Dubai digital media entrepreneur inspired by Mad Men

Greg Carroll had been there and done that when one day he decided to up sticks from the UK to Dubai to take advantage of a gap in the market. Thus began his online marketing venture.

Greg Carroll is the chief executive of Neesh in Dubai.  Satish Kumar / The National
Powered by automated translation

An American icon – albeit a fictional one – provided the inspiration for Greg Carroll’s digital media business in Dubai.

“We believe, as Don Draper did, that technology is the ‘glittering lure’,” he says, referring to the hero of the cult American TV series Mad Men, set in the high-octane world of advertising in 1960s Manhattan.

That is a pretty good metaphor for today’s digital media scene, and for the frenetic environment of the “new marketing” in Dubai, with another internet-based business seemingly launched each day in the emirate’s free zones and other booming business areas.

The inspiration for his business, Neesh, came when Mr Carroll, after a career that took in a broad spectrum of entrepreneurial activity in sales, property and the restaurant business, got to grips with the realities of the digital world.

“I realised that there were an awful lot of people that had no idea about online marketing. Mostly these people were 40 years old, or more. It also dawned on me that many SMEs, or even larger companies, should not do their digital marketing in-house because they did not have time, inclination, knowledge or, for the smaller ones, affordability.

“On top of that it did not make financial sense for them to do it even if they had all the above elements in place, and for many continuity was important. With an outsourced proposition this is solved and protects against staff departures and other unforeseen events.”

Those earlier attempts at entrepreneurialism has given him a sense of perspective. “I have never really worked for anyone, and have always carved my own path,” says Mr Carroll. Some of the inspiration came from his father, a self-made man who pioneered the manufacture of graphite sports goods from the Middle East.

Mr Carroll was educated “the expensive way” in the UK, but never really saw himself climbing the corporate ladder. One job recruiter told him: “Greg, you are talented but you are not a company man”.

So the early career jumped around from opportunity to opportunity, but always in the board framework of sales, marketing and strategy: selling financial products to high net worth individuals, a concierge service, export sale for his family business, a building company that became a property developer, as well as a brief spell as a restaurateur and catering industry investor.

It was the property business that provided his entry into Dubai. He sold up in the UK before the crash, maybe with a sense of foreboding that something was not quite right. “Living in a land of perceived opportunity in the sun paying no tax seemed like the ideal choice. No more wintry grey days for me,” he says.

There was a brief sojourn into the restaurant and hotel business in France (“really an expensive sabbatical”) before moving to Dubai with his wife full-time.

His first venture in the UAE was alongside Scott Crawley, a British hotelier who had launched Yes Chef, now one of Dubai’s leading catering companies. “I am now no longer involved as I wanted to focus on Neesh, but I miss the food and the industry in some respects,” says Mr Carroll.

He describes the strategy behind Neesh: “Originally the idea was to provide social media services for small businesses. However, we soon realised that social media on its own was not the silver bullet and that it was simply a distribution channel, much the same as a billboard, all be it not as basic.

“We also realised that the phrase ‘business spend budgets, people spend money’ was all too true in this scenario. We found that small business owners wanted everything for nothing and had many unrealistic expectations.”

This caused a tweak to the strategy. “We then decided to target bigger companies, and provide real sales and marketing solutions to those that were able to commit the resources, time and had the willingness to enter into the then fairly unchartered territory of content marketing or ‘inbound marketing’. We became a partner of Hubspot, the leading inbound marketing software provider from the States, and are now where we are today: the mistakes have been learnt, and we’re ready to expand internationally.”

He decided against a free zone HQ for Neesh. “We are a limited liability company, based in Business Bay. The reason for an LLC was that there was not really a particular advantage to us being in a free zone. I already have a freestone entity in Ras Al Khaimah, so there was not advantage on that front. I also did not want to to be tied to certain locations, such as Media City.

“Probably the main benefit of being an LLC in this instance was that the owner of the registration company that dealt with the Yes Chef business was to be our sponsor, so having a sponsor and a PRO in one person meant that the bureaucracy was kept to a minimum,” Mr Carroll explains.

He has taken a strict attitude to financing throughout Neesh’s existence. “The company has been entirely self-funded,” but he makes clear he has no objections in principle to other forms of financing. “I believe a company should be able to use all the mechanisms available to it in the commercial arena to enable it to expand.”

Long term he may take up other forms of finance, and ultimately an IPO is not ruled out. But for the time being, expansion beyond the Dubai hub is his top priority, and growing the business.

“I believe an entrepreneur is someone who takes something small and makes it better, sometimes that can also mean that it is bigger too, but not all the time. I firmly advise any would-be entrepreneur to love what they do, and work towards growing a great company first. The exit is of secondary importance. A great company can knock on many doors when it wants to exit,” he says.

The company

Neesh is a digital marketing company “built to empower the entrepreneurial mindset through designing planning and executing integrated inbound and outbound marketing programmes that deliver real, measurable results”, the mission statement says.

It is run by a team of eight executives, all with experience in digital marketing and social media. “I used to call them my little bunch of misfits, as they had all come to join the company from being members of family, friends, wives of the waiter I know in the hotel I go to regularly, our nannies’ friends etc.

“I really don’t believe that talent is only determined by the letters you have after your name. We all have talents, but the trick is to turn those talents into skills that can be used in any situation in a multitude of ways,” says Mr Carroll.

“One key requirement is that they are all expected to read with wanton abandon – we even give paid reading days every month for people to go and sit on the beach and catch up on reading,” he adds.

The man

Mr Carroll says he never has an “average day”. But if pressed these are the ingredient of a typical day for him:

Exercise: “I have a love/hate relationship with the gym so this is certainly not a daily, weekly or even monthly event for me.”

Read: “Make time for improvement”

Work: Get feedback on the projects that have been put in place, the financials and performance of marketing metrics.

Help: with any sales meetings or client meetings as needed.

Do not: get dragged into admin or any other jobs you are paying people to do. This is easier said than done for an entrepreneur, but something that must be done to be able to drive the company forward.

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter