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Exclusive Interview with PlayOJO CEO Ohad Narkis on UK Gambling Industry’s Challenges

Ohad Narkis is the CEO of PlayOJO, an innovative online casino that launched last year and is aiming to challenge the big industry names. Having previously worked for some of the global gambling industry’s powerhouses, including PokerStars and Scientific Games, Mr. Narkis is now using his knowledge and experience in the field to build a brand that places fairness and transparency at its core.

The UK gambling space is one of the main markets PlayOJO has been targeting since it went live. What are the challenges facing a new operation in the highly competitive UK online gambling environment? How is PlayOJO handling competition? And how does it make sure that its is fully compliant with the wave of regulatory reforms in the UK gambling industry from the past several years? Mr. Narkis has provided answers to these and many other important questions and has offered our readers an insight into how PlayOJO believes customers should be treated and industry challenges should be approached.

Operating an online casino business in the current environment of extreme competition, rising costs, and growing regulatory pressure must be really hard. What are the biggest challenges a new casino comes across when it goes live?

I would say that the biggest challenge of all is to cut through the noise in the market. The UK market is extremely competitive, very fragmented and is dominated by several well-established brands, some of which are high-street brands that have been around for years. To break into this cluttered market takes a lot of effort, preparation and much thought about how to differentiate yourself and stand out in the 3 key levels – Product, Brand, and Value proposition.

Without these major considerations and a creative and cut-through marketing strategy, it would be hard for any new brand to launch into a market and build any kind of significant market share. The growing compliance and regulatory pressure makes things even more challenging for a new casino. As far as PlayOJO goes, we believe that as operators we have a responsibility to our players and this is why we decided to challenge the market on some of its core shortfalls relating to fairness and transparency. With our fairness implementation, we’ve created a win win situation for both our players as well as for our business.

In what ways does PlayOJO stand out from its competition?

We’ve established PlayOJO to challenge the perception of the market. The outdated way of how things were being done was creating friction with customers and a greater level of mistrust within the industry. In order to address this fundamental inherent issue, we wanted to create a brand that is very transparent and fair. This is why we created a completely new value proposition with PlayOJO; we scrapped all the traditional bonus systems and created a new platform where customers could interact with us and not have concerns about things like funds availability or bonus money.

We wanted to create a brand that looked and felt different to any other brand. The name itself is not even a traditional casino name as we wanted to steer clear of using words like “luck” or “spins” that scream casino. The same goes for the visual brand elements being gender neutral, warm and welcoming. We treat players as our friends and this comes across in our playful and fun tone of voice and the way that we communicate with them.

Your bonus rewards system is a bit different from what is usually offered at online casinos. Can you elaborate more on how you approach new customers and how you reward them?

Keeping our players loyal is of essence and that’s why we came up with features like OJOPlus – a money-back mechanism which gives players back a percentage of their wager every time they bet, whether they win or lose. Unlike other casinos, it’s not a promotional offer but an inherent part of our value proposition which is active 24/7 and of course paid in cash.

On the same note, we don’t believe in luring our players in with too-good-to-be-true match deposit bonuses. Instead, we reward them for actually playing, using our levels system and the OJO Wheel, which they can spin by reaching new levels or just as a surprise extra perk. At PlayOJO, all funds are available for customers to play or withdraw at any time and without any restrictions. We do not impose painful wagering requirements on our players and we set no max win limit – they are in control.

The UK is the largest regulated iGaming market, but it has become a bit of a challenge to operate there due to competition and regulatory pressure. What are your personal views about that market and its current state?

The UK market is becoming much more challenging to operate in, particularly because of the increased regulatory pressure, some of which is understandable and actually very positive. It took extra attention and enforcement from the Gambling Commission and the likes of CMA and CPA to pave the way for operators to be more upfront about how they operate.

There was much non-transparency in the market between customers and operators that became a problem. I believe that it’s very positive that regulators are now pushing for operators to clean up their acts and give customers more control over their money and their play. This is a fundamental and welcome change in the way that the industry operates and I anticipate that it will take some time for the industry to adapt.

The UK Government announced started taxing freeplays last summer. How has this affected your operations in the country?

To be honest, it didn’t have a significant impact on our operations because we only launched a few months before the change to taxation calculation took place so were able to plan for it from the outset. Because we’re less bonus-heavy, the introduction of tax on bonuses didn’t impact our bottom line in a significant way.

The UK Gambling Commission has slapped massive fines on a number of operators for compliance failures over the past year. How do you make sure that all aspects of your UK-facing business are compliant with the growing number of requirements?

Along with the entire industry, we have learned a lot from these high-profile cases of certain operators, some of which who were were charged with failings within crucial operational functions. In an environment where the Gaming Commission keeps raising the bar when it comes to Responsible Gaming, KYC and Customer Protection, we need to stay one step ahead of the game so that our players stay protected.

This last year we’ve seen a greater endorsement in operators being challenged to be more socially responsible. The significant fines that the Gambling Commission has imposed onto operators clearly shows that much more attention, time and resources need to be devoted into internal processes. These should include rigorous checks for customers’ sources of funds, AML prevention, preventing instances where self-excluded players are marketed to via 3rd party channels and very importantly, ensuring that players are not encouraged to play beyond their financial means.

We actually introduced several new safety measures that identity unusual playing patterns very early on in the player’s life-cycle. These involve a very efficient KYC process, including source of fund authorisation, play monitoring and in certain cases, a total suspension of play activities. This is something we have seen across the industry and it has impacted VIP players in particular. Our VIP player numbers have actually decreased over the last months which is simply due to these suggested measurements, but we feel that this is the only way for responsible operators to operate.

You have quite unique approach to responsible gambling. Can you tell us more about your focus in that area?

We’ve created an environment where players feel secure because there is nothing hidden in our terms and conditions and they have full control of their money, which is held in a single cash account. It’s about being socially responsible in terms of how we communicate with players and the fact that everything is upfront for them makes them feel protected.

All of our marketing is based around this idea – in fact our new marketing campaign is based around our fairness message. There is no other operator that has built an entire brand or campaign around being fair and with this initiative we hope to educate the industry as well as the customers by setting the “fairness bar” of how players should be treated in the industry. It’s a long-term goal that requires a great deal of resources, patience and stamina because changing perceptions in an industry that has been operating for many years with low-trust levels is not something that can be done overnight.

The matter of social responsibility goes beyond the UK for us. PlayOJO operates in a number of different markets and one of our fastest growing markets is in Sweden, where we launched at the beginning of 2018 with exactly the same propositions and “fair” brand promise.

Despite the fact the market there is still unregulated and the industry does not face the same pressures from regulators, our perception of how we believe the industry should operate remained intact. With the knowledge that the Swedish market will re-regulate at the beginning of 2019, we anticipate that the Swedish Gambling Authority will follow in the same footsteps as the UK Gambling Commission as far as getting operators to clean up their acts. Therefore, we see ourselves as the pioneers of a fair casino promise in Sweden, setting that “fairness bar” high as we have done in the UK and demonstrating how we believe operators should treat their customers, in a socially responsible and fair way.

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