PSFK recently caught up with Dubai’s Danish Farhan, CEO of Xische, a cutting edge branding boutique located in Dubai and New York City, to discuss new media trends in the Middle East.
Not many individuals in the Middle East can speak with as much authority as Dubai’s Danish Farhan, CEO of Xische. Having lived in Dubai for well over 20 years, and having a client roster that boasts the region’s leading brands, he offers insight into the future of media in the Middle East and the growing role of technology in the region.
Tell us about the advertising landscape in a post-recession Dubai?
Put simply, things have changed dramatically… all for the better.
While consumer spending receded initially with the recession, the real winners in Dubai have been the clients. Advertisers now have more interesting and cost-effective alternatives to consider. Meanwhile, on the consumer front, there has been a collective acceptance of the ‘web-as-a-tool’ paradigm in Dubai. Clients are spending much less, but are building real value online and mobile engagement with customers now open to this new dialog. Local research proves this with astonishing glory.
At Xische, we have focused on connecting the dots between brand and digital for a while now. Clients now engage our expertise much earlier in the food chain. This makes for better informed go-to-market strategies and a far more effective brand footprint that is highly customized. We love not having to convince clients to rethink convention; fringe-tactics within the UAE’s advertising landscape are now decidedly mainstream.
How is the Middle East adapting to digital communications?
The digital trend of ‘instant-everything’ (or ‘nowism’ as we call it) has crept up as a result of an entire generation growing up with access to free downloads, instant Wikipedia referencing, Google searches, and status updates. The shift arrived later than the more connected Western nations, but is exploding at an alarming rate. The Middle Eastern user base — and this has been confirmed by recent surveys — is a very heavily peer-induced demographic.
Appearances matter considerably, and usage of new tools like social media, mobile and AR are being driven with similar motives. The slower adopters have been the brands themselves, as old-school managers battle to realize ‘digital’ means more than just a microsite, banner ad or SMS campaign. Some key brands have taken the leap, and garnered spectacular results.
Social Media: the country’s first international feature film ‘City of Life‘, and the region’s fastest growing financial institution RAKBANK. At last count, we found more than 400 UAE-based companies that were on Twitter alone. There is no doubt social media has been the most noticeably prominent trend with up to 20% monthly user base growth.
Mobile as a platform: mobile is still in its infancy, but it will pick up going by the rate of inquiries we get daily from major brand names eager to capitalise. We know for a fact that 1 in 4 mobile subscriptions in the country are 3G data enabled; that makes for a captive market that simply hasn’t been exposed to the merits of mobile access at arm’s length, 24/7. While we see mobile sites being embraced by the big players like Emirates, Du, and daily newspapers, the majority of organisations have yet to think about their mobile strategy.
Apps are gaining momentum with the growing market penetration of iDevices (iPod, iPhone, iPad) and Android-powered phones. When we launched the Formula 1 app last year for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we were met with some interesting reactions, including our favorite: “We didn’t know you could load apps from the UAE!” A testament to this is Abu Dhabi government’s media zone twofour54 launching an initiative called AppsArabia — a dedicated marketplace for app developers and end-clients to communicate. They’ve gone as far as launching an App Fund for developers with innovative ideas in need of seed funding.
Augmented reality has been the slowest to grab the attention of brands. This is largely due to the innate complexity of the concept of AR, which makes it difficult for most brand managers to comprehend conceptually and then later sell to their management. The only real implementation in this market so far has been with a leading American automotive brand and a few publications.
Arabic Digital Content: I think the real push from the UAE and increasingly Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, will be scale of Arabized content produced in the near future. This will undoubtedly have an impact on a global level. There is only so much Western-driven context that is acceptable to the general audience using social media or mobile apps. For uptake to grow exponentially, culturally relevant, language sensitive content is key.
What current/emerging trends make you optimistic about the future?
We’re excited to finally see locally-conceived brands being accepted by both the business community and end-customers. Dubai, despite its glittering lifestyle studded with international brand names, has largely been borrowed from the rest of the world. With the exception of government-linked entities, few home-grown brands have managed to break ground internationally. This is changing and we’re happy to be a part of that evolution in Dubai where indigineous talent and ideas are paying off.
What other designers, thinkers or companies are inspiring you these days?
We’ve always been fans of the IDEO team; we think they personify what we aspire to become for this region.
Mishaal Al Gergawi, an Emirati commentator and writer has caught our attention with his approach of challenging the status quo socially, economically and culturally in the UAE. Television’s silent phenomenon Mad Men has really made us stop and rethink the way the world around us determines so much of what we think we know, and in turn, do. Highly inspiring for its extraordinary cultural, political and stylistic debate.
Anything else you would like to add?
If there is one thing Dubai’s version of the recession has done, it’s weeded out the ‘overnight’ players in the media industry. This city has long been popular for its ‘middle-man’ approach whereby a company, no matter what their focus, claimed to undertake a task nomatter what the required expertise for the job. Back-door outsourcing agreements thrived, driving little or no value for clients. It is refreshing to see this entire ecosystem dismantling rapidly, leaving companies that actually care about what they do for their clients. Intent, nomatter how small, makes all the difference.