On life and Business after the pandemic passes – by Initiative’s Mazher Abidi

Mazher Abidi is strategy director at Initiative

Barely four months have passed since Campaign gathered industry leaders and interested readers together to discuss predictions for 2020. Nobody was making any guarantees, but we were nonetheless treated to considered – and in some cases conservative – insights from the worlds of media, creativity, customer experience and mobile on what might come to pass this year.

How the world has changed since those heady days.
If only those conservative predictions were the height of our worries today, as we confine ourselves to our homes and contemplate the future whilst engaged in ‘social distancing’ (already an early contender for 2020’s word of the year). It seems crass to think about how we might emerge from the other side of this moment in history. Indeed, nobody really knows when that might be and what state the world will be in. But since no CFO or CEO can reasonably sit in such a holding pattern, we must plan for the potential future.

Culture will undoubtedly shift from the past we’ve just left behind in more ways than we can imagine, but here are just four starting points to consider. Businesses that plan for these changes are the ones most likely to emerge faster, stronger and healthier.

It was reasonable to think we’d reached peak distrust in 2019, and that the tide would slowly turn towards a more truthful and trusting society with new structures in place to curb “bad actors”.

In 2020, we find ourselves playing the same game with a new set of rules. Regions where the effects of Covid-19 are exponentially worse than in the Middle East are trying to reassure the public that matters are in hand, but empty supermarket shelves tell us that when it matters, people trust their instincts first.

In our industry, we can vouch for this first hand. Trust in the messages we deliver and the mediums we work with was already at an all-time low so it’s inevitable we’ll have to work harder than most to earn that trust back. Brands will have to double down to deliver on their promises, while media will have to find more innovative ways to get messages to cut through to a public whose skepticism is finding new peaks.

Consumer Behaviour
While spikes in hand sanitiser demand are likely to be an outlier rather than a long-term trend, it’s worth considering how our wider purchasing habits may change on the other side of Covid-19. As much as what we buy, it’s time to think once again about how we buy.

There’s a strong recommendation to switch from cash that changes hands several times a day to relatively more hygienic forms of payment such as contactless and mobile wallets. Meanwhile, online stores are picking up the slack from malls and other brick-and-mortar destinations where footfall is dropping.

In that context, could this be the tipping point we’ve been waiting for when it comes to e-commerce adoption and growth in the region? In almost every instance where the Middle East adopts trends later than the rest of world, we generally grow faster. A recent Google/Bain report into e-commerce put the share of online sales in the GCC at 3 per cent of all retail, with low trust and a preference for cash on delivery listed as key barriers. This is compared with penetration rates of 15.6 per cent in the UK, 12.3 per cent in the US and 23 per cent in China (including consumer-to-consumer sales).

Even at predicted growth of 25 per cent for the region, it will take us a while to catch up to those figures; but if consumer habits change to accelerate that growth, 2020 may be the year we fundamentally shift the way we collectively think about advertising and selling goods and services to fall even closer in line with developed online markets.

Brands and Social Conscience:
No business will be immune from the challenges of the extreme measures we’re having to take in reaction to Covid-19; yet community spirit has a habit of shining through in times like these, and it’s heartening to see local communities doing all they can to support local businesses through this period, particularly small F&B and service sector businesses that rely on local traffic to survive.

At the other end of the spectrum, global organisations have been battling with their own social conscience, and much research has been devoted to understanding the impact of a brand’s stance on social issues to their bottom line.

This has been brought into sharp focus by the decision of a number of global businesses such as Apple, Microsoft and Google to send workers home whilst also covering sick pay and time off for self-isolation, and protecting income for contractors.

Almost every business will be faced with having to make similar decisions, and if the research has been correct then the choices made today will have a lasting impact on perceptions of tomorrow. It’s crucial brands choose carefully and choose right.

The results of the great WFH experiment
The internet remains awash with memes that suggest we’re currently engaged in a real-life episode of Black Mirror or some cruel social experiment. What’s undeniably true is that the next few months have the potential to fundamentally change the way jobs and businesses are structured forever.

Working from home (WFH) for many represents the ultimate endpoint of flexible working. Volumes of literature have been devoted to how this will be the future of work, and businesses must adapt on a mass scale. It’s never needed to be proven…until now.

One of two things will ultimately come out of this. If business productivity remains the same (or even improves), then the advocates of WFH have been proven to be correct, the genie will be out of the bottle and we’ll never return to the business-as-usual we once knew.

On the other hand, if productivity falls too far, perhaps it will be the gig economy that gets forced to re-evaluate its working models, faced with the new reality it spent so long warning the rest of us about.

These and the many other questions that the current world order have thrown up offer opposing choices and polarise opinions. Yet much like the variety of advice we’re being given to get through this period, we’ll know who was right fairly soon. Until we do, the hope is that we all stay safe until we return to (normal) work, fit to face challenges with the energy, enthusiasm and optimism that our industry has always been known for.