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How to win fans and influence people

They’re being paid thousands to sell you stuff. Except you don’t know it. Debonair takes a look at how influencers are changing our lives 

We believe these influencers constitute the new global media.

It’s a Thursday evening and we’re kept waiting before being allowed into the nightclub while the gatekeepers screen the guest list. Inside, we’re confronted with a sight rare even for Dubai, where velvet ropes routinely separate the masses from the VIPs: Behind a conspicuous cord is a hyper-muscled gym fiend, accessorised by an exotic beauty on either side. We Instagram a dutiful selfie and adjourn to the bar, to gawp at the beautiful people who’ve turned up to what was billed as the biggest event for male influencers in the UAE. 

All 15 of them.

Maybe we’re early, we think. But the club slowly empties out — until about an hour and a half later when the organiser and his mates also leave. Contrast that with what a restaurant owner tells Debonair: he paid Emirati RJ Taim Al Falasi to make an appearance. “A few posts and our café was full for the next week,” he says, underscoring the immediate impact social media celebrities can generate. 

We believe these influencers constitute the new global media.

The disastrous Fyre Festival was promoted by multiple celebrities and influencers, including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski. Cofounders Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule now face a $100 million lawsuit, while another targets the social media titans that promoted the event. 

With influencers, you never know what you’re going to get.

“The value of influencers is still being learnt — both by brands and by the influencers themselves,” says Tara Rogers, managing partner of Mojo PR. “The brands that learn how to maximise the return on their investment are those that understand this needs to be driven strategically. Relationships need to be developed, metrics need to be multi-dimensional, and results need to
be rewarded.”

Mojo works with several agencies worldwide to produce the Sermo ranking of digital influencers, so brands can find the right people to get their message out. Al Falasi topped their list in the UAE. “We believe these influencers constitute the new global media,” says Tanya Hughes, president of Sermo Communications.

Swedish gamer born Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, was the world’s highest-paid YouTube star in 2016. Although he’s fallen from grace this year for anti-Semitic or Nazi imagery, Forbes reports he continues to make millions from YouTube ads alone.

But the internet has democratised influence. Those trendsetters today don’t need to be celebrities. In the 21st century, an unusual spin on trends — and access to a social media network — are enough to influence others. Peer-to-peer platforms allow people to quickly amass tens of thousands of fans, followers or friends, to whom they can potentially display products. Last year, PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe found that more than 70 per cent of UAE residents aged 18 to 40 seek advice from influencers before buying a product.

“It’s the culture that has changed,” says Yousuf Gargash, an Emirati who is courted by international watch majors for his network. “Back in the day people read magazines related to their interests, but we live in a technologically savvy society. Information has become easier to acquire these days so people are much more aware of what’s in and what’s not.”

What’s also changed is the way this content is served. While magazines traditionally hold advertising and editorial as separate and sacrosanct, social media mavens are often paid to endorse products and services in what is an entirely new marketing genre. “Many influencers now have rate cards, like publishers,” says Hughes.

“The value of influencers is still being learnt — both by brands and by the influencers themselves,” says Tara Rogers, managing partner of Mojo PR.

Across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the UAE is home to the most expensive professional influencers. They rake in $274 per paid post on average, according to an April analysis of the 2,885 people listed on Influence.co, a global platform that connects them with marketers, advertising agencies and brands. “Overall, we found that influencers’ average engagement rate is 5.3 per cent, and the average rate they charge for each sponsored post is $180,” Juliana Vorhaus, the company’s director of influencers, wrote in a blog post.

What an influencer earns depends on the audience they deliver. Clark Williams is COO of the UAE-based Influencers.ae, which has more than 2,000 of these new-wave professionals, with a cumulative 680 million followers. “We have influencers on our platform who charge Dh500 per post and other who charge Dh40,000,” he says. 

Follower numbers and engagement rates account for the difference. “The [misconception] is that influencer marketing is expensive, whereas it is much less expensive in cost per conversion than traditional digital advertising.”

Blogger and fashion consultant Mahmoud Sidani’s 93,800 Instagram followers know him as Mr Moudz, while Yousuf Gargash is a more traditional advisor, as he likes to be called.

Audacity is also a factor: BPG Cohn & Wolfe’s Taghreed Oraibi told local newspapers the highest quote she’s received is Dh175,000 — for a few hours’ work. She turned it down.

Mohsin Khan — or Emkwan — runs two YouTube channels in the UAE with more than 40,000 subscribers and over
10 million video views. His brand partners include Montblanc, Mercedes Benz and Snapchat. “The collaborations have clear KPIs that are relevant to my social media accounts and I and my team work with brands on them,” he tells Debonair.

On one channel, Emkwan Reviews, he unboxes and reviews gadgets, watches, cars and luxury items, in the way a magazine might, through reviews or in a video of positive product highlights. The other, Emkwan Vlogs, plays in the more informal native advertising space, where content has the qualities of editorial but is actually sponsored. There, he says, brands can be promoted in less direct fashion. “It’s a great informal way to market something while being creatively independent.”

“We believe these influencers constitute the new global media,” says Tanya Hughes, president of Sermo Communications.

As Mr. Moudz, blogger and fashion consultant Mahmoud Sidani counts over 93,800 Instagram followers. Among his clients? Pepsi. “You can definitely make a living as an influencer. I know influencers who charge up to $6,000 per Instagram post — that’s more than the average salary of someone working here.” 

On the other hand, Gargash is a more traditional influencer, or advisor as he likes to be called. His route isn’t social media — in fact, his numbers are comparatively low — but brands seek him out because he moves in the right social circles and because of his association with the Dubai Watch Club, a group of enthusiasts who work with brands, auctioneers, retailers such as Rivoli and Ahmed Seddiqi, and other collectors.

Author Omar Al Busaidy, who is followed by 13,600 Instagrammers and has worked with Jaeger-Le Coultre, counsels marketers to examine the value influencers add and if they truly connect with their target demographic, while advising influencers to acquire the kind of knowledge an employee might have. “There are a lot of people who just buy likes and followers, and that won’t mean anything to the brand,” he says. “Just pouting your lips in the picture should not be the standard of a paid collaboration between a brand and an influencer.”

“It is genius that a lot of social media kids are managing to make a living out of this,” says designer Mohammed Sultan Al Habtoor, who fashion-lovers will recognise as an influencer before the term became hip.

“Of course, disclosure is important. As long as they are honest to their followers, then kudos to them. Let’s face it — this has become a serious business and a whole new industry,” he adds.

Lawyers say influencers in the UAE must comply with federal media law just like magazines and newspapers. “Influencers, whether they know it or not, are actually running a business. That means they would require a trade licence,” Fiona Robertson and Amna Qureshi of the firm Al Tamimi and Co wrote in a recent blog post.

They haven’t seen the National Media Council apply this law to an influencer yet, but there is scope to do so.

Mr. Moudz explains why disclosure might be a difficult sell: “I’m not against paid posts; as long as the influencer believes in what he/she is being paid to promote, there should be no wrongs there. [But] from the follower’s point of view, the second a post has #ad in the caption — they don’t trust it any more.”

Interestingly, in an effort to advance transparency, Instagram just announced users will soon see a “Paid partnership with” tag in organic content posts and Instagram Stories. 

But as our night out with 15 other clubbers showed, though, even without the sponsored hashtag it isn’t so easy to win fans and influence people. 

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