Marketing 'lacks social skills'

Ad agencies too slow to evolve in era of networking websites.

In this photo taken Friday Nov. 20, 2009, the Foursquare application is shown on an iPhone in front of a Starbucks in San Francisco. Foursquare lets you share your whereabouts with friends, no matter if you're at a hot new bar or a neighborhood pet store. (AP Photo/Russel A. Daniels)

Media consultants in the region have "no idea" how to use tools such as Twitter and Foursquare for marketing, says one of the earliest adopters of social media in the UAE. Mohamed Parham al Awadhi, the Emirati co-founder of the Wild Peeta restaurant in Dubai, said advertising and media agencies had been slow to evolve and recognise the new ways in which people are communicating.

The "fusion" shawarma restaurant, which is in talks with possible franchisees over expansion plans, is highly active on Twitter and was one of the UAE's first businesses to use Foursquare, through which users "check in" to broadcast their location to peers. Mr al Awadhi said his company had built its brand "without spending a dime" on marketing. "I could say that we hired a specialist social media expert to come in and paid them thousands of dirhams, but that would be a lie," he said.

"The problem with advertising agencies, especially the large established ones, is that they are very slow to evolve. There's no need for their involvement because they have no idea how to do it. We don't need them." Mr al Awadhi said several large advertising agencies had approached Wild Peeta offering to work on a pro-bono basis, but he had declined their offers. "We felt that the advertising agencies were not ready to help us do what we wanted to do, even for free," he said. "So we did it ourselves.

"As a small business, you cannot afford the fees that the advertising companies charge. Their fees are suited to the big corporates." Communications consultants acknowledged that smaller companies may not require their services. But some said a full social media strategy was essential for larger operations. "Wild Peeta have done really well, but for a larger brand you need a full strategy," said Rayan Karaky, the MENA region general manager for digital operations at the communications network Publicis Groupe Media.

"If Wild Peeta came to me today and said 'can you handle our social media?', I'd say don't waste your money." Mr Karaky said that while location-based sites such as Foursquare had "big potential", it was too early to tell if such services would become successful marketing tools in the region. Zubair Siddiqui, the managing director of the media agency UM Dubai, said external consultants could help measure the success of a social media campaign more effectively.

"It depends entirely on the company," Mr Siddiqui said. "If they are able to put together a team to monitor social media then great. "But social media is far more challenging than print or other forms of media. It changes ? by the hour. Specialists are able to monitor and keep track of the changing pace." But Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, the chief executive of Flip Media, one of the largest digital marketing agencies in the Middle East, said Mr al Awadhi made a "fair comment".

"The problem with social media [in the Middle East] is that everyone is talking about it but few are actually doing it," Mr Tuqan said. "The people who are doing social media the best are the people who are doing it themselves." Mr al Awadhi said his company was looking to expand its use of "location-based" services such as Foursquare and the similar Facebook Places application. The company was also studying Layar, an "augmented reality" mobile application.

It was also among the first companies in the Middle East to have an official Foursquare promotion, he said. The promotion grants the "mayor" of Wild Peeta, or the Foursquare user who had amassed the most "check ins" while at the restaurant, a free daily drink. Mr al Awadhi said Wild Peeta was in talks with franchise partners about opening more outlets in the UAE, Middle East and beyond. "We're going to open three to four outlets this year and next year we're expanding to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain," he said.

"We're going to have 15 outlets by 2011. There are three companies we are talking to [about franchise agreements]."