Reshaping The Industry In MENA Posted on

MullenLowe MENA CEO Mounir Harfouche discusses how the Covid-19 crisis is reshaping the marketing and advertising industry in MENA.

Covid-19 has had its impact on the industry like it did on every other industry. It was a sudden shock that forced everyone to have quick solutions to adapt to a new reality. Business closed their doors, revenues dropped significantly, and agencies had to coop with many challenges and uncertainties.

We had two worlds before Covid-19—one that was the physical environment and one that is Digital. Since Covid-19, the physical world shut down completely; we had to shift to the digital world. This transition was more comfortable than many had thought, especially in the UAE, thanks to very advanced and well-prepared infrastructure. However, it also re-engineered the way we work and the type of work we do.

The challenge for marketers and agencies was to respect the rules of the game during such a crisis. How to communicate without sounding opportunistic or off track and what to communicate when business was closed. Equally, the behaviour of people that we were all very familiar with had taken a complete shift. The challenge was to very quickly understand and define this new behaviour and become sensitive to the new mindset.

Covid19 did not reshape the marketing and advertising industry but perhaps opened the door to become more accountable and more strategic. We had had to be proactive more than ever before and then as the crisis started to change, we moved from reactive to a proactive setting working with our clients to communicate in a very different world.

It has forced clients to look at long term strategy rather than short term campaign bursts. Something the region has been crying out for, now it is happening on all levels. Finally, it also pushed both clients and agencies to look at social and digital as the main channels, and this led to more expertise and a shift in the way we look at content.

I believe that Covid19 forced both marketers and agencies to rethink their structures, their models and the way they think and communicate.

How does this impact differ in the region’s different markets?

Each market had specific challenges and different consumer sentiments because the tension was different. It had a more severe impact in the GCC, for example than in Egypt or the Levant. I believe it is because of the announced cases, the governments’ serious approach and the economic impact due to the market size and its international nature.

What measures have you taken to mitigate this impact (restructuring, staff reductions, etc.)?

I am very proud of the way we as MullenLowe MENA but especially how MCN managed the impact. It is an excellent story at all levels. The mature leadership and vision during the crisis led to a very soft landing at all levels for our respective businesses.

Plans were clear. Assessment of the crisis was perfect. Decisions were never hesitant and most importantly putting the interest of our clients, and our people were our priority. Transparency was key. We were engaging and communicating with our people about every threat or opportunity. We made everyone part of the decision making, and this helped absorb the impact of the crisis.

This created a lot of efficiency and commitment, a lot of proactivity and productivity. The team has delivered some of the best work we have ever produced. Our agile model helped us remain efficient and supportive.

We were working step by step with our clients to support with market intelligence, strategic guidance and creative output not just to save the day but to look at the future and prepare ourselves for it. We were confident about the road map as we understood that the crisis would see a gradual ending, and we need to be ready for the post covid19 phase, which would look very different than the pre-phase. Moreover, we are ready.

How could this crisis lead to deeper transformation and change the way you operate in the long-term?

The future will demand agility, speed and expertise. That is not easy to secure if your model is not designed well to deliver on those principles. The transformation is excellent. It is what we were on the way to achieve. A hybrid, channel-neutral model that can deliver the right message for each touchpoint. Integration and collaboration have always been our strength as an agency and as a group. Today we made this even more visible to our clients and partners.

Agencies can no longer work in isolation, and the integration is not only within the agency or the group you belong too but most importantly, with the clients you work with.

Media, PR, event, digital and mainstream agencies will not make any sense if not working in serious partnership and collaboration. Clients will demand more accountability, more efficiency, more value and better quality of work. Every penny spent will be measured and needs to be linked to a higher ROI.

That is what will help Media, and creative agencies collaborate better, and we will see data analytics and Digital marketing coming to the forefront of the game.

How have clients reacted to the crisis, and what do you advise them to do?

Clients were very responsive. We had a similar attitude. This crisis made us even closer to our clients because the line between agency and clients had vanished. We became one.

My advice for clients as always is to believe that communication is not a luxury but a necessity. Maybe the most significant investment they always do. Communication is not only for when the business is working but more so for when it is not. One because you need to optimize the potential to increase sale but most importantly, to build awareness and stay top of mind. Brands have to continue building on their purpose because it is a continuous long-term exercise for each brand. Stopping this for some time would regress the value and jeopardize all the previous investments the brand had done.

What lessons from previous crises have helped you face the current situation?

Agility and commitment. During the crisis, the agency plays a significant role with the client. We have to play a critical strategic, and creative role. Commitment is needed not to drop the ball or be limited to expertise and talent.

Also, leadership is critical. It is how you keep the momentum, stay ahead of the game, find relevant and valuable solutions, keep your team inspired and motivated while coping with budget cuts and financial challenges.

The main lesson is that every crisis brings with it an opportunity to evolve your business model and relook at your offering to make it more relevant. Ultimately, I believe that this crisis made us evolve in 3 months what would have taken us three years.

What will you take away from this pandemic once we’ve passed it?

Stay human. Stay humble. Stay honest. Moreover, most importantly stay positive because it brings creativity and creativity can be found in the darkest situations where it becomes the only guiding light. Creativity does change the world because it makes humanity spread and humanity is all we need during a crisis.