x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nisreen Shocair: Chief knows that's entertainment

Profile: Nisreen Shocair, president of Virgin Megastores Middle East, is determined to pass on her enthusiasm for all things cultural to younger audiences in the region, writes Rory Jones.

The president of Virgin Megastores Middle East Nisreen Shocair.
The president of Virgin Megastores Middle East Nisreen Shocair.

Nisreen Shocair shares her office in Dubai with an inflatable clown.

His name is Bozo, he is 3 feet tall and sits next to her desk with a sign above his head that reads "consultant". Bozo, who has an imaginary MBA from clown school, keeps company with shelves of cult toys, movie memorabilia, artwork and vinyl records.

"There's a lot quirkiness in here," concedes Ms Shocair, the president of Virgin Megastore Middle East. "I won't tell you which toys are worth thousands."

Hidden behind figurines of characters from the hit film Pulp Fiction, Coldplay rock band album covers, classic pictures of the 1980s pop siren Debbie Harry and some unusual awards trophies, is a cartoon sketch of four domestic pets walking across North London's Abbey Road - mimicking the famous cover of the Beatles album of the same name.

The cats and dogs are the characters from the US comic strip Mutts, drawn by Patrick McDonald.

"Patrick and I worked together in the past, and he drew his characters for me and wrote 'a little help from my friends' at the bottom," says Ms Shocair. "Abbey Road is one of my favourite places in London and many friends and colleagues know that."

Next to the McDonald original, there is also a version of the Abbey Road cover photo, but with the band members walking from right to left, rather than left to right.

The cluttered room is clearly inhabited by someone who lives and breathes music, film and entertainment. "Outside the office, Nisreen is well balanced, has great sense of humour and is a family person," says Umesh Amarnani, a director at Viva Entertainment who is a friend of Ms Shocair's and one of the major media content suppliers to Virgin Megastores.

Ms Shocair, 37, took the helm at the brand in 2006. It was launched in the region in 2001 and had trod water for a few years selling CDs and DVDs. The new president soon expanded the stores' offering to what now includes toys, musical instruments, an Apple store and a whole entertainment and multimedia experience.

"I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, devoid of any entertainment. That's probably why I'm in this industry to begin with," she says. "We had two channels on TV, one of which played Nigerian soap operas on continuous loop." Ms Shocair is at home in many places throughout the world, having also spent time in Jordan, London, New York and Texas.

Her father ran a pharmaceutical company in Nigeria and Ms Shocair and her older sister devoured what music they could as they grew up.

The two sisters would wait eagerly for copies of Smash Hits magazine and vinyl records their two older brothers would bring home from boarding school in England.

"I would say the musical influences for me were the 1970s, The Doors and The Rolling Stones, and anything that came out of those Manchester, Hacienda days, [such as the singer] Ian Brown. Any of that is good," Ms Shocair says.

Despite the scarcity of western entertainment in Nigeria at the time she was there, she grew up with very musical parents and saw "at least" 10 operas in London before she was 12.

This cultural education is something she passes on to her 11-year-old daughter who, as part of a regular game, has to call out the names of various songs and the artists performing them as they are played in the car or at home.

"We go through a lot of the classics, so she knows them," says Ms Shocair. "We did a [rock band] Queen era in the car for about a month until she understood that this is Freddy [Mercury] and that's his voice. Then we moved on. How can you grow up not knowing Queen? It's essential."

Her own entertainment education continued when, at 16, she went to the University of North Texas and, while studying for a marketing and business management degree, got a job at the local Blockbuster movie store. "I started working the graveyard shift at Blockbuster video because I used to get five free rentals a week, and I caught up on on everything. I watched every single movie in the archive. That was my goal," she says. It was this education, as much as her degree, that prepared her for working life in the early 1990s and took her from Sony via Bertelsmann, an international media corporation based in Germany, to the head of marketing at Hearst, a US broadcaster and publisher of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Marie Claire.

During this time she also managed to study for two MBAs, one from Columbia University and the other from the London Business School.

She then took her current job at Virgin, which is a franchise owned by the Azadea Group.

"Nisreen has a very open mind, a twist of fantasy, and is truly caring about people - but she also can be a very tough negotiator," says Lellio Guérin, the senior vice president of international concept and development at Virgin stores.

"Above all, she is very involved with kids, caring for their well-being and their development," Mr Guérin says. "She has been seen holding story-reading sessions for kids in one of her Virgin Megastores." Ms Shocair says the biggest change she made when she joined the company was shifting towards a more youth-oriented culture. "We now sell more Justin Bieber T-shirts and necklaces than we do his CDs and DVDs. It's all Justin Bieber at the end of the day," she says of the 17-year-old US singer. "It's all about licensing.

It's purely lifestyle." Ms Shocair says colours are important in building an entertainment brand, particularly for individuals.

"Smurfs are blue, Justin Bieber is … Do you know what Justin Bieber is?" she asks. "Exactly. He's purple, and who loves purple? Not boys. It's all about licensing a brand."

Virgin's familiar red stores are flourishing in the Middle East, long after the record shops became extinct in the UK, where they were originally successful.

"There was a huge focus on [the Virgin owner Sir] Richard Branson and what he could do for Virgin," says Ms Shocair. "But it was important for the business to stand alone, carry on what Richard Branson wanted, but not to be reliant on him to be here for every store opening or him endorsing everything we were doing."

The brand recently opened a huge store in Dubai Mall and plans to open stores in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Egypt as well as launch the region's first digital download platform by the end of the year. The region is dominated by mainstream entertainment acts, Ms Shocair says, and sometimes Virgin likes to help direct people to some of the classic artists or unknown acts to ensure they are heard in the Middle East.

"As purveyors of culture and entertainment, we feel like we need to lead. It's not a snobbish thing," she says. "Many times you won't agree with the audience or you think something's dead and don't want to deal with it anymore and the customer wants so much more of it. But it's about finding a balance."

rjones@thenational.ae

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