CEO Spotlight: Andrew Wood, Al Barq Digital, Dubai

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

This month, in the CEO Spotlight, we welcome Andrew Wood, CEO, Al Barq Digital, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Al Barq Digital is the first media brand launched by Abu Dhabi Media Digital Out of Home (AD Media DOOH), an umbrella company operating in the UAE and wider Middle East region.

  1. How did someone with such an English/American name end up working in Dubai? What is your background and how did you get into DOOH?

    I was born and bred in England as my name suggests, but for the past three or so years, I have been based in Dubai. I’ve always had a passion for technology and innovation. Couple this with an entrepreneurial nature and some great experiences working overseas throughout my career, and perhaps it isn’t so surprising that I ended up here running a digital signage business in the UAE.

    I spent the early part of my career working in the emerging computer market, which gave me my first taste of working overseas in the USA, where I led a specialist software business. I moved back to London with The ORACLE Corporation and over the course of the next decade I held a number of senior level positions, first with professional services firm Accenture in the EMEA region, and later with Ernst and Young as UK Sales Director.

    As the global Internet phenomena kicked off, I joined as board member of a small fast growing software company, which subsequently floated on the London Stock Exchange. I then successfully grew and sold a venture capital backed software company and was chosen to lead a media subsidiary of a London Stock Exchange listed FTSE 100 company.

    I was first exposed to the world of digital signage in 2001 when I founded a media agency in London. After growing and selling the business in 2006 to a private equity company that created the ENQII digital software business, I started looking for my next challenge. Whilst visiting the Middle East, I saw what a great opportunity existed for a DOOH business in the region, as there was very little in the way of below-the-line advertising opportunities and means for brands to establish closer relationships with consumers. I quite literally bought myself a one-way ticket to Dubai, met some like-minded people at Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) who were keen to invest in this area, and the rest is history as they say.

  2. Your company is government-owned. How does that affect your freedom to make decisions in terms of expanding your product line, regional and/or international growth?

    Being part of Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) puts us in a strong position for growth, and quickly, thanks to the robust financial backing we have. In difficult economic times when many DOOH companies across the globe struggle or fold completely, we have been able to invest in class-leading technologies creating Intellectual Property. As a government backed entity, we’re seen as a trusted vehicle to hold media rights, which enables numerous conversations with estate owners and other stakeholders. We also benefit from the deep understanding of local and regional markets and existing strong relationships that ADMC already has.

    Whilst you may assume that being government owned limits the freedom we have, this has refreshingly not been the case. AD Media DOOH has been purposefully set us up as an independent subsidiary and legal entity in its own right to ensure we have the right platform for future growth and regional and international expansion. ADMC has built a strong reputation for being an innovative media company and it supports us whole heartedly in our plan to move fast, grow quickly and capitalize on every opportunity we have.

  3. You currently offer one product for which you’ve already been expanding its capabilities. What are your plans for expanding your product line or further adapting your current product? What would you like to see next?

    AD Media DOOH will be operating in three main areas: indoor, outdoor and mobile. We’ve launched our first indoor solutions as you have seen with our 65” high definition advertising screens and interactive touch screen kiosks in malls. We also currently offer some different size indoor screens, depending on mall requirements, and have recently launched a mini version of our Digital Media Unit (a Mini D), which will be used in a number of private media networks launching this year. Given the constant high temperatures in the UAE, and the fact that people spend more time in malls in this region than anywhere else in the world, launching indoors first made perfect business sense for us.

    Whilst we may have appeared quiet on the outdoor DOOH front, we have been making plenty of headway in this area behind the scenes. We can’t tell you specific details yet, but, as a government-backed company, we have access to some fantastic buildings and locations in the region and we’re exploring new format screens, architectural building wraps and plenty of innovative solutions in this area that we look forward to sharing with you in 2011.

    This month you’ll also see our mobile offering come to life as our interactive wayfinding solution and downloadable mall map and store guide launches in Dubai Festival City shopping mall. Based on what we’re seeing both in our region and globally, we expect mobile marketing, location-based services and screen interactivity to dominate many of our capabilities in future months.

    So, what next? Our mission as a business is to empower the consumer in their relationships with the brands they are interested in and to drive engaging, quality and profitable two-way relationships. So, whilst we have a good idea of where our business is going over the next 12-18 months, we keep actively listening to brands, agencies and consumers to understand their needs and that will ultimately dictate where we grow and evolve as a business. I genuinely believe that exciting times lie ahead in our sector as a whole and not just from what I am seeing in the Middle East.

  4. The laws in Dubai, I believe, allow a lifestyle that is somewhat different from some of your neighbouring countries in your region. How does that affect your product and company growth? And are there any countries into which you cannot expand at this time?

    The UAE has a progressive regulatory business environment which is reflected by its ‘hub’ status. While it comprises a diverse and multicultural society, and a more liberal outlook and cosmopolitan atmosphere, it is essential to respect the etiquette and cultural values of the country. In our case, when it comes to the content we show on our screens, we have to review all adverts we receive to ensure they are suitable for the local market audience and will not cause offense.

    So, whilst we have additional things to consider due to where we are located (and there will be some countries that we will look to secure a local partner to enter), there is practically nowhere that we can’t go. We have purposefully set up our company structure with this in mind. Whilst our company name is AD Media DOOH, you will see us operating under different media brands as we roll out internationally. This year, we have launched the Al Barq Digital brand (which means ‘lightning’ in Arabic) to cover the MENA region, and but we look forward to setting foot into western markets across Europe and North America in 2011, where we will operate under a more suitable westernised brand name relevant to those markets.

  5. You planned to have more than 300 of your first product – a combination of interactive advertising and wayfinding – available by Q1, 2011. Are you on target? How many have now been deployed, where, and how are they being used/received?

    We have just finished installing our first network in Dubai Festival City and are about to embark on rolling out to another three malls in the UAE with whom we have recently finalized agreements. Our latest projections place us 34% ahead of our target of 300 screens by the end of Q1 2011, so we’re in a really strong place and all early signs are good.

    At ADMC we have been planning our DOOH company for quite some time and, typically, it’s only when it’s in the ground that people really sit up and take notice. It’s early days, but the initial feedback from consumers, agencies, brands and mall/estate owners is extremely positive. Better still, when your competitors call you up and tell you they like what you’re doing, it makes you think you must be doing something right.

  6. Abu Dhabi Media Company, of which you are a subsidiary, has TV channels, radio networks, newspapers and magazines. Does your company develop any convergent campaigns with these other media? Does the same sales company (who?) handle advertising sales for all?

    The capability to run truly integrated campaigns across all of our media platforms provides ADMC with a great advantage and there have already been some great examples of this for recent key launches and charitable campaigns, which have run across TV, print, radio, online and digital signage. Currently, we’re working with our sister brands to roll out the first integrated QR code campaign across all media. What is certain is that 2011 will see more new launches for ADMC, and integration becoming an even bigger focus. AD Media DOOH will, of course, be playing an active part in that.

    ADMC operates all of their media sales in-house, as we look to offer a one-stop shop for brands and agencies. Whilst each of the business areas has their own dedicated sales team, including AD Media DOOH (we currently have two Out-of-Home sales specialists), the teams are closely aligned, share commercial leadership and sales management systems, working together to provide integrated solutions for all of our advertisers.

  7. Tell us a bit about your advertising mix. Who are some of your biggest advertisers, local, national and international?

    At present we are not ‘revenue live’. We’re new, our technologies are offering a high degree of integration and this is the first time we are live in a real environment. No matter how much lab testing is done, there are always anomalies you can’t account for, especially in the busy public environments, and it’s essential that everything is working perfectly before we take on paid advertising. Quality is really important to us and we aim to deliver this in everything we do, starting with rigorous testing as we roll out to prevent any risk to brand and advertiser campaigns.

    Another primary driver in us waiting to go ‘revenue live’, is that, as we all know, advertisers demand reach and one mall network alone does not deliver this. So, as soon as we have finished installing our first network in Dubai Festival City, we will move swiftly on to the next three malls with which we have recently finalized agreements. On this basis, we’re looking to kick off paid for campaigns in Q1 2011, when we will be able to offer the required advertiser reach and a fully tested operational network in which everyone can be confident.

    In the interim period, we have access to the huge portfolio of brands and campaigns from our parents ADMC, so we haven’t had to rely on the ‘call for advertising’ generic content you often see on many new networks. We’ve purposefully used the implementation and test period to showcase the latest campaigns for our TV, radio and print brands. This has included supporting important new product launches such as English Premier League Football (EPL) and National Geographic Al Arabiya magazine. We’ve also been able to actively experiment with different creative executions, call-to-action messages and interactivity to gain some initial campaign response metrics that we can show to potential advertisers we are talking to. So, whilst we’re yet to launch paid-for ad campaigns, our sales team have been out in the market talking to everyone about us. Awareness of our solutions is high and, ultimately, we feel lucky to have been able to showcase some great engaging content from day one.

  8. Does your product use proprietary software or whose software backs your units? And who manufactures the units for you?

    Something that we’re really proud of is that all of our products and solutions have been conceived, designed, developed and produced in the UAE. Whilst we may source services and components internationally (our screens come from Taiwan, for example), we have a factory here in the UAE where they all come together in their final form. So, from our solid state media players that generate next-to-no heat, to state-of-the-art counting systems that deliver audience impact to a high degree of accuracy, our bespoke Linux-based content management system, the purpose-built interactive kiosk software and our printer, credit card reader, Bluetooth capabilities and mobile wayfinding – our team have worked with some of the leading companies in these areas to build bespoke software and functionality that is totally fit for the purposes for which we need them.

    Creating our own IP and delivering class leading solutions is one of the core principles we work to, but as you know, we’re also an Abu Dhabi government company and this strategy works in synergy with ‘Abu Dhabi 2030’, the capital’s ambitious plan to ensure that the emirate is a modern, thriving place to live and work in the future, as its population continues to grow. Through developing IP unique to the UAE, which can be sold in the region and exported internationally, AD Media DOOH is actively contributing towards this plan, whilst also helping to develop the DOOH sector worldwide.

  9. I know that your units are also equipped for loyalty cards, printers (for coupons?), and now you have a deal with Whatamap for pushing information to users’ Smartphones. How are these being used and mainly by whom?

    Our solutions have a lot of interactivity and features built-in, many never having been seen before in this market. To avoid overwhelming consumers and alienating them from trying our products in the future, we are purposefully implementing a phased roll-out plan for our functionality. Our advertising screens went live first and the interactive mall map and directory that consumers can download direct to their mobile phones, launches this month. Once we feel comfortable that consumers are actively using our kiosks when they visit the malls, we will add in other functionality allowing them to access exclusive vouchers and offers, use loyalty cards, buy tickets to the cinema, theatre and events and much more. All of this functionality is already built in to our units and is ready to go, so it won’t require any additional work, it’s just a case flipping the switch.

    We’re supporting roll-out with a very pro-active marketing and in-mall promotional campaign, which will see our staff engaging with consumers, answering their questions and guiding them through performing popular tasks on our kiosks. We will also be undertaking consumer research in the malls and listening carefully to the feedback we receive so we can adapt our roll-out plan accordingly.

    Interestingly, as we go through this process, we are finding that we have many more questions to address from malls and potential advertisers, such as how can we incorporate an existing in mall loyalty programme; why would consumers want to use credit cards in the kiosks (credit card use is very low in our region, with the majority of consumers preferring to pay with cash); and what types of promotional campaigns and voucher offers will best draw people to the kiosks, are just some of the current challenges we are dealing with.

  10. Have you yet discovered new markets that you didn’t expect for your products? Or are there sectors that you hope to enter but haven’t as yet?

    We have always been very open to consider anything that comes our way and have received a few unusual requests to date, but on the whole we are delivering what we set out to and in the locations we expected to at this time.

    One of the areas that we are seeing far more significant demand than we could have predicted is location-based marketing. Utilising our kiosks, free in-mall WiFi network and the fact that consumers will already have our mall map and directory with associated voucher/offer inventory on their mobile phones, means we can provide some exciting opportunities for retailers and businesses to communicate with consumers at exactly the right time and place. The way things are developing we’re all set to become a distribution channel for partners in this area and we’re excited about launching some innovative, fun and engaging stuff in this sector.

  11. You recently commissioned an industry report to gauge the current status, trends and growth opportunities in the area. Who is doing this for you, when do you expect it to be completed, and will the information be shared by all DOOH participants in the industry?

    We are in the final stages of commissioning a year-long research project to better understand the DOOH sector in our region, the end product being a DOOH outlook report, similar to that many of us will have seen produced in NA and Europe.

    When I first arrived in the UAE with the intention of launching a digital signage company, I was instantly struck by the lack of market intelligence and insight that I’d become accustomed to in western markets. Putting this right has remained a priority for me and forms a core part of our advocacy strategy for the sector as a whole, which also includes championing agreed standards and metrics and the formation of a regulatory body for the MENA region.

    Whilst AD Media DOOH are championing this report, it will be fully independent and conducted by research companies that both lead in terms of sector expertise and regional experience (and ones the majority of you will be very familiar with). As such, we plan on getting the participation of as many DOOH stakeholders in the region as possible to deliver the very best market intelligence, to drive our medium forward to ensure it becomes a permanent fixture on all media plans.

    We will be finalising and announcing full details of our research by the end of the year, with a view to it taking place across the course of 2011. A year is a long time to wait, so we plan on providing an update to everyone on the research progress, with some insights of what has been learned to date every quarter.

  12. In your own opinion, how advanced is DOOH in your region?

    It just isn’t and that is why we have such a great opportunity to change this, not only through our own corporate mission and DOOH innovations, but also with the wider sector advocacy strategy that we are championing in the MENA region.

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