Clients, Non-Payments and Slow Growth – Is it time for the Middle East’s PR Industry to work together?

A couple of stories broke over the past couple of weeks in the Middle East’s PR industry. This wouldn’t be unusual if it weren’t summer, when little happens. The first piece was the news of additional job losses at Edelman Middle East. The second was the restructuring of FleishmanHillard in Saudi Arabia due to final losses. And the third, which didn’t register in the media, was the closure of a one-person PR agency in Dubai.

There are two issues at play here. The first is management. Edelman’s layoffs aren’t a one-off; the company has made repeated redundancies over the past couple of years, and I feel for all those who joined what is the world’s largest independent PR agency, only for this to happen. Edelman has struggled in the UAE and the wider region, even after the purchase of one of the country’s largest privately-owned agencies, Dabo & Co, in 2015.

The second issue is payment, or a lack of. To quote from the Gulf News piece on FleishmanHillard:

The non-payment of fees, apparently due to a lack of invoicing clients, has impacted their operations forcing the company to reduce their headcount in Riyadh.

The issue also caught the eye of the head of one of the largest agencies in the region. Writing on his LinkedIn feed, Sunil John shared his view on the need for cross-industry action to address non-payment, particularly by governments.

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Slow to No Growth

Let’s give a little context to the PR industry across the Middle East. Over the past two years economies in the Gulf have struggled. Saudi has been in recession for a number of quarters. The UAE’s economy is growing slowly. The fastest growing economy over 2017 was Qatar, with a GDP growth of just over 2 percent. While this may not look particularly bad for those in Europe, many of us in the region can remember a time a decade back when economies were growing double-digit. Slow to no growth is the new norm in the region, and we (and management outside of the region) have got to get used to this, and budget accordingly.

Government Spending Grows

Ironically given lower government spending over the past two years on the back of falling oil prices, the driver of PR spending has been government. Saudi in particular has been spending heavily to transform its reputation globally. I’ve seen a host of medium and large agencies flock to Riyadh to work on Saudi’s Vision 2030, as well as other projects. Political circumstances have resulted in significant sums being spent in both London and Washington. For agencies starved of growth from business, government spending has been a boon.

Payment Terms and Governments

The challenge with government accounts is payment – both payment terms and collection. Government accounts are rarely small, and I’ve heard of terms that can be as long as six months. That’s a long time to wait for payment. And then, there’s the issue of payments being made on time. In my knowledge, it’s rare for a government to pay a bill on time. And if they don’t, what’s the recourse? There’s no higher authority to appeal to, no court you can go to. You chase and chase and chase. And hope you get paid, sooner rather than later.

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

Sunil John’s call to action is interesting, but it’s not new. I and others have discussed the idea of having non-payment lists with industry bodies such as the Middle East Public Relations Association several years back. My heart desperately wants the large agency heads to come together to agree on what action to take when it comes to black-listing accounts (the WPP agencies could easily take the lead, given the size of their business here). But, despite the hurt the industry is going through, my head say this won’t happen. For every agency that drops a non-paying account, there are ten lining up to pitch. Everyone thinks they can do better on payment.

Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue at play which doesn’t just affect the PR industry (to give you an example, Saudi’s construction industry has faced payment delays of up to 18 months). The answer is collective action. And it’ll require true leadership from everyone on the agency side, as well as leaders on the client side calling out this behavior. Is anyone ready to make the first move?

Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

The Six Essentials for Promoting Brand Building and Trust Among MENA Consumers (MEPRA/YouGov Research)

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Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

I’ve written three blog posts on the issue which I’ve already published on the blog, to explore the findings country-by-country, but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

1. Face-to-Face with family/friends is key to influence

It should be obvious to us all, and here’s another reminder for anyone working in communications/marketing. If you want to build trust in a brand, its products and services, then look at how you can engage the public through word-of-mouth. Across the region, 85% of respondents trust product and service recommendations from their family and friends. Nothing else comes close to these positive statistics.

2. Online works if you focus on friends and family, less so on social influencers

Over the past couple of years we’ve shifted for an incessant focus on digital to idolizing anything social. As the first big finding shows, in-person interaction is still the most persuasive. Online engagement does work, but it’s not as effective; 52% of respondents trust online recommendations about products and services from family and friends (interestingly, the percentages are highest for the Gulf and lowest for the Levant).

When it comes to social influencers, consumers are conflicted – 34% do trust social influencers/people with large online followings on products and services, compared to 29% who find them untrustworthy. A lack of transparency re paid/sponsored content probably isn’t helping. What’s helping even less is a tendency for social influencers in the region to say little which is negative when reviewing products and services.

3. There’s not as much trust in the media as we PR people may think

I was surprised by how low the scores were when it came to trust in the media as a source of information on products and services. The top-rated media was a brand’s own website (which should make sense, but given how bad websites are in the region this is still surprising), which scored 46% for trustworthiness. Every other medium scored in the 30s, which is a surprise considering how much faith public relations professionals put in securing editorial coverage with media outlets (for many, it’s still the essence of their day jobs). Blogs scored the lowest, at 31% trustworthiness (they were rated as untrustworthy by 30% of respondents). Should brands invest more in their own online media? The answer would seem to be an obvious yes.

4. Advertising is trusted almost as much as the media (except when it’s online)

The research is a mixed bag for the advertising sector. Out-of-home advertising such as billboards seem to be the most trusted by consumers, with a trust rating of 36%. Television is close behind with 35% trust, followed by radio at 31%. Online comes in last, at 28%. There’s more mistrust than trust for online advertising, with 33% of those polled not believing product and services information they see when displayed as an online ad. This may be due to misleading advertising around product pricing and availability. Whatever the reason for the low trust levels (especially online), marketers need to do more to win the trust of consumers, especially with trust in advertising dropping; 61% of those polled agreed with a statement that they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago.

5. Social media is a popular news source, but it’s not trusted thanks to ‘fake news’ concerns

Social media is becoming/has become a key source of news for most people (58%) in the region when compared to five years back (and there’s no distinction either by age, which is surprising). However, there’s still a trust issue. Almost half (48%) agreed they they have low trust in social media, which isn’t that surprising given the amount of fake/incorrect information out there. Which goes to underline the need for brands to focus on their owned media channels even more so.

The research did hammer home the power of third-party advocacy. When asked if they have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services, 65% responded by saying yes. Brands need to focus on winning over trusted individuals/groups who can influence consumers.

6. When it comes to social media, Facebook is King

If you’re looking to find out about a product or service in the region, it seems that Facebook is the place to go. Over half (53%) said that they found Facebook to be the most useful platform as a source of information (this rose to 72% for Egypt). Nothing else came close. WhatsApp was a distant number two, at 12%, and Instagram third at 9%. There was no mention of Twitter, and it would have been good to have understood where Twitter and YouTube featured as sources of information on products and services for the public.

So that’s the big picture for you. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming few days as I put out country-by-country reports. If you need more specific information, please do reach out to me.

Brand Building and Trust in Saudi and the UAE, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 2)

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This is the second post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This second post covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which follows the post from the first four countries yesterday.

Saudi Arabia

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1003 people were surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 64% of whom were Saudi nationals and 36% were expat. When it comes to gender, 56% were male, and 44% were female. Just under 47% were aged between 18 and 29, 31% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 22% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, just over 30% live in Riyadh, 24% live in Jeddah, 7% in Mecca, 6% in Dammam and 5% in Madinah. The other 28% live outside of these areas.

Finally, 38% described themselves as single, 51% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Saudi respondents scored the lowest in the Gulf; only 82% trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Younger respondents showed the lowest trust; 79% of 18-24 year-olds, compared to 90% of 35-39 year-olds. Saudi nationals scored 79%, and Saudi-based expats 88%. The other large discrepancy was between singles (77%) and those who were married (85%).

When it comes to trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services, the scores were much better; 54% found such posts trustworthy, compared to 13% who found them untrustworthy. There’s a seven percent difference between young respondents (18-24) who trust the least (52%), and respondents in the 30-34 age bracket, who trust the most (59%). Saudi nationals were also less trusting than expats, with scores of 52% and 59% respectively.

Those surveyed in Saudi did show higher levels of trust in third-party endorsements of products and services, in comparison to a brand’s own positioning; 59% trust third-party endorsements, compared to 7% who don’t. There’s a 15% differential between those working (67%), and those who aren’t working (52%).

Trust in Social Media

Overall, the Saudi respondents showed slightly higher levels of trust (37%) than mistrust (29%) in social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (42%) than women (30%). And those who are working are also more trusting (41%) than those who aren’t (33%).

Social media has become a much more important source of information to the Saudi respondents than it was five years ago (53% agreed with this statement, opposed to 15% who disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents and those on lower incomes. However, trust is still an issue with what people see online; 43% have low trust in what they see online (this jumps to 52% for those earning US$5333 and higher), compared to 17% who disagree.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (28%), followed by WhatsApp (16%), Instagram (14%), and Snapchat (9%). One-tenth (11%) didn’t use any social media. Facebook was least popular among the youth (24%), who prefer visual applications and instant messaging. In contrast, Facebook was the most popular among expats, almost half (49%) of whom use the platform.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media for Saudi respondents when it comes to products and service recommendations differed to the rest of the Gulf. Whilst branded websites scored top as the most trusted media (45%), television content, radio news and website articles also rated highly, with scores of 44, 39, and 39 percent respectively. Newspapers came second to last, at 36%, and blogs were the least trusted, at 33%.

When it comes to advertising, there’s a slight drop in trust among respondents. Television advertising is the most trusted, at 38%, followed by billboards at 37%, and radio at 31%. Online advertising is the least trusted, at 28%. A higher percent of respondents (32%) found online advertising untrustworthy than trustworthy.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 55% agreed and 13% disagreed. Men and those married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than five years back. Saudis scored the lowest when it came to the impact of fake news on their trust in media sources. Only 58% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 11% disagreed.

United Arab Emirates

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At 1010, the respondent base for the UAE was the largest from all the countries surveyed. Of this total, 18% were Emirati nationals, 24% Arab expats, 55% Asian expats, and just under 3% Western.

When it comes to gender, 65% were male, and 35% were female. Just under 42% were aged between 18 and 29, 38% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 20% were aged over 40.

In terms of salary, 37% earned over US$2,666 a month, 18% earned between US$1,066 and $2,665, 12% earned between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earned between US$266 and US$532, and 7% earned less than US$265. The remaining 18% didn’t give their salary.

In terms of geography, 33% live in Abu Dhabi, 41% live in Dubai, 17% in Sharjah, and the remaining 9% outside those three Emirates.

Finally, 35% described themselves as single, 52% as married with children, and 11% were married but had no children. The remaining 2% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Approximately 84% of those polled said they trusted face-to-face recommendations of products and services from their friends and family. The groups which exhibited the highest levels of trust were Western nationals (96%) and those earning over US$2,666 a month. Those groups who exhibited the lowest trust were earners below US$266 (70%) and those people living in other Emirates (77%).

When asked the same question about online, social media-based recommendations from friends and family, that number dropped to 55%. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to trust such recommendations (60%), as were Emirati, Arab Nationals and Westerners (65%, 66%, and 64% respectively). Asian expats (48%) and those living in Sharjah (49%) recorded the lowest levels of trust.

Conversely, almost two-thirds of people (63%) have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Only 39% of respondents trusted online recommendations from social media influencers or people with large followings. Unsurprisingly, considering how much time they spend online, younger people aged between 18 and 24 years are more likely to trust such recommendations (45%), as are Emiratis (52%).

Social media has become the most important source of information for people; 57% said social media has become a key source of information about goods and services today compared to five years back. However, half of the respondents also said that they have little trust in what they see on social media.

On social media Facebook is by far the most useful source of information for goods and services, with 52% of respondents using the site to know more about brands. Whatsapp was second, at 17%, and LinkedIn was third, with 10%. Surprisingly, Asian nationals and Westerners are the major outliers here, with only 45% and 44% respectively using Facebook, and 21% of Asians using WhatsApp as their preferred social media platform (I’m still not convinced however that a messaging app can be defined as a social media platform).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

For advertising, the most trusted formats were television and billboards (both at 45%), followed by radio (41%), and online (37%). Over half of respondents (57%) said they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. This was most noticeable among those who were married and didn’t have children (75%), and those earning over US$5333 (64%).

Brand websites scored higher than both media and advertising for trustworthiness; 53% of respondents said they trust corporate websites. Trust in print publications, in newspapers and magazines, was highest, at 48%, followed by radio and television, both of which scored a 44% trust rating. Blogs were the least trusted source of information, at 39%. When asked about fake news and their trust in the media, the UAE respondents polled like their Saudi counterparts. Only 59% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, with 10% disagreeing.

Lessons from McKinsey on the importance of being seen to be ethical

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McKinsey’s reputation has been heavily impacted by its work in South Africa. Could the same happen in Saudi? (image credit: Ingram Pinn)

McKinsey is a household name, at least in Saudi and South Africa. And not for the right reasons either.

The firm, which consults for governments and businesses the world over, hasn’t had a good time of it lately in these two markets. In South Africa, McKinsey has been embroiled in the Gupta family scandals through its work with the state energy firm Eskom and Trillian, a local company linked to the Gupta family.

In Saudi, McKinsey has been working with the government for years. The company hasn’t always been popular, and has often been blamed by the Saudi public for the austerity measures the Kingdom has enacted. Recent events have shone even more light on McKinsey. An article in the Wall Street Journal looked at the consultancy’s habit of hiring from the elites. To quote:

“The consulting company has employed, among others, at least two children of the man who serves as the Saudi energy minister and head of the state oil company, a son of the finance minister and a son of the CEO of government-controlled Saudi Arabian Mining Co.”

The Wall Street Journal piece describes in detail McKinsey’s company’s hiring practices in the Kingdom, and also notes that there is no allegation of wrongdoing by the firm.

The issue that McKinsey faces isn’t dissimilar to tens of thousands of other firms. It’s the choice between reputation and profit. However, few other firms are as prominent as the consultancy, partly owing to its clients (primarily government in emerging markets) and the quality of McKinsey’s people. To quote the response to the Wall Street Journal article, a McKinsey spokesperson explained that:

“McKinsey is a meritocracy. We hire exceptional people and are confident in the robust policies and practices that underpin our recruiting and development both globally and locally.”

How many exceptional people would it take to understand that working with the Gupta family in South Africa wouldn’t be good for business. Five minutes of due diligence would have thrown up the links between Eskom, Trillian and the Gupta family.

Last year I wrote about Caroline Sapriel’s masterclass on crisis communications. There’s one chart I want to re-share, which should be a guide for all of us.

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CS&A’s crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don’t care as long as they’re not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

The question that I have for McKinsey (and every other business leader) is what price would you put on reputation? Even if the firm did work in a legally appropriate fashion, which McKinsey has claimed it did in South Africa, the spirit and the letter of the law are two different things. This question could also be asked of KPMG and SAP, who have also found themselves in the thick of it in South Africa.

If you’re unsure as to where you are on the culture ladder, here’s a stress test you can use to understand how your firm fares. Can your executives answer the following questions relating to any business engagement?

  1. Have they done a due diligence test, including listening to the communications team on possible reputational risks and stakeholder reactions?
  2. Are the executives able to clearly explain their actions? Is their reasoning believable and authentic?
  3. When viewed from the outside, would an action seem to be ethically dubious at best, or illegal at worst?
  4. What are you doing in general when it comes to corporate social responsibility? How do you engage others in conversation?
Writing in the Financial Times in September of this year, John Gapper shared his thoughts on McKinsey’s activities in South Africa:
The firm has a brisk defence to accusations from South African politicians and Corruption Watch that it facilitated state capture by helping Trillian to gain money from Eskom. It says that its own inquiry into its behaviour has not uncovered wrongdoing, nor anything that would require it to report itself to the US authorities under anti-corruption laws. This seems to be setting the reputational bar rather low.
Being willing to charge an entrenched institution in a fractured country so much money looks awfully like rent seeking, especially when payments of up to $700m were to be split with what it should have known was a dubious consulting partner. McKinsey is full of superior intellects but sometimes you only need to open your eyes. None of this occurred in a vacuum.
The group Business Unity South Africa this month bemoaned the “scourge of corruption that is stifling the country” and called for an end to a “culture of immunity”. Each time that a consultant or accountant fails to take a decisive stand, the scourge worsens. KPMG has recognised it but McKinsey is still learning. It could start by confessing that it was wrong and promising not to repeat its failure.
The firm still maintains that it behaved correctly and is walking the tightrope of self-justification. I am intrigued to see how long it will take to fall off.
I wonder if the same will be said of McKinsey’s activities in Saudi Arabia. What price is McKinsey willing to put on its reputation? You tell me.

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

Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

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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.