DUBAI: In May 2019, Ravi Rao took over as the CEO of WPP’s media investment network, GroupM MENA. We caught up with him a year and a pandemic later to discuss media, clients and COVID-19.
Q: When you joined GroupM as CEO, what were the initial set of challenges and objectives?
A: It was a simple goal to restructure, re-energize and put the group on a growth path with a clearly defined focus on clients’ growth and development. So, streamlining digital, trading and data and technology offerings was focused around what the client is expecting through a cohesive; offering e-commerce solutions to bringing about efficiencies and driving return on marketing investment. Part of my remit was to also bring agencies more together while allowing their continued autonomy.
Today, we are more lean and agile with all new initiatives and drive that included a new leadership team for Mindshare resulting in adding more clients while retaining almost all existing clients in a highly competitive market. Saudi Arabia came back and took its usual position with several clients and projects for the government-led initiatives that also led to organic growth in local business. We have a considerable growth in volumes despite the industry having regressed in ad spends.
Q: What are the current challenges due to COVID-19 and its consequent impact on the economy?
A: The challenge is simply how to drive growth in a stagnating economy in an unusual situation that the entire world is facing. We had to create meaningful brand strategies that quickly adapt and bring value to consumers and customers of our clients. Companies and brands should have purpose beyond profit in these trying times.
The Adex (GroupM TYNY) will drop by 25 percent in 2020, but will witness a 13 percent growth next year, primarily on the back of a rebound from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The governments of both countries have initiated a lot of measures to revive the economy rapidly, and with oil prices stabilizing at around $40 this is quite a possibility.
Economic and emotional anxiety remains high, but the easing of lockdown is opening up new vistas for a revival. Kantar has identified three major trends that will remain sticky to shape consumers’ post-pandemic behavior — a new wave of economic shoppers, an era of value-consciousness and a move toward local consumption.
So, brands that are empathetic and providing value to consumers, as well as local brands in Saudi Arabia, can actually benefit if they ride this wave. Rosie Hawkins, chief innovation officer, Kantar, observed: “Brand strategists will need to more closely evaluate their resourcing strategies and explore the opportunities that strong provenance creates.”
Q: How are you handling these challenges?
A: As a group, we had to bring synergies and remove duplication that exists in certain geographies and functions. We simply regrouped markets that collectively could use resources from one low ad spend market to another and invested more in Saudi Arabia where we see the biggest potential. In fact, in another two to three years we are thinking of moving the headquarters to Riyadh because that is where the consumers are and that is the single largest market for us from all angles and to our clients.
This is a temporary slackness that will only rebound soon. Clients such as Mobily and the Olayan Group have taken the lead in reshaping their product offering and making it consumer relevant. NCB and Al-Safi Danone are reinvigorating via business transformation aiming to further support the Saudi consumers in times of need. Self-sufficiency is the need of the hour.
We are united in the vision set out by Christian Joules, CEO GroupM Worldwide, “to be responsible for shaping the next era of media that makes advertising work better for people.”
Q: Are clients cutting media budgets or halting any upcoming initiatives due to the crisis? How are you dealing with that?
A: The first month did not witness any cut in budgets, but then depending on the categories that a client operates in, we did see a drop from the second month. There was a “wait and see” approach that most clients adopted, but where the supply chain was broken, the slashes were more imminent. On the other hand, a few clients did up the game and invested more to give an opportunity and service to its consumers.
An excellent example is Fine Hygienic Holding, tissues and diapers. It quickly got into manufacturing Fine Guard reusable N95 masks with Livinguard Technology that was the need of the hour. In less than three weeks, the masks were distributed across all markets as well as e-commerce platforms to contribute to the people and society at large. Fine really showed an empathetic behavior by catering to the real needs of consumers during this period.
Unilever also believes that “brands must avoid ‘opportunistic’ behavior during tragedy and exploit consumers.” More and more brands do now realize that purpose beyond profit is a must to sustain consumers and countries.
Q: Have you made any staff cuts?
A: Currently, we have had minimum to no impact on staff by cross-allocating resources from one market to another. An example is that teams in Lebanon and Bahrain are in fact supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE as remote working has proved to be successful. We have had voluntary salary sacrifices among senior management with no reductions to other employees. Hopefully, we will ride out the storm as economies start rising slowly.
Q: What would your advice be to marketers right now?
A: Reflect reality! Get your communication changed to reflect and consider the consumer as they pay attention to brands that are humane and considerate to their plight. Value addition is a must. Not just perceived value, but real value benefit.