MullenLowe MENA’s CEO and CCO Mounir Harfouche on what has been driving business forward during the past few months
Tourism is a huge part of the economies for many countries in the Middle East – it contributes 12.1% to the GDP of the United Arab Emirates. So, it’s no surprise that the Covid-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on the country as a whole. With this in mind, MullenLowe MENA’s CEO Mounir Harfouche is quick to praise the UAE’s government for responding to the outbreak “remarkably” and hopes that the nation is one “that the world will look towards and learn from”.
As CEO of the agency Mounir, has had his own challenges keeping the company going, looking after clients and keeping morale high while adapting to new ways of working. If that wasn’t enough, he and his team pulled off a huge task by creating a campaign involving the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to feed those most in need. The result was a meticulously planned campaign carried out in under two weeks involving technological advances that were pushed to the limits.
Mounir explains to LBB’s Natasha Patel about what went into this campaign, adapting to new ways of working and how technology has evolved throughout this period.
LBB> When the pandemic first hit the region, what measures did you put in place to work throughout this time?
Mounir> Our main goal was to keep our people safe and healthy while remaining operational and avoiding any disruption at work. We ensured that everyone in the agency was prepared to work from home; taking into consideration details like having the right internet connection in addition to the necessary hardware and software. IT security measures were also put in place, as well as a complete protocol and governance on how to work from home. This was reinforced, in parallel, with a full programme to support mental health which included the provision of seminars, conversations on the subject and professional support.
LBB> How did you adapt to these new measures and how did the team take it?
Mounir> The adaptation was very smooth, to be honest. The efficiency and commitment of the team were remarkable. We created a great bond. It felt like we were all soldiers in the field, fighting together with the same spirit and drive. We had to adapt to new technologies while our lives became 100% dependent on the digital world. We were using more tech solutions than before while simultaneously exploring better and more up-to-date ones too.
LBB> What conversations did you have with clients during this period and were pitches affected or were ones done remotely as successful as those done in-person?
Mounir> There was a lot of transparency with clients and we worked closely with one another. We made sure they felt that they had a true partner on their side. Not just emotionally but also in terms of guidance and support. We worked as one team, passionately trying to save the business while looking into innovative ideas that could trigger business solutions and, in some cases, revenue growth. We created emergency teams to manage the crisis and had to be aware of the impact on their business both financially and strategically, so we could plan and respond accordingly.
It was a tense phase comprising a great deal of strategic thinking and analysis. We had to think in the present while predicting what was going to come next amid an uncertain environment. No one could give any clear indication about how the pandemic would evolve and what kind of impact it would have. We had to be very knowledgeable and think within the moment, while reading an analysing every single article and global report from healthcare to economy, daily consumer sentiments, financial reports, social reports and government decisions. Our job during this time required serious accountability because we were providing advice capable of making or breaking an entire business.
LBB> What have been the biggest challenges for the business during the Covid outbreak, and how did you overcome these?
Mounir> We are creatures that like to have consistency, Covid-19 naturally broke us from our habits and changed the way we had to do business. Everybody was working minute by minute day by day; nobody knew how to react. It worked well for us; we had to become more structured and process-driven but had to be incredibly agile at the same time; it made people more efficient because time was of the essence. We were more direct and cut through with our decision making because every second counted. From reacting, we then started to proactively look at what the future might be and then playback this to our clients, so we could set them up for success. We did this with a tangible and actionable strategy that made a difference. Not only this, but we also became more creative and worked in greater collaboration with our clients as one. This was a huge difference; we were all on the same side, working towards the exact cause.
LBB> You mentioned adapting to new technologies when working from home but in general how do you think technology has adapted throughout this time?
Mounir> Well, technology has always been there. We were ready anyway. But indeed, new solutions emerged and we had to adapt in order to have the best tools to make the journey as smooth as possible.
LBB> And which advances have you seen since the Covid outbreak that have struck you as being innovative?
Mounir> As the Covid-19 storm continues, one thing is for certain: the world will never be quite the same again. Since the start of the lockdown, consumer circumstances and buying habits have changed. Brands have been forced to change their operational approach as well as their messaging in response. Despite being a highly creative industry, marketing isn’t always as innovative or risk-averse as you might believe. Many brands opt to remain conservative or ‘play it safe’ when it comes to their campaigns, for fear of tarnishing their reputation.
But if we look to the past, in any global pandemic or crisis, brands have proven to change the course of history through human tragedy and famine. In 1918, after the Spanish Flu, children were in lockdown with boring routines for play during the crisis. Children, therefore, needed other forms of content and entertainment. Then, Disney was founded, and the rest is history. I think you will start to see innovations in changing society in the coming months and years. History has a habit of repeating itself.
However, right now, because of the pandemic, innovation has already started to take place naturally, as organisations look to solve issues directly related to Covid-19. Some of these innovations include touchless keypads, temperature sensors, hygiene hooks that open and close doors remotely and Immutouch wristbands. These wristbands use an algorithm to interpret data from a gravity sensor or gravimeter to determine if a person’s hand is approaching his or her face and activates a buzzer.
LBB> Do you think these technological advances will be here to stay?
Mounir> As we look towards the new norm, human habits will change inevitably. We are creatures of habit and anyone who has lived through this period will know that it is now second nature to recoil from shaking hands or touching our faces. The comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced greater ease with absence. Instead of asking “is there a reason to do this online?”, we will be asking “is there any good reason to do this in person?”
The paradox of online communication will be ratcheted up: It creates more distance, but also more connection. One such example is online event conferencing. We have started to receive many requests as clients look towards technology as a way to interact and socialise within a digital forum at events. Whilst it was already on the rise before Covid-19, the need has been ratcheted up, which means innovative solutions are now needed to create improved interaction at digital conferences. Teams and Zoom don’t do it.
Who’s to say that online gigs and festivals won’t go the same way.
LBB> There has been a lot said about the way the UAE handled the pandemic, so what do you think the rest of the world learn from the region’s handling of the pandemic?
Mounir> How the UAE government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic has been nothing short of remarkable, compared to other markets. How government, civic and private sectors have come together in a spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good is something to be proud of.
Covid-19 has been this century’s most urgent challenge for humanity. Harnessing and championing the existing solidarity, citizens and cultures within the UAE, will change and transform our era of historic inequality into one of economic inclusion. We will be seen as a nation that the world will look towards and learn from.
LBB> The rise and dependency of consumers on ecommerce has been huge, will these change the way consumers shop going forward?
Mounir> There have been many changes in online consumer activities, but the one that has affected the broadest range of companies has been the growth in ecommerce. Thanks to ecommerce, remote working, telemedicine and remotely managed supply chains, digital transformation is now probably a necessity for survival rather than a nice-to-have.
That being said, I believe we will start to look more closely at bridging the gap between offline and online retail experiences. But this too might change. Before the outbreak of the virus, the unmanned retail store model was struggling to attract a significant number of shoppers. However, with the epidemic leading to a greater need for reduced contact between people, this model has seen a significant increase in sales for retailers.
Finally, consumers have been spending less. Now, more than ever, consumers have become even more prudent as a result of economic uncertainty. This means that brands will have to create greater value and better experiences for customers, other than just within monetary value exchange.
LBB> What campaigns have the team worked on during this time?
Mounir> The last eight months have seen us move to another gear in terms of creative transformation as we have had to be proactive and act fast. Ideas came within hours, not weeks, and a digital implementation that might have taken four months, was completed in one . I suppose the most famous of the campaigns we executed was for the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives (MBRGI) – The World’s Tallest Donation Box.
LBB> Tell us more about this campaign and technologies role in creating it.
Mounir> MBRGI was the client. The objective was to activate the 10 million meals campaign in a way that would:
Firstly make the campaign and cause famous on a global scale. And also differentiate it from any other food donation campaign ever created. The thought was both simple and elegant. What if we could light up the smiles of those most affected by Covid-19 (those on low incomes, who had lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to feed their families) by individually lighting up and selling off each of the 1.2 million lights that illuminate the façade of the Burj Khalifa?
The idea was packaged and presented within 24 hours. This then left us just under four weeks to make it happen. Usually, a campaign of this scale would have normally taken three to four months to plan and organise. It included a complex website build that was linked, in realtime, to a payment engine and the Burj Khalif’s display servers to create the daily updates in terms of lights sold. In addition, over 50 individual social media assets, online comms, an influencer campaign, a PR push, and not to mention daily content and live filming of the nightly light shows, which were filmed via drones. But there’s nothing like a good cause, a great idea and an amazing client who was very much involved in the process and played a major role in making all this happen. We initially planned the duration of the campaign to last for a month, but it took just around 12 days for all 1.2 million lights to sell out, with donations from 115 countries worldwide. As a result, the story of how Dubai went above and beyond to help and support the regions hungry had a reach of over 900 million, as the idea captured the hearts and minds of over 500 broadcast news stations across the world.
Ultimately, the campaign is a great testament to a quote from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai – “In the UAE, no one goes hungry.”
LBB> As CEO of MullenLowe MENA, where do you hope to steer the business beyond Covid?
Mounir> Humans are generally not disposed to radical departures from routines. The dual spectres of autocracy and disease have allowed us to listen to our common sense, imaginations and eccentricities. The closer we are to death, the human instinct tells us to recharge our commitment to a closer-to-the-bone worldview, that recognises we have a short time on earth. The clock is ticking and living peacefully and meaningfully together is going to take much more than bed-making and wise investments.
The benefit of Covid-19 is that all of us have had to take a long hard look in the mirror and evaluate what we are doing. As a result, businesses will become leaner, effective and agile in their approach. Any crisis creates behavioural changes which help brands steer towards a more significant strategic transformation with real meaning and purpose for consumers. This will be the next play.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Mounir> The world is a very different place to what it was seven months ago. In the early days of social distancing, inspirational examples included live and online Broadway concerts and entrepreneurs offering up their time to listen to pitches. We are in a world that is very different from disappearing into a video game. Now, we are breaking open a medium with human generosity and empathy. People are now asking “what can I offer authentically?”, “what do people really need?” I love the fact that we apply our most human instincts to our devices, which will leave a powerful Covid-19 legacy. Not only alone together, but together alone. Whilst the crisis has had a profound effect on us, the human race appears to have evolved once again, for the better. We will, in the future, re-orient our politics and make investments in public wellbeing.
It will help us rediscover the better versions of ourselves, and that can only be a good thing for humanity.
This article was first published on LBBO