The ad account planner. Everyday magicians.

There's been a lot of ink on the role of the advertising and marketing account planner, and with so much focus on digital and social today, this role is increasingly becoming crucial to the change that is happening in the landscape today : the huge paradigm shift from one way advertising to true engagement, from monolog to dialog.

Is the planner an unique beast? Which side of the fence does he play on? At the agency, she is a strategic consultant who helps route the client's (brands') communications strategies. So he is a client-consumer-agency connector. Ideally, she is an expert at understanding how communication content and media interact and intersect to deliver, to engage with the consumer. Some call this connection planning, some channel planning. It is strategic planning, whichever name you give to the rose.

His main tool is research. Her main output is insight. The currency the planner has in his/her wallet is ideas. It's about using data (in digital, its all data), turning that into meaningful insight and helping then convert that into effective communications. It's ideas. Ideas that are different but that resonate. Ideas that are focused but unbound from tradition and same-old, same-old. Ideas that are culturally sensitive and market realistic. It is focus and broad vision at the same time.

If you're going for heart and mind, for top-of-mind or any other part of the human action-reaction body collective, the planner's role is about being able to define the road signs so that creatives can deliver on simplicity and common sense – in the truths that lie hidden in everyday – so that the message is truthful but interesting (yes, that's a conundrum). It is persuasion.

The planner is a coach, a policeman, a conjurer. A manager of process, a timekeeper, a counselor. A lot of ad professionals believe that every account or client manager is a planner de facto. But they forget the creative side inspirational challenges that the real planner faces. The balancing act between data, insight, demographics and photoshop. The tradeoffs between Likes and brand guidelines. It is magic.

I haven't been around in this market long enough to have a little black book of names and numbers of planners who are all of the above. A handful, I know. One is an old hand at this. The other one is fresh, brimming with ideas and rearing to be the beast. Nancy Khurana, take a bow. You are trending. And the one guy who's the rock? The Original? Tahaab Rais. #Respect. Tahaab is legend. 
Then there are two more. George Giessen. Don't stand up, you can do rabbits and hats, sitting down and blindfolded. Nadine Matar? I'm told it is the genes. I think it's the pure passion. 

Here's to the best in breed...

Connected and intelligent. Dubai Smart City is bound for takeoff.

Dubai. Connected, smart, a city that has technology on its radar. And its going to be for everybody. Driven by HH Sheikh Mohammed and his son, Crown Prince HH Sheikh Hamdan, Dubai Smart City is am ambitious but achievable plan that will open up this city to a whole spectrum of digital services and infrastructure.

Many of these plans were revealed last week at Gitex – the technology conference that every one bows to in the Middle East. From apps that provide mobile access to several government e-nitiatives, connected cabs fro Dubai Taxis, healthcare services, and of course online education to the (unconfirmed) promise of public area free wi-fi – its going to leapfrog Dubai ahead of the Valley and other 'smart cities' like Santa Clara in California.

Data isn't cheap in Dubai (I mean, data bundles provided by either of the two telecom providers, du and etisalat), so the Dubai Government will have to look into that as well, but if wi-fi will be free (unconfirmed as of yet) , that's going to really open up access to the internet, get people 'socially' active, and provide several new channels of access, communications, education and other access related benefits.

The technology is here. There's a whole lot of smart phones, and 3G is commonplace, and several connections are today 4G-LTE enabled. As to whether there will be higher speeds at lower rates is crucial to the success of the plans. Further enhancements to the tech spine behind these plans will help enable people in Dubai to use government services online, in particular to manage education, healthcare and security via smart systems, whenever and wherever they are in Dubai. Arriving tourists should find these services handy, and I'm sure that many apps will be developed utilizing services and providing information, entertainment and on-the-go engagement.

The emergence of wearable technologies is important – with access anywhere, Dubai will be a breeding ground for wearable tech based ideas and platforms should be able to develop programs, apps and other tools. It will of course also have a boom effect on the digital media and advertising industries as a smart city will have smart citizens who will be targeted in smart new ways, hopefully.

From renewing your driving license and car registrations, to paying bills online, Dubai is already pretty smart in that sense. But given these fast forward plans, we'll probably see a surge in emerging digital trends like showrooming, visual search and visual web, wearable tech, tap and go NFC based parking and connected shopping. Because Dubai Smart City it's a big step towards utility and value addition, towards technology for all – its bound to succeed.

How mobile is the new first sceen

You've heard the first screen (TV), second screen (laptop/desktop) and third screen (mobile) buzzwords many times before. What's changed is which is which. Mobile is the new first screen. Today, everyone's talking about "mobile first". If your website doesn't work on mobile, you may as well admit, you're not playing on the web. If your owned media looks tiny and unreadable on mobile, please raise your hand – and start afresh. Mobile is here and big time.

Is this the death of advertising on tv as we know it? Not quite, but let's admit, tv is eroding its hold on people. Specially the younger demographic. Wallbog UK says "Mobile is the present and the future for the 18-24 year-old demographic, who use it as a first screen religiously – so it is my view that the market needs to respond by talking to them where they are, rather than to try to engage the consumer on TV or online."

In some of the markets that we operate in here in the MENA, the jump has been from tv to mobile – the African nations in particular find that mobile is easy, it's in their hands. They really don't have that much of an access to the second screen – the laptop/desktop, so most interaction, most engagement is happening via mobile. Because such a large percentage of the population here in the Middle East is under 24 (as much as 60% in some markets), mobile has really jumped to pole position. And brands better warm up to this, and adapt, and adopt.

Again, according to  surveys done in the UK as quoted in Wallblog "2,000-person UK-wide piece of research into this and found that nearly half of all 18- to 34-year-olds consider mobile their first and most important screen. Nearly one in 10 consumers turn to their mobile first to make online purchases and over 1 in 3 cite their mobile device as the screen they look at most often. Our study conclusively demonstrates the rapid ascent of mobile devices to ‘first screen’ status."

Sixty-eight per cent of all consumers said that they receive just the right amount or would like to receive more messages, with the female demographic slightly more responsive to messaging than male. The top five consumer behaviours as a result of receiving a message are downloading an app, researching online, sharing information with family and friends, visiting a store and redeeming a voucher.

Dubai to be a Smart City. Shk Mohammad announces digital transformation

Dubai is headed the digital way, and HH Shaikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, has high-tech clearly on his radar. This is heart warming for every Dubai resident and visitor – not just those of us in the digital spectrum. It remains to be seen if Dubai will be an entirely wifi connected city like Santa Clara in California. But it sure is a step in the right direction.

Shaikh Mohammad announced a project to transform Dubai into a “Smart City”, linking the emirate’s government services and the public through the use of smart devices accessed freely using high-speed wireless internet connections. With the proliferation of smartphones, the access to broadband on the rise, and the proposal to have free wifi across many city points, this is a digital vision being made alive in the here and now.

Gulf News said "Smart City’s main aim is to provide better connections and increase cooperation between the emirate and its residents. It promotes the use of government facilities using the largest possible number of smart applications". “As a smart city, government departments will be inter-connected to provide faster services and information to all citizens and guests. We strive to create a new smart concept in running cities,” Shaikh Mohammad said.

The project’s main foundation is anchored on fibre optic networks that facilitate access to high-speed internet in main public areas. Fibre optics are strands of very thin optically pure glass that carry digital information over long distances at extremely fast speeds. Gulf News added " Because of the available infrastructure for connectivity, every smartphone user will be able to access up-to-the-minute information on weather, traffic, entertainment, tourism, flights, dining, emergency services and much more, any time, anywhere. Businessmen and investors can also take advantage of the open access to smart services delivered by ports, customs and bourses."

5 Ways to use Twitter for your Brand in the Middle East

Today's newspapers talked about how Saudis were asking for better pay on twitter. See this article in Gulf News Oct 8th. The hashtag is here and doing well in the Middle East. But how are brands using the power of twitter? Most brands we know usually do a lot of one way product-bragging rather than try and create a dialog. Here are five ways I've seen that brands here in this  region can follow and engage well on twitter...

1. Engage in a dialog. Try and have an exchange rather than just do brand/product shoutouts. Basically, you are looking for conversations and ways to connect to the people out there. That's a feeling of community, of following, not preaching product benefit. And, for a brand, twitter is a lot about customer service. The key word there is service. Service as an on-going and meaningful dialog with your customers.

2. Participate. There's a golden 80-20 rule that suggests that around 4 out of 5 of your tweets should be involvement with your followers, your 'community'. Which means you need to Retweet, re-post with comments and add value. It's the sharing and caring that shows value for those who follow you and those who you want to be followers. It also shows you are on topic  and on trend and are not me-me-me. Most twitter communities in the Middle East seem to like participation and replying. They like being heard. Also, look to leverage the 'sneezers' or viral influencers.

3. Provide Value. If you are pure selling product benefits and features, you are not really going to get much out of twitter engagement. Try and provide tips, useful information, useful links, re-shares of stuff that's relevant to your genre but not necessarily about your brand. Value is about knowledge, news, information. And for your brand or product the tease-and-reveal works well. Have special offers? Twitter is the place to put those out.

4. Write well. Twitter for brands is often about mastering the art of writing a 140 character headline. Grab the attention with a clear benefit and perhaps a call to attention. The link, the photo are like the rest of the ad. It's the first few attention grabbing words that matter. Craft those well. Remember 60% of active twitter users use their mobiles. Grab the attention quickly and succinctly.

5. Stay on trend, react quick, be relevant in the now. Twitter is all about the here and now, so you can't keep tweeting about your brand, for your brand or product while asleep at the wheel. Stay on trend. Be aware of what the conversations are about and see if there's a fit. Tweet on those.  This doesn't mean you try and hijack trending hashtags. And, no point on tweeting about hot trending global topics unless they mean something to you. Geo-fence your strategy. Your topics have to be in context and be current.  No one likes yesterdays news other than fish-and-chips shops.

Twitter as a platform have made a serious commitment to the regoin and you can ask for help if you want to leverage better. Lisa Szatsznajder is Twitter Account Manager for the GCC. No, I wasn't paid to write this post. You can ask her @LisaJSz 

Tom Roychoudhury is chief innovations officer at MCN (Middle East Communications Network), one of the largest advertising, marketing, media, PR and social agency groups in the region.

10 Sure Shot ways to make Fan pages work on Facebook in the Middle East

Facebook revealed last week that there are over 28 million users who log on every day in the Middle East and North Africa. That's a large number that brands can target in the region. And about 15 million of them access the social platform via mobile. So, how do brands and their fan pages hope to succeed in reaching this large number, finding the right fans and engaging?

From having worked with several leading brands on their Facebook strategy, here's what I think works towards building successful fan engagement on Facebook in the region.

1. Be Visual
This is the best trick in the Facebook-in-the-Middle-East book. For me, this is the holy grail. I've worked with clients' brands who can't figure out why on certain days, they hardly get any Likes on their posts, and actually get drop-outs and 'UnLikes'. If you look at the insights provided by Facebook and check back, you'll quickly find the visual connection. Posts without visuals – no matter how strong on copy – hardly ever work in this region. So, post photos. Each time, every time. Specially as we recognize how many fans out there are accessing their timelines via mobile, photos are king.

2. Ask Questions.
This too works like magic. Ask fans what they want to wear. What they like eating. Which are their favorite ways to use your product. Leave room for comment and answers and engagement just seems to go sky-high via responses, Likes and shares. The questions aren't tough ones, and they don't always have to be about your brand or product – simple, everyday engagement can be had with easy, quick questions which people want to answer, where they feel their opinion and vote is important.

3. Contests
Again, like Questions, Contests work in the Middle East like magic. Facebook users, specially women, love to participate in contests – regardless of reward size. If the mechanics are simple, they will join in, they will engage. Contests have accounted for some of the most successful Facebook marketing campaigns, so look into having some on your fan page.

4. Ask for engagement
Start with a "Share this..." statement. Post a Fill-in-the-Blanks, drop in a poll, ask fans to comment. Have a clear engagement strategy which will quickly grab attention and then create a simple way for fans to engage. Start with an arresting visual and then ask for the next step – have a clear call to action.

5. Go far. Go wide. With your content.
Really, you should be talking about a wider range of topics than what your product or brand does, or your next sale. Open up and engage fans with what we call peripheral topics – have fun with these and keep it human. Facebook in the long run may be your marketing tool, but its a dialog and an engagement first, and you won't get two-way if all you talk about is you.

6. Be human. Have a voice that is recognizable as human. And be precise.
As mentioned, while going wide spectrum with content scope, be human in your approach. Be personable, approachable, real. Facebook is not advertising. So it's not about a sell. It's about how one fan used your product in a special way. Or about how you as Community Manager enjoyed the movie.
Keep your posts short. It's now pretty obvious that shorter posts (around 140c or less, just like twitter) work more in your favor than a long story.

7. Utilize Insights.
Thats what Facebook Insights are there for. Most early Facebook Social managers didn't bother with analytics, they went with gut. Fine,m but with such real time information available today, you can adapt on the fly. React, reward, run fast and quick. Check out which types of posts are working, check out what are good days and bad, good times to post for your audience – and the best part have a clear understanding of who you are talking to and engaging with. Then start over if needed.

8. Have a great visual impact with your Cover Photo and your Profile shot
That's your first impression so, make that count. Fans usually come to your Page just once or twice – make sure you create a fun, memorable impression. And your profile shot, is what they see over and over. Make sure it's clean, recognizable and is memorable.

9. To hashtag or not to hashtag?
Well, every one wants to bring social under one common voice - so they're using the one uniting hashtag (#holygrail) across all the media like twitter, instagram etc. That's OK, but Facebook isn't really a quick in-the-now, search-on-a-tag kind of medium like twitter. So, use the # only when you feel it's going to add value, when it will help fans participate and when they work with your post. Limit # usage (rule of thumb is one #) and never ride on hijacks.

10. Advertise.
Today, anywhere in the world, but specially here in the Middle East, one SURE SHOT way to grow your reach, improve your fan-base and engage is via Facebook ads. You simply cannot without using ads. Invest in Faceook ads, and you are bound to see returns. One client's posts went from 12 Likes to 9000 Likes per post with a simple ad strategy. Pay to play.

There are a few other simple things that help increase your Facebook fan page engagement quickly and easily. Because only around 10% of your fan base will ever see your ads, posting a few times more than what you would like is one chosen path. Other barnds seem to like posting Links to useful sites, infographics, How-Tos etc. Some succeed with precise Time-of-Day strategy. If you'd ask me what I would absolutely do for a brand?

I would post beautiful visuals (like Pinterest), keep my posts short (like Twitter), and have questions, how-to-use and make it funny (like YouTube). You Like?

Tom Roychoudhury is chief innovations officer at MCN (Middle East Communications Network), one of the largest advertising, marketing, media, PR and social agency groups in the region.

Facebook in the Middle East: first ever numbers released

Every one tells us that the Middle East is one big Facebook country. We also heard in a conference that Facebook are not a social media company – they are a mobile platform. So add that up: About 15 million people access Facebook in the region from a mobile or tablet computer daily!
Wall Street Journal on October 1 tells us that Facebook has revealed the number of people using the social network in the Middle East and North Africa for the first time, having launched operations in the region in May last year. About 15 million people access Facebook in the region from a mobile or tablet computer daily
The figures in the region mirror the global trend of people using Facebook, but the advertising-dollars are yet to catch up despite overall growth in digital spending, according to Jonathan Labin, head of Facebook in the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan.
“Ad spend per capita is still much lower here than in other parts of the world,” says Mr. Labin. “If you compare the time spent on digital compared with the ad spend, there’s a huge gap [in the region].”  While that sounds like a major sales push, you can't quite avoid the truth behind it.
Here are some key facts about Facebook in the region, and how they compare on a global basis.
- Every month, 56 million people are active on Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa.
- On a daily basis, 28 million people in the region log on to Facebook.
- About 33 million people access Facebook in the region from a mobile or tablet computer on a monthly basis, while 15 million are active on a mobile device on a daily basis.
- Globally, there are 1.155 billion monthly active users and 699 million daily users.
- On mobile, there are 469 million daily active users across the world.
- About 41% of global Facebook’s ad revenue in the second quarter came from mobile.
- Facebook says Just Falafel, a U.A.E.-based food franchise expanding outside the region, invested $400,000 on the social network last year and received an estimated $8 million return on its investment in revenues.
- Newsfeed is the most popular form of advertising on Facebook in the region and globally.