MBC Group’s new CEO talks premium content, competing globally and going digital

The accelerated expansion of MBC GROUP that we witness through the phenomenal growth of the Shahid VIP platform will benefit the production industry of the Kingdom, says Marc Antoine d’Halluin, the new CEO of MBC GROUP. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 24 September 2020

MBC Group’s new CEO talks premium content, competing globally and going digital

  • Marc Antoine: ‘We are content innovators showing openness and tolerance’

LONDON: For Marc Antoine d’Halluin, the new chief executive officer of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC GROUP), premium content is king — especially when it came to the group’s upgraded streaming platform Shahid VIP.

“The volume of what we’re able to put on Shahid VIP is unique and I think the market discovered this at the same time that we were able to push some extremely strong content across our various channels,” the French native told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

Having taken over the reins of the company in January 2020, d’Halluin’s nine-month tenure has coincided with one of the most tumultuous times in history — but one of the most promising ones for media platforms.

The group’s huge growth has a lot to with d’Halluin’s strategy of taking advantage of the unprecedented position of having millions of consumers stranded at home due to the coronavirus with little to do but binge-watch television.

The lockdown, which was enforced months before the region’s highest media-consuming month of Ramadan, provided an opportunity to roll out the refurbished Video-On-Demand (AVOD & SVOD) streaming platform — a fine-tuned and state-of-the-art version of its predecessors Shahid and Shahid Plus — in a carefully coordinated marketing effort.

This position catapulted the platform’s paid customer base from a mere 100,000 subscribers in January 2020 to 1.4 million in April/May 2020 — that’s in less than three months.

“We were able to add other dimensions such as, for example, the availability to access our channels in the OTT (over-the-top) space that is part of the SVOD subscription, which of course provides our subscribers with the convenience of being able to watch our channels wherever they want, the ability to catch up as well as to access all our exclusive original content” d’Halluin said. OTT refers to media that is offered directly to viewers via the internet.

While lockdown restrictions have eased in most areas of the world and people are opting to stay out instead of cooped up indoors, the CEO explained that this is just the beginning of the journey.

“We have a multi-year business plan and we are expecting to reach 2 million subscribers by mid-2022, 5 million in four years from now, and to go beyond this target inside the region. We will also be aggressively pursuing growth of Shahid VIP subscribers outside the region,” he said. One of the key points of the plan is the recently launched English interface that allows MBC GROUP to tap into the US, Canadian and European markets.

Not only is pre-existing premium content crucial to retain subscribers and add new ones, d’Halluin explained, but so is producing new and exciting shows that resonate across the region.

“We like to believe that we are content innovators showing openness and tolerance, and I think television, and media in general, play a key role in showing important, positive aspects and society evolutions in the MENA region, so we have the intention of keeping that editorial line,” he said.

Marc Antoine d’Halluin. (Supplied)

“We are on our way to deliver such shows as our own ‘House of Cards,’ and there is going to be maybe three or four of them delivered next year and most of them are essentially high end dramas produced in-house by MBC STUDIOS but some outside producers also contribute some incredible quality,” he said. He added: “We’re proud to work with the very best producers in the region, upping their game to deliver more quality and more diverse storylines that you can expect to see inside Shahid VIP and on our TV channels.”

Without being able to divulge too much information about these shows, d’Halluin teased that one of them would be a Narcos-esque one — referring to the Netflix hit that chronicles the rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the gripping real-life stories of drug kingpins of the late 1980s, most notably Pablo Escobar. “We’ll soon be revealing a fiction series, inspired by a real Saudi story, at par with international crime series. It is a story that relates to the region with key roots in the Kingdom and it’s going to be very interesting to see how our subscribers react to it.”

“It will be the biggest premium series ever-produced regionally, the first series of its kind. And we know that our MBC channels and Shahid VIP will soon bring many more of such high-end series of international standard to our audiences.”

A Frenchman in the Mideast

The MBC GROUP CEO relishes the big opportunities and challenges that all countries face within the media sphere.

Coming from a background of working with Sony Pictures Entertainment and other reputed firms, in regions ranging from the UK, Scandinavia and the Middle East, d’Halluin believes this taught him about respecting local dimensions and cultures.

“I’m just glad that the various experiences I’ve had in my life come and bring me the right experience and expertise that I can put in the service of the collective effort at MBC,” he said.

“It’s a very interesting time in the history of the local regional media, which are becoming global at the same time that they are facing formidable global competitors. It’s a very exciting adventure that I’m proud to be a part of as the MBC Group has all it takes to compete very well globally leveraging its 30 years of content excellence and leadership. Working with Sheikh Waleed, our Chairman and with our Board members on our strategy is very inspiring and keeps us very focused.”

Among the changes being witnessed in the region is the February announcement of MBC GROUP opening a new headquarters in Riyadh in parallel to gradually producing more shows in Saudi Arabia.

“The accelerated expansion of MBC GROUP that we witness through the phenomenal growth of the Shahid VIP platform will benefit the production industry of the Kingdom,” he said. “We’re glad to be a local actor in the Kingdom where we are investing a lot in the local talent.”

Among these investments is the MBC ACADEMY, which is an initiative aimed at training, skill-sharpening and fast-tracking young Saudi talent in the content industry, focusing on scriptwriters, directors, producers and actors. 

“We want to find new scripts and we see some very promising material coming our way, and MBC ACADEMY is doing a great job at positioning MBC as a part of the young and vibrant Saudi community. And we will soon announce a new initiative in that space.”

Another big move was the announcement of MBC GROUP’s shift to MBC Media Services, an in-house advertising and sales organization, through its partnership with Engineer Holding Group (EHG). EHG will own a minority stake in MBC Media Services. This marks the end of its nearly 17-year relationship with Choueiri Group.

“It was a natural time for us, even though it wasn’t a simple decision to make, but we thought it was important to not only make that decision to bring our advertising sales in-house but, also to connect it deeper with our own market in Saudi, and the way we executed on that dimension was with the partnership with EHG that has, over the years, developed an extremely successful business with Al Arabia Outdoor.”

While MBC GROUP also decided to take a minority stake in Al Arabia Outdoor, d’Halluin explained that the two groups will keep operating separately, with dedicated ad sales teams that will be leveraging each other’s expertise only when relevant.

“Ultimately, what it does is that it will bring us closer to working with the local advertising community in the Kingdom without any intention to change our overall business model which is a pan-regional one with local executions.”

In the meantime, MBC’s focus on production promises exciting times that are yet to come in an ever-changing period. The Frenchman believes that the media giant’s push in original exclusive shows will surprise the region within the next 18 months.

“It’s a very big effort to make sure that the Kingdom keeps a ‘national, pan-regional and global champion’ in terms of a media group that can compete on a global basis with the very large streamers that are now coming into the region, and I think it’s for the benefit of the region, its culture, its production community but also to the benefit of our audiences,” he said.

“MBC has pivoted toward the digital space in a very coordinated way, a powerful way, and I’m glad that we’re on our way but the journey is still very long in front of us.”

Global Amazon marketing agency launches in Middle East to help regional brands

Updated 19 October 2020

Global Amazon marketing agency launches in Middle East to help regional brands

  • Podean CEO Mark Power: ‘You can’t just look at Amazon as a pure sales channel, it is much more than that; it’s a vast array of properties, experiences, and content’
  • Mark Power: ‘The Middle East is a huge market of 230 million people so Amazon’s taking this very seriously because it’s a very strategic market with real volume and real growth’

RIYADH: Global Amazon agency and marketplace consultancy Podean has been officially launched in the Middle East, with a regional headquarters in Dubai.

In 2017, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) e-commerce market reached $8.3 billion with an average annual growth rate of 25 percent. In 2020, e-commerce expenditure exceeded expectations by more than $52 billion since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown began in March – up 77 percent year-on-year. And at the forefront of this surge was Amazon.

In the UAE alone, 46 percent of shoppers use Amazon with Noon being a distant second at 16.9 percent.

Mark Power, founder and CEO of Podean, spoke to Arab News about the Amazon ecosystem and how his agency can help brands succeed on the platform.

Podean launched in New York 9 years ago and has since expanded to the UK, Australia, and the Middle East. Power comes from an agency background having worked at The Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG).

“Holding companies (such as IPG) are very sophisticated and they have huge scale and they help brands in a very sophisticated way when it comes to media and creative but they really don’t understand the nitty gritty of the world of e-commerce and retail and they have a lot of trouble working out how to make money from it,” he said.

On the other hand, he added, Amazon-focused agencies were usually started by ex-Amazon employees who have a siloed approach.

“We believe Amazon should be ultimately integrated with everything else you’re doing as a brand. You can’t just look at Amazon as a pure sales channel, it is much more than that; it’s a vast array of properties, experiences, and content,” Power said.

A common challenge is that most brands and businesses think of Amazon as a sales or retail channel simply to place their product on.

“It doesn’t get the love it really needs because Amazon has now given people access to tools to make their products stand out, and if you’re not doing that you can quickly lose out on precious sales and valuable traffic or not convert that traffic because you haven’t invested and you haven’t sort of adjusted to the new the new Amazon reality,” he added.

As of 2018, Facebook and Google commanded around 70 percent of digital advertising dollars while Amazon’s share was roughly 7 percent and it has surely increased – beyond regular forecasts – this year.

Amazon’s consumer growth has been supported by the launch of initiatives and products for businesses such as the Amazon Marketing Cloud and its demand-side platform (DSP), which allows brands to place display and video ads across Amazon’s websites and apps.

This year has also marked a significant milestone for the e-commerce giant with product searches on Amazon surpassing those on Google in the US. All of this means that brands – even those not selling on the platform – can now also use Amazon for upper-funnel marketing activities, such as brand awareness, and not just for performance marketing. They can also access Amazon’s data to pinpoint the consumer journey and better target audiences.

Power pointed out that the agency’s services were not cannibalizing audiences away from a brand’s direct-to-consumer channel, but rather finding these potential consumers who have visited a brand’s direct-to-consumer channel but prefer the Amazon experience and shaping their consumer journey in a way that is favorable to the brand.

While consumers are flocking to Amazon for everything from toilet paper to electronics, sellers and businesses are expressing concerns as evidenced by the antitrust hearing against Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Sellers know that the best place to sell online is Amazon, but it is a tricky situation to be in when Amazon starts selling its own versions of the most popular products.

“It’s hard to make a judgment call. But, at the same time, some of the things that we’ve seen as partners within the Amazon ecosystem doesn’t look good at all,” Power said.

He chalked it down to the silos that exist within Amazon. “Amazon is a siloed business made up of a vast array of different entrepreneurial businesses within different businesses within different businesses and that has caused it to become an incredible success.

“But I think it also can be something where because there are silos and lack of communication, some of those teams go off and do things and they do it fast and so successfully, that it may come at a cost – not just to other teams within Amazon, but also the partners that they’ve built.”

He added that Amazon was now being much more careful as to how it worked with partners, “not just be obsessed with end-consumers which it has been touting for many years.” And this is reflected in the initiatives it has launched to support partners and brands such as its APIs (app programming interfaces) and Brand Registry programs.

Its advertising tools for the Middle East are in the process of being launched starting with the UAE and Saudi Arabia and then Egypt and Turkey, all of which will be served by Podean’s Middle East headquarters in Dubai.

Power said: “It (the Middle East) is a huge market of 230 million people so Amazon’s taking this very seriously because it’s a very strategic market with real volume and real growth.”