Interview: Wesam Kattan, vice president for content and brand marketing, Vuclip

Interview: Wesam Kattan, vice president for content and brand marketing, Vuclip
Wesam Kattan of Viu cover shoot for DS at ITP media group studio
Published: 7 May 2018 - 7:06 a.m.
By: Pranav Vadehra

Vuclip joined the PCCW conglomerate in May 2015. It provides web-based and short-form content video services in 19 markets with a strong presence in India and Southeast Asia and a growing audience in Middle East, Africa and other emerging markets. In August 2017, PCCW Media introduced Hony Capital (Hony), Foxconn Ventures (Foxconn) and Temasek as investors of PCCW International OTT Holdings Limited (PCCW OTT), raising $110m to help them expand in new markets like the Middle East.

This strategic investment signalled PCCW OTT’s intent to enhance its core value proposition of relevant content including original productions, and to leverage its patents in video streaming and encoding to offer the best customer experience. PCCW OTT aims to increase its penetration within existing markets where it has made significant inroads, as well as to expand its footprint into other high-growth markets including the Middle East.

A focus on content, pricing and technology that are locally relevant in various markets, together with fast tracked rollouts across the region, has enabled its consumer video on demand app ‘Viu’ to become a leading OTT video service in Asian countries.

Wesam Kattan joined Vuclip as Vice President for Content and Brand Marketing the Middle East and North Africa region in February sits down with Digital Studio to discuss their plans to capture more share of the Middle East on-demand video market with Viu. With Viu known to commission originals, we wanted to understand how they will approach content production to build their offering in the region.

Starting out Kattan wants to make sure that we clearly understand the difference between the Viu and Vuclip brands and their different lines of business.
“Viuclip is a ten year old company. Basically the main practice of Vuclip is providing telco operators with end to end solutions for content consumption for their subscriber base. When I say end-to-end, this includes everything from designing the platform, designing the consumer journey and aggregating the content - all of it. At the end of the day, the telco can just come and apply their branding to the solution we provide. This is something that has done very well for us across the markets where we operate.”

“In the last 2 years we have got new partners in place. We are now part of the PCCW conglomerate in Hog Kong which is the leading telecommunications and media company in HK. If you look at PCCW, the business has four main areas. Firstly we are the number one telco operator in Hong Kong, the second part is the telco solutions – as one of the top telco operators in terms of technology and operations, now we are actually exporting that knowledge for whoever wants access to it as well.”

“Viu is really our consumer based product,” asserts Kattan. “Viu is essentially a shift from our mass market B2B product to a consumer based OTT platform which is completely 100% owned by us and the relationship is directly with the consumer,” Kattan says.

Kattan adds that the Vuclip experience works to their advantage. “Obviously what we are going to be banking on is the relationship that we have built with the Telco’s across markets. It’s one of the main things we are actually betting on. What you see is a lot of OTT players are getting into that most recently and that is a game we play very well. This is something we have done for the last ten years and we enjoy really great relationships with them (telco operators).”

“The other exciting thing that has happened recently is the mergers that took place with 3 main companies. FoxConn one of the largest mobile chip manufacturer’s, Hony capital which is a private equity firm that invests a lot in entertainment across the different industries. And you also have Temasek. This is really going to give us a lot of fuel to be able to tap into the entertainment aspect of our business through Viu.”

A LOCAL APPROACH TO CONTENT

Today Viu is popular in a lot of emerging markets mainly in SE Asia, such as Indonesia, India, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore. Kattan says that the strategy they bring to enter a new market seems to be working very well: “for example in Indonesia we are the most dominating OTT app when it comes to engagement – this is really due to our strategy which is same in essence and in spirit across countries.”

He elaborates more on the approach to devising a local content approach: “it is really based on the fact that we don’t have a single uniform content strategy which we try to push in each country. What we do when enter a country – we study that country very well in terms of what are the key audiences and the kind of content they are looking for, and then we provide them with that content.” “So what you will fi nd is not only is the content strategy different from country to country but also the brand value proposition is different from country to country. You will find that Viu is a much more edgy proposition in India for example, whereas in Indonesia the positioning is more about aggregation. So we adapt our content to each country – in the Middle East, we plan to follow that same strategy.”

Entering the region in 2017, Viu had a simple goal - to just establish a presence in the Middle East but Kattan says even with these modest aims, they still got encouraging results. “We started last year launching the app and website. Starting to build the library where we were also infusing our knowledge and experience of what has worked with the earlier Vuclip experience: acquiring users, reaching out to the audience. There was no marketing campaign or brand building done. It was really just reaching out to the specific users who we were able to acquire through our digital marketing campaigns.”

“Through these efforts we were awarded the most entertaining app in MENA in 2017 by Google, which is very encouraging for us. Because last year was really about just saying: here is what we know – let’s build a consumer base and library and use that to study our market at the same time.”

“2018 is really the year where we are going to be starting building our brand building initiatives, and refining our content strategy across the key segments that we are going to plan to focus on in the region.” Asked what will be the key formats of the content offering for the Middle East, he says the process of studying the market is still ongoing.

“We are still refining that, but what I can tell you is we are definitely going to keep the spirit of our international strategy intact. Which is looking for the right stories that the audience wants to experience. This is going to be feeding into what we look for in terms of originals.” “Because when you look at all the regions, the key is not only figuring out what is the right content for that market, but also a lot of focus on producing originals. Originals are at the very heart of our strategy,” Kattan reveals.

Kattan believes that while all the market players know the key to capturing the Arab world, is to produce great original content, everyone entering the market is still searching for what kind of content will really resonate with audiences, apart from the traditional 30 part Arabic TV show format. They worked with consultants Millward Brown to study the content consumption and preferences of key markets like Saudi Arabia.

“They were great,” says Kattan. “The qualitative part was very insightful and very granular and the quantitative study is definitely going to add more quality.” While he is still validating the findings into a cohesive plan, the market study has so far revealed a lot of things, such as what are the formats and broader themes they will prioritize, down to the kind of characters that they need to create to appeal to the Saudi audience. “We now have an idea where to go and we will definitely try and head there full steam,” Kattan says without revealing too much about upcoming productions.

STORIES THAT RESONATE

Elaborating more about original content being key to the content strategy, Kattan gives an example: “India where we are 2 years old,” he says. In the first year we had 6 originals, then the next year we had 24 originals, this year we will be producing 36 originals. So it is about fi guring out the stories the local audience wants, and then developing a system where we can shortlist, QC and present the content in a way that the audience will enjoy it best.” We asked what formats they think will work best in the region. “Focus is on dramas, movies is not something we are going to get into right away,” says Kattan.

“Whether we get into TV type programs is something we are still looking into.” While they are almost ready to announce some new shows in time for the Ramdan period, so far Viu has commissioned one South Asian music talent show and partnered with UTurn Entertainment to produce one original Arabic production: ‘Hob El Tayebin’

“With UTurn. we made our fi rst original which is a Saudi sitcom based on a Saudi family which chronicles stories the father is telling his kids on a daily basis and nostalgically remembering the times of the 70s. Mainly about when the father actually meets the mother – the title ‘Hob El Tayebin’ roughly translates into “love the old way.” “Which goes back to one of the main thread that we look at when it comes to picking up stories.”
Kattan is excited about the changes happening in Saudi Arabia, and says that their fi rst original production embodies the idea of how they want to tell stories that resonate locally. “It’s really about picking stories that are coming from the fabric of society – things that happened around the target audience, are very relevant and touched their lives. For Saudi Arabia we believe there is a very big gap that is not being catered to at the moment.”

How do they decide on which production houses they choose to work with? Kattan says it’s mostly based on what’s their track record of work done in the past. “But the most important question we ask is: what is the story we are going to tell?” “At the end of the day even if you’re working with a production house with a low track record, we still have our own guidelines and our international team that is going to supervise the production. In that respect we are very confident of how we will manage the quality control of our production cost. But I think the main point is choosing the story.”

“Obviously it will take us a while until we reach a certain threshold when it comes to the number of original productions here. Meanwhile we will rely on content aggregation to build our library. In that respect, we focus on what is working based on the market and our insights regarding the largest engagement. Also we try to be creative and different about that approach.”“We have already managed to sign big content deals with likes of Rotana where we have acquired the majority of their recent movie library. Al Mazr as well, which has the biggest library of Egyptian films and we have acquired Egyptian dramas.”

Kattan feels its worth mentioning that while their primary focus is going to be Arab speakers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, they will look to make use of their large library of Asian content to attract the large expat communities here. “We are also going to be focusing on the diff erent sub-segments in the GCC. This is an edge we have with our content library from all our sister Viu platforms across Asia because our positioning in Asia is: the best of Asian content. This is something that will be driven by our large library of originals from places like SE Asia, India, Philippines - there is a large sub segment in the region that would enjoy this content and to them it’s going to be original as well.” Kattan points out Exclusive Asian content that no one else has is one advantage Viu is banking on for engagement. “Obviously the primary focus is still going to be the Arab population,” he is quick to add.

COMPETING IN THE MIDDLE EAST OTT VIDEO LANDSCAPE

What does he think of the growing competition for streaming video in the region? Kattan acknowledges there are many competing services: “the fi rst things coming into the region, we were looking at who the players are. The number is beyond my expectation – we have counted at least 14 OTT players.”
Despite the fierce competition, Kattan thinks the opportunity is to win market share is wide open. “None of the players so far have made really significant investment in commissioning originals so to speak. So the opportunity is there for anyone to grab it,” he asserts. “And I think there is a lot of work to be done in developing the OTT category as well – many of the OTT players have come in pushing the brand and their content. But I think the opportunity is for all of us to look at the OTT segment and what it means for all of us together to continue to grow the OTT market.”

He thinks both on-demand video and TV have different roles to play in the entertainment market. “TV will get you all the eyeballs which is something you see in every study.” A major difference between them and global SVOD players is that Viu operates as a mix of both a paid service and free ad-based platform. “We are part free and part subscription so we are both AVOD and SVOD,” explains Kattan. “At least 80% of our content is free and advertising supported,” he says, adding that around 20% of the Viu library is ad free content that requires subscription.

“We are still rolling out our subscription base yet in the Middle East but we are not fully there yet,” he says, adding it would happen in the next few months. “We are already available in a lot of ME markets but telco integration will take some time,” he adds. Viu recently added carrier payment integration in Kuwait via a partnership with the leading telco Zain.

Kattan thinks people will always pay for the right content: “We have no doubt of that. It’s about providing the right content mix for the right audience at the right price. That is going to be our focus this year – to make sure that we have the right content mix, but also having the right value proposition for each segment that we are going after.” Many of the originals are in different phases of development and they are currently looking at which projects to prioritize for which markets, but they expect to add more originals in the second half of 2018.

“We are already making history with the first Saudi original,” he reminds us. He stressed that Viu has a very rigorous selection process in place: “there are various filters that we go through until we say this content is something we want to commission. We want every content piece to go through that process to make sure this is something we want to produce. So that coupled with the market research we are currently working on is what is going to decide what are the titles and how many titles we will produce.”

Kattan agrees the ad revenue picture has been gloomy. “Thankfully it’s not our main focus,” he says: “advertising is not what we rely on as our top priority in terms of monetisation. We have to wait and see how the market shifts but that’s not our main focus in terms of revenue.”

Kattan says of Viu’s Middle East growth: “we are getting there is some countries and some content markets more than others he. Don’t forget we are competing in three different content segments – Arabic, Indian and Filipino content – so the growth in some areas is better than others.” Another part of the puzzle is ensuring the partnerships are in place – brand partnerships or commercial partnerships with broadcasters – “we use these very well in various markets,” Kattan says.

DEVELOPING A NEW CREATIVE CULTURE IN THE REGION

In terms investment Viu’s focus is going to be on Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. Entertainment today in Saudi is an opportunity feels Kattan.

“If you do something in Saudi Arabia that resonates with the audience then it just gives you a good push in establishing yourself in that market... it’s really an empty canvas.”

Having just come from a visit to Saudi Arabia, he thinks the market is really encouraging for somebody like them. But most importantly he says is the excitement: “you sit with the content creators, they are very hungry, they understand the social structure and the type of stories people want to hear. That excitement, with all our research is going to create a great combination for content creation in Saudi Arabia. The excitement you feel in the Saudi market is something we want to be not just a part of, but also want to contribute into the growth of the Saudi entertainment industry.” “We will be working with some key entities in the next few months as well to that end,” he adds. These will include telcos, broadcasters and regulatory entities in the Kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, Kattan feels there is a big boom in entertainment at this time but there is a large gap when it comes to the development process. “We don’t yet have schools, academia and industry institutions at this point of time yet. As a business we know there is a need for high quality originals and work needs to be done on both the development and production side.”

“We are already in discussions with top content creators, here and internationally to create accelerator programs to help us hone in on the creative community. The KPI for this is to have content creators come and knock on our door and hang out with us in the office, even without a project. Simply because they want to be around us - even just as a think tank of what content to create, how to create it and elevate the quality process around it.”
Even globally, Viu has made a lot of strides in nurturing content creation says Kattan. He cites a scriptwriting competition held in Indonesia for young female writers to be given an opportunity to create an original series, which eventually became their first original and a highly successful series in the country.

Kattan knows Viu’s journey in the Middle East is just beginning: “by no means can we claim that we have arrived here, but we want to ensure that we have a very deep understanding of our audience and the content types we want to invest in. We have barely exploited the potential of our market and there is still a lot of work to be done in building our brand and our team as well.” Viu will be setting up teams in key markets like Saudi Arabia and Egypt apart from the Dubai office.

“If I talk personally about my experience with Vuclip, it’s the culture that has really hit me in the face. How people centric is the management - something I have never seen. Such a culture is new in the Middle Eastern setup and it will be interesting to see how the guys here are going to work with it.” “It boils down to working hard and with purpose but also not being afraid to try new things and if you are going to fail, fail fast. No one will hold you accounted for it, as long as you have your hypothesis right, and you get up the next day and just improve and move on. So we have very much kept the startup spirit intact after all these years.”

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