Hall & Partners’ Ziad Skaff shares what he’s learned from two years of judging the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy.

In my 16 years of working in the MENA region, I’ve witnessed and been a part of several waves of change and development. These have impacted both consumers and brands in different ways but collectively, they’ve led to the transformation of marketing. This has required marketers to explore their creativity and adaptability to become or stay relevant with their audiences. 

An awards platform like the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy provides the ideal format to track this transformation and the observations or learnings from this process are certainly worth sharing. It is a great opportunity to improve our understanding of the region and define what best practice means here.

Being a judge for the past two years has been enlightening. While reviewing the papers submitted for the awards, I’ve come across many cases with excellent strategic insights worthy of global deployment. However, there were still some that focused on short term tactics or mixed them with long-term brand building. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, so judging these proved a little more challenging.

The experience was nevertheless very rich and inspiring as I saw what the region is capable of. Ultimately, all applicants deserve appreciation for sharing what they think is a good strategy and how it’s best deployed. Overall, three observations stand out from the past two years.

A growing interest in strategic insights 

In 2018, we’ve seen more excitement and interest for the WARC Prize, reflected in the quality of the submissions. Most papers clearly listed their KPIs, properly explained market context and had tangible and measurable objectives. It was evident that there was a better grasp of what was required in terms of strategy. Some submissions needed to better demonstrate that they had a holistic 360 view that integrated all relevant channels, linking them back to the brand, and identified target audiences. Though they play a very important role on several objectives, campaigns are not the sole pillar of a brand strategy. In barely two years, we’ve seen a significant improvement in the quality of the papers so I am confident that it will continue to increase. Just look at this year’s stand out cases.

Being purposeful

Many of the submissions this year have come from different markets across the region, reflecting their local dynamics, issues and priorities. For example, Lebanon tackled social issues affecting residents and the country’s diaspora. In Egypt, many of the papers focused on youth, employment and hope. In Saudi Arabia, they were largely addressing the role of women and empowerment. Interestingly, all saw brands embracing a social cause that connected with their own values. These brands had a clear sense of purpose and understood the importance of corporations’ actions on society. Take Saudi Arabia specifically: Vision 2030 has energized the public and particularly emboldened Saudi women to take a stand and make their voices heard. Brands have wholeheartedly supported the movement. From Nissan’s #SheDrives to Puck’s Cook with Her, the cases we saw challenged stereotypes about Saudi women and the way they were portrayed in media. This is exactly the type of bold advertising they have been craving for years.

In 2012, Hall & Partners conducted a large-scale study to better understand Saudi women – their hopes, dreams and affinity with advertising. The results were telling: they didn’t recognise themselves in the mirror of advertising. What they saw was a reflection of their grandmothers’ generation. It would be interesting to see what these women think about the advertising they’re being served today.

Standing out amongst the noise

As consumers are constantly solicited by advertising, standing out is a perennial challenge. This year, we saw brilliant native ideas, relevant to the context, markets and audiences. These well-thought-out cases showed a keen understanding of their region, with brand and business objectives clearly aligned. Take the Grand Prix winner, Camelpower, a homegrown idea that was highly pertinent to the audience and the market, while reflecting the brand ethos.

Key stakeholders didn’t see the campaign as a short-term activity; they saw the benefit to the brand in the long run since it fed into the core business KPIs. As someone who’s highly invested in data, I liked that this case was backed with detailed analytical thinking and a logical process that supported the creative outcome. A powerful combination to deliver effective results.

The WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is a celebration of a collective effort to raise the bar. It is an opportunity to encourage regional marketers to elevate their thinking by becoming more strategic and better connected to their brand essence. It also comes at the best time of the year when marketers are considering their future strategies. The results provide valuable inspiration and emulation to do better and achieve more. There is much to be learned and gained from reading the great cases in this book. In just two years, the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is already bearing fruit. I look forward to the region being even more significant and achieving world-class status for its strategic thinking.

This is an extract from WARC’s MENA Strategy Report which you can register to read here.