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Karim Khalifa: Digital Guru

Reinventing online marketing in Egypt and the region, Karim Khalifa, the founder of Digital Republic, is one of the pioneers of the local industry. We sit him in our Geek Corner to find out where it all began...

Back in the day, when we used to get most of our advertising from airplane banners, messages floating in bottles in the Nile or a string of coloured light bulbs and big speakers, one man had a dream to take marketing online. And not just online. He wanted to beam messages right into the palms of your hands. Karim Khalifa started Digital Republic in 2009, but he was too far ahead of the game with his vision and his mobile advertising plan became defunct. At that point, Digital Republic instead exploded on the online scene and now they work with some of the biggest clients in the Middle East from McDonalds to Microsoft to BMW, even winning an award for their Akbar Khabar campaign for Molto. They also won the 2013 Dubai Lynx award for their work on the Axe Wingman Valentine’s campaign. We spoke to the Don of digital advertising in Egypt about corporate whoredom, the future of marketing and emoticons….

So, the launch of Digital Republic: When? Where? Why?
Zamalek, June 2009. Why? Because it was a case of do it now before you have children or regret it for the rest of your life.

What were you doing before?
I was working at in real estate. Corporate whoredom basically. There were 15 or so years of corporate whoredom before that with a mobile service provider, among others, so it was time to give it a shot and if it didn’t work, I’d be back to corporate whoredom.

So, you weren’t really involved in the digital world?
No, I was. I know, it’s an anomaly why I was in real estate, but it was only a one-year ‘get on the property boomandride the wave’ kind of thing. So I went back to what I do.

And what was that?
Funny enough, Digital Republic started off because of my mobile background. It was designed to be a mobile advertising agency. Purely, 100% dedicated to mobile advertising. But in 2009, we were too early to make a break with mobile advertising. Internet advertising didn’t exist yet, so you could imagine mobile advertising. But because I was working in mobile advertising at Vodafone in England before, my partner was like, “Why don’t we do this application?” and it was actually a really good idea for its time but it completely failed. Together we spent a million pounds, which was the money I had made in property! The idea was to have an app that showed you ads whenever you got a call or a message, so that the consumer would never miss it. People were supposed to download it with the incentive that they’d collect points for every ad they saw and they could exchange those points for credit.  The things that we screwed up on were, firstly, that the mobile operators aren’t going to give away credit, casually, for Karim Khalifa and his buddy playing around in mobile advertising. We had good connections but they didn’t want to give away credit. Secondly, the complexity, at the time, was too much for mobile users. Smart phones make it easy now, but to get people to download an app back then was impossible.  

At what point did you say to yourself “this isn’t going to work“?
Since people weren’t picking up on the mobile stuff, we started getting requests for online. So we started doing websites and digital advertising concepts and the mobile side became less prominent. We had a model like yours (MO4 Network), where we had Wafar.com which was our own content platform but, after a while, I let the content side go with my partners, and we carried on with being more of an advertising agency.  

Have you ever had a client who you thought was an absolute c**t?
Absolutely. You know how it is in the Middle East. There is such a weak work ethic here and the professionalism is null so you’re constantly dealing with people who are bordering on psychotic.

What’s the stupidest request you’ve ever had?
I’ve been asked for crazy shit like “a holographic laser beam show whereby it is holographic.” Holographic. What the fuck is that? JESUS! Put them in the psycho category!

With the shaky economy, have you thought about packing up and leaving the country, taking your business elsewhere?
It all comes down to one thing: there’s no place like home. Business is unpredictable and risky but I love Egypt, I love my country. When it gets to a point where my wife, for example, can’t walk in the street without hijab or without being harassed that’s when I’ll think about it.

How do you manage the balance between getting your hands dirty with the day-to-day running of the company, and thinking about the overall strategy?  
I smoke a lot of shisha, that’s how I manage! I don’t see my family and I smoke shisha. It’s difficult to get the balance right because you know by getting yourself involved with the details, you’re also eating away brain time from the strategic side of things.

How involved are you?
My involvement in the day-to-day things has reduced significantly because I don’t want to over-think everything. But the reason I have to be involved is because of quality control. We all know that we live in a region where attention to details is shit and people cut corners whenever they can. By paying a little more attention you can really raise the quality of work. So, that’s one reason. The other reason is that I’m a bit of a dictator so I like things to come out my way!

How do you keep your staff motivated when they are in the same corporate whoredom situation that you were in before?
I let the office culture develop on its own, I don’t impose it. If you let the culture develop on its own, people don’t feel that their hands are tied because they are creating their atmospheres themselves and I think it’s helpful in reducing the feeling of being a mowazaf. I think you have that here at MO4 as well.

What the most difficult part of getting started in this business?
Convincing the psycho people that you can’t do a “holograph,ya fandem.” That’s probably the challenging part. And getting people to understand how much technology is worth…

Speaking of technology, what’s the next big thing in advertising?
It’s impossible to say what the next big thing is but what I know for sure that this is the decade of mobile, not year, but DECADE, and it’s going to be about how people understand human behaviour in a constantly connected world. Those who understand that right are going to get it right.

What’s your favorite Pokémon?
What’s a Pokémon? Is that like a smiley face? Oh wait, that’s an Emoticon. I don’t know…

Hahahaha. Which Digital Republic campaign are you most proud of?
The one we got our awards for, Axe Wingman. It’s got an evolution to it. It’s not a one-hit wonder, you can continuously grow it. It’s Valentine’s every year and the Axe concept can constantly evolve with it. 

Why haven’t we won any awards? Can we have one of yours?
You have got the content but you just have to package it and send it to the right people…

What’s your company slogan? Ours is: Internet for Brown People…
Ours is “The Digitally Inspired Ad Agency” and I trademarked it. I wanted something in my life to have a TM next to it; I just wanted the TM there.

What would you like your legacy to be?
Ultimately, at the end of the day, when this is all done, I want people to look back and say that this individual was a fair person who did a good thing for the digital advertising industry. I know, it’s cheesy…

Find out more about Digital Republic on their website: http://www.adigitalrepublic.com/


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