At the recent Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) Awards, Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) was crowned as Large Agency of the Year and also garnered an additional 36 recognitions for its leading work across the region.
A number of these honors were attributed towards campaigns involving H+K’s Technology Practice, which caters towards three core sectors and specialisms: consumer, enterprise and gaming.
We sat down with Aaron Budwal, Ghida Kleibo and Nour Massalkhi from H+K’s Technology Practice to learn more about how technology companies are embracing change and what the future of the PR industry looks like.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your position at Hill+Knowlton Strategies?
Aaron: I’ve been with Hill+Knowlton Strategies for just over two years – currently working as a Senior Account Executive. My role involves a combination of content creation, media relations and creative strategy for clients across both B2B and B2C domains.
Ghida: In my five years of experience in the wider media industry, I’ve had exposure to everything from social media strategy to media planning. I joined H+K almost three years ago.
Nour: Even though I’ve been with Hill+Knowlton Strategies for almost 2 years only, I feel like I’ve already been exposed to and have learned so much about the fast-paced digital and PR industry. I started off as a social media account executive, contributing to successful social media strategies and building on community management and social reporting. That quickly changed a year later as I’m now on the PR side of things, building and maintaining media relations and further enhancing my crisis comms responses. Overall, I’ve also found a particular interest in data and analytics, where I was fortunate to work on analyzing social sentiments and audience insights. I think I’m a hybrid, and I owe it to H+K Strategies for allowing me to explore all these areas at such a young age as an Account Executive.
2. How did you adapt to remote working and what tools did you use to collaborate?
Aaron: We were in a very fortunate position, given that collaboration technology was already integral to our operations prior to the pandemic. As a global agency, with more than 80 offices worldwide, as you can imagine, virtual communication forms a large part of our day-to-day engagements.
In the Technology Practice, we have a number of regional and global contracts with long-standing clients – so digital tools are essential in ensuring clear communication and consistency across all markets. This forms part of what we call our ‘One H+K’ approach, through which, irrespective of geography, we strive to offer our clients a cohesive experience across the board.
As the pandemic took hold, our leadership team devised a clear strategy and provided us with all of the tools needed to work seamlessly from home. An area in which we’ve thrived is staying connected, even in the absence of physical interactions. This has been made possible thanks to regular check-ins with teams, virtual Thursday breakfast meetings, and even the celebration of baby showers, birthdays and annual festivities online.
Given that we work with a large number of local and international clients, we use a variety of collaboration solutions to accommodate – ranging from Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex and Zoom, to messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and WeChat.
3. In the absence of trade shows and events, what are the ways your customers are re-focusing their efforts?
Ghida: At H+K, we work with a diverse client base and have seen a readiness and desire to quickly adapted to the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic. Whether they are B2B or B2C, our clients have taken this opportunity to utilise available technologies, to educate their audiences and hold large-scale events virtually. For example, we have supported Huawei in launching products virtually and have held three live sale events to make it easier for people to take advantage of their offers while staying safe at home. Our most recent event achieved 1,050,000 AED in sales in just 30 minutes – so we’re seeing real positive business impact.
Aaron: In addition to online methods of engagement, we’re also seeing a slow but positive return to physical events – in adherence with health and safety regulations. Recently, we supported Lenovo at GITEX Technology Week, as the company unveiled its suite of AI and 5G-powered solutions to empower businesses growth. While choosing to participate at GITEX, Lenovo has also demonstrated clear understanding of audience requirements, comfort levels and practicalities. This month, we also helped Lenovo launch the ThinkPad X1 Fold in the MEA region – the world’s first foldable PC. We made a collective decision to hold this event virtually, so that we could engage with a wider audience. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all, but a hybrid approach to events is what we can expect to see in the coming months and years ahead.
4. What does a typical workday look like for you? What do you enjoy most about your job?
General Statement: In H+K’s Technology Practice, the team begins each day with a call to understand priorities and where additional support is required. The team believes that this helps to ensure clear roles and responsibilities, as well as smooth-running throughout the day.
Ghida: COVID-19 has been unexpectedly busy, especially for us in the Technology Practice. From event planning to pitching new stories, we often have time-sensitive tasks that we attend to during the day. While planning my day is key, I always leave some margin for ad-hoc requests.
Aaron: The most enjoyable part of PR for me is working on content creation and new business opportunities. When we receive proposals, there is always a great deal of cross-practice collaboration and people of all seniority levels involved, so there’s plenty to learn in the process. Given that PR is a fast-paced industry, you always need to be ready for the unexpected. Of course, we have deadlines to meet and always ensure that these are prioritized, but there are also times where clients rely on us to deliver at a moment’s notice. This is down to the inherent nature of communications, in which we must act in a timely manner and ensure that a coherent messaging is delivered. This applies irrespective of whether our audience is enterprise customers, end consumers, or internal employees.
Nour: Honestly, every day is different at the agency. COVID-19 has really pushed the boundaries for what a regular day looks like in the Tech industry. Right after I finish my morning meetings with colleagues, I’m usually monitoring online sentiments for our clients to get a general understanding of the conversation. We’ve been lucky enough to catch developing stories and act on them very early on, and this is an activity I’ve learned to appreciate and hone very early on in my career. Other than that, I’m split between PR and social almost 50-50: from dispatching releases and follow-ups with the media, to brainstorming ideas for new pitches, to community management and monitoring social channels, to even creating coverage reports for new product launches in the region. One thing I can guarantee from an agency life is that no two days are ever the same, and that’s the beauty of working directly with international Technology clients in the environment that I do so.
5. What are some media training tips for people looking to join a PR firm? What is your advice for students looking to get into the PR industry?
Aaron: Speaking from experience, I would recommend first gaining exposure to the industry via an internship programme. I actually first joined H+K as an intern back in the summer of 2016, before my final year of university. It was the perfect opportunity for me to understand what PR actually entails and whether it was the right fit for me. As much as you can study an industry or speak to others, it is only in immersing yourself in the role that you can truly make an informed decision.
I’d also say that it’s important to recognize that PR has come a long way. No longer do we simply write and send out content – of course, this is one aspect, but there’s much more to it. Whether your skills are in writing, influencer engagement, digital strategy, graphic design or filmmaking, there is every chance that PR could be the right industry for you.
6. How would you describe the current tech landscape in UAE?
Ghida: The UAE has always focused on building knowledge and empowering the workforce with great emphasis on technology and science – echoed in the national vision and agenda. The start of COVID-19 was a real test for the economy, and many looked to see how close the UAE was to achieving its vision. In fact, the UAE proved its success in reaching its goals of creating a digitally-connected society and showcased its resilience during these challenging times.
In just a couple of months, we witnessed the UAE government accelerate efforts towards this new mode of tech-dependent life. Recently, the Dubai government also approved its own work-from-home system – another step proving the country’s strong tech landscape and infrastructure. This innovation-driven environment has been key to the success of countries around the world and as part of this economy, we have seen the UAE set a benchmark, especially when it comes to technology.
7. What does the future hold for the Marketing & PR industry?
Nour: Focus on digital
Aaron: We often hear misconceptions about PR and marketing being sunset industries, but the reality is that only how we operate and the type of value we deliver to our clients has changed. In many cases, our potential impact is actually far greater than it once was.
This comes down to adopting an integrated approach to communications, which considers both online and offline audience engagement for maximum impact. A leading agency must be able to quickly adapt to meet new market requirements and this is where H+K Strategies has truly flourished.
As an agency, we are always listening to the needs of our clients and challenging ourselves to offer many of the services they require and typically source from multiple organizations. A few years ago, we introduced a creative and design studio to our Dubai office. In key markets around the world, from New York and London, to Sao Paulo and Shanghai, experts in our studios are delivering everything from engaging content for social media, right through to large-scale TV advertisements.
We also have a newly launched Innovation + Creativity Hub, via which experts in creative strategy, content and publishing and digital planning work alongside our studio team to deliver fully integrated, impactful campaigns. We have even introduced our global offering of SMARTER+ to the region, which leverages behavioral science and draws upon understanding human and cultural insights, to increase campaign effectiveness by up to 35%.
So as you can tell, it has been an extremely busy year for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, but one of great progress. The future for our agency and for the PR industry as a whole is placed firmly in understanding both client and audience needs, alongside adopting a willingness and appetite to embrace chance.
8. And finally, what games are you currently playing? And what gaming hardware are you most excited about?
Aaron: As a team, we have hosted a few PUBG Mobile gaming nights which have been great fun. They quickly caught the attention of the wider agency and we soon found ourselves competing in teams with our fellow colleagues across Saudi Arabia, India, South Africa and more.
From a hardware standpoint, I’m most looking forward to seeing advancements in mobile gaming. Recent research from Newzoo identified that 70% of women and 74% of men online in the UAE play mobile games, outpacing both consoles and PCs. It will be interesting to see how technology companies cater towards this growing demand with new form factors and collaborations.