edged sword. There’s more marketing and communications jobs in government, pay is better, and there’s less competition for these roles. What this has led to is young nationals being advanced into senior roles, often when they’re not yet ready or experienced enough.

If governments are serious about developing local talent, they’ve got to change this approach to public sector hiring and instead focus on long-term development, in partnership with private sector firms. This could include funded internships, either at home or abroad, as well as engagement with industry associations such as the IABC to promote certifications and long-term career mapping (I’ll share more about this soon). What’s clear is that national communicators who have worked only in one sector are missing out on all the potential learnings and development the other can offer, including the ability to work with and learn from other nationalities and culture (diversity and inclusion is also an issue on the government side).

Advice for Young Gulf Nationals

My advice for any young Gulf national is simple. Go and explore the private sector, understand the training and development it can offer you, and ensure you’ve tried every single option before you go into the public sector. If you’re after a challenge and you’re passionate about what you do, the money and position will follow. But if you want to be the very best you can be, and learn from a wider group of people from around the world, then moving into the private sector will be the best thing that you can do.

Likewise, we need you. We need the industry to be more diverse and inclusive (this equally applies to the public sector, where there aren’t enough expats working today), we need your insights and knowledge, and we need your understanding of the local culture, behavioral psychology, and awareness of how the Gulf’s local communities are changing. Today, we don’t have enough of this on the agency or client side. And it’s our loss. This scenario needs to change.

If you want to talk more, message me. I’m always giving my time to universities, to talk about the profession and help you understand your options. I’m happy to answer any question you may have, and point you in the right direction.

Journalists, Respect and why Communicators should deal Honestly with the Media

The region’s independent media are under pressure like never before, either financially or from online harassment. Comms people should treat the media with the respect they’ve earned (image from Sri Lanka’s Awantha Antigula)

I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.

Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.

Media Still Matters

First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:

  1. The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
  2. Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
  3. At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.

The Media owes us Nothing

We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.

Let’s be Respectful of the Media

We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.

Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally

Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.

Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

How the Media Industry can regain its influence in today’s Social Media world

Is Print Dead

Print may not be dead in the region, but are there way that the media industry can regain influence lost to social media celebrities? (image source http://abcodigital.com)

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in the PR industry here in Dubai on the issue of the communications industry and how to develop. I asked, what do we need to do better to make the communications function in the region better. His response was fascinating. To quote:

The truth remains that more and more media outlets are closing down, journalists being made redundant, consumers not reading much – but “following” social trends!

All what most of us have done is jump into the “influencer” band-wagon and discuss $ rates on the number of posts along with potentially a storyline. This should change. We need to find something more creative than being short-sighted to tap into the money.

But what keeps me awake at night (beyond other things, of course!) is what if media outlets close down, journalism as a profession becomes history – who the hell do we pitch our stories to?

While it’s true that the PR industry in the region has had a hand in the rapid and prominent rise of social media influencers, what about the case for the PR industry’s role in the declining influence of media, particularly print.

Here’s my two cents on how the media in the Gulf should work to regain its influence in today’s digital age. Let’s start with a look at one issue which the media has struggled with, namely transparency:

  • Audited Media – The number of audited print publications in the region is relatively low (we’re probably talking percentage-wise in the single digits). Whilst publishers such as ITP, and, most especially, Motivate have pushed for audited print titles, few others have followed suit. Audited numbers make our job of targeting the right media easy; we’re able to easily compare media titles, understand the reader breakdown and make a judgement as to whether a certain title is worth working with editorially (and then, later down the line, through advertising). It helps PRs clearly align media outreach with the business strategy, and it gives us trusted, independently audited numbers to back up our approach.
  • Unaudited Media – The vast majority of media in the region isn’t audited. Their numbers cannot be verified, and my assumption (which I assume is commonly shared in the industry), is that distribution numbers and readership is over-inflated. There’s no way that we can trust the circulation numbers given by publishers, and there’s no way that we can trust that the audience that we need to reach is seeing our messaging.
  • Advertising Media – Forgive the name for this third category. This is media which is created solely for the purposes of capturing advertising revenues, with limited to no circulation. With little to no circulation to talk of – in contrast to the publicized circulation numbers – such media and their publishers have done little to no favor to the reputation of media in the region. And it doesn’t help our cause in promoting media as the most effective means to reach out to our target audience, especially when the publication has effectively no audience.

The second issue is digital. Whilst some publishers, titles and journalists have embraced digital platforms including websites, podcasts, vlogs and social media, others have yet to leverage the power of online distribution and amplification. Digital remains a challenge for much of the media industry globally; no newspaper has been able to make a profit and run its business from its online sales revenues. However, with consumers in the Gulf region essentially living their lives online, does it make sense for traditional media publications to not be online?

The other aspect of digital which media needs to leverage is its ability to engage in real time with its audience, and build audience profiles. I’m yet to see or meet an influencer who will be able to give me an up-to-date breakdown of their followers’ interests, age ranges, geographies and other demographics. The media can and should be helping to build up reader profiles which in turn will help us work with them to target the right audiences. This requires trust and transparency, which is still hard to come by with many titles (see the above).

I feel its especially important that journalists build their online profiles. While many are being laid off as publications shrink, brands need reputable voices to work with. For me, there’s little comparison between a professional journalist and a social media influencer in the Gulf (there are exceptions). When reviewing a product, it’s much more likely that a journalist will give a less biased viewpoint, and will include both positives as well as negatives. That builds integrity and trust with readers, which advertisers should seek out as the holy grail of brand building. Journalists need to think about transitioning into content creators and distributors for brands, much like their social media influencer counterparts. The difference will be in their ability to tell a balanced story that is trusted by their readers.

Whilst the region’s media scene is slowly feeling the impact of ad spending shifting online (just look at the recent closures, including 7Days), I cannot and don’t want to image a day where we have no media to work with. The media industry has to play its part in changing to meet the needs of consumers, through embracing both transparency and digital platforms. I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism and expertise of many publications and journalists in the region, and I know how influential they can be. We need to ensure that their influence is recognized in a fashion that is understood outside of the media industry, by businesses who want to engage publicly.

Do you have any inputs or thoughts on the media industry and how they should change to remain relevant? If yes, then please do share them with me in the comments below.

Join me and pledge to work with and hire comms people on merit

On merit

Merit. I just love that word and what it means. To quote the Oxford Dictionary, the noun merit is understood to mean, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” Hence the phrase, to be deemed worthy of something on merit.

I was reminded of the notion this week, by a journalist who was Tweeting about being treated poorly by a brand. Her frustration was in part to her feeling that she was being mistreated by the brand’s agency due to her cultural heritage. I completely understood her frustration and her sense of injustice, hence why I’m writing this post.

In one sense, we’re lucky to work in the Gulf. It’s an up-and-coming region which has attracted some remarkable communications and media talent and experience from around the world. There’s a dynamic feel to working in such a multi-racial industry.

At the same time, I often get the feel of tribalism, of people in companies and institutions wanting to work with one of their own, not for any other reason than culture or nationality. It probably doesn’t surprise many of us that people stereotype (and if you don’t believe me, look at this research from Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Ming Leung who analyzed 3.9 million applications), but there’s also official discrimination – the hiring of certain nationalities to fill quotas – as well as unconscious bias . Finding people on merit, who can do the best job, seems to be a challenge we employers often get wrong.

The question I then have to ask is what does bringing the wrong people do to our industry, or even people who are too junior or who don’t have the right understanding of the role or the audience? In my own view, it devalues the work of us all, pushes us farther away from the board room, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media professionals or other stakeholder groups.

We have to look beyond traits such as race, nationality, gender, and ask if the person you’re looking to hire and work with has the right attitude, understanding, skills and experience for the role. We need more diversity and inclusion in our industry which mirrors that of our audiences and communities, and that will happen by understanding our biases and looking beyond them to finding the best talent out there, who deserve and will succeed in a role based on their own merit. That includes working with representative bodies such as the CIPR, IABC, Global Alliance and MEPRA who promote skills-based learning and certification programs.

I’m willing to take a pledge now to work with and hire comms people on merit. I want you to join me in taking this pledge. Either share this article or leave a comment below. Together, we can and will change the comms industry for the better, to be a function that respects and promotes the notion of merit.

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.

Will Dubai’s social media business license regulate the influencer space?

social media influencers

There’s been little legislation specifically looking at social media selling or influencer marketing across the Gulf

As anyone who works in the social media space in the Gulf knows, there’s nothing in the way of regulation. We’re working in a space which is poorly understood when it comes to legality and regulation (though, as I’ve written about before, any sponsored content is legislated for by the UAE’s advertising law).

This may be about to change however. Last week, Dubai’s Department of Economic Development launched a new business license, designed for those wishing to conduct business online, via social media. Here’s more details from Arabian Business.

Dubai’s Department of Economic Development (DED) has launched a new e-Trader licence to allow Emiratis and GCC citizens in Dubai to conduct business activities on social networking sites.

The DED’s Business Registration and Licensing (BRL) sector said the initiative is part of enhancing transparency and regulating the practice of offering products and services for sale on social media.

The e-Trader licence can be registered under the name of a single owner only and the owner must be an Emirati or GCC citizen aged 18 or above and residing in Dubai.
Nearly 3,000 e-Traders are expected to be licensed in Dubai in 2017.

At the event, there were a number of social media influencers, including Emirati comedian and instagrammer Kanu AlKendi (you can see his post below).

بشرى سارة لجميع تجار مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي @dubai_ded الْيَوْمَ أطلقت الدايرة الاقتصادية قطاع التسجيل و الترخيص التجاري مبادرة الاولى من نوعها في منطقة الشرق الأوسط ( ترخيص المشاريع التجارية التي تدار عبر مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي ) و هذه المبادرة تشمل مواطني دولة الامارات و دول مجلس التعاون الخليجي لتنظيم و تسهيل مزاولة الاعمال التجارية الالكترونية بإمارة #دبي @dubai_ded @dubai_ded @dubai_ded #التاجر_الالكتروني WWW.etrader.ae للتسجيل

A post shared by Kanu Alkendi (@kanu7alkendi) on

One of the reasons given for the launch of this license was to enhance consumer confidence in online businesses. “Licensing a business activity enhances consumer confidence on one hand and on the other, it removes the risk of infringement on a reserved trade name or other intellectual property, explained Omar Bushahab, CEO for the Business Registration & Licensing (BRL) sector of the Department of Economic Development. “A license guarantees the rights of everyone concerned and defines the legal accountability of the merchant.”

Transparency (or the lack of) has been a major talking point when it comes to influencer marketing in the region. While some businesses have to ensure that their influencers publicly state that their content is paid for (mainly those registered or publicly listed in jurisdictions with a legal framework around online marketing), the majority of advertisers and social media influencers don’t.

I understand that governmental bodies have been looking at ways to regulate the influencer industry – I don’t think I’ve seen a campaign over the last year which hasn’t featured an influencer. This may be a first step. However, more may be to come in relation to legislation covering influencers, particularly those who aren’t Gulf nationals (which is essentially the majority).

“One of the key challenges in the DED launch narrative is the condition that all license holders must be GCC citizen. This may prove difficult or restrictive to the large expatriate population across Dubai,” Lindsay Wakefield, a retail analyst, told Gulf News.

For agencies who are working in this area, it’s more than advisable to get legal advice as to how you and your clients should be engaging with influencers.

Snapchat and what it offers communicators

I’ll be the first to admit, that Snapchat is still a mystery to me. And, judging by my conversations with others, I’m not the only one. However, Snapchat is the social network for young millennials, with 60% of users in the US aged between 13 and 24 years. The service has over 150 million daily users (these numbers are higher than Twitter’s own daily usage). The service reaches 41% of all 18 to 34 year-olds in the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see similar numbers over here in the Gulf.

As communicators, we have to embrace Snapchat (whether we understand it or not). While much has been written on Snapchat, on how to use it, as well as how Snapchat compares to other products such as Instagram, I wanted to share different ideas on how to reach an audience via the hottest social media channel for youth in the Middle East region.

Several of the most effective options that we communicators have to reach out via Snapchat are paid-for. Snapchat’s advertising solutions are very different to what you’ll be used to on other social media platforms. Here’s three of their top solutions.

Your Traditional Video Ads

Let’s start with the basic Snapchat ad. Called Snap Ads, these products begin with an up to 10-second vertical, full screen video ad that appears in the context of other Snaps. Brands can give Snapchatters the choice to swipe up and see more, just like they do elsewhere on Snapchat. Snap Ads give brands the opportunity to embed further content as well; by swiping up on the video, the Snapchatter will be able to access extended content including long form videos, articles, app install ads, or a mobile website. Snapchat claims that the swipe-up rate for Snap Ads is 5x higher than the average click-through rate on comparable platforms.

Sponsored Lenses

And now we get to the fun stuff. Sponsored Lenses offer a different take on brand activation, offering not just an impression, but what Snapchat calls “play time” — the time Snapchatters spend playing with the interactive ad you’ve created for your brand.

It couldn’t be easier for Snapchatters to use the Sponsored Lens product. To activate Lenses, Snapchatters press and hold on their faces. The product is designed to promote engagement; lenses can include prompts like “raise your eyebrows” to trigger an animation. Snapchatters can send Lenses to a friend or post a Lens to their Story. On average, Snapchatters play with a Sponsored Lens for 20 seconds.

Sponsored Lenses can prove extremely popular – take the example of Taco Bell and its Cinco de Mayo Snapchat Lens which was viewed 224 million times.

taco-bell-filter

The Taco Bell Sponsored Lens was the most popular in the app’s history, and was used by millions of Snapchatters.

Sponsored Geofilters

The third option for creating paid-for engagement on Snapchat is sponsored geofilters. This product does what it says; when Snapchatters in a specific location(s) take a Snap, they’ll be able to see the Geofilter and use it to explain where, when, and why they took the Snap. The campaign can cover a country, a city, or even a location such as a mall, an airport, a monument or a hotel. In the US, a single National Sponsored Geofilter typically reaches 40% to 60% of daily Snapchatters. A good, simple example of a Geofilter is shown below from Yankee Stadium, and was created by 6S Marketing.

6s-snapchat-sponsored-geofilter

Snapchat Geofilters give Snapchatters the option of branding their Snap with your location-specific messaging. Check this out this filter from Yankee Stadium courtesy of 6S Marketing

The Drawbacks

These options aren’t available as of today in the MENA region. However, my hope is (well, it’s more than a hope) that Snapchat will be opening up soon in Dubai and provide these products to brands locally. The other caveat is cost. Snapchat advertising products don’t come cheap. The Fast Company reported that Snapchat was asking US-based advertisers to cough up hefty sums of cash for a Sponsored Lens: $450,000 per day for Sunday to Thursday, $500,000 for Fridays and Saturdays, and $700,000 for holidays. There are cheaper options, but you’ll have to have a decent budget to play on Snapchat.

However, if budgets allow and once Snapchat expands into the Middle East, be prepared to go Snapchat crazy!