Debunking Digital Marketing: Interview with Ahmed Salim



Digital marketing has taken prominence over the last couple of years and it is thanks to more and more people using the internet. Brands have noticed they cannot simply ignore this growing online audience and this is why agencies have popped up to deliver this service.

But what is digital marketing? Does it revolve around social media only? These are the questions that needed to be debunked and I had the opportunity to get answers from a player in the industry

Who is Ahmed Salim and what does Qube do?

My name is Ahmed Salim; I’m the MD of Qube limited. Qube Limited is a digital agency, a Kenyan owned agency. We focus on mainly on digital marketing and using the digital technology to help brands get the presence and achieve its objectives online.

We branched out from a company called Creative Edge which is now known as Creative Y&R which I worked for 10 years, so we are sister companies and Qube is just hitting four years now.

So what exactly is digital advertising?

We tend to say digital for us is not just the social media aspect, that is the primary rule in community management and managing clients and assets that we have, but what we do is more of a 360 spectrum in digital and digital is not only social media, there is a lot to it.

There are different arms that we touch on and specifically digital marketing is using digital mediums to market, but the marketing side of it which can resonate with technology and the strategy behind it is what is different actually, it is what plays a big role. This is where we come in to put in the experience and expertise we have in marketing but how do we use the digital age to execute on the digital platforms.

Which mediums do you advise your brands to use?

Apart from creating their assets from websites or portals and applications, the engagement side relies on the social media bit. We focus specifically on how most clients would not have an idea of what they want, depending on their targets or objectives. You will find clients wanting client servicing or reputation management or awareness. Depending on their objective, we tell them to customize or advice on what portals to go for.

Back in the social media week that happened in June last year, you pointed out that as early as 2012, it was very hard to convince clients to use social media for marketing purposes. Has that changed?

It is changing. I remember there has been a discussion we’ve been having internally. I remember when we didn’t use proposals, we told them “Introduction to digital marketing.” This changed to “What can we do for you.” Now it has gone to a point where clients are looking for people. They are like: “Hey!” We need a digital agency, what can you do for us? What work have you done before?.”

There has been a generation swap in management where most CEOs who were there before had a different mindset. You find young guys embracing it or the current CEO has started embracing new modern approaches. It is all happening faster and it is due to the government’s infrastructure, internet service providers because digital cannot be digital without the internet. There has to be a device and a provider for it to work.

Nowadays people read news online and not on TV and they get to see other brands placing ads and they are like “Why are we not here?” People who never thought about it end up thinking about it because they have been left with no choice. It has become that concept of “You snooze, you lose.”

The biggest problem is that there are so many agencies popping up right now, it can be a one man show, everybody is a strategist right now so it ends up being the bottom-line of what the person actually delivers.

It might be easy to open a Facebook account or manage your Twitter account but what is your strategy? What value are you giving the brand? What is the brand getting in return? These are the kind of questions you end up asking

What are the perceptions that run around digital marketing?

In the beginning, it felt like a waste of time. Some did embrace and are very far right now. There are others who felt like they didn’t need to be there but now you find them trying to find themselves there.

You see at the end of the day, if you are not communicating to the people or the audience is not listening to you because you are not present, then you start questioning why your competition is doing something different. adobeor “What do I need to change?”

In the digital space, brands compete with each other for your attention from the noise that it is there from all brands that are talking to you. What will make you look at that?

What about digital marketing outside Nairobi?

When you look at reports, you find that participation in Nairobi is the melting point. Everyone focuses Nairobi! Nairobi! Nairobi! But then somebody comes and says, you know what? My product is focused away from Nairobi.

There are audiences out there and it is proven by events that happen. Is it impactful? It depends, it is relative. Right now, Nairobi could be the noisiest but is there influence? There could be no influence compared to the two people who would actually genuinely give you the KPIs that you are looking at in Eldoret or Kisumu or Nakuru or wherever.

I agree the main focus has been on Nairobi, Nairobi has been the main place, and people are digital and savvy. Service providers like Safaricom have tried to put 4G everywhere so making it easier. It is just a matter of brands and people embracing it, like in Mombasa, there is a community that is being built and it is taking time. But it is happening. You wouldn’t say it is dead. I think it is just a matter of looking at our numbers, people are increasing and people are embracing. Nairobi has gotten to a point where it has matured, the other spaces are taking their time. That comes back to strategy where if you are targeting Mombasa, the beauty of digital is that you can focus and target Mombasa alone.

Of all the brands that you have, how many have engaged digital strategists. Do you have statistics?

All of them that we have, they have believed in digital, we have been with them for 3-4 years. But there are people who come and they don’t understand. In that case we go back to basics of what digital is all about.

Some have KPIs as likes, others as engagement, reach, it is all dependent on the client. But yes, people need to understand about the bigger picture, we call it the ‘bigger picture’ here. For example, we handle Crown Paints, we have an annual plan where every quarter, we have divided it. So we look, what is our big idea this quarter? With that, what is our communication about? What campaigns answer the big idea? That is how we look at it.

So these campaigns, how are they run?

Sometimes clients don’t tell us, they just tell us: “Listen, this is our account, tell us what we can do about our brand.” We research, strategize, look for insights, positioning and competition. We will later on pitch: “Now this is the data we gathered, what we feel your brand can do to position itself is this: For us to position like this, we need to do this, this and this. Are you in agreement?” “Oh yes I like the idea” “So this is the budget, can we go ahead?” “Yes, execute.”

We come back after a quarter or two months depending on the campaign, dipstick, research, insights, what worked, what didn’t work and give a report back to the client. If a client says yes it is working out, we move to the next. So as a retainer, what we do is that we don’t just look at the social media aspect, we look at other tools. Like for Crown Paints, we have built an app that answers questions for professionals and to those people that don’t understand or know colours. Building is one, communicating is the other. In the case of Crown Paints, we had billboards, press ads, social media ads, download links shared. That itself is the digital marketing side, the app design and build is the digital side of business where it involves technical development and all those kind of things.

You talked about tools, what are these tools that you use?

We have a number of tools that we have subscribed to. We have like Simply Measured and Adobe Social. Tools like that give you insights that are value to clients. Imagine setting up a marketing meeting and you tell the person “I got 10 likes or I’ve gotten you 1000 likes.” The board of directors will look at you and say “So, how does that help us?”

But, with the tools that we have, we can do a report where we say: Your competition is getting x amount of engagement, we are getting y amount of engagement. For the product you targeted the males, but those who are engaging are the females. We have noticed a loophole here, people are asking for after sales service, you don’t have an after sales service so in your strategy, we need to have an after sales service. The sentiments are quite negative because you have an x amount of salt in your product, how can we look into it and address that fact? This gives you insights that when you sit in a meeting and decide on a strategic decision than just talk about likes, influencers and what-not.

Is there a notion by companies that pursuing digital advertising is expensive?

Everyone comes saying it is expensive, for some we have lost business to freelancers but down the line they don’t feel okay since there is so much a freelancer can do. We have lost opportunities where they hire somebody and put that someone in-house. As an agency, we don’t just give you the service that you see. It is like an iceberg where there is that bit that no one sees and that bit is a team that works on your account. Even one comment from one team member can change the whole campaign. Because we work with different brands, we get exposed. Most people who take people in-house are locked; I don’t how other people relate in the industry and for us, that is insight which we use to our advantage.

As a summary, what advice can you give these companies that approach you?

I would advise two things, first that digital is more than social media, it is more than community management. It is no rocket science managing a community, it is the easiest. Sustaining the community, answering a briefs, maintaining a strategy is where the hard work is. For those who are upcoming, for brands, if you are thinking about approaching an agency like Qube, ask yourself:

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • How is that agency going to achieve that for you

If your result is awareness:

  • How the agency is going to work for the brand to create that awareness.
  • Am I comfortable with x amount of investment with x amount of results?

From any agency or Qube in particular, what you are looking at is a partner. A partner who won’t tell you “Hey! Give us money to do this, but a partner who will tell you “This is how your brand works, from our experience, we feel like you should change this and that for it to work.” Sometimes clients call us for unrelated matters and we have a discussion where they tell us: “Do you think we should invest in this? Should we do a roadshow?” Because we work as partners, we think for your brand. One advantage we have at Qube is the expertise level, from design studio to doing brand packaging to logo design, it is a pool of experience that you don’t just get anywhere.

What do you think will be happening in this industry in the next 3-5 years?

  • Most brands will give up. I see a lot of brands giving up because they will get tired of, okay fine it is not just about the ‘likes’ there is more to that.
  • I see more freelancers going down, which is sad, because there is so much one can do.
  • I see more agencies coming up and being more competitive and the need to up our game where “what else can we offer?”
  • A lot of brands will embrace it (digital marketing).
  • We have a problem with costs and pricing effected by a lot of key factors, but that will not last long. We saw the same trend with advertising (traditional), where anyone who owned a Mac was a designer and they opened their own design studios, lasted quite some time hen 3-5 years they close down because they can’t sustain. Photography, same thing. Anybody who can afford a DSLR now is a photographer. Some have disrupted the market, some did not last. Same thing with digital, there is a lot of disruption happening and the disruption will continue but it is up to how you keep up with the trends, with your brand, how to keep your brand relevant, making your client relevant and your space relevant.

Next year is election year, are politicians embracing digital marketing?

Digital this time round will be used for research. The biggest problem we have is that we have propaganda around and we can’t tell what is true or not. We have cases where influencers get paid to talk about someone or something. There is that bit of distrust that is there, which we can’t control or people can’t control. I think this time round, there will be a lot of interesting campaigns online. A lot of people are going to make a lot of money when it comes to strategists and community management but bottomline, it is not about PR, it is about how you communicate to people “How do I convince you to vote for me?.”