Advertising & Brand

Digital Republic’s Karim Khalifa Maps Out Mobile Marketing Opportunities In Middle East

10 min read

permission marketingMobile marketing in the Middle East and North Africa is flourishing, driven by a boost in marketing budgets and a new excitement about social media. In fact, an April report released by Econsultancy (based on a survey of more than 500 B2B marketers in the region, undertaken in partnership with found that just over half (53 percent) of companies are planning to increase their budget for mobile marketing.

Where is the opportunity in this rapid growth market? What is the role of the mobile operator? And why does text messaging dominate? Karim Khalifa, CEO &  Co-Founder of Digital Republic, the number one digital and creative advertising agency in Egypt, provides us the inside track on developments in the region.

Moving mobile to the next level

Karim KhalifaKarim is also co-Chair of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) Middle Eastern Council. In this role he supports the development of global activities and initiatives, and takes responsibility for rolling them out to local member organizations. His number one focus: ensuring local relevance and providing guidance to grow a sustainable market.

How does he plan to achieve this? By encouraging brands to “get engaged and get on board.” To this end Karim has developed a multi-prong approach aimed at the business ecosystem to involve each party and make the most of their assets.

The brands are critical to show other brands the benefits of mobile and evangelize to the media; the mobile operators are key to providing brands and agencies the insights they require through local research and data; and an extensive outreach using public relations and other methods allows the Council to outreach to the other stakeholders.

As Karim sees it: This approach – because it focuses on getting major brands and publishers on board first — will “accelerate the market and provide important momentum.”

Mobile operators & opt-in requirements

A key factor in making mobile marketing work is the mobile operator and “ensuring that they are totally present and prevalent” in the ecosystem.

This is critical when it comes to push marketing, a term Karim uses to refer to the segment of mobile advertising that includes text messaging. It’s here that mobile operators “add huge value” because of the relationships they manage. “They have the inventory, they have the mobile numbers, they have the location, and they have all the billing information.”

Mobile operators — and the brands that deliver marketing via their networks — also have a responsibility to ask permission first.


One, local market conditions clearly favor an opt-in approach. After a period of ‘over-spamming’ regulations are cracking down, introducing tougher legislation to stem the tide of spam delivered from foreign companies via international gateways in the operator networks. Likewise, Karim explains, mobile operators are also becoming “less tolerant” of spam that is sent via local aggregators through local gateways.

Spamming is “non-sustainable and mobile operators understand this,” Karim notes. “This is why the operators’ mobile advertising models are shifting to an opt-in model, rather than an opt-out model.”

Second, companies across the ecosystem are beginning to understand the benefits of conducting a conversation (via text) with consumers. “With an opt-in model you can gather information with the users’ permission, thereby making your advertising more relevant and more interesting to the user.”

Because the advertising is more relevant to the individual (aligned with the interests and topics they have provided through their responses to text messages from the brand), it creates a kind of virtuous circle.

“The people want to see more of it [ads] and that adds more value to the brand.” As a result, brands and agencies have an answer to the most important questions in advertising: who is the audience and what is their profile?

As Karim puts it: “It’s a win/win/win.  The user gets what they want to see, the client is reaching  who they want to target, and the advertising agency is making money.” These benefits mean permission-marketing is the “way the market is moving.”

Social media opportunities

facebookThe revolution in Egypt made people aware of social media tools. However, Karim says the experience has also been a boost to social media marketing and approaches that truly speak to the people.

At one level, it paves the way for cross-media campaigns that integrate mobile, online and social media. (In fact, Karim reports more of his brand clients are moving in precisely this direction.)

“The revolution has shown us the importance of a cause. A cause plus social media equals a major result. What we see now, and this is where the opportunity for brands lies, is that the cause for a brand could be a brand positioning, could be a new product launch, could be whatever it might be.” Get the alignment right between the brand and the cause, then ad social media to amplify the message. “Then you get the huge power and the momentum that you saw with the revolution.”

To be clear, the revolution came from the people. Twitter and Facebook were important enablers. However, now that people use and understand social media, it’s become a tool that brands can also leverage to create a meaningful dialogue with their audience.

Permission-marketing and effectiveness

Permission-marketing can deliver positive results for all brands across all sectors. However, there are some scenarios where opt-in really pays off.

“Permission-based marketing is very effective when we’re talking about promotions and where you’re asking for a call to action,” Karim says. It also work well when the campaign focused on creating a conversation that should end in a conversion (such as a purchase).

In cases where the end-game is brand awareness, then brands might want to integrate what Karim calls pull advertising (in-app advertising, display, search other formats that are triggered by a consumer action such as browsing and clicking).

How should agencies approach permission-marketing and what are the requirements of an effective campaign?

In Karim’s view, it’s all about the creative.

Specifically, agencies need “strong creative content and a strong creative idea” that will allows a “long-term flow” of messages (in both directions). “Creativity and the message is key and that will really drive and maintain the interest and the engagement.”

The way forward

How will mobile marketing evolve given our passion about social media and our interest in having conversations with the brands we like?

Karim believes the world will be very different in the next decade. Instead of brands selling, it will be the people deciding if and how they want to listen.

“The model is going to change and users are going to be targeting brands. I’m going to select which brands I want to talk to and the tables are going to turn,” Karim explains.

“You’re going to be the one who says I want to hear from this brand or that brand. And permission-based marketing is going to go full swing around and result in us selecting the brands we want to talk to us.”