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Celebrating its five-year anniversary in Dubai, Instagram’s global head of business Amy Cole talks advertising and authenticity with Eleanor Dickinson


It’s the sheer simplicity that sets it off; two women, dressed in black and white abayas, clutch between them a bunch of white balloons by the shipping containers of Box Park. Yet for her first ever Instagram snap from Dubai, Amy Cole’s choice may seem a little unorthodox given the city’s plethora of filter-friendly landmarks. But having been taken at a recent ‘InstaMeet’ to celebrate the app’s five-year anniversary, the image seems to encapsulate Cole’s assertion that “community comes first” within the Instagram movement.

“It was incredible and literally my first experience in Dubai was going to the InstaMeet and getting to meet the community; they were so welcoming,” she gushes. “And to be there and to meet different people from all over the world and [from different] walks of life; I think one of the things that came through was that most people who were there were new to Dubai versus some who have been there 10 years. But it was a way for them to come together and share their different cultures and be able to build a network of people whom they were able to connect to – for both photography and just a way to tell their story.”

The sixth employee to join Instagram when it was still a small Silicon Valley start-up, Cole has been there from its early Hipster-following origins to its subsequent explosion across the world. In just five years, the photo and video-sharing network has grown to 400 million regular users – 75 per cent of them outside the United States – and is now firmly under the wing of Facebook following its $1 billion acquisition in 2012. Coinciding with the anniversary is Instagram’s expansion of its advertising functions globally to now include companies in the Middle East and North Africa region, among others. Initially open to a few select ‘partners’ including Souk.com, Starbucks and telecom giant Zain the advertising platform was universally rolled out across the region on September 20. And apparently companies were literally hunched over their screens waiting to upload their first content.

“We have worked very closely with our initial advertising partners and we have seen really great success so far,” says Cole, who has already begun following some of the United Arab Emirates’ Instagram stars including Fork it Over Dubai and fashion blog The Fierce Diaries. “We have proven from the ads that we have run that we are able to deliver community value and advertiser value by focusing on high quality and authenticity in the posts that we have run.”

She adds: “I think advertisers are really approaching Instagram with that lens of who is the audience, what do they expect to see and how do I tell my story in a way that feels natural and native? So I think they are really approaching from a creative perspective; how they build a visual identity.”

Using a ‘self-serve’ function, advertisers can tap into features unavailable to regular users including 30-second videos and the ability to post links to outside content through five different ‘calls to action’. This includes new apps and online retail. But given the public’s growing disillusionment with sponsored content infiltrating social media, is this new commercial landscape likely to sit well with Instagram’s 400 million-strong base?

“Community first is one of our values and we think about the community first in everything we design,” Cole replies. “That is exactly why we have taken the approach that we have so far to make sure we are really understanding what works for the community and what works for our advertisers. So I think we feel very confident at this point.” Being better-equipped to target users with ‘relevant content’ is also reiterated as a bonus point for this commercial cross-over.

Perhaps it is just as well that Instagram’s photo-enhancing tools mean that there is not such a distance between the pictures posted by users and brands alike. For Cole, the aim is for branded ads to appear more ‘native’ so that ultimately, when you scroll through your chain of celebrity selfies,‘food porn’ and smatterings of sponsored content it should “all feel natural and part of the story you want to see on Instagram”.

Though the success of the #MyDubai hashtag (10 million posts and counting) gives an indication of Instagram’s popularity in the region, the Facebook team are unable to give more concrete figures about overall usage in the MENA region but they insist “it’s seeing strong growth”. Likewise, they choose not to reveal whether new staff will be drafted into their Internet City-based office overlooking The Palm, where Facebook has been for the last three years.

At this point Jonathan Labin, head of Facebook MENA, chips in: “Over the last couple of years or so we have been expanding our team out here, so Instagram will obviously play an important role in that.”

Despite their vagueness, the current renovation work outside Facebook’s office suggests they will not be scaling back any time soon.