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Sun 10 Mar 2013 09:16 AM

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Ahmed Dawood interview: Social skills

How social media agency Phenomena is taking the digital marketing world by storm

Ahmed Dawood interview: Social skills

When Ahmed Dawood spotted a gap in the market, he pounced. Seeing how reluctant companies were to take the leap into social media, he put his knowledge on the topic to good use and created a business which helps brands thrive in the digital age. He spoke to StartUp about Phenomena, and how it’s taking social marketing by storm.


Spotting a gap in the market takes a certain skill, but it’s by no means a guarantor of success. When you combine that skill with technical ability and business sense, however, you could say the results can be phenomenal.

This is just what happened for Ahmed Dawood, whose company Phenomena is providing businesses across the UAE with strategic social media campaigns, helping them thrive in a marketplace which is still relatively new to online marketing.

Born in the UAE but growing up in the USA until returning in 2010, Dawood explains how a job search led him to see how he could make a difference in the emirates.

“I had a few interviews lined up with some big companies when I came back here. When I was interviewing I tried to persuade them to be more socially active but the companies were a bit afraid to go social.

“I saw the gap and hence started Phenomena. This region really stands out with that gap and now I’m trying to close it.”

The lack of activity in digital areas alerted Dawood to the idea that his know-how could benefit a variety of industries in the UAE, as well as bringing it up to speed with other parts of the world.

He says: “We saw a big change towards the end of last year and there will be a bigger change during 2013. Companies are starting to see the need for social media. I always tell my clients that social media is like websites in the early 2000s. People said ‘who needs websites?’ but look now. It’s the same way with social media.

“If a company doesn’t have social media in five years time at the latest, it might not even exist.”

According to, there are 3.41m Facebook users in the UAE, as well as 2.1m LinkedIn users, 305,000 Twitter users, and a fast-increasing number of Google+ users. With the Emirates recording 2.5m tweets per day, and the country counting nearly six million internet users among its population of 8.26m, online marketing is fast becoming one of the most important tools for any business.

The growing importance of social media marketing is not lost on the vast majority of companies in the UAE, and rather than a lack of desire to establish such an online presence, Dawood perceives that their reticence is born out of fear.

“When I approached companies I felt the general managers knew they had to be socially active but were afraid,” he says.

“They all had plans to go social but didn’t know how to move forward. They were worried they may get bashed online. You can’t let that stop you from getting your message out there.”

One way that Dawood and Phenomena tries to break down those fears and foster confidence in potential clients is to give them examples of the high-profile successes the company has had in a relatively short space of time.

“I show them what we’ve done in the past to reassure them it’s important to take the next step.

“We started off with hotels and tourism boards. We did work for Shaza Hotels, a subsidiary of Kempinski. When we got them socially active they could see how directly they could link with their crowd.

“I think that’s one of the easiest ways to build a reputation in terms of getting word out there. We show companies how they can get more social engagement with their audience. While working with Burger Fuel we tried to get them to give things away – incentives to their customers. It creates engagement; it puts them in touch with their customers.

“ When we show them what we’ve done in terms of our work, they can see that we can make a difference.”

Dawood points to camera giants Nikon as Phenomena’s prime case study, remarking on the speed with which he could raise its profile among the public.

“When they opened here they wanted to get up to par with the rest of Nikon around the world,” he says.

“We created very engaging content which helped people share what was being posted. We got 40,000 ‘likes’ in four months, and we’re now at about 190,000. We’re very proud of what they have been able to achieve.

“If it’s done properly your brand can get exposure out there. We’re trying to help build local brands – some of those we work with are very big but they don’t know how to get the social media side of things out there. A lot of companies don’t have regional pages and that’s one of my biggest focuses, to get them regionally active.”

A measure of the growing success of Phenomena’s work with Nikon in the Middle East and Africa is that since talking the number of Facebook fans has increased yet further to 228,000. These fans do not only come from the Middle East and Africa, but from as far away as France, Germany, UK, USA, Nepal and Australia, making the most of the 971.5m Facebook users worldwide.

As an entrepreneur, Dawood is well aware not only of the importance of tapping into these growing number of social media users, but also of how vital it is to keep a tight budget. Something he applies to his own company as well as clients.

“I’m in Ras al-Khaimah free zone. I thought it was the easiest in terms of the pricing and ease of set up. Places such as Media City cost a fortune and as a start-up I needed to be careful with my money. As a marketing person I believe marketing collateral should be spent on the marketing itself.

“I spend a lot of my time online. LinkedIn is very helpful, I find, as a means of building brand reputation. Being in the region I was able to locate and use some of their resources.

“Most companies spend a fortune on PR and advertising agencies. They spend hundreds of dollars in campaigns. Social media is a fraction of what they spend in billboards.”

Pitching Phenomena as a boutique firm, Dawood wants to be able to spend a lot of time working with each client, or as he prefers to call them, partners. He believes the personal approaching, working alongside each other, brings the best results.

“There are a lot of big agencies who do things in a very commercial way. It’s less personal. I don’t want to be like that – I want to give clients the personal touch. I actually prefer to call them partners because it shows that level of working together.

“You can only have a small number of clients when you’re a boutique firm, but it means you can offer a level of service that really makes a difference.”

Working directly with general managers and marketing directors, Dawood helps to put together a marketing plan tailored specifically to that company’s character.

“We brainstorm about marketing objectives, what their marketing plans are, and then we customise their Facebook page, Twitter account, or whatever they might have.

“We like to include the direct marketing plans and then add the more fun stuff. The fun aspects may not be directly related to the brand but it’s a way of keeping customers engaged.

“We don’t want to fill customers’ pages with ads – you end up spamming people that way, which we’re trying to avoid. We want people to engage, so posting about Christmas, New Year, and things like that are things that people will get in touch about.”

Phenomena’s service doesn’t just stop at social media; something that Dawood feels is a real benefit to the company’s partners.

“What we offer is not just social media, but a lot more. Business development, deal making, marketing, and so on – we can be on hand to help companies with a lot more than just social media, and I think our partners value that, knowing they can come to us and ask us to do more.”

The personal service means that Dawood and the Phenomena team can keep their partners up to date with industry developments, which is vital in such a fast-moving market.

According to Actiance Inc, a software company that provides social media compliance and monitoring services to businesses, Facebook made an average of 41 changes per week in 2012. LinkedIn and Twitter each made up to four changes weekly.

“I spend a lot of my time sending out regular newsletters to clients,” he says.

“Facebook and Twitter are changing every week and we are constantly taking this info to the partners. Education is part of the service that we offer. It’s fairly easy for us to keep track of the changes because us agencies are kept up to date with what’s going on, but it’s important that we take this to the clients and keep their social media up to date.

“Similarly we always ask our clients to keep us up to date with their news and what they are doing or changing internally, so that we can ensure we’re doing the best for them that we can. Some of the information they share with us is confidential or time sensitive, which really shows their confidence in us.”

Confidence is something Dawood shouldn’t be short of given his company’s success is the space of just a couple of years. It’s clear that in such a competitive market, he has something of a phenomenon on his hands.