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Sun 18 Sep 2011 10:02 AM

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'Wael Ghonim will just be a footnote in history'

The big debate: did Facebook spark the Arab Spring or is social media destined to be just a footnote in history?

'Wael Ghonim will just be a footnote in history'
(L-R) Author Andrew Keen, Bob Gilbreath, chief strategy officer as US-based Possible Worldwide and Avi Bhojani, CEO of Bates PanGulf.

The numbers never cease to amaze, and never cease to rise. Last month, American adults spent a total of 53.5 billion minutes on the social networking site Facebook. Around the globe, there are now 750 million Facebook users, with much of the growth coming from this region.

Another 5.3 billion people — 77 percent of the world’s population — have a mobile phone while 2.1 billion now have direct internet access. The digital age is here and it’s here to stay.

But the bigger the growth, the bigger the issues. No industry has faced bigger challenges than media, as it tries to find ways to monetise a brand new business model. In the Middle East, just five percent of total advertising revenues last year came from the digital arena. And now there are growing voices of discontent, suggesting that the rapid rise of social media on the planet is a bad thing — destroying the foundations of society.

Last week, Arabian Business invited two of the world’s most prominent voices on the subject to debate the issues; Andrew Keen, the controversial author and contemporary critic of the internet, and Bob Gilbreath, chief strategy officer at US-based Possible Worldwide, one of the largest global digital agency networks.

To add a local perspective, they were joined by Avi Bhojani, CEO of Bates PanGulf. It didn’t take long for the sparks to start to fly. What was intended as a debate on the way forward for the digital industry quickly turned into analysis of whether the Arab Spring was a total failure, whether the entire advertising industry was founded on dishonesty, and what Mahatma Gandhi would have made of Facebook.

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Anil Bhoyrul and Claire Ferris-Lay (AB): So let’s get straight to the point. Is it essentially the case that you (Andrew Keen) think the internet is a pile of nonsense, and you (Bob Gilbreath) think it’s the greatest thing on the planet?

Andrew Keen (AK): I think the internet is complex and I’m critical of Americans who see it as a solution to problems that can’t be solved. I see it as a mirror to the way we are, it shows all our strength and weaknesses. I don’t think it’s magical but for some people it’s a kind of religion that’s been turned into a God. I’m here to demystify the internet.

AB: So you’re against social media?

AK: I don’t think everything sold is necessarily good. I’m not a great fan.

AB: But you’re on Twitter, and regularly blog?

AK: I’m a great believer in the ideal of secrecy; I’m not in favour of transparency. But my stuff doesn’t give away much about myself, and in any case some of it is lies. I certainly don’t use social media in a confessional way. I think the less we share the better off we are.

AB: If you had your way there would have been no Arab Spring?

AK: That would be a good thing wouldn’t it?

AB: Really? You believe that?

AK: I think the jury is out on the Arab Spring. Social media is not the cause of the Arab Spring; it is to do with the crisis of authoritarianism in the Arab world. Some countries like Libya are relatively unwired. And liberals in the West have over idealised the role of social media. But most of all, social media is not an effective tool for the building of democracy. It’s a beginning.

The failure of the Arab Spring is because social media does not build political parties. That’s why much of the news now coming out of Egypt is so depressing.

AB: So you think the Arab Spring has failed?

AK: At the moment it’s deeply disappointing. Social media is not a tool for making sense of what is happening in Egypt.

If you ask Egyptians whether their great revolution happened because of Facebook or Twitter, you would get blank stares.

AB: Are you claiming Wael Ghonim has been elevated to a position he doesn’t deserve?

AK: He is symbolic. When the full history of 2011 is written — and I think 2011 is like 1848 in Europe, the revolution year that never turned — I think he will be at best a footnote, I think Google and Facebook will be footnotes in history.

AB: You are saying Wael Ghonim will just be a footnote in history?

AK: I think so, yes. Wael Ghonim will be a footnote in history. Social media is not central to the narrative. The idea that social media is determining Middle East history is absurd. Look at the Polish opposition — they didn’t have social media. That’s what the Middle East should be trying to emulate, not relying on superficial social media tools.

AB: If you placed Gandhi in 2011, how do you think he would he have got on?

AK: Gandhi has been turned into an iconic brand. Gandhi was successful without social media. A better example is Mandela. What I’m looking for in Egypt is not a Facebook worker to lead the revolution. There is something about social media that enables people to jump on bandwagons and then lose interest very quickly.

AB: I wouldn’t describe Gandhi as a brand. But isn’t the case that thanks to Facebook we don't need people like Gandhi?

AK: What a ridiculous thing to say. That’s a dangerous and terrible statement.

AB: It’s a question.

AK: You are falling into a trap of believing that Facebook can start revolutions and doesn’t need leaders, that we no longer need Gandhis and Mandelas in our world.

AB: I’m saying Facebook has given momentum to millions of people in — for example — Egypt.

AK: Yes, it's given momentum but there is no centre to it.

AB: Can we turn to the business side of all this? Whether it’s a good or bad thing, no one doubts the impact and size of the digital world.

Bob, you advise clients on how to get their message across. I guess you are advising them to use digital platforms. Does this mean the end of print advertising?

Bob Gilbreath (BG): I think it has a serious problem. If your business model is putting ads in front on eyeballs, then the idea of printing something and sending it to people doesn’t seem to make sense. If publishing continues to just be ad supported, we are going to lose a lot of great publishers. I look at paywalls as a positive thing. Any business that relies on traditional advertising, I would not put my money into. The global advertising budget is half a trillion dollars and it’s not going up.

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AB: Has what Rupert Murdoch done, in charging for content, been a success or failure?

BG: Getting 100,000 people to pay something is better than 1 million people paying nothing. It is right for brands to test getting paid for their products.

AB: Most publishers in this region don’t charge for content. What would you advise them?

BG: There are different models, such as just charging people outside your region. They should start examining ways of charging for content. The thing is advertisers want to interrupt and force some data through — Facebook is putting out just $4bn in ad revenue, but once they go public and investors want to see growth, they will have to put their ads on a bigger page. And I think then people will back off and something else will come along.

AK: You have to pay for content. Do you think you are getting this meal for free tonight? Okay, maybe you won’t pay, but Avi will. You get paid, don’t you, by Arabian Business? Why do you think people should get things for free? What’s wrong with you? I was guilty of these ideals like everyone else, we all thought you could build your models by giving stuff away and generating sufficient advertising revenue. I think I agree with Bob, it is essential to pay for content. Free is one of the most ludicrous ideas ever devised. And everyone is coming around to this conclusion. I think publishers have made a fundamental error and they all pretty much acknowledge that. Free has failed on every level.

BG: My job has been to help companies evolve, and I see business people looking at the internet and applying the old rules. My message is that there are new rules coming, so do something that people choose to engage with.

I don’t think many companies are actually winning on Facebook today, even though it has 700 million users. Most people are not liking what Coca Cola says on its Facebook page or even reading their updates. There is a danger of mass marketing falling apart. The changes are upon us. But it’s not about putting banner ads.

AB: You mean do more interactive?

BG: I think Nike has shown how marketing can be successful. Old runners often keep records of their runs. What digital technology did was allow that to be recorded and shared. Instead of a campaign, it becomes a platform that keeps getting better – you can even see your altitude.

Nike says it is taking money out of TV and putting it into services. But the ad model could go away as people move towards smartphones. When you have a big screen you can expect a couple of banners. But on a personalised smartphone there are fewer banners you can fit.

Avi Bhojani (Avi B): The key is that the digital market is actually growing at faster rate here than other regions. It still only accounts for I would say less than five percent of total spend, compared to around eleven percent elsewhere. But the rate of increase is much better.

AB: Helped by the Arab Spring?

Avi B: Absolutely. I think Andrew would take a slightly different view on the Arab Spring if he lived in this region, but the Arab Spring resulted in phenomenal growth of social media — and as such opportunities for advertisers.

AB: Bob, coming back to your point; given the restrictions, are mobiles actually a bad thing for advertisers?

BG: I don’t think advertisers know what to do. They don’t know how to apply it. Consumers in the US were asked which is the least liked form of advertising — and mobile came bottom. So it’s already the least liked, and it actually barely exists.

AB: How do you crack that market then?

BG: You can be a traditional marketer like Proctor & Gamble, which does a lot of television ads and they will do for the next 25 years. But if you are Nike, you can’t even reach who you want any more. What mobile allows you to do is create an app, which you charge for. I paid willingly for mine.

In the past we made a great product then we had to find ways to manipulate our customers to like it. But now, for example, we did a stain detector app, which solves a problem that is a real problem and helps you get dirt out of cotton. You can win a loyal consumer for life that way.

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But marketing people think ‘I’ll put an ad on TV and maybe someone will buy my product’. We did some research with Vicks, the cold and cough medicine, where we redesigned the website so it actually helped people find the right medicine for them. And research showed the customers felt they were done a favour, so wanted to repay the favour by being loyal to the brand.

AB: Really?

BG: Yes, we are helping solve a problem and making people feel better. In Hyundai they did a campaign saying ‘if you lose your job, we will buy your car back, no questions asked’. And it worked incredibly well.

AK: I have to say I think that’s very irresponsible. If I start a company I should be responsible for the risks. If you are stupid enough to buy a car and then lose your job, you should pay for it. A company shouldn’t be responsible.

BG: Only 100 cars were returned in eighteen months.

AK: What you are doing is making people feel secure enough to buy something, but I am uncomfortable with this idea. You should be responsible for your purchases. The idea that Hyundai should be your insurance reflects a deeper problem.

BG: What if your insurance company does it?

AK: Look, I just don’t like the way that companies present themselves as this intimate friend of the consumer. Firstly it’s a lie; all they want to do is sell more. And secondly, it creates a dishonest relationship. When it comes down to it, the company couldn’t give a s@&# about the consumer, they only care about their bottom line. This is deep dishonesty. There is a spiral of dishonesty. Advertising is always a lie, but some lies are worse than others. The idea that a brand should really care about your welfare is such nonsense.

BG: That’s not the case.

AK: It is. Look at Google, it is as good or evil as any other company but corporations try to seize the Sermon on the Mount. Google, Apple, they all exist purely for profit. You can lie about your product, saying you will feel better if you buy this. But don’t say you care about the people, you don’t.

BG: Does social media and transparency not make our lives better? For example, fewer people are cheating on their wives because they could get caught.

AK: What’s your point?

BG: That social media can make lives better.

AK: That’s classic American puritan nonsense.

BG: The transparency of the world because of digital technology has put people under more pressure to be good, because someone could easily find out if you have been bad.

AK: I don’t care, I’m not a puritan. There are digital puritans and they trouble me.

AB: Does social media actually make it easier to lie?

AK: Yes it does. In the old media world there were clear gatekeepers. I don’t buy the idea that social media makes us more honest. That’s a trap. It’s easier to lie. I could make everything up on my Twitter account, nobody would know or care.

Avi B: The issue here though is that if we don’t switch fast enough, Google will take over our industry. For 135 years we have been operating as the middle man. We sell media for clients and take a percentage. Now a platform like Google can connect the marketer to the consumer without the need for people like ad agencies and marketing and communication companies. The cheese has moved.

AB: How do you monetise digital then?

Avi B: We don’t know yet. We know about print media but we don’t really know well enough how to make money from digital. I have had some discussions with the New York Times Company and they are waking up to the fact that they are doing more to the value creation of companies than investment banks.

Media creates more value than investment banks. A positive story in the Wall Street Journal makes a big difference to the value of the stock. But your only revenue stream is advertising.

AB: How do you change this?

Avi B: Look at Times of India, they have created a venture fund and taken a stake in the business of other companies and in return give free ad space and editorial space.

As an example, if you said you are going to engage with a publicly listed company, and our reward is how what we write can move your stock. We would take a percentage of that.

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AB: I think you would soon end up in jail. You are suggesting that media companies should have strategic alliances with companies they write about?

Avi B: What’s wrong with that?

AB: It’s illegal.

Avi B: I think it is an area that can be explored more. Ad agencies have such relationship, so do investment bankers, so do loads of people. Why not media companies?

AB: Can you summarise where you think we are at this point in time?

AK: I think we are living in peculiar times. On the one hand we are obsessed with authenticity and honesty and on the other hand our media is increasingly dishonest. It’s true of everything in life and it explains the breakdown in respect for authority.

We have to be more honest with each other. I am against excessive lies. Why are we sitting here having dinner right now? You want your story, and I want a free meal. There are no illusions here.

AB: On that note, thank you all for joining us and goodnight.

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Andrew Keen

Author and social analyst Andrew Keen is no stranger to technology. The author spent several years working in Silicon Valley during the 1990s on several internet-based projects including Audiocafe.com and AfterTV.

Despite several years working at the heart of the technology industry, Keen is renowned for his controversial views on technology and the rise of the internet. In 2006, the Brit published an essay in The Weekly Standard in which he brandished Web 2.0 as being similar to Marxism for its hand in destroying professionalism and making it impossible to find high quality material amidst the user-generated web content.

Keen’s 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, picked up where his essay left off. The book is a commentary on the ways in which the internet is being taken over by amateurs who are undermining professional industries such as media and the music industry.

The book is highly critical of social networking sites such as YouTube and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and even predicts the demise of the professional music and media industry within 25 years.

The New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, praised Keen for his “shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers”.

Bob Gilbreath:

Bob Gilbreath is the chief strategy officer at US-based Possible Worldwide, one of the largest global digital agency networks. Gilbreath leads Possible’s strategic planning teams and is responsible for advising clients such as Proctor & Gamble, Samsung and Red Bull on the trends and technologies that matter most to their business, namely the internet. Gilbreath released his book, The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with your Customers by Marketing with Meaning, in 2009. The book describes how the old interruptive model of marketing, such as banner ads, is no longer working, and how consumers have tuned out to ‘in your face marketing’ messages. Instead, he argues, they are demanding meaning in the brands they buy and the marketing that reaches them. The book highlights examples of companies that have successfully moved beyond the traditional forms of marketing. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and Samsung’s laptop and mobile phone charging outlets are both hailed for their revolutionary approach to marketing. Gilbreath’s writing has been featured in Adweek and Entrepreneur and he has spoken at Google and appeared on ABC News. In 2010, he was named one of the iMedia 25 internet marketers and innovators.

Avi Bhojani

Avishesha ‘Avi’ Bhojani is the part owner and CEO of Dubai-based agency Bates PanGulf.

Bhojani started his career in the UAE as a strategist with Gulf News in the 1980s. Since then he has been instrumental in setting up some of the emirate’s major retail initiatives and business hubs. Among his accomplishments are the Dubai Shopping Festival, Dubai Summer Surprises and Dubai Internet City.

Bhojani launched BPG in 1980 but his 30-plus year career spans industries such as advertising, investments, publishing, private equity and government. Bhojani is also the managing director of Innoventure Educational Investments LLC and a board member of Dubai Private Schools Group, as well as Pan IIM Alumni Network Ltd.

As one colleague explains of Bhojani: “Whoever you know, Avishesha probably knows his boss.”