The MENA Power List 2021: Keep it real and human, by OMD’s Saleh Ghazal

By Saleh Ghazal, Managing Director, OMD UAE.

years in role: 3 | years in company: 15

We live more isolated lives, away from our traditional communities and in algorithmically optimised social media bubbles that reinforce our own biases rather than enrich us with different views and opinions. In fact, it is becoming harder for brands to connect with overwhelmed and jaded people short on trust, patience and attention. Empathy needs to make a comeback.

Despite the pandemic, which brought relationships and care for others into a sharp focus, most brands have failed to step up to the plate. A recent YouGov survey has highlighted that 69 per cent of brands and companies are delivering similar and interchangeable messages, which 42 per cent of respondents are tired of hearing. Clichés and platitudes, like “we’re all in this together”, have lost their meaning and are no longer cutting through. For empathy to work, it has to be true and meaningful, otherwise it’s a cheap plaster that quickly cracks to reveal a less desirable reality. And today, people see through this better than ever before.

In an industry like ours, which is all about creating connections and persuasion, empathy with consumers and creating value for them every step of the way should be top of our agenda. Empathy guides us to create brand affinity and valued experiences and interactions, through a better definition and prioritisation of audiences across a range of interests, mindsets, needs and moments.

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By all means, brands should ‘feel’ and express empathy too, but that’s not enough when everyone, including their key competitors, does it. Empathy, not sympathy or emotionality. The response this situation calls for is distinctive empathy.

Distinctive empathy is about recognising situations for what they are, warts and all, good or bad, genuinely, authentically and honestly. There’s bravery in this approach too, because truth hurts sometimes. It’s about being grown-up and mature about things, and talking to consumers as adults, something they recognise and appreciate. By addressing consumers like a human would, brands build a unique and real rapport, separating themselves from others and creating a distinctive and lasting impact.

Distinctive empathy planning has certain rules:

1. Be prepared to take risks. Genuine empathy should form part of a longer-term brand ambition, rather than be a reactive tactic, to be authentic and therefore effective.

2. Don’t just follow the crowd. There is no safety in numbers here, so create empathetic comms that
set you apart from the competition while staying true to your brand.

3. Understand and get closer to each phase of the consumer’s journey by identifying signals to deliver the right message. Think beyond environments and timing, and focus more on moods and mindsets.

4. Ride the cultural conversation. Embrace the cultural context, positive or negative, and form and share a position for your brand on one or more causes. Be proactive in your planning, rather than reactive.

5. Speak human-to-human. Being more authentic, human and likeable will help to bring your brand closer to your consumers.

Creating value for potential customers through empathy can take many forms, from simple frequency capping to more tailored and relevant messaging. Distinctive empathy doesn’t stop or start with media planning; it can be built across the business from fundamental pillars of the proposition itself, including pricing, packaging or distribution.

As the meaningful point of difference increasingly becomes the full multi-sensory brand experience, it is the systematic and structured application of empathy across each interaction that can generate value for
both customers and businesses. This is why we’ve aligned our process, OMD Design, and our precision marketing and insights platform, Omni, to identify and act on opportunities to create value across the entire customer experience.

As we advance further from one-to-many to one-to-one targeted comms strategies, we need to be able to see the world through the eyes of the consumers we’re trying to reach. Covering the entire funnel, empathy planning considers the full consumer experience as well as unmet needs and untapped desires to determine how a brand should use communications and media to fulfil them. Not only does the consistent practice of empathy in all areas of our business unlock growth and improve performance, it also enriches consumers’ lives. If this pandemic taught us anything, it is that for humanity to thrive, true empathy ought to prevail.

Professional highlight of the year

Despite the pandemic, I am proud to say that OMD UAE has seen one of the most successful years to date. Not only did we win big with Expo 2020 and OSN, but we managed to honour our high client retention rate. Consequently, OMD was awarded the Media Agency of the Year in EMEA as per the 2021 COMvergence report. This is an achievement that makes us all proud at OMD; it is a true testament that hard work, passion and innovation pay off.

Rapid fire

What are you working on?
Myself, always. 

What are you worrying about?
Social media’s effect on human interaction and self-image.

What are you smiling at?

What are you reading?
The Return of The Economic Naturalist by Robert H Frank.

What are you watching?
Formula 1: Drive to Survive and Start-Up.

What are you eating?
Comfort food, at home.

What are you listening to?
Sumatra by Nora Van Elken.

What are you playing?
Hide and seek with my two kids.

What’s your hobby?
Running and football.

What’s your good habit?
Running, too, and being an early bird.

What’s your bad habit?
Being an eternal optimist and being a Real Madrid supporter.

Who are you learning from?
My mistakes, the pandemic and constant change.