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The MENA Power List 2021: Same, same but different, by PHD’s Luca Allam

By Luca Allam, CEO, PHD MENA.

Years in role: 1 | Years in company: 11

‘Shift’ is my favourite word right now. There’s a sense of energy, movement, thrill even, in the word that you don’t find in ‘recovery’ or ‘rebound’. We’ve all been waiting for that moment when we can claim victory over the past 18 months. If that triumph isn’t yet fully complete, many organisations have indeed celebrated a return to pre-Covid levels. This doesn’t mean it’s a return to the same previous position, though.

The positive signs are everywhere. Oil prices are returning to pre-Covid levels as rising business activity boosts demand. The rise in GDP in the Middle East this year is expected to more than offset the 2020 contraction. Multiple surveys show that people and businesses share this optimism. Even advertising investments are firming up well.

While numbers may point to a return to pre-pandemic levels, they don’t tell the full story, for that journey has been transformative. The light at the end of the tunnel can be blinding and basic indicators don’t offer a 3D view of progress or the direction of travel. If we think of a ball, a rebound will return the ball back to its starting point with largely the same intensity. In our case, instead of a flat surface, we’ve hit a rock that changed the
return trajectory.

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If anything, we’re seeing the acceleration of a far deeper trend. In the last decade or so, marketing has become complex, some would say overly so. Things moved so fast that companies throughout the ecosystem felt the need to adapt and transform equally rapidly. Whether it’s expressed by an obsession with the new, questioning past methods, or a lack of direction or understanding, the industry’s over-focus on the short-term has created a sense of mid-life crisis. For diagnosis, we can see the parallels of symptoms of a personal midlife crisis: impulsive decision-making (quick-fix short-term marketing strategies), dramatic changes in behaviour and appearance (the urge to reposition and rebrand) and even thoughts about infidelity (there was about $2.58bn of global media and creative revenue changing hands in 2020 alone).

No one is spared. Clients, agencies and media are all affected. Everyone wants to be or act younger, behave and adopt in the manner of a start-up. As an industry, we must transcend this short-termism to get ahead of the change rather than just responding to it. To think longer-term, we must let go of the dysfunctional behaviours of marketing and the legacy structures, as both inhibit effectiveness. Addressing marketing’s midlife crisis is an opportunity to shatter the anxieties that are holding our organisations back.

To do this, we need to engage in an organisational rethink and build for the future. Marketing departments have to reimagine the way they are structured, including how the different elements of a marketing organisation work together with the agency. Moving from a legacy of transactional to a future of advisory, agencies have to rebuild too. Both agencies and clients will rebuild on similar foundations: technology, capability, process, insight and measurement. Fully optimised, they will allow organisations to consider what structure to embrace, depending on whether they are product- or marketing-led, and centrally controlled or devolved.

At PHD, we’ve already witnessed deep and meaningful changes in the last year. Our growth is apparent, but its composition is different from before. Our talent and resources are also organised differently, and we have introduced new roles and training programmes that never previously existed. These innovations were deployed to stay ahead of the curve and, today, we are more consultative in digital transformation and data deployment, and also in broader marketing challenges and branding.

For me, the rebalancing of the agenda away from marketing technology and back on to individuals is long overdue. As an industry we need to apply to our people and how they’ve organised the same level of advanced and precision thinking that we have applied to data and technology over the last decade. This is a vital investment in our long-term sustainability. Since our inception as PHD, we have prioritised organising our teams and systems to facilitate, unlock and empower long-term client growth through strategic thinking and creativity. This has never been more important as a priority.

Predicting the future has always been a risky business and the past 18 months have made this crystal clear. Yet, we must remain alert and conscious about what roles and resources will have the greatest business impact in the coming years. For a nice change, we’ll have to turn research and analysis onto ourselves and how we operate. Now is the time for us all to anticipate and prepare for the new roles and functions that will shape the future dynamics of our ecosystem. Doing this will undoubtedly help us shift out of this marketing midlife crisis.


Professional highlight of the year

I continue to be immensely proud of my company and the work we produce. Our strategic planning for Saudi Tourism Authority continues to deliver outstanding international results. Equally pleasing, being able to land client transformation projects. Winning Unilever’s full media planning/buying scope across the NAME region was a tremendous achievement. On a personal note, becoming CEO of PHD MENA was an incredibly proud moment for myself and my family.


Rapid fire

What are you working on?
Preparing PHD for the next chapter of growth, ensuring it remains built on our core values and founding principles.

What are you worrying about?
Attracting the best-of-the-best new generation of talent to our industry.

Why are you smiling?
Because I’m about to become a dad for the first time.

What are you reading about?
How to be a good dad.

What are you watching?
Something light at the end of the day.

What are you eating?
Healthy stuff during the day, binge snacking at night.

What are you listening to?
My clients, my teams.

What are you playing?
Football, once a week.

What’s your hobby?
Eating out, trying new places.

What’s your good habit?
Exercising daily.

What’s your bad habit?
Not switching off easily.

Who are you learning from?
Everyone. My clients, my teams, my boss, and of course my wife.

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