Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
Khaled AlShehhi: “Change Is a Good Thing When It Propels You Forward”
Production Company
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The executive director of marketing and communication at the UAE Government Media Office explores the region and zoom’s into Dubai’s creative scene

BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s Middle East edition, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.

Next up is Khaled AlShehhi, the UAE Government Media Office’s executive director of marketing and communications. He talks LBB’s Natasha Patel through the region’s creative scene, dives deeper into a few groundbreaking projects and shares his predictions for the ‘Golden Age of the Arab world’.

LBB> Let's talk about your current role as executive director of marketing and communications at the UAE Government Media Office. What does this involve?

Khaled> There’s usually a lot of meetings and calls, about running campaigns and forthcoming ones. We don’t think of it as a marketing calendar, but we have a lot on at any given time. Every one of our activities requires intense planning and involves multiple partners, including other government departments, agencies, suppliers, media - I enjoy this pace, it’s exciting and being involved in building our nation brand is immensely gratifying. 

There’s also my involvement with industry bodies and associations like World Media Group, AME Awards Advisory Council, MEPRA or PRCA MENA, awards festivals like London International Awards, several councils, boards and juries. These extra-curricular activities are anything but a superfluous distraction. They contribute to our ability to operate at the cutting edge of innovation in terms of thinking and execution. This is what my role is about, enhancing the way we communicate to cut through and impact the way people think and behave so that we can achieve our goal of making the world a better place.

LBB> Going backwards a bit, what was your career path to reach this point here?

Khaled> Before I pivoted to marketing, I was in the engineering field. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Khalifa University in 2004 and worked at Etisalat for ten years. After starting in the technology department, I progressed to engineering to provide ICT solutions to enterprise customers. There, I was directly involved in the product life cycle, from development to marketing and sales. I was basically an engineer wearing a business hat, developing a customer-oriented approach to sell a product, service, or idea.

After ten years, I felt it was time for a change. It may be challenging but change is a good thing when it propels you forward. In an interview I saw at that time, H.E. Mohammad Al Gergawi, the minister of cabinet affairs in the UAE, described H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as an extraordinary leader, adding that his initiatives were extraordinary, his offices were extraordinary, and his staff were extraordinary. I remember wanting to be extraordinary in a place driven by excellence and greatness, where not even the sky is the limit.

In 2015, I joined the Public Diplomacy Office (PDO) as director of the digital communication department, working on national projects for the UAE Government and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives (MBRGI) in addition to the World Government Summit. At the PDO, we could develop a creative idea to inspire, motivate, uplift, and persuade people on a larger scale, having that impact I was looking for.
Thanks to H.E. Saeed Al Eter, the chairman of the UAE Government Media Office, my team and I push the boundaries even further today. We aim higher because we are empowered to do more and better, from generating ideas to getting results. As a firm advocate of creativity, he expects, rightfully, and contributes to ground-breaking ideas.

This has expanded my horizons and opened the door to new fields and experiences – most notably, humanitarian endeavours. This is a very fulfilling and stimulating role.

LBB> What have been your biggest learnings throughout the years?

Khaled> The power of collaboration is amazing. Too many leaders believe they have the answers, but true leadership is knowing how to surround yourself with people who know more than you and letting them shine. Rather than being threatened, it’s about learning every day and progressing as a collective.

The power of fearlessness is hard to harness but so worth it. We hinder our own progress with fear, hesitation and doubt. Just look at the UAE, where we believe ‘Impossible Is Possible’. Look where it’s taken us.

LBB> You recently talked to us about Dubai's Museum of the Future - reflecting on this incredible innovative space now, tell us how you feel? 

Khaled> It’s such an exciting proposition to handle. On the one hand, it’s a concept. The future, which, technically, has yet to be written, allowed us much freedom to bring it to life. It’s hugely exciting because the ramifications of the project on our lives are very significant. On the other hand, it’s a physical object and a beautiful one at that. In some way, it is a new development after dealing with causes on Earth and journeys in space. 

This is what I love about this role, its perpetual renewal and boundless creativity. You can’t get bored or fall into the trap of routine and automatic pilot.  In most cases, you see the results of your work - the fruit of your labour - very quickly and that’s an amazing feeling. You don’t get out of bed with the intention of winning an award for your work, but you do with the desire to make positive changes to the world, like feeding the needy. Luckily, I get to experience both through our work.

LBB> Dubai is known for pushing many creative boundaries. What have your experiences been with this?

Khaled> Even though all advertising competitions have their own specificities and positionings, all the ones I’ve recently attended as a jury or board member shared a common conversation or observation: the remarkable increase in quality, be it in creativity or performance terms, from the Middle East. This was immediately followed by the same question: how come?

The evidence is increasingly clear. The Cresta have named the Middle East as last year’s recipient of their President’s Award. The UAE ranked sixth at the 2021 One Show. The UAE and Lebanon, two small countries in population terms, have both been in the top 20 in the WARC Ranking of the 100 most creative countries since 2020, with the UAE in the top 10 since last year. In 2021, our own work for the World’s Tallest Donation Box, Double Moon, Martian Stamp and many others has won multiple awards across the globe. This has been repeated for different brands and with many agencies. I hope we’ll see this success continue with our work for the opening of the Museum of the Future and our forthcoming campaigns.

As marketers become more ambitious, they push their agencies and respond more positively to their proposals. The result is in better work being entered in more global, as well as regional, awards. Rubbing shoulders with their global peers is an inspiration to do better. Budget limitations, once seen as a deterrent for great work, actually push you to be more creative and resourceful.

Ultimately, this is resting on the development of a rich ecosystem of data, knowledge, insights, talent, skills, imagination and specialist resources. What some regarded as a sterile desert now looks like a flourishing oasis. It is this environment that makes it possible for a rapidly growing number of brands to aim for the stars and even reach them.

All they need is an environment that fosters innovation and progress. The UAE, and increasingly the rest of the region, is creating that environment through national strategies for innovation founded on the very notion of progress for the benefit of all. Since its inception, the UAE has always been led by a futuristic vision that has been expressed in many different ways. For example, we are the first country with a minister for artificial intelligence, digital economy and teleworking applications. As well as digitising government and public services, we’ve launched countless ground-breaking initiatives like UAE Innovates, our annual week-long innovation festival. It is a joint effort by the government, the private sector and individuals to help create a widespread culture of innovation in the UAE. 

LBB> What do you think makes Dubai's creativity so unique?

Khaled> Two generations ago, Arab advertising was in its infancy and started spreading across the Gulf. One generation ago, it was still largely seen as an expense by a business community of traders and agents. Today, we have marketers in place who can derive performance and value from marketing investments. Their trust in advertising is the foundation on which our creativity has risen.

Technology has definitely played a huge part in enhancing the solidity of planning and execution. Talent too. The region remains a magnet for skilled professionals. As a beacon of development, it keeps attracting the type of future-shapers innovation requires. But we now create and nurture our own. Social media has also given a voice and a platform to a new generation of creators. They’re assertive and push boundaries to transform our cultural backdrop. Interestingly, the diversity so many industries and companies aspire to is almost a given in a country like the UAE. The blend of ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and age is very powerful and may explain why creativity is so rich here. Be it through training and development, policy or investment, Dubai is turning into a creativity powerhouse.

While this is largely driven by the private sector, both local and international businesses, governments and public sector organisations have contributed through policies, strategies and developments. In the last decade or so, they’ve prioritised innovation, education and culture in their long-term visions and transformation plans. Innovation has long been a focus to overcome the many challenges this region has faced over the years, be they political, economic or humanitarian. It’s no wonder many Middle Eastern countries want to embrace the knowledge economy and also become global creativity hubs.

LBB> With that in mind, what do you think is the future of Dubai’s creative scene?

Khaled> With its fascinating exhibits, the Museum of the Future has some of the answers, some coming from Earth, others from space, some from our natural ecosystem, others from technology. For our industry, the answer is the same. We’ve already lifted off, made significant progress and now need to maintain our trajectory. This means drawing on our resident talent, attracting the best in the world, giving them all a stimulating environment, opportunities to grow and the tech resources to break new ground. This is how we’ll reach for the stars, achieve global success and lead the world with our ambition, innovation, diversity and investments into building a unique and transformative knowledge economy. We’re looking at a new Golden Age for the Arab world.

LBB> Outside of work, what does life look like for you?

Khaled> I put as much energy into my personal life as I do my professional life. First, building our future with my wife, having recently got married. It’s an exciting new beginning with much to learn and discover together.

After an interruption, I am resuming my training for the Spartan races. I have been chosen as an ambassador for Arabia, so I have a duty to lead by example. It’s such a great physical and mental boost. There is a strong correlation between my career progression and my participation in Spartan races. Extreme sports propel you forward like nothing else does, as you have to overcome not only the physical obstacles but also the ones you place yourself.

I’m happy to have resumed international travel, as the world is a fascinating place full of wonder and inspiration. 

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

Khaled> Government communications are not known for being award-winning material, generally. But things are changing, with more G2C campaigns and public sector clients making it into the creative rankings.

We’re playing our part at the UAE Government Media Office, with work that propels our region forward and gains international recognition at festivals. In the 2021 Loeries’ ranking by brand for MENA, we came second after Adidas. At the Dubai Lynx this year, six of our campaigns got collectively 32 shortlists. This made the UAE Government Media Office the single most shortlisted organisation this year and we ended up with 16 trophies. Who’d have thought a public sector/government entity could rise so fast and so far in the creative communications rankings a few years ago? The feedback we got was amazing, with messages of congratulations, admiration and, best of all, encouragement.

Behaving like a brand rather than an institution is a radical step change but one that has brought positive results for everyone. We hope to be a driving force for other government bodies, in the UAE and beyond, as we’ll happily share our experience and insights. I am sure the rest of my amazing team and our fantastic agencies will agree with me and join me in inviting others to be more courageous and embrace innovation and creativity with their communications. It can be challenging but it’s also more effective and more fun. That’s a massive reward in itself.

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