Edelman Dabo MD: What’s the point of putting new tyres on your Model T Ford?

FIPP MEA takes place on 10-11 February in Dubai.

Edelman DABO was formed when Edelman acquired the leading Dubai-based independent agency DABO & Co – to “increase integration of the approach to creative communications and combining PR and digital capabilities”. What does this tell us about the blurring of the lines between content and PR?

Well I think you nailed it yourself with the ‘blurring of the lines’ phrase. The phrase that we tend to play around is the merging with the swim lanes – and I don’t think that’s purely just a PR and publishing piece. I think that convergence is happening across the board. Traditionally we’ve had these verticals – ‘this is marketing’, ‘this is a digital agency’, ‘this is a PR agency’. The reality now, which is all driven by technological change, is that those lines have either completely dissipated or are in a process of fragmenting, and those agencies and indeed publishers who don’t recognise that are really dead men walking. I know that sounds melodramatic but we have seen the evidence of that. One really interesting thing for me is this: the New York Times now has the same content studio – its T Brand studio – embedded in its advertising department, producing some really strong content. When you think about their so-called church-and-state separation between editorial and advertising over the years, then the current situation is something that would have been anathema as recently as four or five years ago. 

Are you seeing greater demand from clients and potential for integrated PR and content? Are you seeing more briefs come in, for example, which are specifically requesting the two?

It’s a great question and, to be frank, the honest answer is ‘no, not right now’. But I think our stance is that it’s just a matter of time before that is the case and it’s important to be ahead of the curve. So if you know that’s happening in more mature markets, such as the UK, such as the US, then you just know it’s going to impact here. It’s a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. And so for us right now it’s about being completely prepared for that. And a big part of that is client education – making them realise that, in this changing world, they will need to adapt their tactics and adopt a new mind-set. If they do that, there’s real opportunity because – and this is a really relevant point for the FIPP conference – any brand can now be a publisher. And that’s the fundamental challenge for publishers and the fundamental opportunity for brands and their partner agencies. The technological tools are there. Red Bull is clearly the ultimate example. Ten years ago they would have had to rely on a third-party in the form of a publisher to get that media coverage about their brand. Now they’ve got the tools. In the same way that, and I appreciate this sounds potentially melodramatic but I do genuinely believe it, the printing press revolutionised matters, I think we are currently living in a game-changing period that’s being driven by digital. Coming back to the Red Bull example, the amount of positive coverage its space jump event with Felix Baumgartner generated for the brand was phenomenal – but they didn’t need to go to the likes of CNN and say, ‘hey, can you cover this for us?’. They didn’t need to go to a New York Times. They did it themselves.

How do traditional publishers survive and in this new world?

The problem is that in some cases it’s like trying to turn around an oil tanker.  It’s very difficult for traditional publishers. It reminds me of that comment by Marc Andreessen, whom I’m sure you’re familiar with, in an interview some years ago, where he was talking about what he would do if he was owner of the New York Times. He of course said he would shut down the printing press overnight. The reason that comment still resonates with me after so long was that it was all about the fact that businesses spend too much time playing defence. You can’t bear to give up those lucrative streams of print revenue that your business is dependent on, so you dabble in digital. You know you’ve got to be in there, but you’re putting a toe in the water and the reality is your core business model is still built around print revenues. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve seen the emergence of the likes of BuzzFeed and Vice, because they’re building new models. The challenge for existing publishers is how to make that transition – because it’s so painful. I was at a publishing company in the UK for three years, and I loved my time at that company, it was a brilliant company – but you only have to look at the pain they’ve gone through trying to make that transition, with the elephant in the room being their digital revenues are nowhere near as lucrative as what they’ve been able to generate historically in print.

Print still has a role to play. The difference is that, historically, there’s been a mentality that a brand is for a print magazine or newspaper, and that everything else that sits around that, whether it’s digital, whether it’s experiential, is a brand extension. And I think now it’s a far more platform-neutral approach. The thing is it can actually be much easier to build something from the ground up than to take an established model and try and deconstruct it and build it back up again. 

Are M&A deals such as the one that create Edelman DABO becoming more common, or are you really forerunners at this stage?

I think we’re the forerunners. In our case, we’d reached a certain scale and had a brand portfolio that meant we were an attractive proposition, because we were working with the likes of BMW, Rolls-Royce, Nike, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, HSBC. That put us very much in the window. Ironically, you could argue that some of the smaller shops are actually better equipped to cope with the changes we are seeing, because they’ve got the flexibility to adapt to the changing circumstances. The ones in trouble are those traditional agencies that are in denial. So I think a couple of our competitors are big beasts who are again operating in that press-release factory mode. That might work for a period but it’s going to go off a cliff in the same way as those publishers who didn’t think the rivers of gold in terms of classified advertising would come to an end. If you look at that, that’s a great example of where there was nothing to stop those publishers developing those websites that subsequently come to own all that revenue. Why couldn’t the New York Times or the New York Post have developed a Craigslist? It’s because they were too busy playing defence and thinking ‘how do we protect this classified model?’ rather than ‘let’s build a new model’.

You’ve been in that region a long time on and off. What trends are you seeing and what excites you for the region at the moment?

I guess you’ve got to break it down. There’s a tendency when looking at this region to focus on Dubai, but what’s really important to convey to international attendees is that, much like Europe or indeed the US, it’s not a homogeneous entity. It’s a very diverse region culturally and geographically. So the UAE, for example, might border Saudi Arabia, but it is in many respects a very, very different country. One consistent theme, which is also a global theme, of course, is the rise of the millennials and the way they consume content. What you’re seeing here is a very clear, very visible step change between the 50-year-old Emirati – who will still read Al Bayan, the Dubai local government newspaper – versus the 20-year-old who’s on WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. That audience has gone through the roof in this region. We’re seeing a stark divide rather than a gradual divide between the generations, in terms of consumption habits. Again, why this audience is so important is that if you look at the demographics of the region, it’s fair to say that about 65 per cent of the population of the Middle East is under 25. If you then think about how those under-25s are consuming content, then whether you’re a publisher or whether you’re a communications agency – you better be thinking long and hard about what works in terms of engaging the public. Because they aren’t reading daily newspapers any more!

Right. And, coming back to your previous point, I guess the message is that if you’re on the defensive, then you’re not doing that effectively?

Absolutely right. And it’s a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality, whereby a lot of players are saying ‘we’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, but we’ll maybe have a Facebook page’. There isn’t a business strategy, a strategic approach. Rather than going back to zero and saying, ‘okay, the world has changed, what do we need to do to be the best, to have the most impact and ultimately get the revenues to move forward?, it’s like having a Ford Model T and then saying, ‘well, look, we’ll put better tyres on it and maybe put a slightly better engine in, and they’ll buy it’. They won’t move forward. 

Hear more from Jason at FIPP MEA in Dubai, taking place from 10-11 February. 

Click here to visit the website for more information and/or to register, or email FIPP’s Claire Jones or Natalie Butcher should you wish to book a delegation at a discounted rate and/or with your questions.

Other speakers at FIPP MEA include:

  • Alexander Bregman, Strategic Partnerships Development Manager, Google, France
  • Alvaro Triana, Senior Consultant, Innovation Media Consulting, Columbia
  • Anas Abbar, CEO and Co-founder, 7AWI.com, UAE
  • Ashish Bagga, Group CEO, India Today Group, India
  • Behnam Karami, Managing Director, CARAT-ICA, Iran
  • Carola York, Managing Director, Jellyfish Connect, UK
  • Charles Stuart, Associate Director, PwC South Africa, South Africa
  • Duncan Edwards, President and CEO, Hearst Magazines International, USA
  • Emma Farmer, Festival Director, Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity, UAE
  • Ian Fairservice, Owner, Motivate Publishing, UAE
  • James Hewes, Publishing Director, GN Publishing, UAE
  • Julian Artopé, Director, Ringier Africa, Kenya
  • Justin Dewhirst, EMEA General Manager, Bloomberg Media, UK
  • Linus Gitahi, independent advisor, Kenya
  • Marcus Rich, CEO, Time Inc. UK, UK
  • Mohammad Alomar, MD, Saudi Specialized Publishing Company, and Editor-in-Chief of Robb Report Arabia, Saudi Arabia
  • Nikolay Malyarov, EVP, Chief Content Officer and General Counsel, PressReader, Canada
  • Omar Khalifa, Managing Director, Omedia Publishing, Egypt
  • Peter Kreisky, Chairman, The Kreisky Consultancy, USA
  • Samir Husni, aka Mr. Magazine, Director of the Magazine Innovation Center, University of Mississippi, USA
  • Shashi Menon, Founder and CEO, Nervora, UAE
  • Sid Wahi, Director, ABN Publishing (incl. CNBC Africa & Forbes Africa), South Africa
  • Suzy Brokensha, Editor-in-Chief, Fairlady and Lose It, Media24, South Africa
  • Will Kataria, Associate Director Sales Middle East and Africa, cvent, UAE
  • And more

Register here to join them in Dubai.

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