KSA has the highest YouTube consumption per capita in the world. The Kingdom craves online content but has always relied on footage from abroad. Until now that is. Kasawara Al Khatib, CEO of UTURN, is on a mission to create a signature Saudi online entertainment offering.

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Going viral

‘The most important male in a Saudi female’s life is her driver,’ jokes comedian Noon Al Nisaw. The comment was made during an episode of UTURN’s homegrown Saudi female comedy show. The outcry was immediate. In a country where cinema is banned, how was this local woman making such scandalous statements on camera? “We say stuff that you wouldn’t hear on TV. We’re pushing the envelope and talking about political and social issues – threads of ordinary people’s lives that aren’t discussed in the media,” explains 46-year-old Kasawara Al Khatib.

For the CEO, controversy has bred success. Today UTURN’s 50-odd shows enjoy 150 million views a month from some 35 million subscribers. The business is the biggest supplier of online Arabic videos in the Middle East, offering a mix of original, assistant produced and aggregated content covering everything from political satire to vlogs. Last year it raised US $10 million from Leap Ventures and made the same amount again in revenue from advertising. Determined to defend his position, in the next year Khatib plans to double the number of shows, open an office in Dubai and create his own video-viewing platform dedicated to UTURN content.

Filling the void

So what’s the buzz? “It’s about making purposeful and meaningful entertainment for young Saudi men and women,” Khatib surmises, “we have pan-Arab channels but before UTURN there was never a Saudi programme specifically for Saudis,” he continues. Need being the mother of invention, the entrepreneur quit his job at Proctor & Gamble to fill the gap in the market. Khatib founded Full Stop Advertising – one of KSA’s first domestic agencies – in 2002, but the CEO turned his attention to new media in 2010.

With the assistance of his brother (now a silent partner), Khatib invested US $150,000 in development and collaborated with local creatives – comedians, presenters, writers, directors – to shape and style the platform. He brought it to the market in the form of five unique pilots. Six years later, two of those original shows (Eysh Elly and Ala Al Tayer) are still going strong.

Crucially, since its creation UTURN has evolved from a YouTube-based multi-channel network into a multi-platform network; the product is present on Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Instagram, GooglePlus and Samsung Smart TV. “If content is king, distribution is queen,” smiles Khatib, aware of his enviable reach (over two billion lifetime views at the last count). The CEO is riding high on the demand for ‘snackable’ Arabic video content. But although he has reached what is perhaps the pinnacle of his career, the entrepreneur suffered substantial setbacks in his start-up days. An advertising expert by trade, Khatib knows how to sell. But when the policies and parameters surrounding your platform change that becomes difficult.

The evolution of advertising

The entrepreneur was smart in using video content as a vehicle for advertising, setting himself ahead of the curve. As a spokesperson at Leap Ventures explains, “the Middle East is an emerging market in everything except digital media. We are a hyper-developed market with 80 per cent smartphone penetration. Yet advertisers in the Arab world are still spending more than 90 per cent of their dollars on TV and old media, compared to the US who spend 50 per cent on digital advertising.” According to BIA/Kelsey, specialists in new media marketing, revenues for social media advertising are expected to hit US $9.7 billion in 2017, up from US $2.1 billion in 2010.

Khatib knew all of this. By prefacing UTURN’s programmes with banners and sponsored content, within six months he was making money from regional advertisers. With such an attractive and – for Saudi – innovative proposition, UTURN signed its first US $500,000 sponsorship deal in 2010 with Saudi telecom provider Mobily. But despite becoming official YouTube partners in 2011, two years later Khatib was told his advertising had to stop. “They told us we were using the platform wrong, in a way that broke the user policy. They gave us six months to change how we sell,” the Saudi recalls.

Forced to make a U-turn on his plans for UTURN, Khatib regrouped. “We had to get creative in order to find a way to keep selling,” the CEO explains. The solution? Product placement and brand integration. Instead of dropping adverts before or after UTURN episodes, Khatib featured clients in them. It went down a storm with the company’s advertisers, a group that includes Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Nescafe.

The clients were content. But with YouTube now taking 45 per cent of a channel’s revenue, UTURN’s profits effectively halved overnight. Feeling the pinch from the new policy, Khatib looked outside the box. Literally. YouTube is the world’s largest platform for online TV and video, but many other ‘new media’ channels also support video content. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, suddenly became Khatib’s new frontier. Exploring this new terrain made commercial sense. When UTURN or one of its presenters promotes a client’s product on Facebook UTURN nets between 70-90 per cent of revenue. YouTube’s 55 per cent pales in comparison.

The next episode

“Business is an adventure so you need to be adventurous too. It’s like Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America – sometimes you need to be driven off the road for a new path to unfold for you,” Khatib smiles. His pioneering spirit has paid off: he was named Saudi Arabia’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 and last year he snagged the top spot on Forbes’ list of ‘Entrepreneurs Shaping Saudi Arabia’s future’. With an impressive and growing portfolio of advertisers in his arsenal, Khatib is focusing on his next frontier: the UAE.

With the recent injection from Leap Ventures, this September UTURN will launch operations in Dubai. “The content exists and the audience exists: it must be that UTURN exists too. The opportunity is there and we are lucky to enjoy great support from the Dubai government – they’re really helping to accelerate our work,” Khatib enthuses. The CEO will give his business and 75 employees time to acclimatize to the new market, but plans to launch a dedicated UTURN platform soon. YouTube is cluttered with thousands of channels and brands shouting over each other. Khatib envisions an offering that is streamlined and targeted. A destination for considered consumption, the platform will only feature UTURN’s original and aggregated videos and sponsored content.

What Khatib is proposing is an Arabic language challenger to YouTube, the entrepreneur’s one-time incubator. The concept is controversial. But remember Noon Al Nisaw’s comment about Saudi drivers? It seems UTURN wears controversy well.

Rushika Bhatia Editor

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.

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