Rajeev Khanna, Commercial Director, Gulf News Image Credit: Riaz Naqvi | Staff Writer

You said last December that the UAE and the wider Gulf are home to a segment of print consumers who have not yet entirely moved to digital news media. Does this assessment still hold true? What are the emergent local news media consumption trends you have noted in 2018?

Things haven’t changed very much from December. In fact, that segment is going to stay for a long time to come. These are die-hard print readers who want their morning fix of the newspaper with a cup of tea, and they are from a certain segment. For instance, there are certain Asian and Arab audiences and long-term British [expats] who have been residents of the UAE over the past 20-25 years who have pretty similar habits when it comes to reading the newspaper. Yes, like everyone they too have got into the habit of going on their smartphones to check out snippets of news and subscribe to various digital sites, but that’s going to be an ongoing practice, it is the new normal. As far as the newspaper is concerned, the consumption will carry on.

You’ve worked at Gulf News a long, long time. Can you share some milestones from the growth journey in the company’s digital advertising division? For example, when did you sell your first digital ad? 

It was 2004 when we started selling digital actively. If I recall right, our first client was DaimlerChrysler. By 2007 we had a dedicated sales force and it grew from there on. A lot has changed since. Back then it was just banner sales, but today we have several innovative options for advertisers. The three anchors of Gulfnews.com, editorial, sales and digital development work as a well-knit unit. We’re looking at it not just from a commercial basis — which is important, of course — but we’re also looking at expanding audiences in the MENA and beyond, and not just within the region that we’re in. 

As the shift to digital continues, how has Gulf News’ relationship with ad agencies changed?

That’s been the least of our worries. Historically, our relationships with ad agencies have been excellent. What we did in print has actually been replicated in digital, except that you probably deal with a different set of people at the agency. The agencies have been really cooperative and collaborative. We’ve always believed that the core values should stay the same whether you’re selling print or digital: transparency, honesty, integrity, hard work and service with a smile. We maintain that. 

What are the new initiatives that have come out of Gulf News’ commercial division over the past few years?

We’ve had several initiatives launched over the past 24 months, but if you talk about hugely successful stand-out innovations, it would have to be launching Reach, our content marketing division. Its phenomenal success has been recognised in the marketplace and I see a big, bright future for Reach. 

How is online classified advertising evolving? What are the trends in horizontal and vertical classified advertising models and how is Gulf News innovating in this space to stay relevant?

Globally, online classifieds has evolved over the past 15 years. It’s grown at a very rapid pace, but my view is that there are going to be many casualties because there are way too many players who have come into the marketplace. You’re going to have a lot of smaller players being blown away or bought out by larger ones. It will probably follow the same kind of path as e-commerce, where scale matters and the big boys survive. 

Alternatively, you have to have a USP if you’re talking from a regional point of view or regional strength. Take the case of Gulf News. If you rewind the years, even if you look back as far as 2008, we were huge in print classifieds, churning out nearly 120 pages on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps we did miss a trick at that point in time. At the nascent stage of digital classifieds growth in the region, we took a step back because we were too heavily involved in a lucrative print form of classifieds. Suddenly, when the landscape started changing we had to do a lot of catch-up. But I’m happy to say that over the past couple of years we’ve made up a lot of lost ground. We’ve launched Getthat.com, which is now gaining a lot of traction — it’s getting traffic and is a very good product. Futuristically speaking, we’re focusing most of our classifieds on the Getthat.com platform. But isn’t it a paradox that even print classifieds, although considerably downsized, is still a profitable business for us with a captive audience!

Most heritage advertisers are keen to see more representation in the digital space thanks to the reach Gulf News commands online. How do you read this trend?

Actually, heritage advertisers switching from print to digital on Gulfnews.com bodes well for us. They’ve been in print with us all these years and now they’re getting on to the digital platform. 

Again, I will reiterate a very important aspect: A number of these advertisers are not going to entirely give up print. They’re going to go for an optimised version of combining both digital and print, and that is going to be the way forward. 
You’ll find lesser players in print as [time] goes by — probably in the next five years we might see a completely different landscape with just a couple of newspapers surviving in each of the countries in the GCC — clearly the market leaders will be the main players — and they will have their share of advertising and readers. Print eventually will evolve into finding its place in the digital age. 

But at the same time, digital will experience a quantum growth. It may not entirely translate into the same revenue as print, but certainly there will be significant growth. 

What changes do you foresee in commercial advertising in the region over the next decade?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the effect on publishers. There’s going to be changes in how we go to market. There’s going to be a lot of emphasis on selling the right content to the right audiences. 

Remember: we are like OEMs, original equipment manufacturers. I would call us OCMs — original content manufacturers.

I also see a future wherein collaboration amongst credible publishers will gather momentum, providing larger platforms customised to individual audiences and also resulting in shared revenues. 

At the end of it, content is crucial, and who reads it. That is going to be the strength for publishers. Social websites have their own strengths, but we are the ones who create the content. How we couple it with audiences is going to be the key factor. 

The growth going forward is going to be the right combination of finding an audience and giving them the right content. Advertising or commercial values will automatically dovetail.