Nelio Leone is a growth marketer par excellence. In this episode, he shares the complete, raw story of how a single unbranded video took Careem from a local scrappy competitor to knocking out Uber in their region. The company was later acquired by Uber, and Nelio went on to run other intelligent video ad strategies for his next app, Washmen, and now at his growth agency, Urban Monks. You need to hear the critical shift in advertising that made all of this possible for him. Dig in!
Here's what you can expect on today's episode:
Read the full transcript:
All right. Welcome to another episode of Growth Marketing Camp, excited to be joined by Nelio Leone, the marketer to the world. I'm going to call him. So Nelio you come from a long background of different countries, Greece, Paris, Dubai. You've been all over the world doing marketing in some pretty incredible companies with some pretty great results.
Just for the audience sake. Previous roles at Careem, which was acquired by Uber at Washmen app with some serious growth stats, you know, three X, weekly signups, doubling sales, 14.5 X decrease in cost per app registration, which is huge. We all want to know how to go further with our budget. So that's wonderful.
You're a growth marketers growth marketer, man. We're excited to have you on the show. Welcome. Thank you, man. Honestly I love your podcast and it's an honor to be here. Thank you for having me. Absolutely. Well, looking back on those roles and all the things that you've done in marketing and all the places you've done.
And what's been your favorite role so far? So it's hard to tell because I started my career as a corporate marketer. I was in the Parisian headquarters in France of L'Oreal Paris. And I was on their like most innovative and most advanced division. And that was a lot of fun because we were working a lot with labs to find these new molecules for like anti aging.
And it was actually really interesting because we opened a lot of different markets. And that's actually what led me here to the middle East. There was back in 2013 my boss in Paris told me, man, we found like a very promising market, which is like Saudi Arabia. And back then as well, Iran was very promising.
And he said like, man, you need to go there. You know, we need someone to really launch our marketing activities in these emerging markets. And you've got the profile, just go and do it. That was a lot of fun. I came here to the middle East had like two years of a lot of fun with L'Oreal in like very entrepreneurial.
But then I met these guys ex Stanford ex McKinsey. They were starting an app. There were like 12 to maybe 15 people back then. And they were like, man, you seem to know your stuff about marketing. Why don't you join us? And with Careem, we went from a startup that, you know, would all get into like an open space maximum.
And we ramped it up to 3,200 employees. And it was recently bought by Uber for $3 billion. So, that was also like a lot of fun because you get to see how a startup goes from scrappy shabby offices and all of that to like, tech, unicorn stardom, and in like two years.
It's so intense. And up until today, I still honestly can't believe we done. Like, you know, we managed to go through that because it was really intense and it was amazing and it was everything at the same time. And then I did pretty much something very similar with another app called Washmen.
Founded by these, like ex-bankers, an ex logistics guy, like and we pretty much brought it from being like a super small three people office to now like a proper app with like offices in multiple cities and all of that. And all we did to scale it in terms of marketing was just me and an intern and my iPhone.
So that's how we scaled it. All of them just lasted like approximately two to three years, but All of them were like really interesting. L'Oreal lasted a bit longer, like around four to five years. And now I've been two years working on UrbanMonks, which is a growth marketing agency where basically since I pretty much cracked quote unquote, "cracked" the playbook on how to grow pretty much any sort of ventures.
I said, instead of me going and working for other people, why don't I just like create my own marketing team. And we just come in as a. assassin's creed sort of a squad that helps you the growth squad. Yeah, very cool. Well, that's awesome. I'm sure that your clients are really enjoying having you on board however long they've got you.
I'm sure the wizardry is working out really well for them. There's just some fascinating stories. I'm sure we could dig in a million different places. There's one campaign in particular, we were prepping for the show and. It comes from 2017, but I think it's just as relevant today as it was, you know, four years ago.
And it's around video and I'm excited because I think this is one of those kind of the pieces of the puzzle that you figured out, you crack that code around video and what makes it viral. What makes it interesting and go big. So talk me through, what was the goal of the campaign before we dig in fully?
Like what were you trying to accomplish for Careem back then? So basically with Careem and again, this was not just like my work. We had like an agency and we had like other people on board. So it's really team effort. It would be quite unjustified for me to take all the credit of that because you know, it was more of a team effort than just my own, but of course I contributed and I, pretty much like saw it happening and actively contributed to it. So I just want to make sure this is clear. When I first joined Careem I came from a very strong branding background. So coming from brands like L'Oreal, like Vichy like all these like super... you know, where brand is really ingrained in you.
I came to this app world, and yeah, we have the product, but I was like "Okay, where's my brand man? How do I pitch this to consumers?" At the end of the day, even if it's tech, even if it's like a product you need a brand because at the end of the day, you want to capture the consumer market.
So the consumer market, whether it's an app or whether it's a detergent, you have to speak to them in the same exact way. That was my thought process. And back then, people like, you know, especially internally there was like this kind of creed that is very strong or at least it was very strong in Silicon Valley back then.
And that kind of like also got the management and the founders really affected. It was like "Oh yeah, like brand, whatever this is for like Coca Cola or it's for like big companies. Forget, we're just like a small app, like, you know, whatever. Product is going to make us big. Build it and they'll come."
There's truth to that, right? I mean, if you have a great product, you're going to have like customers coming to your hands and just like ripping it off your hands. And it works. The problem is that an excellent product with a mediocre brand and a mediocre growth strategy behind that is powered by a strong brand,
will not go as far as a mediocre product with a strong brand strategy, powered by growth. So that was really my thought process. Like man, we can't just go like product, product, product, where is the growth aspect of it? Where it's like the marketing aspect?
Where is the brand? Where is like, where is all of that? Where's the story that we're selling? Yeah. And so that was like the objective and then I made so much noise because think about it. Right. We were against Uber back then. So Uber did not acquire, it was not one company yet.
Now it's one company. So we're all friends and whatever, but Back then Uber was our competitor and it was like a super fierce competitor and having a competitor as Uber, that keeps you on your toes pretty much day in and out and nights as well. Because it's A. One of the coolest brand or at least it was back then, like one of the coolest brand coming from Silicon Valley, the cradle of tech, where
products, like are done in such an amazing way that we couldn't really compete on product. We couldn't really compete on their strong PR that they had wherever they go. And I don't know if you remember how they use controversy all the time to enter new markets. Man I was like, how do you want us to compete with these guys?
And at the end of the day, in terms of products between Careem and Uber, the switching cost is like a radio button. Like literally, we use the same fleet, the same drivers, the same everything. So like, in terms of even product experience, we were like pretty much matching the same. So it was
for me from day one, it was more of a win their hearts and their minds, but it really started with win their hearts and the best way to win people hearts is not through conversion campaigns, it's actually through branding, because that's where you tell stories. So for me, Careem, it was really a branding story.
So the objective was like, how do we tell a different story to users so that they can feel that they prefer supporting local? And they feel there is a brand that is more localized to them and that is more relevant to them. Rather than the international black Wolf competitor that comes here and use like standardized process.
And that was the whole conversation that we had in terms. Okay. How does the brand reflect that? And so the objective, it went through like one year and a half of like proper rebranding where we had to rethink all of those, strategies on like, okay. How do we clarify the message that we're local?
How do we clarify the message that we are the good guys and that we're here from the region for the region. And then we started doing like all sorts of experiments with videos, right? Because like videos, especially back then 2017 seems like not a long ago, but like in the digital space, it's like, ages ago
and in 2017 you know, Facebook was still a thing for everyone. So everybody was still on Facebook. Instagram was kind of like picking up Twitter. Okay. But like the thing is you have to crack Facebook. That was pretty much it, because that was the only kind of discovery mechanism that people would have in their feeds and everybody would be on there.
So. How would we crack Facebook was like, okay what can we do to announce our rebranding? That really makes an impact. And that's where also with our CMO and with a whole team, we came up with this and, and especially with this amazing, amazing, three, man agency called The Misfits where basically they came to our office and they were like, man, yeah, we could do this and that, but why don't we do like a video.
That pretty much. It's like in CGI, we're going to emulate on top of a building of Dubai, getting someone Slingshot on the other side to another building. And I'm like, how are you going to do that? So, yeah, yeah, we can do it. We can pull it off. We have all these CGI things. We can make it happen. I was like, Whoa.
Okay. We were like super, super excited about it. So basically like the whole objective right there was okay. How do we. Rebrand. And how do we launch a new brand with a punch? Yeah. And funny enough, that rebranding happened pretty much at the same time where we were officially recognized as the first tech unicorn in the region.
So we have to really make it big. Yeah. And so that was the whole concept of like, how do we get people attention and how do we get them to stop the feeds? And that's where the agency came up with this brilliant idea. And then as a team, we said, okay, the idea is nice.
But then the whole team came together. And it was amazing because then we came up with a strategy on, okay. Let's launch the video the initial part to create buzz. Let's launch it unbranded. Where basically it doesn't look like a brand.
It's just going to look like a piece of content. And it looks super raw. Like if you go, on YouTube and you check, Careem Slingshot video, and you find that the unbranded version. You're going to see that it was pretty, pretty intense because it really looked like the camera was like shaking and it looked like a couple of guys doing like some sort of really weird experiment, which fit extremely well with Dubai kind of mentality where you have like, Jetman.
And you had all these crazy people doing like all sorts of stunts. So that fitted really well, the culture and it fit really well. What people, want on social media, which was like, we want something that is extremely like shocking. That doesn't fall into like normality that it's either like super or that it's very extreme.
It matched the fact that it was hyper-local because you could actually recognize that it was Dubai. So for people from the region, this hyper-local aspect was extremely important. And third, there was like a liquidity to that content, which is like how shareable it is and who doesn't want to share like a video that you know, where you see a guy is getting Slingshot from one building to the other.
And funnily enough, there was like, then the fourth element, which was the element of shock. And if you see the video basically especially the unbranded one, it looks like the guy is actually like it. No, it looks like it's made on purpose that the guy actually misses the building. And now it's like what happens?
And that video started going super viral because we managed to distributed really well too. And the distribution strategy was as smart as the video. And that goes credit to our ex CMO of Careem that did an amazing job at the distribution
because coming with a creative concept, it was one thing. But then coming with like an amazing distribution strategy that was like really inspiring and so credit to him because he really like came with a super strong distribution model where he said, listen,
since it's like unbranded. Let's distribute it to all influencers and let's distributed the PR to the media, et cetera. Not under Careem. Let's distribute it as like, you know, either with some, of course, some influencers played the game, some others didn't, but whatever, but we distribute it almost organically as like, we don't know where this came from originally.
It's just like on social. So even the PR started like asking. Oh, my God. Is like someone dead. And so now all these like questions is he dead Is he like this. And then you're going to see like a lot of headlines from back then. It's like, Arab the man tried this Slingshot and died. And then we had people like on forums in Egypt saying, Oh my God, you guys should stop talking about him.
I know him. And I know his mother and now his mother is crying and you guys are just like, And were like, what the @$#% sorry for my French, but like, we're like, Oh my God, what's happening here. And then at some point it came to the point where we wanted to disclose, like the strategy was okay, let's go unbranded and let's distribute it unbranded for like 10 days.
And then we're going to say, ha, he ha how are we going to talk to the media, say it's us. And then it's going to even amplify the content and what happened is that the government came to the office and talk to the CEO, like to the founder of Careem and said like, guys, we recognize the video.
This comes from you. You need to end this up. And like after three or four days that the video went live. Is it like, you need to say right now to everyone on the press on social, on everything, that this was actually a PR stunt, because now this reflects extremely bad on Dubai because. It seems like Dubai is so reckless that allows people to do crazy experiments and it reflects really bad on the image.
And second it attracts people that may start thinking that they can do all sort of crazy stunts because this is allowed. So it's like basically they almost said something like, you know, basically like. Take it off the internet, you know, so, but by then the video and so viral by day number three or four, it went so viral that it was shared on the news in Vietnam.
It was shared by LADbible by, you know, like those videos that you would see on the LADbible or 9GAG or all of that. And it created like a tremendous echo. And then at some point, so after day three or day four, we had to go branded and we had to like retarget all the users that saw the videos on landing pages, or like we had to come with like proper strategy to retarget those people that would actually have seen the video to say, Hey guys, by the way, And then we said, like, there's a better way to get around.
Don't get Slingshot gets Careem. That was pretty much it. And funnily enough the video up until today, it's still going on the internet. And I think like maybe like a year ago or like a couple of months ago we were really stoked when Elon Musk reTweeted the video. I was like, wow. Like this really went far.
That's amazing. Well, that's incredible. I mean, you broke down all of the most critical elements of it. I'm curious though, of the channels that you distributed on, obviously PR took a big part of that eventually. What were your initial distribution strategy? Where was your top channel? Where were you spending the most energy time budget?
It was Facebook because back then Facebook was like really huge. Instagram was picking up. So we also leverage a bit of Instagram. But that was pretty much it. We had some YouTube, but you know, it was like, it was okayish, but the real channel was Facebook. That's where things started really to blow up.
That makes sense. Now you're in growth marketing still. So maybe you'd tell us if you had to do it again today, what channels would you use primarily now? Oh, yeah, but that's the problem is that today, I don't think this would actually apply anymore. And I wouldn't bank on something like this, simply because most of the channels.
Don't really have those algorithms very opened anymore. Meaning that in order to get reach you, now need to pay. And this happened at Facebook, it happened in 2018 where they got like the reach apocalypse how we called it in growth marketing where basically like all organic content would not really get the same virality. So 2017 was actually really the moment to do this because then 2018, 2019, 2020 and 21, like it's almost impossible to get like not impossible, but it's very hard to get. Free reach on, these platforms, maybe one that has had a lot of echo lately.
It's pretty much TikTok. Yeah. But yeah that's pretty much it. If I would bank on one, it would probably be TikTok yeah, I would probably try TikTok. That's the only one that is a bit more open, but still not that easy to crack, to be honest.
Sure. Yeah. No, it makes sense. You went on to use, I think the results of this campaign and of course, many others after it. To further your career. And then of course, the growth of the companies you've worked for and then eventually develop your own agency. Would you say that this campaign was foundational in your own story?
Yeah, because if there is one thing that I've learned and that is the key learning I got is that you should treat every ad creative that you produce as content. Your ads should not look like ads because in the right moment where your ads look like ads what's going to happen is that you disrupt the UX of Facebook users or Instagram users or TikToK users or whatever users.
Why? Because you are not on social media to buy social media is not like an eBay. You're not there to buy. You're not there to sell. You don't have a buying mindset. What you do though have, is I want to get entertained. I want to get informed. I want to get inspired. I want to laugh. Yeah. That is why I'm going on social media.
So most of the advertisers that I've seen after that and still today, they all come, okay. Let's do Facebook ads. And then they create ads that actually look like ads. Yeah. When was the last time that you clicked on an ad? That looked like an ad almost never. Yeah. That's it? Yeah. The first thing you do, you either, like if you're nice, you skip it.
And if you're really pissed that you see something that disrupts your experience, you put like block it or flag it or whatever, because it just like, it just irritates you. So why. Advertisers still do ads that look like ads, whereas you could convey the same message through entertainment. So using your conversion ads, but with creative concepts that are very in tune with all the rest of content that you'll see on the Facebook, Instagram TikTok Twitter ecosystem.
This is the big, big, big. Realization that I had with that Slingshot. I said, what is from now on? All of our ads would look like content. And this is exactly how we reduced by almost 15 X the cost of acquisition at Washmen because we have these exact same problem. When I went to Washmen the first few days the founder was like, man, forget Facebook.
Let's focus on Google because we tried Facebook. It doesn't work. And the first thing I did, I went and looked the creatives and I told them it's not Facebook. That doesn't work. It's the creatives that look like ads. And so the first thing I did, I actually took this thing here, it's basically like a war bonnet. And the only thing I did, I took like my phone, and basically started talking to people saying, Hey, my name is Nelio from Washmen. I had like a Washmen t-shirt and I told them, listen, my name is Nelio from Washmen I'm the head of growth.
And if you download this ad right now, if you click that link below, I'm going to come to your place and I'm going to wash all your laundry or something similar. I mean, there was like more, we wash, we dry and we fold like giving all the value proposition, but in a way that it was very entertaining and that the video look raw because we shot it from an iPhone.
It was not like it was not high production. It was not like. Camera lighting, nothing. It was just literally an intern that shocked me while I was just playing around with the camera. Yeah. And that works, that went so liquid that we became a case study for Facebook in the region.
Amazing. Because Facebook couldn't realize how come there is this like super small company in Dubai, UAE that has like a relevant score back then there was still the relevant score. Now it's called quality score of their ads of like 9 out of 10 consistently for like six months. You know, they were like, man, Whoa, like we've never seen this.
Yeah. That's amazing. Obviously that's informed the work you do now, which I'm sure has been helpful to your clients. Is there anything that you would maybe redo about this kind of looking back at the strategy? It seems like it blew up exactly. Like you wanted it to your original campaign, even this, you know, the next one for Washmen.
Is there anything that you feel like now you would deploy differently other than obviously the channels given that so much has changed in the last few years? Anything that you're like, Oh, if only we had also tapped this one extra channel or this other methods, I think where we were not really strong we were very good at creating that initial spike.
And honestly, the results were pretty impressive. We got like $5 million in earned PR and for like, a small startups it's like someone would come with 5 million. That's like your series B round right there. Or like, you know, that's like, that's you raise 5 million. You don't get like earned 5 million in PR that you basically it's as if.
The company would have spent $5 million in getting PR articles and all of that gun for us. So for a startup, again, like a series B it's around like $6 million, $7 million, then it depends on the startups, but that's the magnitude we're talking about. So could we have done anything? Like, was it good?
Yes. Was it excellent? Yes. However, of course you can always like kind of blame yourself or. Perhaps for doing also that little extra that would have made it like even more. And that is. We didn't manage two things properly. First of all, we build that momentum. We were like super excited, blah, blah, blah. But we didn't have a follow-up strategy.
So the thing went like Boom it's the stars. And then it just like went not to the same level, of course, but it went like, just imagine if you were like a hundred, it went to like million. And then instead of staying like maybe a nine hundred thousand eight hundred thousand seven hundred thousand, it would just plummet back to like 80,000.
And we're like if only we had a strategy to then like, Keep on that momentum things would have grown much faster, but anyways I've heard that about viral content though Nelio. I don't think you're the only person who's experienced, like planning for success is actually quite difficult to foresee because you want a temporary expectations, right?
You don't want to say, okay, this is going to be a ridiculous hit. We're going to be incredible. And like, Plan this big, big audacious thing afterward. So it makes sense that maybe that was the lesson that you learned because you don't want to go crazy right out of the gates with your first big ad, but it does seem like an opportunity to keep things going afterward.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So that was the thing. Then we kind of all, like, you know, did a super successful rebranding. Everybody was like super powered up. Like, you know, it changed the culture internaly. It was like a big moment. Right? Yeah. And the problem is that yeah. Then after that, we kind of like said, Oh cool.
Nah, that was so intense. It was so cool. But we should have like, gotten, exactly back to work and back to not necessarily back to work, but like then having like a strategy. What now? How do we capitalize on this? How do we use it and reuse it to the extent that this becomes like, you know, we can extend the success of this.
That's the first learning, the second learning, we didn't manage data properly. So if we would have had back then, like a super strong data-driven mindset, that would have been like, okay guys, now we're touching all these people.
But are we capturing data that then we can reuse so that then we can either retarget those people. And when we can create like conversion funnels and then we can create like all of that fun stuff that will actually also have a strong impact on sales or on trips, book, bookings, and acquisition and all of that.
So I think that's where we missed the opportunity of A, having like a solid plan to capitalize on that success B, not having like a proper data strategy, as in, can we retarget those users? Can we filter the ones that are in Vietnam or Mexico that are super irrelevant for us?
Can we now build like a proper conversion campaigns on the users that already saw that ad. So again, I think all in all it comes back into continuing, so like it was really like an intermittent win, whereas we should have like properly plan that's probably it.
I think the great news is that you benefited so much immediately and it was such a success right out of the gates. That you still, you know, you said, yeah, you went from a hundred to a million back down to 80,000 you probably wouldn't have gotten 80,000. If it hadn't gone so viral, if you hadn't gotten that high it probably wouldn't have taken you as far.
So it's incredible story Nelio. I mean, you've broken down every element that I think I would ever want to know about, because it's so powerful. You clearly love growth marketing. You live for this stuff. If people want to, if they want to learn more about you, they want to follow you on social media.
Where's your favorite platform these days? LinkedIn. I'm pretty active on LinkedIn for one simple reason. It's because I find that most content on LinkedIn was not really good. Like for instance, Twitter, there's great content. And only then I really struggled for a long time to follow people that would actually inspire me.
So I said, you know what, since it's so hard to find. Content that I would consume. Why wouldn't eye, like, you know, do this content and that's why I'm pretty active on the platform. Yeah. I've enjoyed following you. I think you've got tips nearly every day that are actionable and interesting. And based on your incredible experience here.
So I'd advise everybody listening or watching. You got to go follow Nelio. He's awesome. You'll enjoy it. UrbanMonks, if they want to learn about your company, how do they do that? So, for the time being it's through my LinkedIn because our website is down or just like revamping it like two months ago.
So we need to work on that stuff. Exciting. No. All right. Well, we'll connect with you on LinkedIn and make sure everybody follows you there. Thanks for joining us. This is a treat you've got such incredible experience, such an exciting story to share. I'm sure this one's going to be a favorite of the, folks listening.
Thank you very much. Rex for having me and again, your Podcast. Really rocks man. Thank you. Appreciate it.