Each and every one of us remembers their first digital encounter — no-matter what it was — looking back, those early years of the digital revolution were nothing compared to the complex digital landscape we live in now — One that is constantly evolving and changing how we live and do business.
In 2003, when websites, social media, and clickable banners were still a novelty, Ali Shaaban founded ‘Icon Creations’, the first digital marketing agency in Egypt. Shaaban had a vision; he believed that the future was digital, and that brands needed to build their online presence in order to connect with the modern-day consumer. Over the past 18 years, Icon Creations has grown into a full-fledged creative agency with an impressive roster of clients from a variety of sectors and industries.
With the success of Icon Creations in mind, Daily News Egypt sat down with Ali Shaaban in an exclusive interview to find out more about his views on digital marketing and entrepreneurship, in the hopes of inspiring future businessmen and women and helping them pave their way to success.
Please tell us more about yourself.
I’ve been working in the digital advertising and communications industry for over 18 years now, and back in 2003, when the industry was still in its infancy stages, I founded Icon Creations — an award-wining fully fledged creative digital agency. Since then, I’ve built many long-term relationships with a variety of brands across a multitude of sectors and industries — especially most of the leading automotive brands in the region.
As an entrepreneur, I believe what sets me apart is that change and growth are constants for me, and that I’m constantly striving for them.
What are the challenges that faced you when you started Icon Creations?
When I first started Icon Creations in 2003, I was entering a market that was completely new. From 2003-2010 websites and display advertising were still in their early stages, and then in 2010, Facebook [got more traction] and the social media boom began.
One of the biggest challenges was going into a market that no one knew much about and convincing potential clients that they should be present on digital and that it was the future, because at first, people couldn’t fathom how you could advertise and market your brand on digital; the same way people don’t really understand virtual reality and the meta-verse now.
The truth is, however, that the world is constantly adapting and changing, and we need to adapt along with it in order to offer solutions that are relevant to the modern consumer.
How did you hire your first team members? What skills did you want in your employees/team?
I hired my first team members based mostly on character, followed by experience. I believe that while skill is important, there are other things that are as important, such as work ethics and drive for example. In my opinion, you can easily train for skill with a team that has a strong drive, but it is a lot harder to build someone’s character if they lack the qualities necessary for a fruitful career.
Additionally, when I founded Icon Creations, the digital world was still in its infancy stages, so I needed team members who had enough passion and drive to work in a completely new industry. They needed to be ready to learn fast and constantly be aware of the market changes while adapting to them.
How would you describe the culture at your agency?
At Icon Creations, company culture is very important, because it is the backbone of the company, and any company for that matter. We encourage growth and teamwork, and we push each other to become better and do better.
We look for creative individuals who are able to come up with unique, out of the box ideas and solve problems in innovative ways. We strive to create a culture of responsible individuals who have the autonomy to push themselves and produce quality work without needing to be micro-managed.
Our team is very hardworking and curious; they are always eager to learn and seek to broaden their knowledge throughout different fields. They are selfless, putting our clients first, and support their colleagues instead of acting competitively.
Communication is also a very important aspect of our culture. We encourage our team to listen to one another, maintain their poise when dealing with stressful situations or touchy subjects, and most of all, to always treat those around them with respect.
Every talent who joins our team is a future Icon because we create an environment that allows them to unleash their full potential. In fact, we have a saying: Once an Icon, always an Icon.
Anyone who leaves the company, leaves with memories and experiences that have shaped them, and they’ll forever be connected to us — a part of our family.
What makes Icon Creations a unique agency?
What makes Icon Creations unique is that we have such diverse experiences in a number of varied fields and industries. We hire the best talents in the market, and our team has an unprecedented drive. Also, as a company, we are adaptive to any changes in the market or environment, which is important, because the industry changes at a very fast pace.
Throughout the 18 years since Icon Creations was founded, we have seen various campaigns, brands, and technologies that have made us the experts we are today and have allowed us to have more than 10 years of fruitful partnerships with our clients.
What’s your proudest moment in business?
All my business moments are proud moments. From creating exceptional content to launching a new company, I celebrate every single achievement, big or small.
What sort of jobs did you do as you were growing up? And what lessons did you learn that you still apply today?
I’ve worked in a variety of different fields. Growing up, I had multiple passions, so I was always trying something new. I was very interested in learning different things and expanding my skill set.
Every company I worked at taught me something different, and I took all those things and put them together, which led me to where I am today. The truth is, I’m still learning and growing until this very day, and that’s what allows me to constantly take things to the next level.
How has the availability of data changed marketing (or not)?
The availability of data has brought a new level of precision to marketing. In the past, marketing was based on personal opinion and shooting in the dark. However, with the availability of data, marketing strategies have become based on numbers, facts, and solid evidence.
On top of that, ad targeting is now a lot easier, because you’re able to reach a specific audience that is interested in what you are putting out, rather than a mass audience that might not be interested in your specific offering. Basically, with the right targeting, the right messaging will reach more and accomplish more.
Is there anything you would like to say to our readers or upcoming entrepreneurs?
It’s okay to ask questions — you don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to always be looking for them. No matter how old you are, or what your experience is, you should constantly be learning.
Also, the world is constantly changing, and as an entrepreneur, you need to be adaptive to the market’s needs and demands and be prepared by anticipating any changes to come. On top of that, you need to be confident enough in yourself to know you’re going in the right direction. Even if at some points in your journey you make mistakes — you need to understand that this is part of the process, and that it’s simply a learning experience.
There are a lot of people who don’t have the same passion or drive to start their own thing. Learn from your mistakes and move forward and always strive for more.
What do you think is the biggest threat to the success of small businesses & start-ups today?
I believe the biggest threat is the inability to find a balance in things. For example, balancing growth with quality, patience with ambition, and kindness with leadership — because the key to any successful business is a middle ground between everything.
On top of that, I believe that its very dangerous for start-ups to fall into bad patterns and lose their drive. It’s very easy to get lost and lose focus on the end-goal. I think the key is to enjoy the process of getting where you want to be but maintaining enough humility to know that you need to work hard for it and focus on what you want to accomplish.
Do you have any plans for expansion in the next five years?
Five years is a very long time. Throughout my experience, I’ve seen several industries completely shift in a couple of years, so I always like to take a look at what’s happening and find a way to adapt to market changes through my different business ventures.
That being said, I believe that right now, the fintech, e-commerce, and artificial intelligence sectors are on the rise. Moving forward, I plan to expand my interests and have a deeper look into these different sectors.
A great example of where my interests lie at the moment is Paynas, a fintech company that empowers SMEs across the country. I have been a part of this company since its early years and have found a hidden passion through my experience with them. I believe that by expanding your interests and exploring newfound passions, anyone can find themselves on the road to success.