On most days, the talk at the downtown Cairo offices of the Egypt Media Development Programme (EMDP) is all about storytelling and the ways that multimedia and social media can enhance journalism. There was an important twist on that chatter during two busy days at EMDP last month: Instead of journalism, the focus was on a new form of advertising.
This is the next stage of ‘Next Step Media: the Arab Spring and Beyond’, the IPI/Google project undertaken by Poynter, EMDP and South Africa’s Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. The commercial dimension of the training is focused on discovering new ways of sustaining independent journalism, with an emphasis on advertising’s “Third Way.” Neither advertorial nor traditional advertising, the most promising new iteration of advertising equips brands and enterprises to grow their business with a combination of authentic storytelling and smart social media.
“Advertising-as-interruption is over,” insists Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of the New York-based Story Worldwide advertising agency and one of several faculty staffing a week of training in Cairo in April. In addition to two days at EMDP, the programme included one day each at Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al Ahram, the country’s biggest government-owned media company, and the American University of Cairo.
The April sessions were a follow up to training for journalists and bloggers delivered in Cairo in November. The IPI/Google initiative also includes interactive online training in social media — in Arabic as well as English — produced by Poynter’s News University, with translation into Arabic and localization services provided by EMDP.
It was the influence of social media in fueling uprisings across the Arab world that prompted Poynter to propose the training. The project is among 17 initiatives selected by IPI and funded by Google as part of the News Innovation Contest. Details of the Poynter project are described in this earlier post.
Among the local advertising experts recruited by EMDP founder and director Tarek Atia was Hassan Mohamed, founder of the Bee Interactive ad agency in Cairo and a leading social media activist. Teaching in both English and Arabic, he explored the local implications of the global trends described by Cheyfitz.
Pointing out that consumers can avoid commercial interruption with the click of a remote or a mouse, Cheyfitz argues:
We’re now in an opt-in culture. The only way to get (positive) attention is to create great media—desired content that is relevant, informing, entertaining and on-brand. Having a brand interrupt a narrative won’t work anymore, whether that narrative is a TV show or a website. The intruding message will be TiVo-ed out of existence, clicked away from, put in the junk folder and ignored. Intrusion is a totally dead model.
As advertisers come to grips with this new reality, they’ll be spending less and less money on what most media companies — big and small — are still focused on selling: space in print, space online and space on mobile phones. What these advertisers need, instead, is help developing the kind of content their customers need and want — and that ultimately grows their businesses.
The idea is not to compromise the independence of journalists by asking them to publish branded content beneath the flag of their own news organization. Instead, brands need help figuring out how to produce and publish their own content on their own pages and sites and, most importantly, their own social media channels.
The successful navigation of this evolution in advertising is critical to our project’s objective — the growth and improvement of independent journalism — because advertising remains the main revenue engine powering Egypt’s journalism.
Indeed, a week after our visit to Al Masry Al Youm, the paper closed its influential English-language weekly, Egypt Independent. Read the editorial by editor Lina Attalah and the article by reporter Heba Afify (pages three and four of the final edition of the paper published on Scribd) to get a sense of why, as the paper’s first publisher put it, “there is no press freedom without a business plan.”
Our April workshop began with nine advertising representatives from Cairo news organizations introducing themselves and describing their business challenges. The issues included:
- Decline in traditional advertising revenues
- Deep skepticism about digital solutions on the part of advertising clients, coupled with lack of familiarity with digital tools
- Insufficient digital training for advertising staffs
- Confusion about what sorts of digital solutions might really work for clients
Our original plan for the workshop — persuading the ad reps to bring along a trusted advertising client — didn’t work. Various explanations were offered, including the departure from tradition that such joint training would involve; the nature of the relationship between ad rep and client (or lack thereof) in Egypt these days; the reluctance to expose clients to potential poaching by competitors.
Collaboration unfolded in a different way at the workshop, with the ad reps putting aside competition for the moment. They teamed up to apply new concepts and tools to long-standing issues across the Egyptian advertising landscape.
At one point, the discussion focused on a traditional Egyptian cologne called ‘555‘, a product that workshop participants recalled as an enduring fragrance in the homes of their parents and grandparents. The workshop challenge: Tell the story of this product in ways that (1) accurately reflect its role in Egyptian life, (2) rejuvenate a product considered faded and “tired,” and (3) convert renewed interest in the product to increased sales and revenue.
It became clear that the training was gaining traction when one of the participants offered what amounted to a campaign tagline aimed at first-time shavers using the 555 product: “It still hurts!”
Celebrating the bracing-to-the-point-of-painful nature of the product did not fit a traditional, strictly promotional mold for an ad campaign. But it was authentic and quite shareable on social media — two key ingredients in the sort of story-telling we were teaching.
From the EMDP offices on Sunday and Monday, we headed to the offices of Cairo’s two leading daily newspapers on Tuesday and Wednesday. We met with marketing and advertising teams wrestling with how best to change internal culture as well how to serve clients more effectively.
We ended the week with an all-day programme that attracted more than 100 students and faculty members at the American University of Cairo. We adapted the teaching presented earlier in the week, with these highlights:
● Poynter’s Bill Mitchell describing best practices in media around the world in crowd-sourcing and other forms of audience collaboration
● EMDP’s Atia providing a local framework for international trends, underlining the growing accessiblity of the Internet and Egypt’s role as the Arab World’s leading user of Facebook
● Cheyfitz of Story Worldwide outlining global trends in what he describes as “the post-advertising age”
● Ray Joseph of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism outlining emerging digital trends on the African continent.
It was Joseph’s framing of the content marketing described by Cheyfitz that provided critical context for sessions throughout the week.
Moments into his discussion of brands embracing story-telling, Cheyfitz was challenged by an AUC professor troubled by the blurring of lines between journalism and advertising, a line often characterized in the U.S. as the barrier that separates “Church and State.”
Joseph, a journalist who has spent most of his career in South African newsrooms, told the professor he could relate to her discomfort. But he encouraged her to consider the idea of brand marketing as a ‘Third Way’ distinct from both traditional advertising and from the promotional hybrid of news and advertising known as advertorial.
Joseph relayed several examples of South African brands managing to rejuvenate their products with interactive storytelling. He also pointed out the opportunity for journalists to find storytelling work quite apart from their traditional roles in newsrooms but, if done right, can involve worthwhile work that generates valuable content for brands as well as a paycheck for journos.
The AUC workshops yielded their most interesting results when the students and faculty broke into small groups to work on a case study. Instead of a cologne, the topic this day was the Egyptian tourism business, a critical dimension of the nation’s economy that has been in dramatic decline amid the political turmoil that has roiled the country since the January 2011 revolution.
Following the basic ABC’s of authentic brand storytelling outlined by Cheyfitz, the teams outlined campaigns aimed at helping Egyptian tourism recover. Their plans didn’t shrink from the reality on the ground — occasional upheaval on Tahrir Square as well as more serious outbreaks — but also portrayed a country that has become less expensive and crowded for tourists — and remains quite safe for visitors.
Interestingly, one of the faculty participants is now in discussions with the Egyptian Tourism Authority about developing the sort of campaign explored at the workshop.
Next steps for our project include a discussion of results at IPI’s World Congress later this month in Amman. Howard Finberg, Poynter’s director of partnerships and alliances and a faculty member for the November training in Cairo, will join other award-winners to explore ways of extending the learning.
Finberg expects to provide a first glimpse of the Arabic language edition of the social media training course that Poynter’s NewsU has built in collaboration with EMDP as part of the IPI/Google initiative.
Resources from the training are available here.
This post was first published by the IPI News Innovation Contest and is republished here with the permission of the authors.