Follow The Leader: Budreya Faisal, Founder And CEO, Ghost Concept Sparked by her passion for football, this Emirati entrepreneur was ignited to launch an athlete brand development agency to empower the region's most talented athletes, and she's ready for more.
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"Andriy Mykolayovych Schevchenko changed my life." When Ghost Concept founder and CEO Budreya Faisal told me this line, I must confess that I did a double take. How on earth could the worlds of the Ukrainian football legend -perhaps best known for his time on the Associazione Calcio Milan (A. C. Milan) team, and today for being the manager of the Ukrainian national football team- and this Emirati entrepreneur who founded an athlete brand development agency collide? But, of course, a moment later, it made complete sense- that's the power of football, after all.
In effect, "the beautiful game" is what led Faisal to her current career in the sports marketeering field, with her essentially being the only athlete brand expert in the MENA region. "This all started with me falling in love with football, while I was doing postgraduate studies in car design with Lamborghini in Italy in 2004," Faisal recalls. "I went on a San Siro Stadium tour with some friends, having no interest in football or the actual game when we got there, but by the time I walked out of that stadium, I was hooked. Shevchenko changed my life. A. C. Milan became my team. Football became my passion, and eventually my life's work, calling, and purpose."
With Faisal's interest in the sports domain ignited, she went on to choose marketing the same as her career, with its trajectory beginning by her taking on the role of a Creative Projects Advisor in the CEO's office for the inaugural Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009. She then moved on to work at the Dubai Sports Council, where she ended up becoming the first person to become its Head of Sports Tourism. That was followed by a stint at the UAE Pro League as its Marketing Director for three years, and Faisal then moved to work at the Al Ahli Football Club as its Commercial Director for 10 months. Looking back at this career trajectory, Faisal says, "This background and experience gave me the chance to look at football from every angle, council, league, and club. I worked with some great people; I made a difference. But it wasn't enough. There were always political roadblocks, as there are in every organization. When I felt like I wasn't able to make the real change I had hoped to make, I temporarily got out of football."
But Faisal's exit from the world of sport didn't last for long. It was around this time she heard about a great player who got embroiled in what she calls "an insignificant, so-called scandal" that made it to the news, and that essentially forced him to sign a club contract at a lower value than what Faisal thought he's actually worth on the pitch. "This made my blood boil," she recalls. "Our players, while very talented, lacked the understanding of their actual value in the sport and country, and let it be whatever these contracts told them they were worth. They weren't surrounded by empowerment and advisors. I decided to change that, protect them, educate them on their value, while also building it up, helping them, their clubs, and the countries they play for. A month later, I had the keys to my first Ghost Concept office."
Faisal launched Ghost Concept with the aim to help athletes in their personal and digital brand development, with its focus being on professional players in the Arab league, especially Arab players, so as to give them the benefits they've only seen players abroad enjoy. "We initially started with working with the bigger names, the National Teams' above-29 players, thinking they would need our services the most to help them build value and a legacy, before their sporting careers come to an end," Faisal says. "But 18 months into our start, we changed courses." This shift in strategy was precipitated by something Faisal didn't really expect- as it so happens, the people she was targeting were simply not keen on accepting what she had to offer. "It was all too new, untried, or untested," she says. "People had never heard of these offerings that I'd put together based on the needs of this region, and of course, a lot of research."
But Faisal was also not ready to accept the status quo. "Having only a handful of companies globally specialize in the areas of athlete brand development and management made it even more important for me to trust in the fact that nobody knows our football and our football culture like we do, and we've come too far in this country to think we need to simply copy what's been done abroad," Faisal declares. "We're industry leaders and gamechangers here, and this challenge and business was going to be no exception. Once we realized it was too difficult for the older, nationally celebrated players who were more set in their ways to see why they needed us, we changed our strategy. Now, our most important criteria is that a player is hungry for growth and willing to put in the work."
This course correction proved to be exactly what Ghost Concept needed to do in order to move ahead on its premise. Today, once the company agrees to work with a player, it signs a two- or three-year contract with them on a monthly retainer. Besides having their work cut out in terms of making their clients camera-ready, media-ready, and yes, even style-ready, Faisal and her team develop an athlete's brand and growth strategy for each of them, which is implemented monthly by a dedicated account manager who oversees everything from their partnerships and performances, to their social media accounts. "So far, we've gotten seven out of ten of our clients deals with Nike or Adidas, with us working to make their accounts professional, yet personal enough, to attract advertisements and other endorsements," Faisal reveals.
One of Ghost Concept's success stories in this regard has been its work with the Saudi League's top scorer and Captain of the Syrian National Team, Omar Al Somah. "Though he was already famous and the most followed Arab footballer in the GCC when he signed with us in 2018, we have changed things around for him so much that he never shies away crediting Ghost Concept and the value we have added," Faisal says.
"Once Omar signed with us, he trusted our strategy to not accept any advertisements for the first six months. At the six-month mark, we changed his then nickname, "OS9' to "SOMAH,' with us releasing a very special logo and photoshoot we designed and directed for him that almost instantly elevated his image. Now, SOMAH advertises with Call of Duty, Pepsi, Paco Rabanne, PlayStation, and FIFA 21. We also managed his move back to Adidas, and ensured we got maximum exposure from the brand."
UAE National Team player Ali Saleh
Another player whose story Faisal is excited to share is that of UAE National Team player Ali Saleh, the left-winger of Al Wasl Club who was awarded the title of the Arabian Gulf League's Golden Boy for 2018/19, which is an honor bestowed on the best young player in the division that season. However, when Ghost Concept signed him on, Saleh had yet to receive that award, nor was he in the national team- but Faisal remembers him as one of the first "hungry" players she signed. "Besides being seen as a promising player, Ali was not very known back then, outside of football that is," she says.
"We built him up online and offline, and he is now one of the most spoken of players in the league, and even watched closely by many of the biggest players in the surrounding leagues. He is also the most commercially attractive player, and has done more ads and shoots than most of the biggest names in GCC football, but, of course, not too many that it becomes a distraction. Our work with him has helped changed the mindset of other players and the fans, while giving media (and/or haters) a lot to talk about- and we don't hate that, as long as football always comes first."
Faisal says that the manner in which Ghost Concept was able to boost the profiles and careers of Al Somah and Saleh has led her to receive a lot of interest from other players wanting her help so that they too can follow in the footsteps of the two footballers. Faisal, however, has her hands full already- but that doesn't mean she has left those who seek her out by the wayside either. "Since I am personally unable to take on too many more players, I have changed gear again," she reveals.
"We are now focused on monthly content packages that we offer to any and all players and athletes in the region, and we train them on how to post on and use social media. This helps us generate more revenue, and achieve our main goal: to elevate the representation of GCC football." And this is the same ethos that Faisal uses to lead her team at Ghost Concept. "As guardians of our athletes' personal brands, it is incredibly important for my team to recognize the honor and responsibility we are granted," she explains. "And with that comes the most important lesson I teach from day one: integrity. We do it right, we think, we overthink, we go out of our way to deliver what our athletes deserve from us, and that's nothing short of what's best for them."
At this point, one may think that Ghost Concept is what is on Faisal's mind, 24/7- however, this is the part where I need to tell you that she is also the founder of a fashion label called Bleach, which she launched around the same time she was getting into sports marketing. "In 2009, there was only one other independent womenswear/abaya label, as people were still used to getting their outerwear from cookie-cutter stores, wearing cookie cutter designs," Faisal says.
Budreya Faisal, founder and CEO, Ghost Concept
"But coming to life in Italy helped me find myself in more ways than one, including my personal style and my need for self-expression. Bleach made a name for itself relatively quickly, as it stood out easily. I struggled at times to keep my business on a high, while focusing on my sports marketing career, but I found that I couldn't do one without the other. They represented different creative sides of me. And now, all these years later, both businesses are flourishing, which is made easier by having my Bleach atelier and showroom only four doors down from my Ghost Concept office."
As Bleach's Creative Director, Faisal is today responsible for designing the label's three annual collections, fabric selection, attending photo shoots, and approving its digital marketing strategy. "I love my label, and every time I tell myself to close its doors and focus on Ghost Concept only, I get an incredibly touching message from a client or two that sets me straight," she says. "It's not always easy to manage multiple businesses, but it's definitely worth the long nights."
As someone who has been able to launch two different enterprises in the UAE, Faisal also has a unique perspective on the changes in the country's entrepreneurial ecosystem. "When I started Bleach, it was quite a mission, with too many places to visit, and processes that seemed inefficient, or didn't make sense," Faisal admits. "But by the time Ghost Concept came around, I was in disbelief of how easy and pleasant the entire experience was. I have no doubt that that being an Emirati granted me many luxuries through this experience that I am grateful for. I can't imagine I would have gone from idea to office keys within one month otherwise. But I know it is now so much simpler with commercial and establishment laws and rights evolving in the country for the benefit of all, and the competition that they will bring to all industries and niches is incredibly exciting."
As we return the conversation back to Ghost Concept, Faisal looks to be extremely excited about the prospects that will be coming up for the company in the region in the near future. "For the football industry specifically, with the FIFA World Cup 2022 being right around the corner, Qatar is the place to be," she notes. "While I am currently looking into the process of setting up in Doha, I know it will require more time and effort to set up a business there. Guaranteed to be worth it though- I had two business trips there in the past two weeks, and just being in the city housing these incredible stadiums gave me goosebumps with the drive to do more."
Now, Faisal's exhilaration for the next leg of Ghost Concept's journey is clearly palpable, and the reasons for it can be drawn back to her personal motivations to be an entrepreneur in the first place. "There is no better feeling than realizing your own vision, seeing the effect your own concepts and work have on people, industry, and country," she says. "It is incredibly challenging, and beyond hard at times, especially if you tend to attempt businesses that may be too out there at first. But it is absolutely worth every stress-generated grey hair."
And this leads into what she suggests anyone in the UAE or the MENA region to keep in mind when contemplating a move into entrepreneurship. "Now is the only time to start, always!" Faisal declares. "Homework and preparation go a long way, but you can't get caught sleeping on your plans. Growth is so important, and this country and region is too focused on advancing for anyone to have cold feet."
Source: Ghost Concept
THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: BUDREYA FAISAL'S TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS
1. PURPOSE OVER PASSION "While starting a business as a passion project can be exhilarating, try instead to find purpose in your passion, and make that the foundation of your work. Doing something bigger than yourself will prove to be rewarding in more ways than one."
2. VALUE YOUR TIME "Everyone starts by doing everything they can and speaking to everyone they can to get their business going. But eventually, you learn to value your time more and not waste any of it on meeting with people who don't get you or your business, or people who need to be convinced that they need you. If they're going to be that difficult to bring on board, they will be more difficult to work with."
3. LEARN THE CULTURE "Being fluent in local culture relevant to your industry is the only way to offer your role, your company, your client unique insight that almost all companies coming in from abroad will never grasp. For instance, what applies in the English Premier League will not suit us here as it is. And the same goes for the beasts of every industry. Learn the culture, and do a better job for the city you call home."
4. EDUCATE YOURSELF DAILY "There is no lack of reading material on the latest developments in every industry. Don't get lazy now that you've started; stay on top of the news and trends, so you can quickly shift gears when your company needs you to."
5. TRAIN YOUR TEAM, AND LEVEL UP "If you consider yourself to be an industry expert, you have to teach your team everything you know, so they can be trusted to protect what you've built, and also be empowered to help you expand in other cities or countries."