From mortgages to Nancy Ajram, one man makes his digital mark on pop culture

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Celebrity beta website Najem is three-months old and dedicated to the lifestyles of MENA's rich and famous. Think Buzzfeed with glamor. So far they’ve engaged 200,000 fans across social media platforms. A product of a well- oiled media machine, Vinelab, is looking to see what the Arabic speaking audience wants from the stars and starlets that composite today’s popular culture.

TV is no longer the go-to medium

Before the region was hit by the upheaval of political revolutions, the revolution of the digital space had already begun. Founder Abed Agha approached TV stations to offer services for their digital presence.

In 2010 he was pitching to TV stations that they needed to rethink how they communicate with their audience. “I don’t know shit about licensing but I know about the digital revolution,” he says. “And I know where it’s going. I told them ‘you need to get mobile, people needed to be waking up in the morning and looking at your stuff on their phones.’”

Relationships between stars and brands in the region was changing and Agha wanted to capitalize on this. “Traditionally [TV channels] would manage [the relationship] by building ‘characters’ - presenters, actors - or utilise existing famous talent and build content around them,” he told Wamda.

For Agha pop culture in the region is more relevant now than ever, for both modernisation and universality.

Bringing stars and audience closer together

Gone are the days when the top influential layers in society [governments, religious figures, traditional idols], communicate in a top-down approach over the population,” he says.

In what Agha dubs a “full stack media” company, Vinelab offers to strategize and support a star’s content across all [social media] platforms. An example of this is Nancy Ajram’s official Facebook page. Sadly she’s not the one penning “Thank you for your love!!! You hold a special place in my heart #lovemyfans #nancyajram #cairo”. That is a combination of Vinelab and in the case of Ajram, her fans who had originally created the page.

The Beirut offices of Vinelab. (Image via Wamda)

The core of their work is linking a given talent’s audiences to brands through storytelling and via social media.

The competition for Vinelab is varied and not direct. In Egypt, you have Digisay; in Saudi, you have Uturn. Each is filling the region with digital Arabic content for rising social media stars as well as brands.

Uturn, also founded in 2010, told Wamda earlier this year that they wanted to bring Saudi to the world through their Youtube content. When working on branded content through video, the mindset is the same - they too want to be part of the digital revolution.

As well as working with more traditional stars, like Ajram, Carole Samaha and Majida El Roumi, Vinelab works with new digital influencers, or the new stars. Emirati DJ Bliss and Jordan’s Kalamesque, and Darine El Bayed are some of those on their books.

“We deliver talent audience to brands,” says Rasha Kassab, head of talents and publishing at Vinelab.

“A brand might normally approach a company and say ‘we have this campaign that is going and we want to know who’s the most popular influencer or we want to deal with X and Y’ “ says Kassab. But Vinelab’s edge, they say is to first study the brand and their target market. They then pinpoint the talent whose audience constitutes the best match with the brand’s they craft the right emotional and entertaining experience that is conform and native to the existing content of the talent.

The Najem site.

“Marketing through talents is a model that has existed ever since media and communications were born,” she says. “Difference is that today the talent channels became media properties themselves and are more empowered to deliver a more compelling experience in their own voice.”

Kassab’s goal for the company is clear. “We want to be the biggest and most influential network in the region,” she says.

To America and back again

A familiar story for so many Arab high school graduates, Agha’s electrical engineering degree was obtained in the US. Coming from what he termed as a “not financially relaxed” background, he had to find ways to come up with the $3,000 needed to survive each month in California. “But in the US I was exposed to opportunity,” he says.

At one point he was a manager at a credit card company during the day and a waiter at a Lebanese restaurant at night, all while studying. “It was hell,” he says. “I would miss classes, I could only get to the evening ones.” By 2001 he was on probation with the university.

While working for a mortgage company and still studying, Agha says he would see salesmen turning up to work in their Ferraris and Lamborghinis. He wanted a piece of the pie. “I always believed education would bring success,” he says. “This wasn’t what I was seeing.” He knew then a job in engineering wasn’t going to grant him this.

Agha excelled in sales and carried on working at the mortgage company after graduating in 2003. Not comfortable with the amount of money he was making, he put the kibosh on his green card and decided to return to Lebanon.

Abed Agha in Beirut at a Wamda event in 2016. (Image via Wamda)

In 2004 he was selling tech products to telcos and offering distribution for content owners and TV channels through telco shortcodes. In 2006, despite then taking a job with Standard Chartered Bank he cofounded Rab3iTV, an interactive TV station, from Bahrain. In his first real foray into the the world of media.

By 2010, with this new found understanding for GCC audience behavior, Agha was ready for the next level in entertainment.

Organic growth

Six years after starting Vinelab from Dubai Internet City, the company now has an impressive roster of brand clients. From Samsung and MBC, to Fisher-Price and Du, to Johnson and Johnson.

Agha says they have so far signed partnerships with 60 percent of the ad agencies focusing on GCC and Levant. Agha did not want to disclose further details.

Beyond the seed investment from MVI and regional businessman Roy Haddad, Vinelab has taken no outside money. Agha tells Wamda that rather than needing the money, he wanted their caché.

The founder says that despite nothing worthy being easy to attain, 2010 was the right time for what he was offering. Working region-wide with TV stations, music labels, artists, and any stakeholder in the industry, he wanted their knowledge of the sector to grow “to be able to decipher how digital is disrupting each.”

By now it was 2012 and they were opening an office in Beirut.

Nancy Ajram with fans in Egypt earlier this year. (Image via Nancy Ajram Facebook)

By 2014 they went “full-stack” - working with the talent to let them become the media channels where the brands are delivered to their audiences. Their second office in Beirut, which has recently located to the pristine complex of Beirut Digital District, has 31 staff while Dubai has two.

Does Agha love the world of entertainment? Hard to say, he doesn’t seem to be hitting the clubs of Beirut and Dubai, flanked by rising starlets. Agha does hope though to eventually see a digitally native talent rise to the echelons of regional stardom, and with their help. “The vision has always been the same,” he says “the media landscape is being disrupted and we wanted to be the ones doing it.”

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