Interview with Kaswara Alkhatib

Kaswara AlKhatib speaks with Digital Studio about UTurn Entertainment's journey from a production house to a multi platform network to creating a media incubator for digital content creators.
Kaswara AlKhatib, UTURN CEO
Kaswara AlKhatib, UTURN CEO
Kaswara AlKhatib, UTURN CEO
Kaswara AlKhatib, UTURN CEO


Kaswara Al-Khatib, CEO of UTURN Entertainment has a big vision – to be the largest platform for content creators in the Arab speaking world. His mission is to export a civilization through his entertainment platform. The minute you think of Arabic online content, he wants people to think of UTurn. “If we manage to help create and aggregate content for all of the Arabs around the world, we would be one of the largest platforms in the world. We want to entertain people but also instil values and be productive and help people with our content,” says Al-Khatib.

Having embraced digital with his creative agency in Saudi Arabia, he noticed the power of social media and digital video content on YouTube, which is when he decided to create UTurn Entertainment for producing Arabic online content. Since its inception, the UTURN network has grown to include 100 channels with close to 50 million followers. Today, his company is poised to grow from being the leading Arabic content network on YouTube to becoming the largest media brand in Arabic online entertainment.

UTURN is now partnering with UAE incubator In5 Media to create a media accelerator in Dubai. “We are in Dubai now, we have opened our regional office in Media City and we have just opened our media accelerator. That is big news - for the first time there is a media incubator and accelerator. It’s in partnership with In5 Media and we’re also part of the Youth X hub - an initiative by H.E. Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum which is more like a community service for the youth to come and collaborate and create. This initiative includes design thinking, coding and media and as UTurn, we are operating the media lab there. We are in the process of transitioning from being a multi-channel or platform network (MCN or MPN) to be more of a platform and enabler of the industry.”

The plans to setup the media accelerator started taking shape about 18 months back as a way to address the challenges facing young content creators. Al-Khatib says he wanted to “create a hub for on line content creation -where we enable content creators to come and bring their content, or create content and help them monetise by connecting them with advertisers. This is what’s interesting today because this does not exist in the Middle East before.”

“Because one of the challenges that the youth usually find is how this does become legitimate. We want to take it from a hobby into a career or source of sustainable revenue for creators, and the best way you can do that is give them this opportunity to monetise, create their own content. They can sell that content, so their passion turns into sustainable living source rather than just a hobby, but they still have a daytime job. This is what’s exciting for us. Dubai is a melting pot which helps creativity, and the government is supporting us.”

Located in Media Production City, the accelerator to be called UTURN Place is already operational with a grand opening expected in February. “We’re operational, the studios are up and running, and all the equipment is in there so today you could start making content there in partnership with IN5,” says Al-Khatib.

Expanding more on the incubation facilities built for content creators in Media Production City he says, “We have four studios; one large around 200 square metres, one medium about 100 square metres and two chroma studios with green screen. There are two sound studios with all of the needed equipment such as seven cameras, the dolly, the track, lighting and so on - it is a fully equipped studio. The whole incubator, the building is around 2000 square metres or 1,600 to be exact. It includes a co-working space, area where people can come and share ideas, there is an amphitheatre in there for demo days, and the second floor is all the studios. We have cameras, an editing suite with 10 stations, and tools such as Davinci for colour coding, Final Cut and Adobe Premier. Any person who is a creator just needs to bring their idea and come there, and we are fully equipped to realise it.”

Importantly, the service for content creators is free of charge. “Completely free, they just need to have an idea which they can do. They can post the content to FaceBook, Instagram, YouTube, so we are platform agnostic. YouTube space forces you to put it on their platform but we don’t force you to put your content on any specific platform.

As an enabler and consultant he sees their role in the ecosystem as connecting the creators with the advertisers.  Al-Khatib says, “There are lots of advertisers who don’t know how to reach the content creators, and lots of creators who don’t know how to monetise and reach the advertisers. We are the enablers who connect them.” We have a database of all the content creators, filmmakers, DoPs and editors and we also have a good relationship with the media houses, ad agencies and brands that need those content creators, and we can match them together. So for example you have Du or Etisalat or potentially even an airline says they have an idea, so we bounce it to the content creators, they would go work on it and then there’s a demo day where creators can come and present their ideas, the brand will select the ideas they like and they will fund it to be executed.”

From Creative Agency to Production House to Media Platform

Al-Khatib reflects on his journey towards becoming a major media player with UTURN. “I was working with Proctor & Gamble, I am from an engineering background and we were working with an international agency. Once, while I was designing a sticker for a brand I was working on, my boss came and said that’s the agency’s job, and that was when I realised I was in the wrong role. So I quit P&G and read every single book I could put my hand on about advertising for six months and decided to venture in to advertising and started Full Stop as a creative agency back in 2002. When we started creating TV campaigns for brands, we were doing ad productions in Dubai, Beirut, Egypt and South Africa and the same problems came up. Just like I earlier wondered why we don’t have an agency, I thought why we don’t have a production house in Saudi Arabia. People said we’re crazy.”

“We started to venture into production and started making Saudi films and I became a film director myself and learned directing. I used to work with MBC, come up with ideas, produce it and give it to them. That’s when I discovered the power of media. That’s where the money is, the power is at the end of the production chain, where you own the platform and get to dictate what goes where.”

“I was always fascinated by media and back in 2009-10, I started noticing the evolution and power of YouTube and power of digital media and that’s when we decided to launch UTURN Entertainment to be a media player. We started with a small digital production house because I know how to produce, how to come up with creative ideas through Full Stop. We had a creative agency, we had a production house, all we needed was to complete the ecosystem and do the media part. So we started as a digital production house creating online content, and initially we were a bit under the radar. We were seen as just social media and nobody in Saudi Arabia noticed what we were doing”

“We started with a political satire show and another comedy show, and all of a sudden there was a big explosion when the western media started to notice us. CNN came and did an interview with all these young guys who are daring to produce content from Saudi, and they are talking about what’s really happening in the Saudi street. Suddenly BBC news came, MBC came, everyone was talking about the online revolution and about how we are doing caricatures online and attacking the conventional media. Back in 2010-11 everyone was talking about traditional media versus digital and the struggles between them.”

“After that we decided to venture into genres - we started treating our productions as high quality TV shows where we come up with different genres and each show had a name, was more like a brand that had its own stage and presenter. So we treated it like we treat TV shows because back then on Youtube, it was mostly bloggers or people just filming themselves.

“We used UTURN as a platform to reach the masses, however we reached them with more like a show format. It was all Saudi content from the youth and to the youth and that’s what made us stand out. If you look at the Saudi media scene back then it was either Saudi owned channels or government owned, or MBC which had regional content with dramas from Lebanon, movies from Egypt and so on, but it was never Saudi’s creating the content.

People always saw Saudis as consumers of content so for the first time we started seeing content creators that are Saudis who you can relate to, or people who you knew suddenly becoming influencers and media sensations.”

“YouTube noticed us as we were putting ads on our content and they approached and said you have six months before we start monetising it ourselves. They told us we were a Multi-Channel Network and told us how to go out and aggregate content so we started aggregating content and working with other content creators, and I thought instead of going and competing against all the other potential content creators, let’s be the big brother of the industry and start aggregating content.”

“Instead of us just creating content we opened up our doors and said every potential content creator is welcome to come and join us. We had a small studio in Jeddah and we could help you create content, give you advice and our proposition was we want you do what you know best which is creating amazing content and we will help you monetise it, and provide technical support like optimising your channel, content copyright protection and so forth.”

Then Yahoo and Facebook contacted us and started asking why your content is only on YouTube, and so we started putting our content on multiple platforms and we evolved into a Multi-Platform Network. We raised funds for the first time and then we had the opportunity to come to Dubai to set up the accelerator and we became a platform ourselves and that’s where we are today,” he concludes about his journey.

“The growth has been so quick that when we talk with investors about plans, we only make 1-3 year plans because three years is like 10 years in the digital world. Started as digital production house, now we became a media house with an incubator and an accelerator and we have started producing series potentially to compete with TV, so it’s very dynamic. I am a big fan of Richard Branson and the Virgin model of branding, so we are looking at UTurn potentially to be that type of brand where verticals is important because you can’t say one size fits all. So we are looking to tap into new verticals - music is huge in this region, gaming and e-sports are huge which is untapped where we can be the pioneers.”

An Enabler for Arabic Content Creators

Al-Khatib spoke about the plans for the UTurn accelerator and the kind of projects they will be working on. “One of the biggest projects we are working on today is the reality show of those who will be at the incubator. They will go through the challenge of creating their own content and then every episode will be a certain challenge, and there is an elimination process and finally there will be a winner. We are doing it in collaboration with IN5, they liked the idea and have sponsored the first batch so we are creating content out of those content creators who are coming in. Renowned judges from the online world will pick the winner who get a scholarship or job with us. We are pretty excited about this because we are creating a reality show about creating shows, you see the challenges and what they go through, all shot in Dubai by production crew from the region.”

In January, Dubai Studio City in collaboration with in5, launched a competition inviting content creators to showcase their talent through innovatively produced videos. Supported by UTURN, the contest allows local content creators to promote their projects and attract a wider fan base. The videos can cover a wide range of categories, such as music, drama, comedy, vlogging, gaming, animation, news, beauty, fashion, sports and reviews. An expert judging panel will shortlist 20 entrants. The winner will be announced during a live screening event at the in5 Media premises.

Al-Khatib is also excited about creating content for OTT platforms. “We have signed with Vuclip to provide them two series, one will be a comedy and the other is a thriller. Each one is about 15 episodes. This is also that we start providing them content rather than just the typical online vlogs or challenges, now we are talking about full-fledged series that have characters and have a build-up and season can potentially go to season 2 and further.” “Vuclip are an Asia based AVOD OTT and they want to tap the same model and launch here and they are looking to get content on their platform, so we were the first they signed up with to get Saudi content,” he added.

Do online content productions have a cost advantage over the traditional TV channels?

“We have to match the quality of the networks. The common perception that because it’s digital production, it’s cheaper, is wrong. TV used to be overpriced because they were the only player. When we started it was lower costs simply because there were people willing to work for free. Once the industry matures you cannot ask people who are influencers to do it for free and that made the industry where it should be now that the market is regulated – it’s not overpriced or under-priced. We make good content and that content has a cost.”

What are the biggest revenue drivers for the UTURN entertainment network?

“Most of the revenue is from advertising. It’s coming from brand integration, product placements and branded content. However, we are starting to get into original productions so Vuclip is a new model and we are testing that model where we can produce content and sell it. We want to come up with ideas for original content and produce it and sell it to other OTT players.

As a platform, we don’t want to be perceived as just YouTube although that’s how we started. The way we think about digital content is it has to be in a context of the platform, so what works with Facebook doesn’t necessarily work on YouTube or other OTTs. We do content for Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and other OTTs. In the beginning we thought it was all the same - just add more digital platforms, but now we know that each platform has its own characteristics that you have to cater to.”

Digital media – All platforms have different needs

Al-khatib spoke about how you need to create content for each online platform depending on context and audience. “Facebook is usually short form content between 1-2 minutes, usually content with text in it, information where you don’t need the sound. We usually use FB for informational content, sending helpful information like tips on food work very well.”

“On YouTube the sweet spot is between 5-8 minutes, such as content by vloggers and gamers. It’s the place we go if we want to be entertained. We call it snackable content.”

“Other OTT platforms require more premium content – that’s where you’re talking 20-25 minutes, dramas series, talk shows, you can’t consume that content in five minutes. OTT is closer to what we watch on TV but with no interruptions like ads.”

We plan to test that kind of production for OTTs and release it weekly on YouTube maybe. We do a lot of testing.

There is a saying with digital, whoever says they know, they don’t know. One of the good things we do is we experiment a lot. We do make mistakes but they are learning tools to know what works where. We are always adapting when it comes to platforms – this region is pretty advanced when it comes to adopting social media and digital platforms. As UTurn, we need to keep up with the advances.”

What are the best paths to monetization for online content creators?

The problem with YouTube in the region is that the CPMs are very low, says Al-Khatib. “So we don’t use it a revenue driver but as a good platform for content publishing and branding and distribution. But the money we make is from selling to brands and using the influencers as an asset and as brand ambassadors. I wish we could reach a point where I don’t have to worry about revenue monetisation – just on creating content.”

UTurn recently signed an exclusive agreement with them to distribute content on the Snapchat discovery platform. Al-Khatib sees good potential in that, saying, “Snapchat is a huge phenomenon in the region – almost every young person here is on Snapchat. They are tapping into the Middle East because they represent a big amount of consumption – we have to see if they manage to use the Middle East as a case for building their brand. The monetization scheme they are doing will help them. If they keep up with the revenue that they promise then definitely the future is good for Snapchat.”

A Platform for Digital Content Creators

Al-Khatib thinks that in the future all broadcasters will need to tap into short form content and create content for the diverse audiences in the Middle East. “Just go to Snapchat and see that people today want to enrich themselves with content about regular people and tap into what’s happening around them. Consumers want to see normal people like that and not just celebrities on TV. They want to watch what they want, where they want, and when they want.”

“Traditional broadcasters cannot deny there is a young generation that does not watch TV. You need to be there and start producing the type of content. Back in the day we sat and each watched one TV channel and say we are all Arabs. We are all Arabs but we are different – we have different tastes and you cannot give everyone the same. You cannot see the whole Arab region as one - that is the problem. Now that there is the alternative – broadcasters need to give me what I really want to see. Instead of saying it is all pan-Arab content, you need to look into the context of the type of people that are watching and give them that content.”

He thinks that broadcasters should stay away from defensive strategies when faced with the onslaught of online consumption, Al-Khatib says they should focus on building a bridge to digital content, rather than a wall around their content. “As an ad agency we had our eye on digital so we managed to make that shift slowly – it didn’t happen overnight but today we are 60% digital. Other agencies may suddenly realize everything is digital, and then they will have to make a big change.”

Currently, Al-Khatib oversees about 175 people in his group between the creative agency, the production house and UTurn Entertainment, but he sees UTurn Entertainment as his biggest responsibility. “UTurn has big potential and has all the eyes on it today, because we are exposed to the consumer - they see our content and relate to our content. It requires a lot of brand building - you need be the top of mind brand. You have to be the go to brand because every content creator who is out there, could come to us or go to others as well.”

“We need to be the top of mind enabler who is the first choice so we can make sure the best content creators come to us. If you are the second or third best brand, you will get the second or third best creator. That’s why when the government wanted to setup an incubator that they come to us first. When brands want to do something they came to us. When OTT players want to create content like Vuclip, they come to us first. It is important for use to sustain that image as the most progressive – because when you stop progressing others can come and beat you. It’s not easy but when you are bigger you have the capability to do more.”

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