'There is enough business to go around' - POP communications on UAE's competitive PR landscape

Zainab Imichi Alhassan and Sarah Curtis - co-founders of POP Communications - say while budgets are shrinking, the UAE offers plenty of opportunities for established brands and start-ups.

The PR market in the Middle East is leapfrogging more advanced markets and - despite a competitive landscape - there is enough business to go around for established firms and newcomers, according to the duo behind a young UAE communications shop.

Zainab Imichi Alhassan and Sarah Curtis - co-founders of POP Communications - say while the Middle East has different market requirements than more established markets, it’s a flourishing landscape for entrepreneurs.

"Public relations in the Middle East is on par with the rest of the world or, dare I say, even more advanced in some places," said Imichi Alhassan. "Of course we have our challenges but it’s just our way of adapting to the market.

"The PR industry in the UAE is very competitive with thousands of agencies offering the same scope of services, but there is obviously enough business to go around as new agencies launch into the market successfully all the time."

Curtis agrees, adding: "We have seen that both boutique agencies and global conglomerates can operate successfully in the same space. Businesses in the Middle East have different marketing requirements and budgets, some lean towards boutique agencies like ours, while others prefer to work with global ones."

Curtis said agencies need to adapt its ideas when considering local cultural sensitives. In some cases, she points out, "global brands approach us with their marketing plans, which occasionally needs to be localised given the market can be a challenge.

"However, The UAE is a great place to start a business, the country really supports and encourages those who want to set out on their own. As a start-up, you also have access to international teams with multicultural insights."

Two years old

POP Communications marks its two year anniversary in August. It has grown from a team of three to a team of 10 and serviced almost 60 clients on retainer and project basis. Most of its clients have been with POP since the start.

This year the agency moved into a new office, hired a director to its leadership team and has begun working with global brands such as Bioderma and Nutribullet.

"Our F&B portfolio is growing with a combination of international brands such as Joe & Seph’s and Walnut Grove, and successful homegrown brands such as NRTC Fresh, Urban RetrEAT and Catfish. This is a growing sector for us," Curtis said.

"In the next 12 months, we hope to grow our travel and tourism portfolio as well. We are also going to expand our creative and digital team."

One of the big changes that the Middle Eastern market industry has experienced in the last 12 months is the move towards digital marketing. Even traditional PR agencies are now hiring digital and social media teams to integrate with their services.

"I think the communications industry at large is undergoing a transformation. Budgets are shrinking and there are no more gatekeepers thanks to digital access," Imichi Alhassan explained.

"Which means the comms agency of the future will need to be integrated to include PR, social media, paid advertisements, influencer marketing, creative and events. Clients no longer want to deal with five agencies for their marketing needs, it’s expensive and time-consuming. The future is pointing towards a one-stop shop. We are already doing this and I see other agencies taking the steps to become integrated agencies as well."

Curtis says the duo have also noticed that marketing budgets from brands increase for influencer marketing: "For example, we now have some clients that only spend on influencer marketing.

"We’re noticing more and more that brands are being more selective in which influencers they want to collaborate with.

"Gone are the days where a number of followers are the most important metric for potential collaborations – now brands want to work with people whose values closely match their own, even if they only have a few thousand followers.

"We’re also seeing consumers becoming savvier – they know when an influencer’s sponsored post feels too staged or not in line with the person’s brand and they won’t want to buy the product."

While the UAE is the launchpad for POP Communications, the duo says the region also offers exciting opportunities.

Imichi Alhassan said: The UAE, in particular, is an aspirational market, and people are influenced to spend when they see a brand has a certain buzz around them. For established brands, PR is just as important as they will be up against other big international brands who are making noise. Having a local PR representative is important for brands to know how best to communicate with their target audience.

"Also, Saudi Arabia is cooking up some exciting stuff and will be a hot market soon, followed by Kuwait and Egypt."

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