By Alice Johnson
In April 2015, PR giant Edelman acquired Dubai’s integrated communications agency Dabo & Co., managed by sisters Camilla and Lucy D’Abo, in a firm nod towards the value of home-grown SMEs. So how did the 10-year-old agency get to this point, garnering support from the world’s largest international PR firm?
“What we thought was missing was a gap in the market for a really strong offering that was combining events and PR,” Camilla, managing partner, said of the secret to their initial success. “There were already PR agencies in the region, but there were hardly any strong event businesses, [which] understood that events are more than just booking a ballroom somewhere. It’s about the strategy, the brand messaging, the engagement,” she said.
Launching in Dubai in 2004, D’Pr (as it was known before its 2010 rebrand) was establishing itself at a time of change for the city: the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) opened along with many other entities. “It was a really amazing time for entrepreneurs and businesses and for us,” Camilla continued.
The sisters – having been employees – came to the realization that combining forces would create a great new offering for the market.
“The big thing was that we saw [practices] in our current companies that we thought we could better and we really believed in all of our quality client servicing, about delivering excellent work and creating a great environment for our staff,” Camilla added, “Because having been employees, we knew what it was like and how important it was to be motivated and inspired.”
Camilla brought expertise from the financial industry to the table, while Lucy’s drama and theatre studies brought strength to the events they focused on as the company established itself. “Within the first three months we had five major client projects, with Emaar, Visa, Asiatech, Kinnarps and Novell,” Camilla said.
Having grown up in the emirate (their family moved to Dubai in 1984), the sisters’ knowledge of the UAE market was a boon.
“Dubai was still in its infancy,” Lucy said of the emirate when they were children, “And every time we came back [from boarding school], years would pass, the city kind of evolved as our lives evolved; and so by the time we were growing up and getting to think about career or wanting to see more of the city, there was just so much more to offer every time we came back,” she said.
“We could really see the opportunity,” Lucy continued, “You had a real sense (as it still has today), a palpable sense of rhythm and pace and opportunity and embracing change; which certainly (with both of us being from the UK originally and having worked there) you weren’t feeling in the UK. So it was a much more appealing proposition,” she said.
By January 2006 the duo had seven staff, handling their first celebrity integrated PR and event in the same year; which grew to 20 by 2007 and shot up to 30 by 2009.
When the credit crunch hit in 2008, marketing and PR budgets were slashed the world over. “Like everyone, we lost 50% of our clients pretty much overnight – or at least it felt like that,” Lucy said, “And a lot of those were in the financial industry, and some were in retail.”
However, she continued, having a very diverse client base was a “huge asset” through that period, “Because we weren’t so heavily reliant on any one industry.”
The crunch highlighted another aspect of their business that was vital: company culture. “It was one of the greatest learning experiences in so much as reiterating why the culture, our business and our people are so important,” Lucy continued.
“We are a professional services business ultimately – so if we don’t have a talented ambitious team, there is nothing left; we just have the sign above the door really.”
Having just moved to bigger premises when the crunch hit, there were a couple of staff (associated with the move) that couldn’t be retained. “We made sure that as a business, we were transparent and managed our own reputation as well as we do our [clients’]. Our attitude was to ‘pull together and work through this’,” she continued.
This transparency manifested itself in a weekly company meeting, which is still held today, sharing updates, progress, client activities and how the company was doing with “clawing back” from where it had been.
“Every month we showed a slide presentation of our revenue and where we were trying to get, to keep everyone involved and motivated,” Camilla added. “We gave people what they wanted, [for example] some wanted extended holidays, [so] we offered a month off but another month off unpaid. We told them we wanted to keep everyone in a job – so implemented a 10% salary decrease in return for extra days off in a month,” she said.
Taking these steps allowed the company to retain the talent it had initially attracted, who’d already bought into the vision of the business. This is so important to Dabo & Co that they have a dedicated marketing and culture manager. A total of 50% of her job is to manage the culture of the business.
“I genuinely think company culture has been one of the reasons for our success because great work comes from great staff and [it’s important] to have great staff motivated, inspired and involved and learning. For us, company culture was always something we believed in and it has just grown over the years, so we are very proud,” Camilla said.
Despite the crunch, Dabo & Co had 35 employees in 2012, growing to 40 in 2013, 50 the next year and a total of 60 (growing to 65) in 2015.
Great work is recognized by industry awards and Dabo & Co is no stranger to these, having won more than 30 since its launch. These include around 16 MEPRA (Middle East PR Association) awards and at least two recognitions from the Middle East Event Awards.
However, the most significant of these for the sisters is the ranking as second best SME to work for in the UAE, by Great Place to Work (GPTW). “It’s really fundamental to everything that we do, it defines us and the staff feel a part of the business,” Camilla said.
“It gives them a sense of pride and… they genuinely work really hard because they feel our passion. It transcends down. And that’s why staff love to work here and clients love to work with our people,” she continued.
The GPTW awards are not judged by a panel, but compiled through surveys conducted amongst the company’s own staff. “So that was really strong, because it gave us a lot of anonymous information and that’s how we developed a lot of our HR policies, based on those findings,” she said.
“Our [driving factor] is quality and there are different ways to measure quality, one of course is retaining our clients, which we have done consistently… and there are other platforms that get recognition from your industry peers as individuals – from the most junior and the most senior in your team. It’s a wonderful opportunity to recognize the work the team is doing,” she continued.
All these ingredients have made Dabo & Co successful in the MENA region. However, one of the challenges the company faced was giving clients the kind of global compliance they require: something that’s more difficult for an SME to provide than a global brand. A second challenge is to give ambitious staff a chance to work on bigger brands and in different markets.
“This is why we strategically took a step to become part of a global agency,” Lucy said, “because we have had countless times where we won the business from an international brand and they told us ‘you were the best’ in the pitch, but they went with a global network because of compliance,” she said.
“We’ve had incredible retention rates,” she continued of their employees, “but we hire bright people; they are dynamic and they want an international brand on their CV.”
To continue their growth, the sisters felt it was time to become part of a global network, which is why they then went out to the market, met with numerous global agencies and chose PR giant Edelman.
“The focus has always been great work with great brands, with great people and maintaining that was key. So finding a partner who had a very similar vision, is also independent, family owned, with shared value propositions and an internal culture were really important to us,” Lucy said.
“And it’s what stood out heads and shoulders above every other business we met. We felt a really strong chemistry and cultural alliance, which was really reassuring.”
In an ever-changing market, adaptation is key to differentiation. In the next five years, “the traditional PR agency as it stands will not survive,” Lucy said. “It’s all about communication and the convergence of communication. You have to be communicating on multiple levels, it has to be about integration and being highly visible online as offline,” she said.
A QUESTION OF EXPERIENCE
So what’s their advice for anyone in the industry? “The first piece of advice is if you don’t have the skills, surround yourself with people who do,” Lucy said, adding that it’s important to offset strengths and weaknesses.
The second is that “Cash is king”, she said. “Professional services are not run in the same way as stocking a supermarket or a retail space, but if you can implement discipline very early on about payment terms, it will stand you in good stead,” she said, adding that the company has never had an overdraft and has grown from two to 65 employees without any investment.
“It’s all been funded through the business. We couldn’t have done it, without that,” Lucy concluded.