Flourish or perish: how will you transform your business? A viewpoint by Elda Choucair, CEO PHD MENA
Posted on 2018 Mar,25

Understanding what lies ahead of us has been a preoccupation of mankind since the beginning of time. If it was, back then, whether the sun would rise again in the morning, today it’s about the impact of technology on our personal and professional lives. The future causes anxiety, no matter what, and, in turn, a restlessness that spurs us into action to get some control over what’s coming towards us. Who wants to be a victim of the future when you can shape it?

The transformative power of technology on the media and advertising industry has been very significant since the start of the internet in the 1990s. People have far more control over what media they consume and the balance of power between brands and consumers is a lot more level. Consider how easily a brand can talk to you now and sell you its products or services directly, without wholesalers, agents and retailers. This bypassing of intermediaries, which goes by the beautiful name of disintermediation, is at the root of the transformation of businesses everywhere.

With this comes new and sometimes unexpected competition. In the marketing sector, we’re seeing the entry of business consultants through the digital/data door. Well used to sifting through data to identify trends and opportunities before making strategic recommendations, their ambition is to get a seat at the table by adding creative services gained through the acquisition of independent agencies. They clearly have an eye on the $500 billion global advertising market, which dwarfs the $20 billion consultancy market.

I am among those who feel this threat is still fairly remote for a number of reasons but, more importantly, the agility and ability for agencies to remain relevant and valuable to brands shouldn’t be underestimated.  We have evolution written in our genetic code, forever adapting to changing client expectations and to new market realities. In less than 30 years, we’ve gone from full service agencies delivering a push, one-size-fits-all mass-market approach to a broad range of discipline specialists increasingly focused on pull strategies. All this while developing new talents, like content creation, creative services, social media management, data and analytics, with tech to boot, and that’s just at the media agency.

It’s no surprise therefore that such rapid changes lead to identity issues and questions over our role and purpose. One thing has remained constant though and that is creating value for our clients. If in the past, it was in terms of media management, ensuring the optimal use of budgets to achieve brand goals with planning and buying services, today, it’s about meeting tangible business goals, driving traffic to various touchpoints and maximising conversions. The link between advertising communications and sales is stronger than it’s ever been. It is largely because we’ve introduced advanced targeting and personalization at scale instead of casting the widest net possible.

With up to five tech layers on every media plan, marketers can now rely on millions of data points to inform planning approaches, buying decisions and optimization strategies, often in real time. What’s more, they can now measure outcomes with greater certainty and accuracy.

This attractive proposition has motivated clients to move increasingly large portions of their budgets from legacy media to digital platforms. This year will see digital media overtake TV in terms of actual advertising investments in the Middle East. After a couple of years of overall drops in total investments, this year will see them plateau or grow slightly.

The forecast for Lebanon is also cautious optimism but the opportunities for brands in the region are growing again. This justified the opening of PHD’s operations in Beirut last year. The marketing profession is changing and the traditional thinking that still prevails in Lebanon will eventually give way to a new approach driven by business priorities and performance. Old habits die hard of course but the merits of a tech and data-driven marketing strategy are very compelling. The marketing talent will need to embrace these new techniques sooner rather than later.

It all starts with pulling our resources, our experience and expertise together to identify the best path forward, the one that will elevate our collective performance and create a better future for all. What will it comprise of? Don’t think of science fiction because this tomorrow is already here. It has automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence written all over it. There is a growing demand today for it on both client and agency sides. Blockchain technology will completely automate companies’ infrastructures.

This growing reliance on technology is already transforming skillsets and roles at both the client and agency ends of the spectrum. Media owners haven’t been spared either. We will see more strategists, more creatives, more data architects, more software engineers. Today, we can't crunch the huge amount of data available. We need technology to manage that data for us and come up with better insights that will lead to better decisions.

If there is one thing certain about the future, it is that it will be different from today so, instead of fearing or even fighting it, we should embrace this new competition and the challenges technology throws at us. Yes, there are clients who will internalize some media functions or activities, seeing value in such a move. We can and will support them in this because, while we are evolving too, we remain driven by the higher purpose of advising our clients as consultants. Our job has been, is and will continue to be to stimulate our clients’ growth. The value we add comes from the collective knowledge and experience we gain from multiple clients, sectors, challenges and situations. It is also increasingly in the wealth of data we hold and compute.

Media agencies are clearly here to stay but they will keep on evolving, like the rest of the market around them. This transformation is well under way and unstoppable. Where you end depends on the course you will chart.

More on this: CEOs' Takeaways on Agency of the future from Ad Pulse Panel Talk