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Pandemic Perspectives: Mounir Harfouche

Agency

Pandemic Perspectives: Mounir Harfouche

How Covid-19 is changing the business and the industry at large, according to Mullen Lowe’s Chief Executive Officer of Middle East and North Africa.

How is the Covid-19 crisis reshaping the marketing and advertising industry in MENA?

The impact of Covid-19 was a sudden shock that forced everyone [in the industry] to quickly find solutions to adapt to the new reality. Businesses closed their doors, revenues dropped significantly and agencies had to cope with many challenges and uncertainties.

We had two worlds before Covid-19 – the physical and the digital. [During] the pandemic, the physical world was completely shut down and we had to shift to the digital world. This transition was more comfortable than many had thought, especially in the UAE where the advanced and well-prepared infrastructure [helped with the process.] However, it also re-engineered the way we work and the type of work we do.

The challenge for marketeers and agencies was to respect the rules of the game during such a crisis. For example, how to communicate without sounding opportunistic or off-track and what to communicate when business was closed. Equally, the behavior 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 behavior and become sensitive to the new mindset.

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

It has encouraged clients to look at the long-term strategy rather than short-term campaign bursts, which is something the region has been crying out for and is now happening on all levels. Finally, it pushed both clients and agencies to look at social and digital as the main channels, leading to greater expertise and a shift in the way we look at content. I believe that Covid-19 forced both marketeers and agencies to rethink their structures, 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 consumer sentiments because their tensions were different. For example, compared to Egypt or Levant, the pandemic had a more severe impact on the GCC. I believe this is due to the number of cases that were announced, the government’s serious approach, and the economic impact linked to the market size and its international nature.

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

I’m very proud of the way we, as MullenLowe, but especially MCN, have managed the impact. It’s an excellent story on all levels. The mature leadership and vision during the crisis led to a very soft landing across the board for our respective businesses.

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

This created greater levels of efficiency, commitment, 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 them with market intelligence, strategic guidance and creative output, not just to save the day but to prepare ourselves for the future. We were confident about the road map as we understood that the crisis would see a gradual end. We had to be ready for the post-Covid phase as we knew it would look completely different. We are now ready for it.

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, which are not easy to secure if your model is not designed well enough to deliver on those principles. The transformation [has helped us accelerate our goals] towards achieving a hybrid, channel-neutral model that can deliver the right message for each touchpoint. Integration and collaboration have always been our strengths 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 integration should not only take place within the agency or the group you belong to, but also with the clients you work with. It would not make sense for media, PR, events, digital and mainstream agencies to work outside of serious partnerships and collaborations. Clients will demand more accountability, efficiency, value, and better quality work. Every penny spent will be measured and will need to be linked to a higher ROI. That 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 and our attitude was similar. 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 even the most significant investment they can make. 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 sales, but more 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. [Going dark] for some time would regress the value and jeopardize all previous investments the brand had made.

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,  strategically as well as creatively. Commitment is needed not to drop the ball or be limited to expertise and talent. Leadership is also very critical, as it is needed to help keep the momentum, stay ahead of the game, find relevant and valuable solutions, and 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 [restructure] your offering to make it more relevant. Ultimately, I believe that this crisis has allowed us to evolve [quicker than expected.]

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

Stay human. Stay humble. Stay honest. Moreover, and 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.

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