Five Minutes With… Mark Waugh, Global MD, Newcast, ZenithOptimedia

Branded content is rapidly gaining ground in the Middle East as digital penetration increases, says Waugh.



How much of a role does branded content currently play in the Middle East’s overall advertising industry?

Branded content is rapidly gaining in importance across the entire industry, simply because the interaction between the brand and consumer is, in this day and age, increasingly taking place online. This means that the traditional constraints of ‘advertising’ – which usually affect issues related to duration, format and environment – are no longer present. This is particularly true in the Middle East, a region which boasts the highest digital and social platform media consumption in the world. Through these new channels, brands are able to entertain or inform in a far deeper, richer way. They can also offer some additional utility value for consumers – whether through an app, an interview with an authoritative spokesperson or a personalisation tool. There is no doubt about it: thanks to the emergence of the online platform, brands can now go beyond the capabilities of traditional advertising to maximise consumer engagement.

Industry insiders say the concept of branded content hasn’t really picked up in the region. Why is that?

It just takes time for a new model to emerge when the established process – centering primarily on creating advertising ‘assets’, such as TV commercials – is so deeply entrenched. For example, clients are often unaware that they can actually produce cutting-edge branded content – whether for videos, articles, images or blogs – at scale and at speed, at an incredibly low cost. That being said, the tide is changing: this year, there were more Dubai Lynx entries for Branded Content and Entertainment than ever before. And, the winners all demonstrated just how effective and powerful this new approach could be for MENA businesses.

Clients claim it is difficult to measure ROI through branded content. How can that issue by resolved?

The truth is, 80 per cent of ROI is about identifying the right metrics for success. In that respect, the ROI challenge for branded content is no different than it is for any other communications channel. There is cumulative evidence of the sheer power of such content and its ability to shift brand perception and purchase behaviours. It cuts through clutter and engages in such a deep way – making it both memorable and valuable for consumers. So, more often than not, advertising is rejected as intrusive, but branded content is invited in and embraced. We see the percentage of total investment into this area accelerating precisely because of its powerful ROI.

Moving on, can you elaborate about VideoLab, and how you hope to leverage the strategy in the Middle East?

VideoLab is a unique collaboration between Newcast and YouTube which allows clients to understand how to exploit or unlock the unique power of online video branded content for their business. It helps clients clearly define, early on, what types of video content they can, and should, be commissioning and exactly why. The initial session brings together Newcast content strategists with native YouTube specialists to ultimately produce a brand ‘Play Book’ for video. While we initially limited VideoLab sessions to London and New York, we are actively exploring the idea of launching the initiative here in the Middle East.

Who are the main clients you work with?

As part of the ZenithOptimedia Group, we have an extensive roster of global clients including Nestlé, Telefonica and Oracle. Here in the Middle East, however, our clients include Reckitt Benckiser, Jergens, ADCB, Friesland Campina and Bel Group.

Are you looking at launching any new services in 2014?

We are currently launching our proprietary ‘Content Audit’ product here in the region. This is a data-led approach to setting a meaningful, valued content strategy for any brand across all of its potential ‘owned media’ channels. This comprises the brand website, its social channels or the live brand experiences that seem to be so impactful here in the region. We are already strong here in ‘live experience’ but this is often overlooked by content specialists. In addition, following the success of VideoLab, we are in beta right now on several initiatives with Facebook, Tumblr and Google to offer clients platform-native workshops that leverage the most of ‘native content’ in these environments.

Are there plans to expand into new territory this year?

We are increasingly being asked by clients to develop and build their actual total user experience (UX) online, so this is an area we are looking to develop further later in the year. It is certainly a logical extension of our journey with clients. We went from helping clients formulise their content and digital publishing strategy, to commissioning ‘content assets’, and now advising them on the actual holistic site experience.

Will you be hiring in the next six months?

Yes, as a growing business, we are constantly adding to our talent pool. Our aim is to attract ‘digital content natives’ – including social, mobile and SEO specialists.

What are the growth areas currently for your industry?

Brand content agencies are going to keep popping up in the next few years. This is because the client’s demand for genuine advice – on how to publish and commission content for their owned channels – is accelerating at a rapid pace.

What’s your leadership style?

My natural style is inclusive, collegiate, optimistic and enthusiastic. I also think that when it comes to any new area of innovation, you need to be immensely committed, so hopefully I serve as a good role model for our team. I would add that ‘partnership’ instinct is also a vital management trait in this ever-more fragmented and complex digital world – there are so many impressively specialist businesses, only a fool would think anyone could do it all alone.

Three tips for becoming the boss…

1. Develop a vision that you really believe in. 2. Think before you act. 3. Remember to carry your people with you at all times.

What makes the perfect employee?

In our business I would say three things. First, curiosity, because you need to keep abreast with a rapidly changing business and communications environment. Next, emotional intelligence, because what counts is how you can best influence people. And finally, a sense of humour, since we all might as well enjoy ourselves.

Define success in five words…

A shared sense of achievement.

When I’m not at work I like to…

Watch my beloved Liverpool FC play. They are finally returning to their ‘perch’ as the most entertaining team in the UK, and perhaps even Europe.