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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Seven Media chief gets to the heart of a story

Co-founder Matt Slater helped set up The National before forming the PR firm

Matt Slater, co-owner of Seven Media at his offices in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Matt Slater, co-owner of Seven Media at his offices in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Matt Slater knows what makes a good story - and he knows how he would like his own to sound.

But as a former journalist and a co-founder of one of the largest independent public relations agencies in the region, he is also well aware that he has no control over how it will appear once he shares it with a reporter. And he is perfectly okay with that. It is, after all, all part of the job.

“I don’t know where you are going to go with it,” he says nonchalantly at the end of this interview about his career history and Seven Media, which he cofounded with a former colleague.

It all started eight years ago, when Mr Slater – who had helped set up The National, where he worked for 18 months before the newspaper’s launch in 2008, and around a year after it – saw an opportunity and decided to take it.

“I didn’t think there was much journalism ethos in PR. I used to come across a lot of output media releases that were very staid, boring and safe. They didn’t really tell a story,” says Mr Slater, who was working as the UAE editor of The National at the time.

“I thought if we could write these as stories on behalf of clients, that would be the way forward. I didn’t know there were clients out there when we did it.”

But both Mr Slater and his colleague at The National, Gregg Fray, decided to go for it anyway.

They set up Seven in 2010 in Abu Dhabi with four employees – themselves and two Arabic speaking journalists.

It is considerably bigger now, with a staff of 64, which includes a production department that produces documentaries and social media videos.

And it has recently been named the PRCA Middle East Best Large Consultancy Award for the second year running, and won the digital campaign of the year for Barasti Beach Bar, which featured a missing gorilla.

“The campaign was called #BringGeorgeHome. It didn’t really get stolen. But we pretended it did and so we played it like a real-life story about a missing gorilla. And it was huge. It was all over the media,” he says.

The campaign, says Mr Slater, is an example of how Seven does PR differently, by telling – and selling – a story effectively.

“If someone says to you, 'I am opening a restaurant', for example. They think it’s enough to say that. And the media should flock there and everyone should write about it,” says Mr Slater, who is a father of two girls, aged six and four.

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“But to be able to say the story isn’t that in particular, it’s another angle. And it might not be something you agree with but that is what will work.”

But there were many growing pains in the first two years. Many in the industry did not get what they were trying to do, says Mr Slater.

“There were people at the outset of Seven didn’t think we were a great fit because we weren’t classically PR but there were those who believed in what we were trying to do of changing the way a story was written and being a bit more bold,” he says.

Juggling clients’ expectations of what they thought was a story and the reality was also challenging, he says. Some prospective clients saw the way that PR was normally done, and they could not understand why Seven was not doing it.

But the approach also ultimately helped them win work, says Mr Slater.

The agency’s first client was a project on Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi to promote the Monte Carlo Beach Club, which was rebranded in 2014 to Saadiyat Beach Club.

“It was more working for the Saadiyat people as a positioning piece. It wasn’t just ‘hey, come and have a brunch’. It was ‘this is why it is opening, this is who it appeals to', positioning and news and business around it,” says Mr Slater.

There were other big wins in the early days, too, such as Manchester City Football Club, which it still works with, and the PR contract for the Madonna concert in Abu Dhabi in 2012.

And it grew fast.

In the first year the agency, which initially launched in Abu Dhabi, opened an office in Dubai and took on work in Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. And it has kept on expanding since. It has just appointed its most senior director ever in Saudi Arabia.

It currently counts Rolls Royce, Yas Marina Circuit and Formula One among its clients and recently did the PR for the Special Olympics. The agency also still does fun campaigns with independent businesses, says Mr Slater.

But does he miss journalism?

“I miss some of the cut and thrust and speed of daily journalism. But we try and have that same spirit at Seven. It drives people mad at times. I like things to be going out every day and happening,” he says.

And coming from journalism, Mr Slater knows how much good PR matters.

“You are trying to combine the strategy with the actual getting your hands dirty and doing stories. And I think that’s where we have won out really. We are a good combination of both. We are not just a supposed strategic agency. We have stories to tell.”