Sama Al-Naib | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2023

Sama Al-Naib

Head of Influencer, Digital



“True innovation comes from a genuine understanding of what audiences really want, a bold challenging of the status quo, and keeping your eye on the ball.” 

Sama Al-Naib has driven innovation in influencer marketing at BCW for the past eight years, making a real impact for the agency, its clients and within WPP group. Her most significant accomplishment has been the development of Trufluence, a proprietary offer that has set new standards for influencer marketing, helping brands engage with influencers to achieve their goals through telling the right stories. The data-led framework includes comprehensive influencer discovery and risk-vetting coupled with a long-term relationship approach and measures whether ‘true influence’ has really been achieved. Over the last 12 months, Al-Naib has continued to evolve the proposition, ensuring the latest tools and technologies are incorporated and developing thought leadership that challenges perceptions of influence within the areas of sustainability, healthcare and brand advocacy. Not content with merely developing Trufluence, Al-Naib led the roll-out globally, including creating a European hub for trainings sales material and points of views on hot topics and trends. She has also built a community of 50+ dedicated influencer experts within BCW across Europe and Africa, which enables learning, sharing of best practice and encourages ongoing innovation, and assembled a cross-border influencer senior leadership team. Under her leadership, BCW’s influencer revenue across Europe & Africa experienced growth of 230% from 2021 to 2022 across client sectors and markets, and has secured major new business wins for the business including Danone, Bacardi, Meta Workplace, EA Sports, Pfizer, Ron Barcelo and TikTok.

How do you define innovation?
Innovation is often used in relation to technology, tools, and data, but it's quite agnostic of these areas at its very core. Innovation is about creative problem-solving, first principles thinking, and stepping outside of our comfort zone to discover a new path. Data can and should inform the thinking process to ensure an insight-driven approach, and tools and technologies can, of course, be critical in helping us better analyse and digest the data, but these should be viewed as a means and not an end. Instead of asking, "Which innovative tools can we provide to organisations?", we should ask questions such as: "How can we creatively tackle the real challenges of our clients and their audiences?"; "Are there any old notions or assumptions we can challenge?"; "How can we boil things down into one simple problem we need to solve?"

I’ve also observed that underpinning these questions are three main pillars of disruption: simplicity, razor-focus, and audience-first thinking. These have been guiding themes for some of the most innovative companies in the world. Apple has ruthlessly homed in on user experience and design for its tech-savvy, design-conscious customers. Uber is consistently committed to convenient, on-demand, accessible transportation as a guiding theme across everything they do. Lastly, Netflix focuses its efforts on creating the richest on-demand entertainment experience for today's film and series enthusiasts. These three examples demonstrate that true innovation comes from a genuine understanding of what their audiences really want, a bold challenging of the status quo, and keeping their eyes on the ball.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
I'd like to mention our (hot-off-the-press) generative AI offering, BCW Decipher – an exceptional new offer and a prime example of client-first innovative thinking. Essentially, our clients are asking, "How can we proactively protect our reputation in an era when audiences are increasingly polarized, socially conscious, and vocal, given that conversations today can spread at the speed of light?" Decipher uses predictive intelligence to assess reputational risks across various pertinent topics of interest to our clients. It essentially works by integrating message-level believability classification and predictive virality indicators. It's a seamless partnership that brings together Limbik, the creators of the first cognitive AI platform, and BCW's best-in-class crisis and reputation expertise. A big credit goes to Chad Latz, our chief innovation officer, for conceiving BCW Decipher and bringing it to life.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
Aside from the three mentioned earlier, the most innovative brands are those that are the most receptive to experimentation and have agility fundamentally baked into their internal process. This allows them to jump on opportunities with speed and force. Coca-Cola is a great example of a brand that continues to experiment in various fields, from entertainment to fashion to tech, swiftly and with conviction. They were one of the first FMCG brands to announce a partnership with Open AI this year when conversations around the opportunities for generative AI were just starting to pick up. They’re already using that as a springboard for digital artists to create original artwork using assets from Coca-Cola archives. What a fascinating way of promoting the arts at a time when the work of artists is under threat from generative-AI challenges such as copyright and IP protection, but paradoxically using the very same technology to bring them into the fold.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
Last year, I teamed up with our resident behavioural science director, Steven Johnson, to develop a piece of thought leadership aimed at answering the question: "Can influencers truly shift audience behaviour towards making more sustainable choices?" We worked together to delve into the research on what actually drives behaviour change when it comes to greener choices. We brought in internal sustainability experts to integrate our research with the ambitions of some of our top clients. It was a beautiful trifecta of three angles: influencer marketing, behaviour change, and sustainability, all coming together to address that question. This experience significantly broadened my understanding of influencer marketing and also enabled us to construct an incredibly thought-provoking formula to help our clients truly understand what it takes to promote positive sustainable behaviour.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
I'd like to mention my predecessor, Jan Warp, who was actually on the Innovator 25 last year. His thought process is highly strategic and structured. He's receptive and open to new ideas, and most critically, he really trusts the people on his team. That's incredibly empowering and serves as a significant intrinsic motivator when it comes to getting people genuinely invested in their work and the output, always striving to push the natural boundaries and think bigger and better. I had the privilege of shadowing him over the last few years, and it was such an incredible learning opportunity.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Total and utter distraction. I take what I call a "brain break." As hard as it sometimes might feel to peel yourself away from trying to come up with a creative solution for a client or a prospect, it's important to temporarily let go and step back. Ever wonder why the best ideas come to you in the shower? My theory is it's because there are no expectations to produce, to be ‘on’ or to even think. It's a natural brain break and a shift of gears. I try to incorporate that lesson into my everyday life. When I'm logged off, on the weekend, or in the evenings, I like to disrupt the mind's natural tendency to drift towards work and instead, be fully present in the moment, do something different that puts me in a different gear, in neutral. This can be cooking, listening to music, taking a walk outside, or spending time with my husband and friends—anything that can serve as a total distraction. Like every organ in your body, our brains need rest, and I've found that my best thinking happens after I've given it a temporary time-out.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
I would say the greatest personal learning that I would share is to be open and receptive to change. What this entails is overcoming the fear of the unknown and pushing past feelings of intimidation, especially as it relates to technical advancements in the industry. Instead, be curious, acknowledge that everyone is figuring it out as we go, and that it's not our hard skills, but our mindset, that can make the biggest impact when it comes to evolving in an opportunistic way. Generative AI is a huge example of that. While no one can claim to be an overnight expert, we can roll up our sleeves and learn, explore, and play. I would say that someone I've admired for the last eight years is our Europe and Africa president, Scott Wilson, because he truly embodies this mindset in every way. Scott never shies away from new advancements in data and tech; he is radically curious and receptive, asking subject matter experts for upwards coaching on areas that are outside his realm of expertise. I find it extremely refreshing to see a C-suite executive be so inquisitive and open to learning new things. That mindset has inspired me in more ways than one. It also significantly informs the culture of an organisation, which we all know tends to cascade from the top and permeates markets, teams, and employees. It makes for a fabulous, inquisitive, innovation-enabling culture and amazingly rich thinking. It’s why BCW is my longest ever tenure to date.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I've always secretly dreamed of being in the beauty space – perhaps a beauty editor of a major publication ­ testing products, reviewing them, talking to people behind the scenes like chemists and product developers. However, if that means I need to swap out my shoes for stilettoes, I’ll pass.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
I've really enjoyed listening to Mo Gawdat, the author of ‘Solve for Happy’ and former chief business officer of Google X. In addition to hosting his own podcast, he’s been interviewed multiple times by both Steve Bartlett and Elizabeth Day as a recurring guest due to his profound wisdom and insightful truth bombs. After the tragic loss of his teenage son during a routine operation, Mo dedicated his life to understanding the science of happiness using the principles of math and engineering. He managed to distil it into a fundamental formula that significantly shifted my perspective, impacting everything from my major life decisions to the daily and mundane ones.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
This is a challenge that I don't believe innovation specifically can solve. Making real progress in the area of DEI is down to individual onus and, unfortunately, I don't think we're quite there yet as a society. What's become increasingly clear is how unconscious bias can rear its ugly head even in the most unlikely of places, such as data. Examples of this are in the influencer space, where influencer tools are used to discover creators. By entering a search prompt, users are able to sift through a list of suggested influencers that fit the bill around a specific topic, country, age group, audience demographic. However, much of our experience shows that the data can be extremely biased and self-perpetuating. The same creators tend to show up at the top of the list time and time again, and because they're being increasingly approached and used for even more campaigns, they'll always maintain the top spots in search lists. It really doesn't allow for other, more diverse, smaller creators across different ethnic groups, abilities, religions, orientations to get a fair chance.

The reason this is important to highlight is that it teaches us that the most objective sources of information have programmed biases that are hard to override. It leaves little hope for humans, but it just means that to solve for the inclusivity gap, we need to get accustomed to digging deeper and proactively seeking the right diverse voices, as opposed to hoping an innovative advancement will solve for it. It's taking accountability at the individual level to do better, to feel part of the solution. This truth extends beyond social insights and into our offices and teams, our culture, our recruitment approach. We need internal processes in place that ensure those voices are proactively incorporated.

We're lucky to have Carole Watson, BCW chief inclusion officer, who has various internal initiatives aimed at disrupting internal biases. She hosts forums every week purely aimed at creating a safe space for diverse voices across the agency to be well and truly heard. She’s relentless at this, which is what we need to emulate individually and collectively to really put a harsh spotlight on the blindspots we’ve been living with over the years. So for me, personal responsibility first, innovation second.