Interview with Abdulwahed Juma, Du’s executive vice-president of brand & corporate communications.

As Du picks up Dubai Lynx’s Advertiser of the Year title, brand and communications chief Abdulwahed Juma tells Austyn Allison that creativity needs to get more agile, while staying human

UAE telecommunications provider Du was this year’s Dubai Lynx Advertiser of the Year. While CEO Osman Sultan went on stage to pick up the prize, it is executive vice-president of brand & corporate communications Abdulwahed Juma who runs the marketing side of the business.

He took on the role just under a year ago, having served as chief commercial officer of Abu Dhabi Media since 2014, but it has already been an interesting run. Two months into the job, Du had to pull an ad for its Du Tuesdays cinema promotion. Since then, it has shifted its media buying from Starcom to new Omnicom shop Hearts & Science, and its creative brief – which has been held by Leo Burnett for the 12 years since Du launched – is currently out for pitch. An announcement is due within the next month.

Awards such as the Dubai Lynx reflect well on all involved, says Juma. “The award is not only for the agencies; the award is for the combined work between the team on board and the agencies,” he says. “Of course, it emphasises that there is synchronisation between the two. There is an understanding.”

He adds: “We cannot deny that Leo has been with us since inception. For a creative agency to be with you for the past 12 years, that means a lot. They are part of the team, they understand you.”

Awards are a way to take the pulse of your work, he says: “The philosophy of awards for me is they are just a checkpoint. You don’t work for awards, you don’t create your campaign for awards. You create your campaign on different platforms, for different messages. If those messages are delivered, they create an impact, they change behaviour, then by default they will win some awards.”

The partnership between agencies and clients is based around the agency understanding what the client stands for, says Juma. And Du is clear on its positioning.

“We are a challenger brand, we are much younger in the market [than the UAE’s other telco, Etisalat],” says Juma. “We are dynamic and we are youthful and we are fast. We want to position ourselves as a reliable, fast, dynamic, friendly brand. Once you have those criteria, the pillars of your brand character, then you take them to all of your creative work. That’s where the agency has to challenge you sometimes, and come up with something out of the box. But that out-of-the-box should fit those main criteria.”

Although he won’t be drawn on how the creative pitch is going, other than to say it is “very close,” Juma says that no matter who wins he’d like them to help speed up the creative process. “It’s a common responsibility,” he says. “But we are a bit slow sometimes in time-to-market. Some mindsets would say don’t go to market unless you are perfectly there, but that is against any market dynamics. You have to go to market as quickly as possible and then fix the wheel while you are driving it. I would love to see – from both the new agencies and our team – quicker go-to-market tactics when it comes to campaigns.”

Leo Burnett is still in the running to retain the account. “Surprisingly, Leo who pitched was a younger, more dynamic and more active Leo than we see every day. I think it is about flexibility,” he says. However, he is quick to clarify that this isn’t a dig at the incumbent, as much as a recognition that agencies need room to breathe: “However much the brands are rigid, you hinder productivity of the agency. You just stop the creative agency from being creative. So from time to time, you have to stretch the boundaries and let them practise their creativity.”

It makes little sense for Du and Etisalat to compete on features in the mobile market. “The products are extremely similar,” says Juma. “Network efficiency is extremely close; both networks are covering nearly everywhere. When you have similar products and similar network coverage then it’s so easy to switch. It’s so easy to lose your clients. So you just need to hook them with a good retention policy and good customer service. I think that’s the thing both operators will be focused on, going forward.”

A pricing battle, or trying to grab Etisalat customers, is off the table, he adds. “A fight for market share hasn’t benefited any market over the history of telecoms. The only way you will do it is by entering a price war, and a price war will just diminish value.”

Instead, Du’s strategy is to “humanise the brand”. He admits that this is easier said than done, “because humanising the brand will have to go across all the touchpoints of the customer experience, reconfiguring those touchpoints in a way that makes consumers feel they are dealing with a human rather than the brand”.

This is where the telco’s “Post Wisely” campaign, now in its second phase, comes in. The first part of Post Wisely, launched last year, portrayed creepy characters fishing for information through seemingly innocent online conversations, while actually planning to rob, murder or otherwise take advantage of their victims. Its aim was to discourage people from over-sharing on social media. Part two shows smartphone users so disconnected from people they could help that all they can do is film them. It is shot from the perspective of the victims: a labourer in a bus crash, a maid falling from a balcony, a bullied schoolboy. The tagline is: “If it were your pain, would you share it?”

The campaign is a perfect fit for Du’s humanisation plan, says Juma. “Normally a telco will do something to encourage you to use more data. In the first year of Post Wisely we were telling you to be careful about what you are posting, which means don’t post as much.”

In phase two, Du comes across as “the colleagues, the advisors, the bigger brother in the family. Someone who is telling you, OK, you got a thousand likes, amazing. But how many families have you hurt by posting that?”

Post Wisely is not Du’s only message. It uses sport as another flagship, running an annual scouting platform for local talent, in association with Spain’s La Liga. Juma says that after five years of searching for soccer stars, two players are on the verge of being signed for clubs in Spain. The deal is not yet done, but it will be a success story when it is.

Du Live is the brand’s sponsorship programme for music and entertainment, through partnerships such as the Du Arena in Abu Dhabi and sponsorship of Dubai Opera. The company has an in-house sponsorship team that handles these relationships.

Another platform is Du Tuesdays. Du’s mobile subscribers can get two-for-one cinema tickets, and Juma says the campaign – now six years old – has noticeably changed consumer behaviour.

“When we started Du Tuesdays with cinemas, Tuesday was the lowest day of the week for watching a movie; who would go to the cinema on a Tuesday?” he says. “And now it ranks third, after the weekend.”

Two months after Juma joined Du, though, he had to pull “The man sitting next to you”, which had won two Lynxes for its portrayal of the worst people you could have as neighbours in the cinema (motto: use Du’s offer to take a bearable friend instead).

“I saw the ad and said it’s normal,” says Juma. “Some of my friends saw it and said it’s normal. Other people hated it. Mainly from the local communities, the Emiratis. They thought it was offensive. We heard them saying that and we respect their opinion. You don’t have to agree with some opinions, but you respect them.”

Pulling the ad didn’t harm its traction, though. “I’m a marketer,” says Juma. “And any conversation is a good thing.”

Sure enough, 600,000 people had seen the ad before it was pulled. After it was taken off air, online views soared to 3.6 million.

At the time, critics within the industry said that while the ad was beautifully crafted (by production house Good People), it might discourage people from going to the cinema. But Juma is unrepentant.

“Isn’t that what we do with Post Wisely, when we discourage people from using more data? I think we are consistent,” he jokes. Then, on a more serious note, he adds: “You can’t decide to play the role of an advisor and then advise people on things that are in your benefit only. You have to be fair in giving them advice.”

That strategy has worked well for Du so far.