Having inaugurated the first-ever social TV show, Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi became popular as the UAE’s most intrepid travel host. As he leads a talk on content innovation at RiseUp Summit, the entrepreneur tells us about WePress, the app setting out to revolutionise freelancing across the world.
Few people know the global media landscape as well as Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi. Hailing from the country that tops world rankings in highest Internet and mobile penetration, Mohamed and his brother, Peyman, stepped up to the challenge of producing the first-ever social TV show, Peeta Planet, a crowdsourced travel show that involved its every viewer in planning their destination.
Socially-geared, culturally sensitive, and intrinsically interactive, Peeta Planet garnered 50 million viewers and thousands of social media followers across six continents, inaugurating an era of crowdsourced travel adventures that spread across borders. The duo gained popularity across the Arab world, representing the UAE at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2014 along with Hollywood star Matt Damon and the former US president Bill Clinton himself.
Engaging with communities not only online but also in real life, the duo set out on a broader mission to smash stereotypes and help their home country, UAE, take ownership of the global narrative around it. “Throughout my life, every time I turned on the TV, I would hardly see anybody from the Middle East in the role of a travel show host or in a film. Even when we are represented, they are either not really from the Middle East but dressed like us or they represent us inaccurately. So we wanted to create a show where Middle Easterners are doing something normal, in normal roles,” Al Awadhi said as he got off a crowded stage at the RiseUp Summit. An expert in content innovation, the Emirati filmmaker led several talks at the summit - held in Cairo on December 12-13 - where he stressed the importance of human stories and locally-based content.
“One of the things that I always loved while travelling was to go where the locals go, so that was one of the premises of the Peeta Planet. So if we would go to Paris we would probably not go to the Eiffel tower, but to where Parisians hang out. It wouldn't be somewhere shiny and glittery - maybe a mom-and-pop shop - but it’s somewhere intimate; somewhere that has a story,” he says. “I think those are the things we remember when we travel; we don’t remember the Starbucks or the McDonalds or the five-star hotels. It’s the people we bump into and share a quick coffee with somewhere on a side street that we remember.”
Having taken a break in the social travel venture, Al Awadhi came to RiseUp Summit on a mission to present his recently launched platform, WePress - a community directory and marketplace app that leverages on the global growth of freelance journalism to spark a revolution in the way branded content is crafted.
The entrepreneur explained that, while there is a need on the one hand for mass-produced content and algorithms to reach out to readers in a quickly shifting online landscape, the human element is still fundamental. “Journalism and content marketing is about great storytelling, and humans fall right down into the centre of that,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter how great your algorithm is, it's not going to replace the soul of the content. We could write a thousand words, but it takes a special storyteller to tell it with soul and touch the emotions of the readers.”
The app, launched in July 2015, connects freelancers with media outlets and brands, tapping into a global industry worth $135 billion: digital brand content marketing. “Statistics show that only 50 per cent of marketers are happy with their content. That's a huge opportunity," he said.
Developed through feedback from a global community of journalists and publishers, the WePress app simplifies networking, commissioning, and payments for the freelance journalism industry. Boasting an international directory of media professionals - be it journalists, fixers, camera operators, photographers, copy editors, or layout designers - the app allows them to create pitches and briefs, or apply to existing ones through its online marketplace. In that sense, Al Awadhi says, it supports journalists in an entrepreneurial way.
“In fact, that’s exactly how I see freelancing: entrepreneurship for journalism. If you are a journalist just starting out, you would need five to six years to build your network. So a person who has been in the business for five years may not need a directory; they can write a Facebook post and, boom! But what about the hundreds of thousands of journalism students that just graduated?” he explained. “We cut that time down tremendously, because from day one you get on WePress and start connecting with colleagues around the world.”
Since its inception in July this year, the startup has grown a directory of 1,000 professional content creators, signaling the beginning of what he considers will be a tremendous boom in journalism. “Many of these content creators are award winners who write at The Guardian or Reuters. You need a directory of great content creators to pull the brands, and we're here at RiseUp looking to raise $250,000 in investment,” he added.
Innovation in content creation doesn’t stop at WePress for the intrepid entrepreneur, who is now working on a film project to highlight the food and music of the Middle East. “I find that, often, we Middle Easterners don’t know enough about each other, so I’d love to fly around the Middle East and find who makes the best hummus, or the best basterma. And, while doing that, I want to meet amazing bands to see what the music scene is like in the Middle East. That's a show I would love to watch,” he concluded.