Q&A: Tactical’s Mike Khouri on shaping new worlds through XR

'Social media and media are incredibly chaotic right now'

Tactical is a global creative and innovation agency based in Dubai. Founded in 2013, the agency prides itself on its creative excellence and challenger approach. Tactical is the first agency in the Middle East to partner with Snapchat, TikTok, and Meta, become Reddit ads certified, and has created brand experiences for Amazon, Prime Video, Spotify and the NFL.

Our Editor-at-large, Natasha Randhawa, chats to Founder and CEO Mike Khouri about shaping new worlds through XR, acute social listening and how to predict the needs of ever-changing consumers.

Mike Khouri

Mike, thanks for speaking. Tactical celebrated its first double digits anniversary last year. Your journey to establish your own agency was somewhat unconventional. Can you walk us through how it came about and the highlights of the last decade?

It’s been a ride that’s for sure, and unconventional to say the least. Truth is, while I’ve always worked in marketing I’ve never worked in a traditional agency before starting Tactical. It all started when I built and launched an app thinking it would go on to be the next big thing. But when it went live on the app store no one downloaded it. Not even my friends or family. The app itself wasn’t the problem, but at a time when large-scale adoption in this market was still green. Relying on the app store alone wasn’t going to drive downloads. When I spoke to agencies and consultants, everyone came back to me with the same traditional solutions to my digital problem — put it on a billboard, or radio ad or get some media coverage through a PR agency. Not to knock those mediums, but for someone with a limited budget I couldn’t afford to go big without immediate results — and I knew there was a better way to do it. 

So I decided to do it myself, and that’s when Tactical was born. A social-first creative agency that leverages the power and speed of social and mobile to launch brands and build fandoms online.

Over the past ten years we’ve celebrated a lot of firsts: seeing a gap in the market for vertical-led storytelling at speed, we launched the first made-for-mobile production studio in the Middle East the same day IGTV launched. We were also the first creative partners in MENA for Snap, Meta and TikTok. Knowing we wanted to work with the platforms shaping the internet and culture, we invested in our people, products and capabilities in order to provide the services these partners would need.

Upon launching our Social AR studio we led the way in pioneering the integration of creative tech into the ad world across the Middle East. All this has resulted in Tactical building long-term partnerships with category leaders and brands like Spotify, Amazon, and the NFL.

Tactical offers a full spectrum of services. What structures or strategies are required in managing the range of expertise on offer? How has this holistic approach helped deliver impact across the board?

My ambition is to build the agency of the future for the brands of the future. We live in a world where every leading business is tech-enabled, and as technology continues to shift and progress, so will marketing needs. Tactical is set up to leverage that evolution. The agency is two-pronged: on one side we have the Creative agency which includes strategy, creative, distribution and intelligence as our core services. Then there’s the Innovation studio, dedicated to experimenting with everything new, from tech and capabilities to emerging platforms.

Whether that’s AI or Vision Pro, the goal is to inspire and future-proof our team and partners, making sure both stay ahead of the curve and maintain relevance. We’re seeing some early success with this, particularly in the fashion, retail, and hospitality spaces.

Today, how people access and consume information is constantly evolving, making customer behaviour more difficult to predict. How does Tactical stay at the forefront of this ever-changing media landscape? What tangible methods can be adopted to foster a culturally-connected mindset and team? 

Social media and media are incredibly chaotic right now. Not only is this ecosystem fragmented and polarising, but it’s always on—with the next moment of hype only a TikTok away. This makes customer behaviour—and their interests—more difficult than ever to predict.

To stay on top of this, we built a team of genuine category fans who are enmeshed in the nuances of their communities and empowered them with acute social-listening capabilities. Take music; if you want to know where the behaviour of music fans is trending towards, surround yourself with a crew of die-hard music fanatics and give them the tools and structure to stay culturally connected — and move with speed. These are the people best placed to identify the next insight or opportunity.

The internet has always been a place for people to connect over mutual interests. The rise of micro-communities across platforms like TikTok are fast replacing old forms of digital socialisation. Tactical is the first agency in MENA to put ads on Reddit. Where else should brands be looking to tap into these niche communities, and how can they engage with them authentically? 

Authenticity is key, which is why we’ve seen a rise in micro-communities as people connect in a more personalised, relatable way. From a brand perspective though, this can feel risky.  Also, they often don’t know where to look to tap into these niche communities.

You mentioned Reddit, but there are also great case studies of brands digging deep with communities on WhatsApp, podcasts or Roblox. For most brands, these forums are too intimidating or heavy to lift, but that doesn’t mean they’re not highly effective. Take gamers for example: they’re a hugely underserved audience in the Middle East, and if you’re a brand looking to engage them, you need to be activating on Twitch or Discord.

Yet near to none are willing to invest the time or budget to build an authentic, long-term presence there. 

Following the release of Apple’s Vision Pro futurists are calling 2024 the ‘Year of Immersive Tech’. These innovative mediums offer avenues for not only creative, but cultural expression. Tactical worked with Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism to create XR experiences that showcase Dubai as a tech leader on a global stage. Tell us about this project. How can this technology be leveraged to create moments of authentic cultural connection? 

We’re really excited about the potential of the Vision Pro, and immersive tech in general. Not only is adoption continuing to scale, we now have new mediums of expression that enable brands to tell their story in rich, immersive ways. With Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism we were tasked with telling the story of the city of the future: Dubai. To do this, we leveraged the latest in AI and AR technology to build experiences that highlighted the city’s unique offerings as one of the world’s leading tech and business capitals. We created multiple installations providing real-time 3D experiences, including a WebAR Portal Lens, a Discover Dubai Simulator, Road to Dubai and FAQ Robot Mirror — each designed to educate users and offer actionable insights about Dubai.

I recently read that one in five users spends over 4.5 hours a day on their smartphones. Looking ahead, what emerging cultural trends do you see shaping our increasingly mobile-first landscape? What advice do you have for brands looking to adapt and maximise their success in this evolving ecosystem?

I wouldn’t be surprised if that number continues to increase. People’s relationships with their phones have gone beyond staying connected: it’s where they now socialise, explore, get inspiration, drive day-to-day utility and so much more. As these devices continue to absorb more of people’s time it becomes a fight for attention, and it’s impossible for brands to be everywhere, all the time.

There are domains where it makes sense for brands to play, but if you’re looking to maximise success in an evolving ecosystem, it’s making sure you’re dialled into both global and hyper-local cultural movements. If you can actively identify cultural shifts that resonate with your audience, you have the opportunity to show up and deliver brand delight time and again.  

Featured image: Kal Visual / Unsplash