Ali Akawi is in a hurry. The CEO and owner of ITP Media Group, the publisher of Arabian Business, shuffles some papers on his desk, searching for his calculator. He takes a quick glance at a folder of spreadsheets, types in a few more numbers, and then looks up again with a broad smile.
“That’s it. $150,000. That’s probably what it will cost me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this good about investing that kind of money,” says Akawi.
The head of the UAE’s largest media group, with over 200 journalists, more than 100 brands and a 30 million-plus audience reach every month, is working out the likely cost of getting licences for every one of the influencers signed to ITP Live, the social media agency ITP Media Group launched in January last year.
Not that he has a choice, of course. Last month, the UAE’s National Media Council announced a new set of regulations governing electronic media in the country.
By the end of June, anyone conducting “commercial activities” through social media channels will need to register – and pay – for a government-issued licence. We now know that will cost AED15,000 and, like a trade licence, will be valid for a year.
In short, it means that anyone seeking to leverage their social media followings to advertise products will need to be licensed.
For Akawi, who has 30 social media influencers on the books of ITP Live, that could mean a bill of $150,000. But it is one he is more than willing to pay. “There are two aspects to this new law – the first is who should pay the licence fee? Well I think it’s simple. If you are signed up to ITP Live, and don’t forget we are extremely careful who we take on, then as your agency we will pay for the licence. It’s our job to, it’s our duty. And every social media agency should do the same for the influencers on their books,” Akawi says.
He adds: “The second aspect, and I think this is the really important one, is that these new regulations are the best thing that has happened to the industry because it will provide proper directives. For us to license an influencer, we will first have checked who they are and validated all their numbers. And we will also be extremely careful what products and brands they are promoting. I’ve actually been calling for more regulation since the day we launched ITP Live, even though it will add to our costs. But this industry is growing fast, and major media companies like ITP have to lead the way.”
The numbers already bear that out. In 2017, its first year of existence, ITP Live accounted for a significant five percent of ITP’s total revenues. By the end of 2019, Akawi believes that could be as high as 20 percent.
“The industry is changing so you have to adapt,” he says. “Look at some of the influencers on ITP Live’s books today. Their reach can now be measured in the millions. Think about that: these people not only have direct access to an audience of millions, but we know who those people are, where they are, what their age group is and what they’re interested in. That is the perfect mix for an advertiser. That’s the media world today.”
Akawi adds: “And the great thing is that these new regulations will also make the barriers to entry higher so I think only really talented influencers will survive long term, which can only be a good thing.”
For Akawi, the new regulations are just one of many pressing issues in his in-tray as he grapples with a rapidly changing media landscape – much of which has changed again since he took over as CEO of the Dubai-based media giant last January.
From being the region’s top magazine publisher a decade ago, when Akawi, then a sales director, was rising up the ranks, the company has become a multi-platform content generator. You see many things in Akawi’s office, but not many copies of the 100 plus monthly and weekly titles the company publishes.
“Don’t get me wrong, magazines are still a big part of what we do, and that is our history. But I look at the whole picture of content creation, which is digital, print, videos, social media and events.
A few years back, if you take a title like Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, we would talk about the total print circulation of the magazine. Now you can go on our website and find, in real time, the total reach – which encompasses all these platforms,” he says, quickly pointing to a figure of 790,875 .
“It’s about audience and engagement. Delivering the largest audience with the highest engagement. That’s what our website says, and that sums up what we do every single day,” he says.
The push into video content has also been a key part of the group’s new strategy, with 20 new YouTube series launched across six major brands.
A chunk of cash has gone into fitting out two brand new, fully equipped video studios in the company’s Media City offices. And like the $150,000 he will soon spend on his social influencers, Akawi believes it is money well spent.
“You have to go with your instinct sometimes. When I sat with some of my editors last year to discuss launching our YouTube channels, quite a few said it would never work. Well, in the last 90 days some of these channels have had over one million minutes of viewing time. People no longer just consume our content in print. They go online, they watch videos. And we need to give them what they want. It’s not rocket science.”
He adds: “We also have the huge advantage of being able to leverage our mainstream media brands with our social media strategies.”
But a decade down the line, with print advertising under constant pressure, just how will the media landscape look? How many of ITP Media Group’s brands will even have a print version? “The answer is: nobody knows. A few years ago we were being told by the ‘experts’ that the iPad would kill off magazines in the print version. That never happened. Six years ago, News Corp launched an iPad newspaper that was going to change the world, only to get shut down a year later.”
The only thing that is certain, Akawi says, is that the media industry is in a state of evolution. And for ITP Media Group, that means staying ahead of the curve. “Consumers today can choose multiple platforms to receive their content on. Our job is to be there to provide them with both the best platforms and the best content.”
So far, he is doing just that.
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