George Skaff, Regional Commercial Head, Connect Ads was recently in Pakistan to attend the PAS Dig-it 2016 Conference. We caught up with him to discuss Connect Ads, the intricacies of online ad space, and the future of digital advertising.
AMBER ARSHAD: What was the thrust of your session in the Dig-it 2016 conference?
GEORGE SKAFF: For background, we recently opened an office in Karachi and coming to this conference was a great way to interact with our partners, agencies and clients. The session I took part in focused on the impact of technology on marketing and how to unite advertising and multichannel marketing. For Connect Ads, technology is the core of our business and partnering with the right people is integral – for that, awareness and education is key. The conference was one way to meet the right people under one platform.
AA: What are the core services Connect Ads offers?
GS: Connect Ads, headquartered in Egypt with offices in the MENA region, is part of the A15 Group, an entrepreneurial company that creates digital products and technology brands. We essentially sell advertising space for different clients, but solely on digital platforms. To do this, we partner with credible and reputed digital publishers. In the Gulf region, our partners include Twitter, LinkedIn, TubeMogul and Yahoo Gemini. Our partnerships are exclusive, meaning that if a client wants to advertise on Twitter (or any of our other partners), they have to come through Connect Ads, buy premium ad space, and manage the rollout. The rollout involves targeting the right audience based on the nature of the product, deciding the time, duration and so on, and then retargeting (the ads) when necessary. We are known in the region as the gateway to the global partners, because we are the first to connect with them. Our partnership with Microsoft has been going strong for the last 12 years. We were the first to represent Facebook, Twitter, etc. Having said this, we have also partnered with reputed local publishers, such as Akbar24, Al-Sharq Portal and ArQaam.
AA: Why did you decide to launch in Pakistan, and do you have a dedicated team in Pakistan?
GS: We had identified Pakistan as a key region to invest in almost three years ago and we already have an office of a sister company, Mobizone Pakistan (a part of the A15 Group) in Islamabad. We knew there was an appetite for the products we represent in Pakistan – digital is rapidly growing here, and agencies and clients on the digital sphere are aware and in synch with global developments. For now, we have an office only in Karachi, and a small dedicated team, but we plan to expand to other cities. At the moment, our clients in Pakistan include Unilever, P&G, Samsung, Telenor, Mobilink, Coke and HBL – we don’t represent any local Pakistani publishers but we are always on the lookout.
AA: What are the traits that you look for when taking on-board a partner, and do you plan to partner with any Pakistani publishers?
GS: The first thing we do is study the prospective partner, which means that we look at their growth pattern, footprint, the inventory they have and if we see it as a feasible and healthy partnership, we take things forward and sign an exclusivity contract – exclusive meaning that we will be the only one representing that partner. We are open to partnering with Pakistani publishers, if they fulfil the criteria.
AA: Do you find any similarities between the Pakistani market and the MENA region in terms of digital execution and planning?
GS: Pakistan is in the very early stages of the digital front. The figures I have for the Pakistani ad industry are not very favourable for digital; out of 600 million dollars ad spend, not more than five percent accounted for digital spend – which is very low compared to the global scenario. In the Gulf, around 20 to 25% of ad budgets are spent on digital – and this contributes to around 800 million dollars. There, clients and agencies are very active and open to spending more on digital. Nevertheless, Pakistani brands are slowly catching on. What is needed is to cultivate that mindset to invest more in digital – and for that education and awareness is needed, and from there on, things will move forward and progress.
“The beauty of technology is that it gives you access to a lot of data – and data is key. Data drives your message in the right direction”
AA: Can technology help level the playing field? Do small companies, with limited budgets, stand a chance against big names when it comes to creating successful digital campaigns?
GS: It is not about having huge budgets. It is about spending your budgets wisely – and spending it at the right time, the right place and with the right audience. We see campaigns worth millions of dollars fail and we see campaigns worth much less perform extremely well. There are a lot of factors to consider in every campaign. It starts from the creative to the message to the medium. The beauty of technology is that it gives you access to a lot of data – and data is key. Data drives your message in the right direction; targeting and retargeting. Today a brand can follow you from one portal to another with different messages, tailored according to the nature of each portal. Also, digital ads are very trackable. The system is very transparent – you can trace it down to the most granular details. This makes clients very happy.
AA: What about programmatic advertising? What future do you see for that?
GS: It is a dream come true for every client – the possibilities are endless. Programmatic is basically a software that guides you to target and retarget; allows you to buy bulk inventory (of ad space) with the best targeting possible at the click of a button – and it is all automated. With programmatic, you have access to millions of inventory across the globe in micro seconds – your ad can be exposed to an audience that is huge in number, but also very relevant to your product. In the Gulf region, we see more and more digital budgets spent on programmatic – clients, agencies, everyone is happy with it.
AA: Has there been a dip in advertising on websites compared to social media?
GS: Yes, there has been. Today technology has shifted from display to social. We have seen a decline in display media (ads on websites) because clients want more, and they want something different, more creative, more engaging – a website banner ad doesn’t cut it. This is why at Connect Ads, we conceptually divide the digital space into ‘verticals’ to approach each platform with the due diligence and strategy it requires. The client preference is shifting towards social.
AA: What future do you foresee for digital in Pakistan?
GS: There is a lot of room to grow in Pakistan – the digital players have good awareness but they need support from different regions. They need to study global case studies, network more with international companies, increase awareness for others, work on the mindset and culture. The online penetration needs to grow much, much more. Pakistan has a promising future and more technology players should invest in the country.
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