Interview with the 2022 Content & Innovation Award leader, Khaled Alshehhi, Executive Director of Marketing and Communication, UAE Government Media Office

September 20, 2022

Working for a government department, are there any restrictions you’ve come up against that limit what you can do with your content marketing campaigns? If so, how have you combatted that?

The only limits are those we place ourselves, when we limit our own creativity or imagination. Of course, there are technical limitations or financial boundaries we can’t cross but these only limit our ability to execute the ideas in the way we initially intended. There’s nothing stopping us from executing them differently.

When you look at what we’ve produced over the past few years, the scale, innovation and ambition we’ve demonstrated, you clearly see we live and breathe our country’s motto: Impossible is Possible. We thrive on these three words.


Why do you think there’s been a growth in content-led advertising campaigns over the last few years?

Capturing and retaining people’s attention, when there is an avalanche of messages and sources of distraction, is the real battle for marketers. This is particularly poignant when attention spans are dropping to levels below those of a goldfish, at around eight seconds today. There is also a deficit of trust in a lot of institutions. Traditional messages, interruptive ads or communications are no longer cutting through the way they once did.

While personalisation helps, if done sensibly, what really gets through to people is content-based communications. Content gets you found, liked and, where applicable, bought. It builds awareness and credibility in a far less intrusive way than traditional advertising. What’s more, it’s shareable. It doesn’t matter if you don’t become viral, you will still expand your audience when people share your content with their friends and followers.

Brands are thinking and acting more and more as publishers. If they put their audience’s needs first, they stand to get levels of trust, affinity, attention, and preference ad campaigns can only dream of.


What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in content over the last five years and what sort of trends do you expect to see in the future?

Like most things, content has moved from print to digital platforms. We’re therefore focusing more and more on audio-visual and, interestingly, voice, with podcasts. While social media has led to the bitesizification (wish I could trademark this) of content, I do believe there is also a place for long-form. Look at the performance of documentaries.

Obviously, while content is largely used to build a brand and its affinity, including by championing causes or promoting social responsibility, marketers still want it to generate leads or sales. We’re probably going to see more efforts in this direction.

Another aspect is the deprecation of third-party cookies on Chrome and the focus on first-party data it will eventually generate. Marketing to a database of known consumers or visitors will heavily rely on content to push people down the funnel and rely on its shareability to contribute to audience expansion.


With a recession potentially on the horizon, do you think now is the right time for brands to invest more heavily in marketing or will we see the industry cutting back?

Typically, with any signs of economic contraction and lower revenues, most businesses respond with cost-cutting measures. Some will go further and reduce or delay investments. What appears to be financial prudence could actually be the corporate equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to marketing.

With every crisis or downturn marketers go through the same debate, should we/shouldn’t we, with agencies and industry associations trying to convince the others about what course to take. There is ample evidence that short-term budget-cutting reactions are never as effective as long-term investments for brands – or the economy. Brands that keep on investing through a crisis bounce back better and maintain or grow their share better than those that cut budgets

A downturn also presents opportunities to invest in your brands with better commercial conditions and less competitive pressure. I am not advocating recklessness of course, just looking outside the box and a bit of bravery. Call it a leap of faith.


What do you think the specific challenges will be for your sector in the year ahead?

Besides a general contraction in revenues and therefore budgets, possibly, we’re likely to see a lower appetite for international investments and possibly tourism, with inflation cutting into budgets. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before though, and certainly not as unexpected as the pandemic. We have a built-in resilience, I feel, in our economy. Every time, we’re returning to pre-crisis levels faster than the previous downturn. We may get bruised, but we don’t get scars, which is a good thing.

In terms of communications, as tech makes everything immediate and accessible, government communications need to become much more two-way, fast and effective. This is particularly true for Gen Z consumers. Rather than campaign-based, we’re adopting always-on more and more.


One of the reasons you were nominated for the award was because of the transformative way you approach communications, behaving more like a brand than an institution. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to your peers in other government institutions?

Creativity is not just for commercial brands but also for public sector brands, which often have a greater purpose to fulfil. From nation-building to branding, from philanthropy to public diplomacy, from small trips to interstellar missions, we’ve transformed the way the UAE Government communicates. And it’s won multiple awards at some of the most prestigious festivals. How did we achieve this? We went All Out.

First, we OutEmphathised: we became people-centric to always humanise our communications and ensure they are meaningful. Second, we decided to OutThink: we became bold, unique, distinctive and brave enough to test, experiment and dare to truly innovate and capture attention. We also OutCared: we found and pushed a greater purpose in our work. Finally, we OutCollaborated: we developed many collaborations with partners, not suppliers, who share your vision and contribute multiple perspectives for better results.

At the UAE Government Media Office, we ensure the strategic communication needs of the government are met, helping it communicate with its domestic and international audiences on a broad range of challenges and initiatives. This includes working on the Emirates’ nation brand. We’re particularly focused on soft power and public diplomacy strategies, managing the visual media identity, and managing media campaigns for strategic national projects and official events. At the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, we ensure the success of philanthropic and developmental campaigns through smart media ideas and activations.


Finally, what campaign are you most proud of and why?

I have a soft spot for the World’s Tallest Donation Box. The idea was to sell each LED light on the façade of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, to raise money for the 10 Million Meals campaign. We gamified the humanitarian campaign by putting the Burj Khalifa on sale. Each one of the 1.2 million lights was sold, providing 1.2 million meals to people directly or indirectly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak across the country. This shining display of social solidarity and cohesion brought hope and smiles to people who needed it the most.

Institutions, companies and the general public bought one or more lights for 10 AED ($2.7) each. One light would provide one meal. The skyscraper’s 1.2 million lights turned it into a beacon of generosity. This got global attention and the media around the world featured the story and images of Burj Khalifa powered by kindness. This is marketing as a force for good.

This campaign has been a massive success, providing meals for the needy, positive PR for the UAE, contributing to building the nation brand, and gaining an impressive number of awards (70 in total). More importantly, it helped the 10 Million Meals campaign exceed its goal by over 50%, raising enough funds to provide 15.3 million meals to low-income families and individuals impacted by the pandemic.


Khaled Alshehhi’s World Media Awards Speech