Dubai-based luxury PR and events company, The Qode last week announced a strategic partnership with European firm The Independents and its founding agencies, Karla Otto and K2. Dipesh Depala and Ayman Fakoussa tell CEO Middle East what the deal means for their company
How did this partnership come about?
Ayman Fakoussa: The relationship with Karla Otto dates back to when I was at Villa Moda and they were my PR agency. Prior to them I’d worked with some really bad agencies and The Qode was born out of asking ourselves how we would build our own agency. So Karla Otto has always been the benchmark for us, and we developed a friendship over the years. Then last year Karla Otto and K2 merged to form The Independents and shortly after that, Dipesh and I were in Paris and we met with Karla and Isabelle Chouvet, the founder of K2. It was our first time to meet Isabelle and it quickly became very clear as to what we wanted to do.
How did you put the deal together?
Dipesh Depala: Isabelle came to Dubai and visited our offices and we talked about how we could work together. And then we had a lot of calls and meetings over the next few months and finally they came to us with an offer for us to be their operational partners in the Middle East. They made an investment in our company and so we’re now part of The Independents network and their 12th office internationally. For our clients it’s a huge advantage as it gives them one place to go for their global PR and event needs.
And how does that work in practice now that you’ve joined forces?
AF: Essentially it’s business as usual for our clients. The premise of The Independents is that each company works as they’ve always done, because they know their regional markets. The difference is that it gives us access to more resources and global expertise. For example, K2 are a major player in the events industry for luxury brands such as Cartier who they’ve worked with for many years, while Karla Otto has a very strong digital team that we can learn from.
The premise of The Independents is that each company works as they’ve always done, because they know their regional markets
Do they get a percentage of the business?
AF: Yes, but we’re not revealing the figure. We look at it now as one company and the exact percentages don’t matter.
The whole media, PR and advertising landscape has changed dramatically. How has The Qode reacted to this?
DD: What we do at The Qode today is nothing like what we were doing three years ago, and it’s the same for publishers. Everyone’s a content creator and that in itself opens up a much wider audience for us to target. Being part of a global network will help keep us up-to-date with these changes. For example, we went to two Independents seminars and listening to what people are doing globally was incredible. In China all you need in your life is WeChat, for everything from banking, shopping and payments to retail and conference calls. And there are WeChat influencers, with these full-on brand campaigns. Literally everything is happening on there and we got an insight into what these super-advanced markets are doing. That gives you a glimpse as to how the market can change significantly.
Can you give us some examples of how you’ve changed the way you do business?
AF: From a PR perspective we used to deal with a specific number of editors and magazines and there was a global industry standard to the way things worked. Then came the birth of influencers and it changed the expectations of brands. Our targets and KPIs used to be based on print, and then digital, and now they’re also based on influencer campaigns. From an events perspective, people’s expectations have gone up a lot – they really want a unique experience.
Can you give any examples?
DD: When we started this journey you’d be invited to a launch in a shopping mall and you’d have a full house. Now that’s not going to draw anyone no matter who you have in your store; it needs to be different every time to be engaging. We recently did an event with Givenchy Beauty in the basement of the QE2. We created this underground, forbidden experience – without being too risqueé – that went with the theme of the fragrance. And of course the celebrity aspect is now also a big part of what’s required, plus you need to have Instagrammable moments –places, objects or interesting installations that people will photograph. Shareability is one of the key factors of any event.
How many influencers genuinely add value to brands?
DD: The right people used in the correct way can be very beneficial. Although a lot of people get it wrong – in which case it can be detrimental.
AF: In some industries, for example in beauty, we’ve seen influencer marketing have an almost immediate effect on sales. There are cases where a new lipstick is promoted by a specific influencer and it sells out within minutes. These cases exist, they can’t be denied. But it’s not a one size fits all business. A beauty influencer won’t sell a Mercedes to anyone.
Can you share some specific examples of influencer success stories?
AF: We’ve worked with some Kuwaiti beauty bloggers who have real influence and there’s a whole business model, boutiqaat.com, where each influencer has their own online boutique. Some of the biggest brands in the world are jumping on this bandwagon because it is leading to sales.
What we do at The Qode today is nothing like what we were doing three years ago, and it’s the same for the publishers
Going back to The Qode, you’re interested in philanthropy as a company...
DD: We’ve always had this at the heart of what we do. But we wanted our employees to feel involved, so we recently asked our teams to select a charity they are passionate about and gave them two working days a year to volunteer for them. CSR is a buzzword, but to us it’s not about ticking a box; it’s about having an effect and doing it from the heart.
That’s clearly the right thing to do, but does it also help with employee retention?
DD: It’s one of the things that helps. We value our employees immensely and we value the work environment. So we’re flexible in how they manage their time and we encourage remote working. We give some employees an extra ten days on top of their holiday to work from their home country. We have predominately women in the company and there’s a lot of flexibility for the mothers to do what they need to do. And we let people work around the traffic situation if, for example, they live in Sharjah. There is no point sitting in traffic for two or three hours per day. It doesn’t help anyone.
Do enough companies here think about the longevity of their employees?
DD: There’s a huge amount of turnover in our industry, whereas a lot of employees have been with us for five years and above, which is a lot for our industry. It’s short sighted the way people are expected to give their entire lives for work – there has to be time for family and friends.
What else has helped your business?
AF: One thing that was really instrumental is our partnership with endeavor.org. We owe a lot of the changes that have happened to the expertise of their amazing mentors who offer their time free of cost, which goes back to that ecosystem of giving back.