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Driving Principles: Motoring Middle East’s Imthishan Giado and Shahzad Sheikh on how to keep automotive journalism on the road

Getting the most mileage out of automotive journalism means being prepared to shift gears fast and steer a course between the legacy of Top Gear and the age of the influencer. Motoring Middle East’s Shahzad Sheikh and Imthishan Giado talk to Austyn Allison

Motoring Middle East’s is a story of adaptation. The brand – a two-man show based in Dubai – has gone through several guises and continues to morph to keep itself alive.

At heart, MME is motoring journalism. It has a website, a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. Its founders, Imthishan Giado (pictured, standing) and Shahzad Sheikh (seated) are also regulars on local radio, at live events and even on TV.

And now they say they want to become influencers.

Giado explains: “Basically we want to do what journalists have always been doing, but in a format that marketing agencies understand now.”

Sheikh adds: “The whole point of why we are redefining ourselves, or trying to say we are now influencers, is that we are simply kowtowing to the market. We have always been what we are, and we will continue to be what we are, but if it means rebranding ourselves then we are happy to do that. We are a business and we have to attract an income, we have to attract these marketing budgets. If the marketing budgets are being allocated to these so-called influencers, then hey presto, I’m an influencer. Talk to me.”

If Sheikh takes a pragmatic view of how to market motoring journalism, Giado is just as cynical about the genre in general.

“Modern motoring journalism is basically a fading ‘80s tribute act,” he says. It’s a lounge show of a recreation of what Jeremy Clarkson [who rose to fame with the BBC’s Top Gear show] used to do in the 1990s. In fact, he wasn’t doing an homage, he was simply doing something fresh and new. And, unfortunately, that’s what influencers are [mimicking] now.”

Shahzad and Giado were editor and deputy editor respectively of a regional car magazine that was closed by its publisher in 2011. So they launched a website.

“The unusual thing about Motoring Middle East is that it wasn’t necessarily born out of a desire of ours to go, OK, let’s do something of our own,” says Sheikh. “At that time we’d already been active on social media, we’d already been active with live events, we were doing car meets and we were actually engaging with our audience. When [the magazine closed], there was a groundswell of support on social media, through our very active Facebook page.”

MME’s first incarnation, therefore, was as a website with a similar format to the magazine. But it has shifted as its followers have moved between media.

“In the last couple of years I think it is fair to say that we have seen traffic trail off on the website, and we actually get more engagement on our social media and our YouTube,” says Sheikh. “So for us – because we are now in a digital environment where we can measure response, we can measure activity and we can see the engagement – for us it’s like: OK, let’s go where our audience is.”

“Writers gotta write,” says Giado. And the core of what MME does is car reviews, whether in a 1,500 word article or a 15 minute YouTube video.

“As journalists, what we do is provide informed opinion and information to enable people to make decisions,” says Sheikh. “In our case, important buying decisions. Buying a car is the second biggest investment after buying a house.”

“People say print is dead, and they are right,” says Giado. “But digital is equally dead because people don’t read any more. People don’t read because, especially now, they don’t believe what they read. But if I say something in a clear and cogent manner, with an articulate fashion and often a bit of wry humour, they will believe anything you say because you become part of their tribe.”

But therein lies a catch.

Motoring journalists, following the legacy of Clarkson, are expected to be as entertaining as they are informative, if not more so.

“When you go and see Pirates of the Caribbean you are not expecting to learn about life at sea,” says Giado. “The trouble is, when we are having to be a juggling act, at what point do you drop the party faces and say, ‘Now, about those unintended acceleration crashes and airbags that are actually killing people…’ or ‘CO2…’? When do you get to have that discussion? We can’t, because we also have to entertain. So it’s tricky.”

A key difference between journalists and influencers is that journalists are better informed, say Giado and Sheikh. Even Clarkson. Especially Clarkson. The ur-motoring journalist was selling well-researched syndicated car content to newspapers long before he hit the big time with Top Gear.

“We come to the car with an already established authority, credibility, knowledge and experience,” says Sheikh. “Having done this for as long as I’ve been doing it, there are very few cars that surprise me.”

A measured, well-informed approach to MME’s subject matter means a word that often comes up in feedback and comments is ‘honesty’.

Influencers are more easily, well, influenced. “Forget about swayed, they are dictated to,” says Sheikh. “They will ensure your messaging is intact, so from a manufacturer or client point of view they are perfect.”

By contrast, he says: “With a journalist, you can fly him to the South of France, you can wine and dine him, you can put goodies in his gift bag, and then he will go back and two days later he will write a scathing review of your car, and there is nothing you can do about it, apart from threaten to pull advertising.”

Today Motoring Middle East makes more advertising (in a loose sense) than it sells.

Initially the brand’s revenue came from advertising on the website, but the team says that at their scale, programmatic doesn’t pay, and sponsor take-overs are few and far-between these days. Money for making social media posts has dried up too. Statistically, influencers have higher numbers of followers, so on paper they win the paid-post budgets.

Much of MME’s income comes from producing branded content for automotive manufacturers. So how does it differentiate its branded content from its regular reviews?

“The branded content is branded,” says Sheikh. “The reviews are branded ‘MME’; they are reviews. Only our logo will be on them. Branded content will have the associated partner’s logo on there, so it will be pretty obvious. And when we put it on our website, it will say ‘sponsored content’.”

Audiences today don’t mind consuming branded content, he adds. As long as they get something out of it.

“If they still find it engaging, fun or in some way informative, they will still consume it.” For example, a recent series of videos shows Giado and Sheikh in period-appropriate attire (think kaftans in the ‘60s, flares in the ‘70s) as they run through five decades of one brand of car and how it fitted in with the changing political and cultural zeitgeist.

“We are still giving [the audience] valid information,” says Sheikh. “We’re not making it up and we are not reading off a brochure. We have actually researched that decade, we’ve put the car into the context of that decade and we are giving informative, documentary-style information. But it is branded content.”

On top of this, MME is close to a lot of owners, collectors and fanatics, so when it needs to produce content that involves “real” drivers, it can take away the quote marks. Being part of the region’s motoring fraternity means MME can find proud owners of any make, model or marque in just a few phone calls. This helps them generate more trust among fans than competitor content creators who might be forced to use actors for testimonials.

A look at MME’s Facebook updates from the recent Dubai Motor Show, where Giado and Sheikh hosted a series of panels, demonstrates the sense of community the brand fosters. The photo stream is full of fans who came along especially to see them.

The team has also built personalities as they have grown their brand.

Sheikh says: “I am more of the loudmouth extrovert.” But he quickly adds: “The funny thing is that I’m older and I look older but I’m kind of more youthful. He’s slightly the more older chap in this.”

“It’s Freaky Friday,” says Giado. “I’m just terminally boring, as I have been called [by Sheikh]. I like really slow-paced pursuits that involve lots of detail, typically very nerdy pastimes. But at the same time, I like water parks, fast cars and driving up dunes at full speed with V8s.”

He returns Sheikh’s jibe, saying “Shahzad, when he goes home, is the most boring man on the planet.”

Sheikh concedes, but says: “Because we live in this environment, this virtual reality that we have had to create for ourselves and to project ourselves, we’ve had to create these characters.”

“We were influencers before influencers were a thing,” says Sheikh. “Because we’ve always influenced people to make purchasing decisions, to make decisions about what brands they are going with.”

As well as those who are looking for occasional buying advice, MME also has its dedicated full-time audience who want to remain in the know. Giado and Sheikh reckon their split of audience is about 60:40 in favour of regulars over looking-to-buy-ers.

“That core audience is an audience of petrolheads, and within their own social circles they are the people that their friends, their relatives, their colleagues will consult when they want to buy a car,” says Sheikh.

Giado adds: “The guy who buys the Ferrari still wants to know that he knows about hatchbacks. But conversely, how many influencers have you seen in the automotive space who are ready to be influencing the sale of a small economy hatchback? How many people are out there talking about the kinds of cars that people really want to know about? That’s us as well, because we can cover all of that.”

In that respect, Motoring Middle East is influencing the influencers as it steers through the chicanes and hairpins of modern motoring journalism with a quick hand on the wheel and an eye on the road ahead. And Jeremy Clarkson in the rear-view mirror.