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Q&A with Samih Toukan about the future of digital marketing in the Middle East

In 2000,along with Hussam Khoury, Samih founded the Arab Internet services company, Maktoob as the world's first Arabic/English email service provide
Samih Toukan | 02.08.2011

Samih Toukan is Chairman and CEO at Jabbar Internet Group, he leading group of internet sites and web properties in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2000, along with Hussam Khoury, Samih founded the Arab Internet services company, Maktoob as the world's first Arabic / English email service provider. Following the subsequent acquisition of Maktoob by Yahoo, Samih founded Jabbar Internet Group, an integrated group of online companies and websites. The group’s assets extend from e-commerce sites to online games, to advertising products & search services. I caught up with Samih to find out a little more about the companies within the Jabbar Internet Group, and the future of digital marketing in the Middle East... I caught up with Samih to find out a little more about the companies within the Jabbar Internet Group, and the future of digital marketing in the Middle East...

Can you tell us a little bit about Jabbar Internet Group?
Jabbar Internet Group was formed after the acquisition of Maktoob by Yahoo, one and a half years ago. Jabbar invests in leading internet businesses in the region, mainly in the consumer e-commerce field.
Our companies include souq.com, which is the largest market place in the region and cashu.com, the leading alternative online payment solution. Our other companies also include Sukar.com and Cobone.com, the private shopping club and group buying services. Jabbar Internet Group also owns Ikoo.com, the leading online advertising network, Joob.com, the travel site and Tahadi.com, our games company.

How is online marketing developing in the Middle East and how are brands adapting to digital
communications?

With the growth in social media internationally, and the demonstration of its power in the recent Arab
Spring uprisings, many brand managers now realize the power of online media, and the strong ties and
mobilization it is able to create. Since early 2010, many brand managers started to realize that the
ability to engage in a discussion and a two-way communication with customers provided them with
greater insight and allowed for deeper brand engagement that isn't possible with traditional marketing methods. With the growth of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other social tools, that communication became more accessible and open, and this helped increase the profile of online as a marketing channel, and eventually increase the online spend in the region.

What would you say are the main barriers to digital marketing in MENA, and how can
businesses overcome these hurdles?

While there are many infrastructure and economical barriers that limit the access to the internet for the
greater part of the Arab region, the number of users online in the Arab countries exceeds the number of
users who are actually reading a daily newspaper, while spend on advertising on daily newspapers is at
least 20 times higher than online. The main barriers to increasing the digital marketing spend are education and research. Educating about the advantages of digital marketing in (interactivity, measurability, efficiency, and growing reach) should be done at all levels, universities and professional. As well providing more research about digital spend, audience measurement, and the trends of digital content, consumers in the region will support the case for growing digital marketing budgets in all organizations that seek to reach and interact with
wider base of clients.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and start-ups working in the digital industry in the
Middle East?

There is a lot we learned during our ten year journey. Now is a better time for digital as penetration is higher and more investment is available compared to the time when we started. I advise entrepreneurs to take this as a long term business, build a sustainable revenue model, and build a strong team, brand and company culture. I advise them to focus on building their companies and not on how to exit the company and become rich, which will come as a reward when you have a solid business.

How easy is it to recruit digital talent in the region, and what steps can companies take to bridge
the skills gap?

To be honest, it's not easy and it's one of the biggest challenges. I’m so proud that I see many people who used to work with me in Maktoob have now moved on and are either starting their own online
businesses or are leading the digital projects in many good companies. Maktoob was truly a digital
university in that sense and we are now trying to do the same with Jabbar, where we are training and
supporting people to learn the e-commerce business.
I also urge companies to look worldwide and to hire the best skills that can train local teams. One
specific target market I like to tap are the Arab Americans who work in Silicon Valley and who are
looking to come back and benefit the region.

This interview has been published at 22 June 2011 by Aliya Zaidi at Econsultancy (http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/7680-q-a-samih-toukan-ceo-of-jabbar-internet-group)