The communications industry is diverse and is responsible for many aspects essential for any modern day brand, from general media relations and media relations strategy planning to digital and social media. In recent years, the lines between different aspects of the industry have been blurred, and the way it works has been completely changed, following the rise of the internet, and digitalisation.
To gain a clear understanding of the communications industry, Daily News Egypt sat down with Yiannis Vafeas, managing director at Golin MENA, one of Chicago-based Golin’s franchises, which is one of the world’s top 10 public relations firms, employing 1,200 people and, according to the Holmes Report in 2016, brings in more than $200m a year in revenue.
Change is essential
Vafeas started the interview by asking what types of questions about the industry I had in mind; this took me aback, because I was just planning to write about the changes in the communications industry in general. I told him this and he said that there were many aspects of change. I indicated that I was primarily interested in the overarching characteristics, and he agreed to speak regarding that notion.
According to Vafeas, communications professionals have a certain power in their hands; if it is used effectively toward the right direction, it can impose a change in society, community, and specific audiences.
“So I totally feel that it is time for the communications industry to change, to become more relevant to people, to their needs and hopes, because the whole world is changing, and every industry should somehow align to the change, but always in a positive way,” he said
One reason that he gave me is that, especially here in the Middle East, it has been tortured by different incident: political, social, and cultural. It is also important that, “whenever there is an effort to communicate something, to make it relevant to people, make them understand, make them move, act toward something, which brings us to our profession, because this is what communications does; the more emotional we do it, the more success we will bring to the brands that we represent,” he said.
He explained that this is also why Golin is proud to be called a relevance agency, as in the last three to four years, they have also developed a very unique approach towards communications, which is an impressive tool that they call “the relevance finger print.”
“We created the tool in collaboration with the University of Southern California, so it was the theme that some PhD students work on, because we were trying to understand how relevant we are with what we communicate. You know, in a busy city like Cairo you receive about 60 messages daily, so this new method identifies first of all whether people are willing to listen to what you have to tell them, second, how enthusiastic they can be for the message, and third, how they relate to the message; do they want the brand to be welcoming? Authentic? Classic? Modern?” he elaborated.
Then he explained that Golin has come up with 15 dimensions of relevance that the human brain can relate to a brand, so by doing a very simple quantitative study—usually online—the team can come up with findings that can inspire the brands, strategies, and tactics that Golin puts forward.
“I personally, after almost 20 years in communications, I am impressed; I feel that I represent a brand that has brought this edge into the industry, and I am really proud of this,” Vafeas said.
He went on to explain that Golin is very diversified, as it actually has four big practices: the corporate practice—which mostly includes financial institutions, insurance, big corporations, etc—technology practice, where it is one of the strongest, especially in the MENA region, with clients like Dell EMC, Kaspersky, Teradata, Oracle, and many more.
Golin also operates in consumer practice, which includes consumer luxury and lifestyle brands, and finally, pharma and healthcare. “I would say that the second thing that makes me proud of being part of such an organisation is the amount of years that clients trust us. Getting a client that stays with us for seven, eight, nine years is not an easy job, especially in the MENA; it means that you do something well,” he said.
However, Vafeas elaborated that he finds it very healthy that some brands have left Golin because they want to explore the market, saying, “which I am not against because that’s the game anyway. Everybody needs to explore new ideas, new strategies.”
One of the points he made was that being able to inspire these brands over and over again, and make them stay, or come back after they leave, is beautiful, and that there is nothing more motivating because it means that they are doing something correctly.
When asked about company’s famous g4 model, he responded that it is a revolutionary structure that was established six to seven years ago, and it was all about becoming specialists rather than generalists by developing public relations. He said that generalism in media relations is no longer in order to be able to pass a message to individuals. The g4 model began putting an end to the generalist PR professionals through adding some substance in all the aspects a PR professional should have, to bring to the brands and the audience the real meaning of PR.
“We have the explorers (industry experts, people who come from research backgrounds), then the creators who will take insights produced by the explorers and come up with ideas, then those ideas need to be written and implemented, then it goes to the connectors (media influencers and blogging team), the people who will actually take the message out there connecting the brands with the crowds, then we have the catalysts who orchestrate this whole effort. Thus, with generalism ending, brands and audiences today are looking for depth in everything. One person cannot do that,” Vafeas added.
Coming from an advertising background, and although he is a managing director, Vafeas considers himself more of an explorer, or a creator, saying everybody finds their niche in the g4 equations, and it is one of those tools and structural changes that revolutionised the whole PR industry. With a smile, he said that after being named agency of the year nine times in recent years, he hopes Golin will manage to become agency of the decade in 2020.
The story behind Golin
Vafeas then got into the details of how Golin began and how it became such a success.
He said that Al Golin, who founded Golin, “was this young guy, back in the days when McDonald’s was a little corner burger shop.” Golin, a press agent who was 28 at the time, used to take press releases to Chicago newspapers by hand, as there were not even faxes at the time.
“Two years ago we celebrated the 60 years of Golin and McDonald’s; unfortunately last year he passed away, but he has left a legacy,” Vafeas said.
“If you think of what we are selling, its ourselves, along with some insights of course. Imagine being an ambassador of an agency for 60 years, how much bigger can it get, and this is the same thing that’s happening in the Middle East with the group that represents Golin, Horizon FCB. It has been in the region for 41 years, another legacy, representing a number of clients in various sectors: digital, production, sports marketing, and more, whith Golin MENA being its PR arm,” he added.
MENA and Egypt in the eyes of Yiannis Vafeas
Living in a different region and culture is an enriching experience. Vafeas’ views of the MENA region and his experience here are, therefore, insightful.
He said that he has been working in the MENA region for 11 years. “Living in the Middle East, and coming from Greece, it’s quite an experience because of the diversity of cultures, not only in Dubai, but in the whole Middle East. In countries like Egypt or Lebanon that carry such history, in every single aspect of life, isn’t this diverse in itself? If Egypt isn’t diverse, then who is?” he asked anecdotally.
“I am a very big admirer of the creativity in the Middle East no matter how suppressed it has been. In cultures that have been for any reason suppressed, creativity is much better. I don’t really mind if the Western world appreciates that or not, the ones who know would understand the creativity and the magic of the Middle East. That’s why I chose to stay here, otherwise I would have packed and went anywhere else. There is Golin everywhere,” he continued
From his point of view, the Middle East has the human resources, creative people, and the magic, depth, and wealth of the Arabic language itself that can make it “do miracles.” He went on to ask, “have you seen the dictionary from English to Arabic? And from Arabic to English?” explaining that the same applies to the Greek language, or any language that comes from a rich history.
In Egypt’s case, Vafeas believes that the foundation is very strong in terms of culture, history, and life, “real life, mess, and chaos; this make it so real and authentic,” he said. After all the events and the political changes that happened, he feels like there was a button that was pressed, after which people started revealing themselves, moving higher and taking the magnitude of the country to new heights. He added, “now you see all eyes from all over the world are on Egypt. Within this environment, is there a better place for Golin? Or for any ‘Golins’ to be here and start pushing brands to become more friendly, relevant, and understand the consumer dreams, instead of being very practical and functional, as this isn’t working anymore, and here we are.”
Moreover, in his point of view, the potential is endless, because once what was considered the top is reached, there is something new to be reached. The industry is changing rapidly, he said; in social media, brands started to realise that the power that so-called influencers used to have is diminishing. “It’s time for people to start living in the moment, not only when you get a ‘like’; that’s not a communications strategy, it’s not sustainable, it’s not an indication of success. The real success will be on the shelves, will be the awareness, engagement that consumers have with the brand,” Vafeas said.
The way forward for Golin and any Golins out there
When asked about Golin’s new methods of work, and how the industry in general can adapt to the changes, Vafeas said that Golin has another tool called the bridge, which is not only a social media monitoring tool, but an online tool that basically monitors the discussions that are happening, allowing Golin to show the brands a number of insights into what is going on, what thousands of people and millennials are discussing, thus allowing the brands to be part of the discussions and start a dialogue.
“If you don’t listen to what’s going on, how can you become part of the dialogue. I don’t think that brands are doing enough to stay relevant. In fact, I believe they are doing a lot of things to stay irrelevant, and this has to change,” he said.
Vafeas explained that there are two methods that need to be combined: to listen and understand the needs of consumers, and to humanise the communications with them through understanding and feeling what they have to say so that one can come up with something unique.
He added, “once you do that then you can push the creative boundaries and creativity is humanised. The big bet now is who is going to be more creative while relevant because, as a professional, I would believe I succeeded only if at the end of my career, I can write a book and say that I was relevant.”
When asked about his experience in teaching in Zayed University in the UAE and how it affected him, he said, “although I used to teach at Zayed University for five years, in the recent year, I have become a student myself, studying [for a] cultural exchange master’s, so I had to stop teaching, but I still do some visiting sessions, as I don’t want to ever lose my connection with the youth. I find it good for myself. Golin, being part of academia is important,” he said.
He elaborated that, at Zayed, he teaches strategic PR, which is basically a practical and creative way to push students to think outside of theory, focusing on very practical topics, and real briefs, to help the students how to build strategies. “It’s a master’s, it’s nice to see how they understand what’s going on, because there are things today that are not written in books, as change is going so fast,” he said.
“No matter how digital our world is going to become, or how technology will take over, there will still be a human element that needs to be covered, no matter how you implement PR and communicate to people, what you communicate to them will always be the key point. I hope the future remains human,” he concluded.