In The Hot Seat – Natalie Johnson

The Y Project’s Founder, Natalie Johnson tells TMN about her role and what she thinks about the PR and marketing industry in the Middle East…

Name: Natalie Johnson

Nationality: British

Age: 28

Current job title: Founder, The Y Project

When did you first arrive in Dubai?

In September 2013, which feels like a lifetime ago.

Where did you work prior?

I worked in three different agencies in the UK – one very traditional, one an integrated advertising agency and one solely digital. When I first moved to Dubai, I was with DABO & CO (now Edelman DABO) for just under two years before taking up roles in marketing for CrossFit and fitness company, InnerFight, and most recently working with hospitality company, Bull & Roo.

What were your first impressions of the PR and marketing industry in the Middle East?

It was very different to the UK! I had been working in a digital agency before I made the move and when I arrived here, traditional print media was still king.

Has your opinion changed much?

Absolutely – we’ve seen a total shift change as the region continues to play catch up with progressive markets elsewhere in the world. Brands and agencies alike are becoming much savvier about digital and its role within the marketing mix – and we’re seeing some fantastic video-led content as well as some stand-out social-first campaigns.

Tell us about your current role…

I founded The Y Project with a mandate to work on projects that I found truly exciting – both so I was completely fulfilled, but also so my clients would get the absolute best out of me and the talent I choose to work alongside. Fast-forward almost one year and The Y Project has remained true to this ethos – with a key focus on developing creative online-first campaigns that ensure cut-through.

What challenges do you face?

As a start-up, the biggest challenge is fulfilling every single role of the business – from the creative and strategic to finance, HR and business development. I’ve called upon some amazing people to help assist and have learnt so much about sourcing talent, business forecasting and Excel formulas, as well as what I absolutely suck at. Rule number one: know what you don’t know and never be afraid to ask for help!

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Realising true business objectives for clients – a creative campaign is a wonderful thing, but it’s meaningless unless it drives bottom line.

How would you rather be contacted at work?

Email, WhatsApp, Instagram and I’m quite partial to the good old-fashioned telephone call as well!

How has clients’ expectations in today’s digital community influenced PR and marketing in the UAE?

The penetration of social media, growth of influencers and closure of magazines and newspapers in the region has meant that clients and agencies alike are now placing a core focus on digital. Only a few years ago, most agencies had small, separate digital teams, whereas now many have developed unified integrated content and communications teams – with a focus on delivering holistic strategic campaigns that drive business objectives both on and offline.

What role has digital media played in redefining the relationship between PR professionals, journalists and bloggers?

It has ensured a more tailored approach to communications as well as one that is mutually beneficial. However, this only applies to those PRs considering how they can best help and assist journalists and bloggers create the most stand-out content i.e. those that ask questions such as: Can we provide them with a specifically shot video purely for the purposes of their publication? How can we bolster this with a social-led edit? Should we shoot something in portrait to supply them with content for Snapchat or Instagram Stories? And of course not forgetting, how can this best be represented in their offline publication? etc.

How has content marketing influenced consumer behavior today compared to traditional marketing?

Content marketing can be much more readily targeted to relevant consumer groups and in markedly more cases, individual consumers. As a result, consumers feel much more aligned with, as well as an emotional connection to, brands taking advantage of this fact i.e. even something as simple as targeted language rather than dual-language posts on Facebook ensures that Arabic speaking audiences see Arabic language posts. 

How has social media in the region evolved to become an integrated part of the PR industry?

Despite great leaps forward, there is still some way to go. Some agencies still adopt the separate ‘PR’ and ‘social media’ teams model – why isn’t it yet integrated across the board?

Describe yourself in five words…

Not afraid to break the rules.

What inspires you?

People with big goals and a strategy in place to achieve them.

What’s your most overused saying?

‘Many thanks’ – it’s an affliction.

What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to you in your career?

There have been so many amazingly exciting things – too many to mention, but I think it’s probably my first successful pitch under The Y Project – that was pretty special.

Five things you can’t live without?

Phone, laptop, charging devices for said phone and laptop, orange juice (obsessed), dog (equally obsessed).

If you could have one work wish granted, what would it be?

For my entire Inbox to be readable on a single screen…

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A professional Ice Skater. I skated from the age of five until I was 16, training five times a week and competing across the UK.

What’s your favourite form of media (i.e.; TV, radio, print)?

Right now, podcasts. TED (of course) but also the likes of S Town and Undisclosed. My first experience of working on one was the ‘InnerFight Podcast’ when I was handling the gym’s marketing – and I’m looking forward to incorporating the medium in relevant future projects.

What advice would you offer to someone looking to start a career in PR and marketing in the UAE?

Embrace it and soak up the opportunity to work with some of the best brands in the world, as well as learn from some of the top global communications talent who have come armed with a wealth of knowledge from their home markets. And don’t be afraid to colour outside of the lines to continue to push the market forward.