Ahmed Khalifa has been working in the digital marketing field within agency and in-house roles in various cities. From working with major online retailers and publishers to now working in the fashion and footwear industry at schuh, Ahmed has covered a number of industries and gained wide-ranging experiences within the digital marketing and online business fields.
How does someone go from studying Sports Management to a career in digital marketing?
I always thought that I would be working in a marketing-related role and being a sports fanatic, the world of sports marketing seemed very appealing to me. After doing my Sports Management degree, I then went on to do an MA in International Marketing Management while trying to gain experience. I wanted to combine the two degrees and give myself a platform to build on. After my Masters, I went in a different direction without even realising. I began working for a small local business. I looked after their eBay and Amazon stores as well as their websites. It was there that led me to experiment and learn more about how online businesses operate.
What does the job of a Natural Search Specialist entail?
I work in the digital marketing department but I mainly focus on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). In a nutshell, my role is focusing on improving schuh’s visibility on Google and encouraging people to visit the site via the search engine. But going into it deeper, it does touch upon a number of areas; technical maintenance, content management, social media, outreach and digital PR, blogging, user experience, etc. The best thing about SEO is that you get to experience and work in a number of areas and provide advice whenever needed.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?
The thing that keeps you on the your toes is the number of times Google tweak their algorithm (apparently over 500 times a year). Some are minor, others are major changes which forces many people to adapt or at least be aware of it. Those who work in agencies may be more likely to see the effect of these changes as they will have a number of clients to deal with across different industries, but it can happen to any website.
It’s very important to stay up-to-date with the latest industry news. What worked a few years ago, might not work today. If anything, poorly-made decisions could detriment the performance of your website. The benefit of that challenge is that it keeps things interesting, forces you to be creative, to experiment and try different techniques. At first glance, most people will think that the main part of digital marketing and SEO is full of numbers, coding and other “geeky” stuff. But it’s actually quite a creative area to work in! It’s becoming more about being original and engaging with your audience. The internet is a very competitive and “noisy” place so in order to stand out, you have to be different not necessarily the loudest and that’s a challenge in itself.
I cannot ignore the other challenge. With SEO, you don't always see the results of your efforts immediately as they tend to be long-term projects. This could test the patience of any business and those who have clients. Explaining and educating your colleagues on how the process works is very important as most people expect results to happen almost immediately after any little change. There is also lot of trial and error, so there are times where you are under pressure to show results but you have to wait to see the fruits of your labour.
Are there any downsides to working in SEO?
SEO does have an unfortunate reputation of being quite a spammy and shady practice because of its history and also the bad practice that a number of people still use. In the past, people used unethical and spammy techniques in order to game Google and make their own websites rank higher than those who probably deserved it more. These methods used to work but in recent years, Google has cracked down and become stricter by updating their algorithm. Those who don’t follow the best practice and their basic web guidelines run the risk of seeing their ranking positions dropping or risk being penalised. This is normally in the form of being de-indexed by Google. If that happens, this means nobody can find you on Google if they are searching for your brand or for your products/services.
For many (if not most) businesses, not being visible on Google can have a damaging effect on their business that they will lose a huge chunk of customers. Whether they deserve it or not is another story (albeit a controversial topic) but Google’s main aim has always been about improving their visitors’ experience.
You’ve worked both agency-side and client-side. What are the biggest differences between the two?
I’m lucky enough to have worked in both sides of the business and they both have pros and cons.
Within an in-house role, you are fully focused and committed to the one brand with no timesheet and will gain a deeper knowledge of the industry. In my case, I focus all my attention on schuh without having to worry about how much time I have with them per month. It also gives me huge understanding of the footwear and fashion industry, as well as consumer behaviour and how they interact with different brands in the market. This enables me to be very aware about how our audience interacts with our brand and helps me to adapt to their needs. The other benefit of working in-house is that you have direct access to various departments who can play a part in your role and the website e.g. buyers, customer service, marketing, content writers, etc. You don’t need to go through middle men in order to connect through to the relevant department so that speeds up the process of communication and this can be extremely useful.
But working in-house might mean that you are the main person who will perform this role and you may not have many people to share the workload or brainstorm certain ideas with. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you might be expected to provide your knowledge and expertise to a company by yourself and without any backing support. This can be quite a big responsibility.
Working in an agency means you have experts around you which can be brilliant for brainstorming. A typical agency will more likely have experts within a certain part of digital marketing, be it natural/organic search, paid search, social media, data analysts, etc. These experts will have their own tried and tested ideas and techniques which they could share with you. And you will get the chance to work with difference kinds of clients.
On the other hand, most agency workers will only have a limited amount of time working on particular clients and you will not necessarily know about the industry and the target market as much as your client does. You may also have clientele who have either high expectations and can be difficult to get on-board with your ideas or have not carried out their own tasks as part of your campaigns.
Would you recommend young people to seek out experience both agency-side and client-side?
For me personally, it has given me a useful insight of both sides of the industry and I’m lucky that I have been able to apply this throughout my career. But it is more of a useful asset than an essential one as most people focus on one side and specialise in that area, and in return have produced excellent results. It’s a matter of personal taste and whether you want to focus all of your attention on one brand or spread your time over multiple brands. It also depends on the role itself as some will state that you will need agency experience or have dealt with agencies. Others are more concerned with your ability to work with different teams across the company when working in-house.
Based on my experience, if you are planning on working in-house, you have to be interested in the brand/company you will be working for. If you think it will be unexciting and it will not motivate you, you might find yourself struggling to perform in that role.
You’ve worked in Brighton, Berlin, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc. Would you recommend moving around?
It was not a deliberate decision to move around but it has been a great mix of personal and professional challenges which I have loved.
Most of my decisions were career based. Some of them were calculated risks, others a good opportunity for me to develop my skills. You learn a lot of "soft skills" such as learning how to adapt to international work culture, understanding the different social environments in various workplaces, etc. All these different experiences will have indirect benefits to your career.
Did you notice any key differences in the marketing industry in each of these places?
Definitely. Berlin has become a hotspot over the years for start-ups and established companies alike due to the low living cost. people in Berlin have a high skills set and because of the thriving tech, artistic and creative communities, the city as a real buzz about it. You will even find the likes of Soundcloud’s main headquarters in Berlin, while Groupon also has an office within the city. Berlin is so popular with tech companies, that it has been nicknamed Silicon Alley to rival London’s Silicon Roundabout and of course, the original Silicon Valley in San Francisco.
The south coast of Brighton has its own digital marketing and tech community with popular digital agencies across the county and surrounding areas. Its close proximity to London is also a massive bonus as they can “stay in touch” and still be somewhat involved with what’s happening in the Big Smoke. Brighton also holds a number of conferences, including the popular (and free) BrightonSEO conference which attracts thousands of people from across the world every year.
Scotland is a bit of sleeping giant. There are a number of of agencies, tech companies and individuals. Good relationships have been cemented and events are often organised to create a community feel in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
What’s the marketing scene like in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh is on the rise. Most people are not aware that Skyscanner, the popular flight, hotel and car hire search engine, is based in Edinburgh. They have recently been announced as “Scotland’s first $1 billion web company” and labelled as “one of the best technology companies ever to come out of Europe” by a US investor. The video games developer Rockstar, who is responsible for the world famous Grand Theft Auto games franchise, also has an office in Edinburgh and there are also a number of other game developers within the city too. And of course, there is schuh which is actually based in Livingston, just outside of Edinburgh, but you can still find exciting and creative companies outside of London.
It’s true that London is attractive and the most obvious option for most career paths so it’s understandable why many youngsters would put London on the top of the list. I would always place London as just one option and would never rule out other towns and cities across the UK. You would be surprised about the number of small, medium and large companies who are headquartered outside of London.
Are there any projects you want to explore in the future?
I would still love to work within the sports industry, whether it’s with sports brands, events, clubs, apparels, retailer, etc. But at schuh I am surrounded by a booming sports shoe department and I enjoy feeling as though I am still connected. But who knows what the future will bring!
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