KASWARA ALKHATIB is the CEO of UTURN a leading Arabic online entertainment network. In 2015, Kaswara was ranked #1 in Forbes Middle East list of “entrepreneurs shaping Saudi Arabia’s future”. The Financial Times named UTURN the largest multi-channel network in the region. Mona Alhariri met up with Kaswara to learn more.
Can you tell us something about your background?
Yes, of course, I actually started out as an engineer. Shortly after graduating, I joined Procter and Gamble as a production line manager. At P&G there was an orientation course. It was during this orientation that I began to better understand what marketing was about. It was love at first sight! I was able to learn about what advertising does and the creativity behind it. I actually like to design and draw and at one time I thought seriously about a career designing homes. In any event, I decided I wanted to shift from being a production line manager to working in marketing. Unfortunately, back then it almost was impossible to switch from one to the other.
So what did you do?
I went to my plant manager and told him I wanted to move to marketing. Of course, he told me it wasn’t possible. And so, I bought my first marketing book called “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” which I still have today. I continued to educate myself and I also continued to ask my plant manager for a chance until he finally allowed me to go for an interview with the marketing team. He told me that if they liked my ideas and accepted me then I could join them but if they didn’t then I wasn’t to bring the subject up again.
I went for the interview and I nailed it. had prepared for it very well because I knew these people were experts at what they did. And so I moved to the marketing department. I had become an engineer because I really didn’t know what else to do. But marketing was different. It was something I was passionate about. And then I remember one day I was working on some marketing materials. My boss came in and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was designing materials for a promotion. He told me it wasn’t my job. It was the agency’s job. I realized then that I was in the wrong place. I should be working for an agency. At the first opportunity, I visited a leading agency outside Saudi Arabia which I won’t name for reasons that will become clear. I met with one of the agency’s top executives and told him I wanted to represent the agency in my country. He asked me what my father did. I told him my father was a businessman along with other members of my family. His response was totally unexpected and shocking. He told me to go back and help out with the family business and leave the creativity to the agency. On my way back home, I reflected on what he had said. Maybe he was right. At the same time, I knew that I could either accept what he said or do what I really wanted to do. That’s the moment I decided to quit P&G and set up my own advertising agency.
I got my hands on every single book I could find about advertising. I stayed at home for six months studying. Finally, in April 2002 I set up an agency called “Full Stop” which has grown over the last sixteen years to become one of the top agencies in the country. In 2010, that success allowed me to set up a digital media company which we called UTURN.
What was the thinking behind UTURN?
Saudis are huge consumers of media content but at that time we didn’t really produce very much because we didn’t have the opportunity. Most of those who were creating the content were based outside the country because they thought Saudis didn’t have what it takes. Creating content is complicated and expensive. You need studios, cameras, equipment and talent. And so nobody was willing to take the risk.
I realized that much of mainstream media doesn’t really resonate with young people Through online platforms they can express themselves. You don’t talk at them. You talk with them. It’s a conversation. With social media you can have an open dialogue. It’s no longer about sitting passively in front of the television set. With social media you can express your opinions, your likes and dislikes and your comments and criticisms. When we started UTURN in 2010, the idea was to produce quality digital media content. We started out by producing original shows for YouTube. After that initial success, we started creating and aggregating online video content and UTURN is now a multi-plat form network. It became a phenomenon We’ve had over 1.75 billion lifetime views, 100 million monthly views and 36 million subscribers across the various social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Snapchat.
Much of Vision 2030 is about empowering the youth and that’s what we’re already doing. We want to use our experience to attract more young people into media. As a country we should be looking at youth as an asset and not a liability. When we look at media we should be looking at it as an industry with the potential to generate enormous revenues and create thousands of jobs. This process has begun with the decision to open cinemas. There are enormous opportunities opening up to produce local media content.
Do you have any particular projects you’re working on?
We’ve actually just closed a deal with CDC, a French media investment fund. This will enable us to grow and expand our offerings across more channels. We want to be able to produce television programs and even movies. We want to build platforms and digital infrastructure. We want to better understand the data about consumers of media. We’re in the process of setting up a media accelerator to produce and supply content for Netflix, OSN, and other venues. If you want people to know more about Saudi Arabia, the best way is to produce quality media content and distribute it on platforms with the widest possible reach.