In The Hot Seat – Neal Patel

We chat with Neal Patel, Managing Director at Bruce Clay Middle East, who talks about his current role and offers his thoughts on the digital marketing industry in the Middle East…

Name: Neal Patel

Age: 31

Nationality: British

Current job title: Managing Director, Bruce Clay Middle East

When did you first arrive in Dubai?
Nearly five years ago and I quickly realised I needed to stock up on shorts and t-shirts!

Where did you work prior?

I have only had a few jobs in my career. I spent most of my time building my own business. The last role I had was with a start-up technology company that is now doing great things with artificial intelligence (AI) and is now a strategic partner of Bruce Clay.

What were your first impressions of the digital marketing industry in the Middle East?
To be honest, I was slightly shocked and on many occasions I still am. I found agencies selling solutions that were outdated to clients that didn’t know any better – which was pretty sad. I often found myself having some awkward conversations with people about technology and innovations I was accustomed to using years before, back home. Outsourcing was also very prevalent – which is not a business model I like. Clients should know their team and have access to them as and when they need.

Has your opinion changed much?
It has to an extent. There is a clear gap, which is widening, between agencies after a quick buck and those that are doing a good job and retaining clients year on year. This goes for small, local agencies and large multinationals.

Tell us about your current role…
I am currently the Managing Director of Bruce Clay, which is pretty exciting as we have massive plans for the agency. At the moment, I am restructuring the agency to concentrate on our core strengths – SEO, social media and PPC. This involves getting the right people in place as the foundation, then pushing on and getting results for the awesome clients we already have on the book as well as for those that want to win in digital spaces! It is definitely not easy running an agency, but I believe you can do anything with the right people and culture.

What challenges do you face?
The biggest challenge is talent, no doubt. I do not believe there is a lack of talent out there, rather the cost of that talent is something that remains a burden on any new or growing company. Competition in the market is also getting better, as agencies look at focusing their services, rather than taking on anything and everything they can get their hands on.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Simple­ – building an award-winning agency with awesome people.

Is traditional media still relevant for effective branding in the region today?
To be honest, I am probably the wrong person to answer this – I have never worked with traditional media, but I will give it a go as I do get hit with traditional media.
I never pay attention to huge billboards on SZR, nor do I remember the last time I watched TV, other than for the football or to fire up Netflix. So, I can’t say these are effective, personally. I drive to work and listen to the radio – and I find this the most relevant and effective medium. I know I have personally listened to ads on the radio and performed an action.

This then brings me to why I don’t think traditional media is a very effective – attribution. Everything we do, digitally, needs to be and should be attributed or at least have some sort of key performance indicator (KPI) – ad recall lift for example. With traditional media, other than paying huge sums to research firms, you may struggle to attribute effectively, which poses a problem for me.

Has user-generated content (UGC) taken over brand promotion and marketing campaigns in the Middle East?
No, not at all – I don’t think that brands use UGC enough or even try to promote the generation of content from advocates. I see too many brands going down the route of influencers, which is not all bad, but I always ask about the impact and transparency of numbers – which is always a sticking point. It would be good to see more UGC strategies within campaigns – we always try to work these in where possible for SEO campaigns, which ultimately help build expertise, authority and trust for clients, something that is really important for better ranking and traffic.

How has social media in the region evolved over the years to become an integrated part of marketing today?
Within the region, social media has become a crucial part of any marketing strategy. All platforms have sky high usage, when we compare to other markets.
When I initially came to the region, social was really seen as a separate channel that could just stand alone, especially when PR companies were trying to take on social media accounts, but didn’t understand how to integrate business objectives into a successful social media strategy. Luckily, brands caught on and started using specialist agencies to support integrated strategies.

What is really great now is that agencies are starting to use technology available to them in order to take social experiences further – like us, where we are using bots with built in AI to provide life like conversations between brands and customers then leveraging data collected through pixels to take second stage communication to a much more personal level. The evolution still continues, but it is great to be in such a thriving region for social media!

What are the common digital marketing mistakes companies make?
The most common mistake I see is around attribution – not many clients take the time to understand what is working and what is not. After that, another fundamental mistake companies make is not picking the right partner. You don’t go to the butcher to buy vegetables. Finally, the worst mistake a lot of companies make is not owning their own digital assets or accounts. I really don’t understand when a client mentions they cannot provide account access to adwords for example, because the last agency won’t give it to them! You need to own your own assets and hold agencies accountable. The best agencies will always be willing to do this for you and even insist on it – like we do. We are pushing for a transparency within digital media, let’s hope it happens.
How would you describe yourself at work?
Firm, but fair and fun. I love a good joke and a meme!
Who inspires you?
Right now, Satya Nadella. What he has done to Microsoft is incredible and I especially love the way he went about his business – it was all about the culture, people and right product. The right people with the right culture will make your business and product thrive – I believe that 100%.

What’s your most overused saying?
‘Think’. I come across a lot of people that try to be ‘outside the box’, but the most effective solutions are the result of just thinking.

Five things you can’t live without?
Family, friends, pizza, phone and credit card.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?
I am a finance grad and most of my early years were spent creating risk management programmes for financial markets. If I didn’t do a marketing rotation in my first role, I presume I would be in a cubicle somewhere figuring out some gammas and deltas no doubt.

What’s your favourite form of media (i.e; TV, radio, print, social media?)
Social media, 100%. It is a place where you can and should be you. If you follow my handles, you could never tell I am the MD of an agency. Or maybe you can?

How do you see the digital marketing industry changing in the Middle East in the coming years?

The biggest thing I want to see is transparency – if nothing else and we are very much leading this change, to my belief. Other than that, I believe there will be a huge shift in where budgets are spent and measurement of their effectiveness will be questioned by all parties – if, as an agency, you cannot provide effective solutions, just stop, time is running out. All too many times I hear people talk about being efficient – “We will spend your money efficiently to get you results”, but so many things can be efficient without being effective – so there is going to be a shift in mentality in relation to this. Bring it on!